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Photo by Ted Davis

Interview Guy Gavriel Kay

The historian of fantasy

from Festival Utopiales Nantes 2017 (France)

Version française disponible ici

You are one of the most famous writer of fantasy in the world.
You wrote
The Lion of Al-Rassan, Under Heaven, River of Stars, Ysabel and so on… Your first work was Fionavar Tapestry which takes place in a pure fantasy world but after this trilogy, you began to write novels inspired by historic eras like Italian Renaissance, medieval China. Was fantasy not enough for you ?

That’s an insteresting way of putting it.
It’s not that it wasn’t enought, but it’s that additionnal interest became a part of that i wanted to do with my work. I became interesting in trying to find ways to combine the fantastic with examination of periods of history. It’s seems to be something new, challenging and possibly very compelling for readers. So it’s wasn’t that it wasn’t enough, i was just trying to add an element to how i use the fantastic.

I also, all my life, have had a horror of repeating myself and i didn’t want to write what i jokingly called back then a four volumes trilogy. There were pression to do that, from publishers, agents, even the public because people like to be in a same universe very much. People wanted more in that story but i did’nt want to begin my writing career by doing the same idea over and over. I’m not the kind of writer who can ever write an eight or ten volumes series. I need the energy that comes from learning something new and thinking about what i can do with something different from my last book.

How do you combine history and fantasy in your books ?

How” needs more time that we have !
One of the thing that i want to do with that combining is to let the characters in the book have a validity to the things they believed.
For example, if i write about Tang Dynasty China as an inspiration, it’s not quite the same. There’s always a bit of a twist to the fantasy but if i write about a time inspired by the Tang Dynasty and they believed in ghosts, i will have ghosts in the book. If i write about Celts and Anglo-saxons and Vikings in the time when they believed there were fairies in the woods, i will have fairies in the woods. If i do it right, modern readers can’t be also superior to the people in the book. They can’t say “Weren’t they foolish at that time ? They believed in fairies in mounds and the hills !” because in my book, those beliefs are giving value. So, the modern reader can genuinely look at the world through the eyes of the characters i created in that setting.
Amongst many other strengths of using the fantastic with history, that’s for me a very powerful aspect of what i am trying to do.

“I also, all my life, have had a horror of repeating myself.”

For example, what was your inspiration for a book like Ysabel ?

Ysabel is mostly about how the past does not really go away and how a history of a place can be really powerful over a period of sometimes thousand of years , how legends and things people tell themself about their own past can still be powerful in the present day. Ysabel became about the way stories keep reoccuring, they keep repeating. Somebody once said : “The past doesn’t repeat but it rhymes” meaning it’s a little bit different this time but it’s still has an association of what was happened before. In Ysabel, i wanted to reversed what i normally do in my books. Normally, i take the reader back (as we’ve discussed) to different times and places and i put a fantasy twist on it but you’re coming back with me ! To Byzance or Medieval Spain or Medieval Provence. In Ysabel, i brought the past forward in the present days. It’s the opposite of my usual methods in that book. His main theme isn’t so much about duty as reccuring dates and destinies that keep coming back from the characters who were tied to the history or the land of Provence. It was inspired by my learning of the fondation myth, the origin story of the city of Marseille, about protest on the first arrival of the Phenician merchants to up to Provence and when they encountered the Celtic Tribes that lived there. That story which is told to explain how Marseille began became my inspiration to write Ysabel.

You wrote two books set in the same country, China. Under Heaven, the first one, talks about a rebellion and explain how the Empire of Kitai will slowly fall. The second one, River of Stars is another story of falling empire. Is China so attractive for you ?

They both inspired by chinese History and take place about three hundred years apart. Under Heaven is inspired by the Tang Dynasty in the eight century and the famous, terrible rebellion of An Lushan which was one of the most destructive rebellion in all of human history. River of Stars was inspired by the Song Dynasty almost three hundred years later and the fall of what historians called the Northern Song when their capital was overrun by people from the steppes in the North. So, they’re completely different periods of History but both inspired by the wonderfully, challenging, fascinating periods of History in China. I did not know when i began Under Heaven, the first one, that i will do another book inspired by China because i never know when i’m finishing a book what’s next. I actually thought that i wasn’t going to do that and some academic friends of mine, some historians of Chinese history said to me, half joking : “You’ll never escaped ! You’ll not getting out ! You will do at least one more book about China”…and they were right !

