In case you haven’t noticed, we’re fans of Guy Gavriel Kay, and Rob and Stefan recently reported that Mr. Kay’s newest novel, Under Heaven, which releases today, is definitely up to par. (Comment below for your chance to win a copy.) While striving to suppress his enthusiasm about speaking with his favorite fantasy author, Rob was recently able to chat coherently with GGK about his newest work
Robert Rhodes: As with your previous books, I greatly enjoyed and admired Under Heaven. The setting of this novel is likely to be fresh to most Western readers. Which elements of 8th-century China and the Tang Dynasty first drew your interest? Which struck you as being particularly relevant to the present?
Guy Gavriel Kay: This book actually started taking a vague shape back in 2003, with my reading in and about the Silk Road. I thought I would approach China’s history indirectly that way. Ysabel hijacked the idea when we went to France in 2004 to work and live for a year, even though I thought I was going there to research and write that Silk Road book. And when I revisited the idea three years later, I had started to read Tang Dynasty poetry — one of the great, transcendent periods in literary history — and that got me going a little differently. As I began to focus my reading on the period, the richness of material and the amazing complexity of High Tang history began to engage me. One Asian Studies academic I came to be in touch with wrote me, ‘I always knew you’d get to the Tang.’ I wrote back, ‘I’m glad at least one of us knew!’
GGK: I think in this case it was the main protagonist, Shen Tai. (It isn’t always a main character for me.) Primarily because one dazzling poem by Du Fu (the greatest of Tang poets, probably) gave me a starting point for the novel, by a mountain lake among the dead. I had to begin sorting out just who this person was, why he was there (though I never work all of that out at the beginning). I also knew, quite early, that I’d bring in a figure inspired by one of the other master poets, Li Bai, and that became the character of Sima Zian, ‘the Banished Immortal’.
GGK: Hmm, is it bad form to offer a mild dissent? Kuala Nor, a mountain lake and meadow, is a remote, physically beautiful place, but it isn’t sacred. In a real sense it is ‘unholy’, rendered so by the extreme violence imposed upon it by war. Tai’s actions as the novel begins have been an attempt to redress aspects of that violence, burying the long-dead, laying them to rest. Where I agree is with the notion that it is a removed, solitary place, apart from the hurly-burly of the world. (What I called the ‘dust and noise’ in the book.) That is the key contrast the opening offers, and the memory that lingers (I hope) through the story that unfolds when Tai leaves the lake. Personally, I think we all have our own ‘talismanic’ landscapes and settings, the ones that come to be deeply important in our inner lives, usually for very personal reasons. I began my writing career by ‘separating’ myself from the rest of my life in a fishing village on the south coast of Crete, not far from the Minoan ruins of Phaestos … and images of that village, the sea, the cliffs and hills above it are always with me, even today. It is where, I suppose, I started on this path as a novelist.
RR: On that path … when you write, do you listen to music? (I tend to associate your work with that of your fellow Canadian, Loreena McKennitt.) Or do you have any enlightening or bizarre writing rituals you’d like to share?
GGK: Loreena and I discovered, long ago, that we were at the same university at the same time, and even shared some professors … but we never knew each other then. I’m very comfortable being associated with her in your mind, and many readers share your thought. Her name has come up often as someone who might be perfect for music if some of the books were filmed. I tend not to listen to music while writing; I don’t want it to too directly infuse the rhythms of the prose (though I have colleagues who actively seek that effect in their work). Rituals? Oh, fine, you’ve been very polite so far, I’ll give you one. When I finished my very first novel (never published) in that village on Crete, I stood on the rooftop of the place where I was living and looked out at the sea and let out an absolutely primal shout that lasted awhile and disturbed not a few donkeys and Cretans down below. I do the same thing at the end of every book. In New Zealand, when I finished The Wandering Fire, the two year old son of the friends we were living with as I wrote came charging down the hallway into my work room to jump into my arms — Laura and his mother had warned him the yell might be coming that day. He’d been waiting for it. My sons, even when very young, came to wait for it as well, when they knew I was close to finishing. Does that story annihilate the jaded curmudgeon image entirely? May we pour a scotch, please?
