Wednesday, May 05, 2010

An interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m very pleased to present this interview with Guy Gavriel Kay. Although his epic historical fantasy novels use invented settings and characters, they are deeply grounded in the history of a real culture. Under Heaven, his eleventh work of fiction, takes place in the land of Kitai, an analogue of Tang Dynasty China – a golden age in which art, poetry, literature and trade all flourished.

Under Heaven presents a panoramic view of this ancient land, as seen by its movers and shakers as well as seemingly minor personages shaped by their leaders’ decisions. In this formalized society, one rich in cultural symbolism, everyone knows his or her place, and their speech is precisely chosen; the language used in the novel reflects this reality. Women navigate this male-centered world with care, knowing that a subtle approach will be most effective.

Guy’s novels inspire me to learn more about the historical settings he depicts through the lens of the fantastic. For those new to Chinese history, Under Heaven will be sure to spark your interest in a fascinating civilization. Also, if you’re a historical fiction reader who wouldn’t normally consider fantasy, you may just change your mind. The carefully researched background of Under Heaven, combined with its multifaceted characters, complex political drama, and emotionally moving storyline, makes for an engrossing and thought-provoking read.

The story opens as Shen Tai, second son of a retired general, honors his father’s memory by burying bones left on a remote, abandoned battlefield. Years earlier, Kuala Nor was the site of a devastating confrontation between the Kitan and Taguran armies; now it is a starkly gorgeous, forbidding place of lingering ghosts. Although Tai fulfills his duty alone, his courage and piety are noted in high places. When he receives word that he has been granted an overwhelming gift of 250 Sardian horses by the enemy court, it transforms him into a major player on Kitai’s political stage. Now Tai must re-enter a world of dangerous intrigue, a journey that begins even before he sets forth toward the capital city.

I’d like to thank Guy for answering my questions in such detail (this is a lengthy piece!). I should disclose that he is a friend of mine, but I’ve also been reading and enjoying his novels for over twenty years, and I thought Under Heaven was an absolutely wonderful book. He and his novels always provide me with much to ponder about history, fiction, language, the fantastic, and the intersections among them — and this interview is no exception.

I understand Under Heaven had a fairly long gestation period. How long had the concept for the novel been floating around in your mind before you began the formal research and writing?

I’d had vague notions of a ‘Silk Road-based’ book since 2002 or so. The next year I started doing some reading in the subject, without any specific time frame involved (that’s pretty normal for me, in early stages) but I was also reading in other topics and periods. In 2004 I decided two things. I would do focused reading and research for that book and then start it, and I’d do it back in Provence, with my family, where we’d lived before, but not for ten years. All was tidily planned, down to the trunk of books I took over. Tidy plans don’t work for me. I was flat-out ambushed on our arrival in the south of France again by sights, sounds, smells, history, and despite some futile resistance, ended up seguing (I was hijacked!) towards the research and interviews and then the writing of Ysabel.

The original idea never left me, though, it just shifted ground somewhat when I resumed in 2006 ... and by then it was much more securely focused on China itself (with my long-standing tendency to put a ‘spin’ of the fantastic on history) and even more specifically in the quite staggeringly interesting Tang Dynasty. So, in various ways, I’ve been living with this book for seven or eight years now.

You mention that your gateway into Tang China was through the master poets of the era, and the character based upon Li Bai plays a major secondary role. What qualities in his work drew you into learning more about his world?

I love that ‘major secondary’ phrase! It is about right, too! Li Bai is the most-loved poet in Chinese history, a legendary figure for his life as much as his art. His only rival for ‘greatest poet’ is his near contemporary, Du Fu (both names have different spellings in earlier English renderings: Li Po and Tu Fu). They knew each other, the concept of ‘friendship’ is an absolutely central motif in Tang writing (and comes into the novel), and I was deeply caught by aspects of each. For Li Bai, there is a kind of Byronic (for English readers) glamour and romance to his wide-ranging, hard-drinking life and legend, and he also engages with a push-pull between a desire to withdraw and write and travel, and an attraction at times for the luxury and power of the court – which he never formally served. Du Fu had a more ‘duty-driven’ world view, felt guilty that he wasn’t doing enough for the state in a time of crisis and, in addition, his poetry is amazingly powerful and movingly personal about life during war time. He’s like another of my all-time favourite poets, the Greek Nobel laureate, George Seferis, in the way in which tragedy and war caused him to grow so much as an artist. It is profoundly affecting.