There was another magnificent poet of the Song Dynasty named Su Shi whose life and work began to inspire me. I learned also about the greatest female poet in Chinese History and the more i learned about her life, the more i realized that she would be an inspiration for one of my character. And there was the true story of a great military leader at that time whose life has both a magnificent and a tragic arc. Those three people : the soldier, the female poet and the older brilliant writer became the three figures around which the story of Rivers of Stars emerged.

Empire of Kitai must face another threat in the River of Stars. This time, the threat is coming from outside and not from the inside like in Under Heaven

That’s an interesting way of describing the difference between the two books : one is an internal rebellion and the other is an outside attack. And the reason it’s interesting is that one of the theme of River of Stars taken from History, it’s that the Song Dynasty in China was so frightened of their own soldiers, their own army because of that rebellion several years before which destroyed so much that they wouldn’t allow a strong or competent military to defend the country. They saw greater danger from within and ending up being exposed to destructive energy from outside. One of the things that fascinated me about History, all time and places, it’s how the lessons that we learned from our past are not always the right lessons. We think that we learn something that will help us but in fact, it’s the actual thing that can damage or even destroye us. One of the reason that i wrote River of Stars and that i came back to Chinese History, that there gives me a perfect chance to examine that theme about how we can take the wrong message from our History, our own past.

What do you more specifically loved in China history ?

My first thought was that i might write a book about the Silk Road, the journey that people took to China with goods like Marco Polo, that sort of journey on the Silk Road in fact. But my reading and the corresponding i had with academics steered me more and more towards the Tang Dynasty, the greatest of the Chinese Dynasty and my own way in (that’s sound so romantic) was by the way of the poet. The Tang Dynasty in China has assembled one of the greatest poets who ever lived anywhere. Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Bai Juyi were the greatest i think.

“One of the things that fascinated me about History, all time and places, it’s how the lessons that we learned from our past are not always the right lessons.”

Reading their poetry and commentary or analysis of the poetry started my imagination going about something i could do in that time and place. Then, i started to learn more and more about what we’ve discussed, the rebellion of An Lushan. I knew that i wanted to write a story that combined these elements.

For River of Stars, it was not planned in the beggining that i will do another novel inspired by China but the more i learn and the more i read, the more ideas came to me about what things that i could do with a book set three hundred years later exploring a theme that fascinates me which is, as we said, the way we understand our own History and how can that be problematic for dealing with the present day. I always want my books to have a feeling of relevant and importance to my readers today. It’s not just about something that’s happened long ago somewhere else. The theme, if i do it properly, should be important to my readers right now.

One of your last publication in french is The Lions of Al-Rassan which talks about Reconquista and some famous historical figures like El Cid. Why did you choose this historical period ?

It was a long time ago and it’s difficult now for me to say what draw me to this time and place. But i know that one of the thing was the discovery i made in different books that i’ve never seen anyone else connect. I discovered that Rodrigo Belmonte, El Cid, one of the most famous and mythic figure of the Spanish History, the great El Cid, was exiled for a time in his life to a city and it appears that in the same time, one of the greatest figure of Islamic Moorish Spain was exile from his court to the same city and i started thinking about that… cities weren’t that large…at least for two extraordinary men, the most powerful figures of their time in many ways. I was thinking : “There were in the same damn city at the same time. They’ve had to met !” What would be the interactions between this one man who was a christian and the other man who was a muslim, who were very potent figures ? What would that have been like ? That was the point where these ideas i had, i would like to do a book about the beginning of the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain. That was where general ideas started to come together into a specific story. Then, i added a female doctor because i’ve always been interested in medicine in previous times and places, the ways we cured people or couldn’t cure people. I’ve always wanted to find ways to convincingly show strong female characters in the book, not for ideological or political reasons but because i believe the book, any book would be better if you have more interesting, persuasive, strong characters, men and women ! So, when i realized that there actually were female physicians at that time, that was another thing where something clicked in my mind and i said : “I can do something with this”, and there were the three main characters of The Lion d’Al-Rassan.