RR: Soon enough! I understand that you intend to visit China but chose not to before or during the writing of Under Heaven. However, I believe you wrote Ysabel while visiting France. What prompts you to visit or not visit a place that provides the inspiration for a work in progress? Artistic intuition? Logistics? Or something in between?
GGK: I used to go away for focus and solitude, not for a direct link to the book I was doing. Tigana began a change, but it wasn’t planned out. (Don’t trust authors who say everything was thought through beforehand.) We wanted to live in Tuscany for a time, I had a book that took inspiration from Renaissance Italy, and then I got there and said to myself an equivalent of ‘whoa!’ … because it was so damned obvious how much it would help the book for me to be there looking out at olive groves and vineyards. But I hadn’t gone with that in mind. It was a belated revelation. For Arbonne, which came next, we did go to Provence deliberately to register ambiance and context, but that was the only time it was so conscious. As I said above, Ysabel abducted me, when we got back to Aix-en-Provence after a decade away: the overwhelming impact of the place shifted the novel I’d gone there to write into one about where we were.
RR: A follow-up on the subject of places: in some of your earlier works, such as A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan, the world of the story features two moons, and there’s often a brief but poignant reference to Fionavar, identified in your Fionavar Tapestry trilogy as the first world and the Platonic form for other worlds. The world of Under Heaven, by contrast, isn’t explicitly linked to that broader cosmology. What, if anything, should a reader infer from that difference?
GGK: Not a whole lot, I hope. I always saw the Fionavar references as a small grace note, a wry nod backwards to that primal world notion, a tip of the hat to early readers. Not any kind of cosmic unifying exercise. The two moons became a symbol of ‘we are not here’ and offered me some lovely chances at effects of light, legend, contrast. But I dislike being too predictable, and I suppose an element in the case of Under Heaven was a simple desire not to do what might have become too entirely expected. I’ll add that the figure who inspired my main poet character was notorious, legendarily, as a poet of the moon, and it struck me early that coming ‘back’ to our single moon might let me achieve a different set of effects with moonlight.
RR: This is simply an impression, but it seems your writing style, particularly in Under Heaven, has increasingly included shorter sentences and image-based fragments, which can create a more poetic than prosaic texture. At the same time, the main character, Shen Tai, aspires to write fine poetry, and his advisor, Sima Zian, “The Banished Immortal,” is a masterful poet. Why is poetry so deeply ingrained in this story?
GGK: I can’t even begin to decide if your impressions are right or not yet; the book’s too close still. I do know that for The Last Light of the Sun I made notes to myself about making the language harder, colder, less lyric (except in some specific scenes) to match the setting, by way of contrast to the earlier three books or so which had been more southern, decadent, sophisticated. For Under Heaven, one issue I was thinking about, in terms of language, was finding a balance between the very formal culture I was presenting and a very informal society I was presenting it to. Poetry is important in the book in part because it was so important in the Tang. It is literally true, not my invention, that examinations for the higher ranks of the court’s civil service required demonstrating a skill in poetry. It was regarded as a core dimension for civilized men. And often for women, too, at that level of society. The same is true, incidentally, of music.
RR: Sadly, music’s been the bane of my own civil service career. But let me ask a question as a writer: many modern writers attempt to captivate readers by techniques such as rapid-fire action sequences or other plot points, or a close viewpoint that highlights the immediacy and all-encompassing importance of the ongoing events. You often seem to take a different approach. For example, you often use a more distant, omniscient-author viewpoint that may interrupt the main storyline with a section focusing on a minor character or historical feature. Similarly, you make it clear — by describing the legacies of deceased characters, such as Shen Tai’s father and the previous prime minister, and providing hints as to events after the novel’s end — that the story in Under Heaven is part of a greater whole. What are the benefits of using this broader narrative?