Under Heaven incorporates many iconic elements and terms from the historical cultures upon which it’s based: the pipa players of Kitai, the kumiss-drinking nomads of the northern steppes, the Weaver Maid story from Kitan mythology… not to mention the Heavenly Horses themselves. At the same time, you make it clear that this is an imagined world. What was your reasoning behind using these specific words, as opposed to – as other writers might have done – inventing a new word or phrase to mean a lute, fermented mare’s milk, etc.?

A great question, Sarah, the sort that could elicit a really long answer if we aren’t careful. I’ll try to be careful: in essence, the balancing act for me as I work towards and also slightly askew from ‘real’ history is often intuitive. I want the reader to be aware of the inspiration and origins of each of these historical fantasies, to ‘feel’ which periods I am taking as my basis. That can include words and phrases that link to those. At the same time I don’t want to pretend I ‘know’ what various historical figures really thought or felt about their spouses, children, horses, enemies (or the horses of their enemies, or the spouses, for that matter!). So I am always spinning a little towards and then from actual phrases, places, shifting ground slightly, to leave the reader conscious of 'difference' but also aware of bedrock. By now it is a largely instinctual process for me.

In the introductory note to the Under Heaven ARC, you write that “using the fantastic as a prism for the past, done properly, means a tale is universalized in powerful ways.” I understand the point, of course – that an invented setting frees people from focusing on a specific timeframe and setting – but do you think that straightforward historical fiction, if done properly, has the potential to accomplish the same thing? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts!

Absolutely it can. I take that as a given! It is true of fiction and of non-fiction history, both. When Barbara Tuchman wrote her classic on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, the title is as clear a statement as one can have: she saw that terrible century as a mirror of the equally terrible 20th century and wrote with that in mind. I have never offered the view that straightforward historical fiction cannot offer this kind of illumination; many novelists work with the past specifically to do this. (Others just want to offer romance and diversion, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. We need these things too, in our lives.) My thesis in the passage you quote is more diffident: I am suggesting that an often derided or overlooked form of writing - fantasy, or the fantastic - contains within itself strengths and dimensions often overlooked, or never considered, by writers, readers, critics. That it can be a potent tool for treating the past, but certainly not the only one.

You must realize I had to ask you that question! Along these same lines, when The Last Light of the Sun appeared six years ago, you spoke about your own method of using the fantastic to depict the past: including supernatural elements as a way of portraying the world as people living in an earlier era would have imagined it. I noticed this approach in Under Heaven as well. For instance, ghosts of unburied soldiers who died at Kuala Nor have an actual presence, reflecting the beliefs of the Chinese culture of that time. Interestingly, some writers of historical fiction, in the last year or two, have been using a similar technique to illustrate historical people's beliefs in the otherworldly. Elements of the fantastic have been creeping into "straight" historical novels, which are categorized as such rather than as fantasy. Examples include "bone magic" in Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun, witchcraft in Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, among others. (I'm deliberately excluding zombie mashup novels, which are a whole different ballgame!) How do you feel about this approach, and do you think it has resulted (or will result) in an even broader readership for your novels?

Well, I have long had a dislike of ‘smugness’ about our beliefs as to earlier societies (or even contemporary ones in a different part of the world!). You know, along the lines of, ‘It is so quaint, they believed that if you threw inscribed tablets in the grave of someone newly buried, you could get magical aid in your wishes!’ or, ‘They actually thought that dancing counter-clockwise around an oak tree...’

I had played a bit with this in earlier books, but with Last Light it became a starting-point motif of the novel. I would make the world of the book be as the peoples who had inspired it (Vikings, Celts, Anglo-Saxons) more or less believed it to be. That meant the presence of faerie and a deep, and in some cases traumatizing, inner tension between formal religious teachings and folk wisdom or even the evidence of one’s own senses. In a book that was very much about the passing of old ways, this felt right for many reasons. I remember discussing this in essays, interviews, a couple of speeches back then and being intrigued at how ‘novel’ it seemed to many people, within and outside of historical fiction. Generally historical fiction, it seemed to me, had tried to ‘explain’ the mythic or folkloric beliefs, rationalize them. Sometimes this is enormously creative. The wonderful Mary Renault, in The King Must Die, is a good example. I was suggesting that employing the fantastic in a new way could achieve a different, but equally compelling result.

