Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Q&A with Guy Gavriel Kay

Hi, everyone! River of Stars, the latest from Guy Gavrial Kay, has just hit shelves and I can't wait to get started. It's a doorstopper of a read weighing in at 656 pages (I think I know how I'll be spending my weekend).

Here's a bit about the book:

In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the internationally bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that land four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a daughter of a scholar battling to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the beloved only child of a scholar. Educated in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s work has been described as “elegant, sweeping and colorful” (San Francisco Chronicle), “resonant and powerful” (Washington Post Book World), and “wonderfully imaginative” (Publishers Weekly). A #1 bestseller in Canada and an international award-winning author, Kay blurs the lines of genre. Like A.S. Byatt who conceives of fantasy as an alternative to—rather than an escape from—everyday life, Kay uses elements of the fantastic to examine themes of history. River of Stars is a grand-scale, emotionally compelling work that evokes a magnificent period through vividly realized characters.

The lovely folks over at Wunderkind were kind enough to pass along a Q&A with the author, so here goes:

Guy, you have an extensive list of credits and your name is synonymous with quality fantasy. Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit about your background? 

First of all, thank you. Nice way to get on an author's good side (I do have one) from the outset of an interview! I usually say I bcame interested in writing around when I collided with the grim truth that I was never going to make the NHL or play second base in MLB. In fairness to me, this shattering self-awareness arrived around the age of nine or so. I am, however, currently working with a trainer to mount a late push to make it to the Bigs in baseball. Stay tuned. 

Um, no. A little more seriously, writing always appealed as an interest, but I never thought I would be able to make a living at it. As an oldest son I prudently took a law degree (criminal law fascinated, Clarence Darrow was a hero) and my call to the bar, for the classic 'something to fall back on' ... no idea what people thought would happen if I fell forwards. I never practised law. Became involved in radio and then television drama here in Canada while the first books found their readers and I dropped most of the media work around the time Tigana became a commercial break-out. I wake up every morning feeling genuinely fortunate that I can write the books I want to write, at the pace that lets me do them as well as I can.

Your new book, River of Stars, takes place four centuries after Under Heaven. Will you tell us a bit about the research you did for these novels, which take place in ancient China? 

Well, small caveat, but an important one. As always in my work, it is not 'in ancient China' it is in a setting meant to evoke ancient China (the Song Dynasty this time). I do this 'quarter turn to the fantastic' for many reasons, and can be quite startlingly boring on the subject. For those with a tolerance for pain, there are essays and speeches over at brightweavings.com in the 'GGK's Words' section. 

The research for each novel is, put simply, my favorite part of any book. I am just learning things, reading, travel sometimes, corresponding with experts in a time and place. And in the early stages I have no duties, no responsibilities yet. Eventually the nagging voice becomes really assertive and I know I have to shift gears and begin to produce something from that year or two of preparation. But by now it is clear (to me) that my creativity flows best when grounded in a lot of detail. Indeed, I believe that grounding has to be so secure that the vast majority of the research does not enter the book except subliminally, or does so very quietly ... or else you get what I hate as a reader, which is the 'info dump' meant to show off that the author did a bit of background stuff!

Quite a bit of fantasy features characters that are very black and white, with nothing in between, no gray. Your stories feature very gray characters much of the time and challenge the reader to judge for themselves the “right” and “wrong” of their actions. Do you personally find it to be more challenging to write “gray” characters? Was this a conscious choice on your part when you started writing or was it a more organic process? 

I honestly think we write the books we'd like to read if someone else wrote them. Since I tend to be bored by the absence of subtlety or nuance, I suppose I am always trying to achieve that in my work. It is for the reader, obviously, to decide if a) they like this idea and b) I succeed. So it isn't so much 'conscious' or 'organic' as a matter of my own aesthetic, I guess. I have been teased that I've never met a seocndary character I didn't like ... and there's truth to that. I often find that through the peripheral figures I can achieve my strongest effects, whether of character, emotion, or shaping depth to a setting for the reader.

What’s next for you? 

I never know what a next book will be when I finish one. The only exception, ever, was Under Heaven, because I was researching a China-based book when our family went to the south of France again for me to write it, and I was hijacked by the history there (again) - and Ysabel insisted on being written. So when that novel was finished I already knew what was up next. But every other time (as now) I need an incubation period. In the short term, as I type these words, this is the beginning of the marketing stage for River of Stars, with its energy, stresses, demands. Some time in the summer or fall I'll start being irritated with myself that I haven't figured out 'what's next' and that irritation (think oyster, seed, pearl) will produce an idea. I devoutly hope.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of eleven previous novels and a volume of poetry. He won the 2008 World Fantasy Award for his novel Ysabel and the International Goliardos Prize, and is a two-time winner of the Aurora Award. His works have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and have appeared on bestseller lists around the world.

Big, big thanks to Guy and to the folks at Wunderkind! River of Stars is out now, readers, so be sure to check it out (and Under Heaven is out in paperback as well).

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