GGK: ‘Benefits’ is a loaded word here, because it can be argued that for readers searching for a certain kind of escape in fiction there’s actually a detriment here. Bottom line for me, I guess, is that I’m trying to serve story, themes, characters — and by extension my readers — as well as I possibly can, taking a long time with each book. In pursuit of that, I’m really aware of what I call the ‘architecture’ of a novel, the overall arc and shape of it, and sometimes those rapid-fire openings you cite can mangle the shape and arc badly, however much a reader might be used to them from other media. I know I can be seen as contrarian in this, by conventional genre standards. As for what I sometimes call the long-focus passages … I am endlessly interested in having the books cross lines of class and society, offering both an intimately personal scale and a very large one. Taking the long view, the historical one, plays a role in shaping this … and in the case of Under Heaven it happens to suit the tone and style of Chinese history-writing very well. I like placing what might appear to be a huge tale in an even larger context … because that’s how we live our own lives. We have a context.
RR: Many of your characters, in this and other novels, are well-born, well-educated, and able to participate in extremely subtle or nuanced situations and dialogues. In our age of sound bites and direct, even blunt, forms of communication, such as text messaging, is subtlety declining in conversation and relationships? And do you ever take modern communication aspects, or developments such as e-books, into account in your work?
GGK: Interesting angle on that issue. Let me try this, by way of Tennessee Williams: I have always relied on the intelligence of strangers. I’ve made a career, for better or worse, assuming that those elements of our culture, and those writers, that treat their readers (or watchers or listeners) with a measure of trivialization may well reap a commercial benefit (Dan Brown, anyone?), but they are usually surrendering a creative one. I’m trying (again, for better or worse) for more. I’m at-ease assuming that readers are simply more willing to be stretched, engaged in more complex ways, than these other writers are. The sped-up elements of our culture you mention do put pressures on writers, editors, filmmakers to hit hard and fast (and on readers to expect it!), but my sense is there’s a legitimately large world of those who aren’t entirely (or always) satisfied with this, who find a sense of being rewarded when a writer treats them as adults by offering characters in a story that works (or tries to) on that level.
RR: No doubt your readers agree. With the partial exceptions of The Fionavar Tapestry and Ysabel, your works are set in pre-industrial times. Have you considered setting a story in a futuristic age?
GGK: As I always say, and it isn’t just a posture … I never know what will come next. You’ve mentioned two (or four, depending how you count!) books that incorporate modern characters. That’s not inconsequential, I hope, in this regard.
RR: Very true. At the beginning of your career, you assisted J.R.R. Tolkien‘s son, Christopher, in the editing of The Silmarillion. Have you had the opportunity to see Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings?
Oh, fine. Not the place for a cute answer? I thought they represented honourable filmmaking, an attempt to grapple with the limitations (and strengths) of film adaptation, and the demands of a huge budget with the requirement to have a huge audience to justify that.
RR: Are you at liberty to discuss the status of any cinematic adaptations of your own works?
GGK: There are no non-disclosures in place, if that is what you mean. (Courteous question, thank you.) At this point I tend to describe the Hollywood interaction as a low-grade fever. There’s pretty steady background noise emerging from various possibilities, but nothing has become … music yet, to push the metaphor. I speak regularly with my L.A. agent (because he hates emailing!), and he fields ongoing discussions down there. Hollywood at this moment is an anxious, stressed-out place, and the big-budget projects being greenlighted tend to be those where sequels and/or huge guaranteed reader bases (Twilight, Harry Potter) can be assumed. If I were a betting man, I’d bet something will happen, but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage.
RR: And finally, do you presently have a favorite Scotch you would recommend to your loyal readers?
GGK: Oh, Lord, a variant on the favourite child question! So many distilleries, so little time. Hmm. I’ll bypass some of the well-known names (Macallan, Highland Park) that I love and mention one called Springbank, in Campbeltown. Goes back to early 19th century and is just wonderful. And as a small bonus for asking engaging questions, I’ll shift gears and mention a drink we were just introduced to in Bermuda this winter by a bookseller there. Called a “Dark and Stormy” (great literary cocktail name!), it is dark rum — technically it has to be Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Rum — and ginger beer, with a lime wedge. With summer coming, it is awfully appealing. Go try.
RR: Checking airfares to Bermuda right now. Thank you, Guy, for visiting us. I enjoyed learning more about you and your works, and I know our readers will, too. Till next time, cheers!
Dear readers, we’ve got a hardback copy of Under Heaven to give away. Comment below for a chance to win!