It pleases me a lot to learn that others are exploring this now, too. I’ll throw out a slightly worried thought, though: if one writes as if there were witches in Salem, or in other settings, is one by some form of implication endorsing the witch hunts? That would be a negative offshoot of such explorations, for me. The key to analyzing that time (to many such times) is evil done, often to the vulnerable, in the name of doctrine and fearful belief. (And compassion and understanding as to that fear is part of it.) But the falsity of those beliefs is critical. In other words, this is a method or an approach that can have ripple effects. On the other hand, I really like the effect of ‘strangeness’ that small elements of the fantastic can bring to historical fiction ... Dorothy Dunnett, for example, had no qualms about using these delicate infusions of the supernatural. In the end, a writer can get away with almost anything ... if he or she is good enough!

My own sense for years has been that borders, boundaries, categories are all blurring, and I see it as a good thing. We’re a ‘categorizing species’ and readers have tended to exemplify this! We often want ‘more of what I liked before’ and this encourages certain kinds of label packaging and also tends to make some writers repeat themselves (commercially smart, creatively destructive?). As genres and styles start getting mixed together, I think it encourages writers and readers to stretch themselves. I’ve always had a generous (and generously responding) element of historical fiction readers among my own readership, and my guess (my hope?) is that you’re right ... that as more authors push aside this rigid classifications of all kinds, it’ll make it even easier for people to find books that explore these boundary spaces.

Given that one of the themes in Under Heaven is how historians shape people’s perceptions of events, did you find this to be a major issue, yourself, in the course of your research?

What a terrific question. You are permitted to take a bow. I need to try to stay brief again! The short answer is that we all write (and read) from within our own culture, time, worldview. I actually see this as one of the many strengths of being upfront, prima facie, about treating the past through the window of the fantastic ... it is dead-honest about limitations in our ability to ‘go back there’. In fact, the motif you note in Under Heaven, the use of ‘long view’ perspectives on events in the novel at times is meant partly as a commentary on what you are raising here. So, in fact, it was less a major issue in my research than it is a major issue in my book! I’ve been fascinated by this for years. In Lord of Emperors, several books back for me, one of the (several) meanings of the title is that the writer, the artist, the chronicler of an age or an emperor is, in a sense, the lord of emperors – because he can define the figure or time for posterity, if effective enough.

Do you think this concept can be applied to fiction writers, too, if their work is effective enough, and (I should add) sufficiently widely read? Not that it has to involve historical characters specifically, but it makes me think about Wolf Hall, for instance, and the number of people who now see Thomas Cromwell in a new light because of it.

I almost tucked my thoughts about this into the last (long!) answer. Should have known you’d lure me there! I think an even better example is Shakespeare and Richard III, where the world’s view of that king was (brilliantly) shaped by a piece of propaganda theatre written on behalf of the Tudor usurpers! That’s certainly a work of fiction, ‘inspired’ by real events (and by shrewd political calculation). Consider also Procopius, the chronicler of Justinian’s reign ... his ‘official’ histories are boring and dutiful, and largely unread. His Secret History is scandalous, libellous, salacious, even obscene as to Theodora. And keeps being reprinted. I think Wolf Hall is a fine novel that might (just) gild its lily a bit ... the intent to force or evoke a rethinking of Cromwell and More feels just a little didactic. But as to your core point: some who revered More via “A Man For All Seasons” might indeed shift their thinking, others who had no idea of More or Cromwell may need ... another reverse-revisionist work in forty years to offset Mantel’s? In the same way, Josephine Tey created a vogue for Richard III with The Daughter of Time, even a fan club for him, and current writers on those turbulent, incompletely-documented times have to try to steer a path between two wildly polarized views, don’t they? There is another snag here: some writers might decide to do a ‘revision’ on some famous figure just ... because they can. It might sell books. It is fun. What happens if readers find ‘truth’ in these? Antony Beevor, the British historian wrote last year of coming out of the film of The Da Vinci Code and hearing a man say to his date, ‘It really makes you think, doesn’t it?’ Ouch, Beevor said, in effect. Ouch, I concur.

An underlying motif in your novels deals with how women operate within the limitations imposed by their society, what roles they have to assume in order to achieve any kind of influence… and how society responds to them in turn. One could, for example, write an essay comparing and contrasting Spring Rain and Wen Jian, or Wen Jian and Ysabel, for that matter (and someone probably will!). What continues to fascinate you about this topic?

I suppose I could be flippant and say: what’s not to fascinate? I have always argued that good books involve interesting things happening to interesting people (ideally, written in interesting language). As a writer, I simply add to my resources if I can find ways to make the women characters compelling, and for me that does not mean giving them actions or a scope for action that runs drastically counter to history. I’ll bend things slightly, but not wildly. Jehane (a female physician in The Lions of Al-Rassan) is based on the fact that there were such women doctors. I give her rather more ‘range’ than would likely have been the case, but the profession, especially in her culture, is legitimate. In Under Heaven one of the things that truly fascinated me was the relationship between the courtesans in the ‘pleasure district’ and the students preparing for the grand civil service examinations in the capital city. There is a tremendous amount of scholarship (and poetry!) about this and I loved it. The Tang courtesans, incidentally, are the direct antecedent of what we know rather better today: the Japanese geisha culture.

Many readers use fiction as a gateway into learning more about a historical society, and anyone who reads Under Heaven will get an excellent sense of your knowledge about – and appreciation for – Tang Dynasty China. How do you feel about readers using your novel as a way of understanding the spirit of the actual time and place?

Flattered, honoured, trusted? It has next to no commercial benefit, but one of the things that has pleased me most over the years has been the response of scholars in a given field to a book I write inspired by the time and place they’ve spent a professional lifetime engaging with. I’ve been very generously and enthusiastically treated by many of these academics in widely divergent fields; I think they ‘get’ why I use that slight spin of the fantastic, as a way not to create ethical problems with ‘real’ lives and to acknowledge the dimension of ‘evoking’ but not ever claiming a complete rendering of another time. I do always have a brief list of books or articles to read in each novel, and try to offer a fuller one online at, which is the authorized site on my work. I love the idea of the novels opening doors or windows (pick your metaphor!) for readers.

When I initially told some people, earlier this year, that I was reading a 600-page epic fantasy based on early Chinese history, they were both fascinated and daunted by the concept. For most English-speaking readers, the Tang Dynasty isn’t as familiar a setting as King Alfred’s England, Renaissance Italy, or, dare I say, the Tudor era. Do you think it worked to your advantage, in some sense, that this was a relatively untapped area, or did you feel the subject matter was somewhat of a risk? Or wasn’t it a concern at all?

Another risky question, as it might invite an essay! In this case, I think I was originally daunted myself by the scale of Chinese history. That’s why the first notion, as I mentioned above, was for a Silk Road book, that more or less sneaked up on China – at some then-undetermined time. A few years later, with a growing fascination/obsession with the Tang, I pretty much knew that that was where I was going. (I had an email this month from a professor of Asian Studies who wrote that she’d read all of my books and she knew I would end up in the Tang Dynasty because ‘how could you not?’. Well, I’m glad someone knew what I was going to do!) One thing I don’t do, or try not to, is become didactic, lecturing. I don’t want the books to ever feel like a lesson in a period. As a reader I dislike these, especially the info dump aspect. I am aware that they can sell very well, and many people do like the sense that with their guilty fiction pleasure they are gaining factoids of knowledge – it just isn’t what engages me for a three or more year labour. To put it another way, I’ve often said that I prefer the stiletto to the hammer ... I’d rather stab you in the ribs with my themes, so subtly you don’t know the knife is there until it is too late, as opposed to pounding you on the head with those themes! That makes me (and perhaps other writers) sound fairly aggressive, I suppose.

Fair warning?


Under Heaven was published this month in the US by Roc in hardcover ($25.95), by Viking in Canada ($34.00), and by HarperVoyager in the UK (£18.99). For more details, see or the author's authorized, international website at


  1. What an amazing interview, Sarah. You must host to your own book review/interview TV show! Great, insightful questions; and Mr Kay answers with equal eloquence. I enjoy his novels so much; Under Heaven is truly an example of a master writer at the top of his craft. Thanks so much for inviting us into his world.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful interview! I'm a big Guy Gavriel Kay fan and I'm halfway through Under Heaven, so this review came at the perfect time to read it.

  3. Thanks, all. This interview took a while to pull together (on my part, anyway!) so I appreciate the comments!

  4. Sarah, I thought it was about the best interview I've read with GGK. Unlike others I've read, your review answered a lot of questions I had about his process and why and how he makes his decisions.

  5. Pleased to hear it, Shauna. I agree his answers were especially illuminating in that respect. The progressive blending between history and fantasy, and the relationship between history and truth, both fascinate me so I was curious to learn more about the techniques he used in Under Heaven.

  6. This is one of my favourite time periods in Chinese history and I will definitely have to pick up this book. Good interview.

  7. nakita7:39 AM

    I have yet to read this novel although, this interview leaves a great impression on me to read it. I love how the writer blends history and fantasy together seeing as I'm a huge history buff and love reading fantasy!

  8. Shanon P.7:32 PM

    Great interview. It definitely encouraged me to step out of my usual comfort-zone and actually try a book outside of my typical era preferences.