I’m happy to temporarily come out of FanLit retirement to spend some time with my favorite author, Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s newest novel, River of Stars, was released today and it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped (here’s my review). Bill and Kelly loved it, too. Trust us: you don’t want to miss River of Stars!
We’re giving away a copy of River of Stars to one random commenter with a U.S.A. address.
Robert Rhodes: I have in hand a beautiful edition of your new novel, River of Stars. Your previous work, Under Heaven, appeared three years ago, in April of 2010 — April’s no longer the cruelest month, is it? Both novels are set in the land of Kitai, an ‘alternate’ China, although in quite different eras. Would you introduce us to the Kitai of this novel? How does it compare with the Kitai of Under Heaven?
Guy Gavriel Kay: A T.S. Eliot riff off the top? This is the literary interview, it seems. River of Stars is not a sequel; 350-400 years of time passing will negate that. But it is still my ‘quarter-turn’ away from dynastic China, in the style I’ve used for many books now. The main difference is that the empire here is smaller, more limited, less ‘grand’ than before — and that is partly a result of where the dynamic between military and court has gone in the intervening centuries. I’m inspired by the Song Dynasty this time, which is sometimes cited by historians as offering the first beginnings of a ‘new’ China, the end of the ‘medieval’ period.
Well, we do take the ‘Literature’ aspect of ‘Fantasy Literature’ seriously, and we’re delighted to have you with us. At the time we discussed Under Heaven, I believe you were considering a visit to China. Can you tell us about your experience and how it may have shaped River of Stars?
I don’t think there was any obvious or direct influence on how the book took shape. I was treated wonderfully well, though, and that may have subliminally cued me up to stay with China for exploration. There was a symposium at Beijing Normal University on my work (three books were out there by then, with Under Heaven to come), five or six papers were delivered in Chinese, and I had a translator at my elbow. One paper was by someone who had read Under Heaven in English and was wonderfully generous in his response to it. It was reassuring and even exciting to see Chinese critics and academics ‘getting’ what I do, the respect underlying my use of the fantastic to address history.
And with war and politics figuring so predominantly in this novel, it’s certainly a ‘history’, but of another world. And the ‘fantastic’ makes its mark as well on the characters. The principal characters of River of Stars, among a host of figures, are Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan. Who are they, and how did you discover them?
Well, on one level, they are invented characters, as all my characters are. A reason I use the fantastic is that I do not want to pretend I know what real people in history thought or felt, or what their preferred positions in bed might have been. So when I say that characters such as these two, or others, are inspired by real people sometimes, that is truly as far as it goes. These two do take their inspiration from figures of the Song Dynasty, but the personalities that emerge — and the personal events of their lives, including when they are together — are part of the history of Kitai, not China! That’s important to me. As to where they came from, in imaginative terms, I wanted to develop and explore characters whose inner drives set them at odds with the restraints and limitations that their culture placed on what men and women (women, in particular) were ‘allowed’ to do or be.
There always are, every book. I don’t outline — the writing is a process of exploration — so inevitably characters (and plot elements) surprise me. There are a number of focal point characters (an assassin, a magistrate who changes a great deal, a young boy on the steppe, a village woman with a sick daughter, among others) who were not part of the original process of shaping the book at all. Each novel startles me, sometimes shakes me deeply.
Speaking as a reader, I promise you’re not alone in that. I did find Lin Shan an exceptional character, the one most ‘at odds’ with her culture. One of her skills, and a skill prized in Kitai, is calligraphy. In an early scene, as she prepares to write a critical letter, you describe how she mixes her ink and focuses on the proper posture and style for her writing. How did you research the art of calligraphy? And more broadly, how much and what kinds of research have you done for your novels?
The formal research for that was straightforward, as there is a lot of literature on calligraphy both from the time and modern. Indeed, one of my dearest friends is finishing a Ph.D right now on calligraphy in the Song. (That was useful!) I wanted to do something I have done before (with mosaic, say): reveal expertise and craft by focusing on technical details. The research in general, for all the books, is my favourite aspect. At that stage I am just learning things, making notes, and by definition, since I have decided I want to write a book about these subjects, it is material that interests me a lot. It is only at the point where that nagging inner voice reminds me that there a book to be written out of all this that I start getting edgy. Most research is reading (some is travel), but increasingly I end up in correspondence, or sometimes sitting down, with scholars who have spent their professional lives working in the fields I am exploring. I learn so much and end up with friendships, too. One of my own greatest pleasures as a writer has been the support of the academic community for my very personal, idiosyncratic approach to writing fiction about history. Just as those Chinese scholars in Beijing did, most historians seem to understand the impulses of respect and a desire not to claim knowledge of real lives that infuse what I do.
Let’s assume that most of us over the age of thirty grew up writing by hand and later transitioned, at least to some extent, to typing. Do you prefer writing or typing? If you were in Kitai, what might your own handwriting suggest about your character? And for the computer purists, do you have a favorite font?
Cool question. My handwriting when young was actually quite good (and I’m left-handed, which makes it way harder). I have aerogram letters sent home from my first backpacking trips to Europe that amaze me today: that I could write so small (aerograms were a finite size, to be folded and mailed) and so attractively. Today? I still do my research notes mostly by hand in stiff black notebooks, but no one who doesn’t love me would ever say my writing is remotely attractive! All the novels are typed now (early adopting Mac geek here). But I can say that my first three novels were written longhand with a fountain pen, then retyped. That’s pretty quaint, isn’t it? I’m not a font fetishist. My Word default is Bookman Old Style, for what that’s worth.
Staying on the topic of paperwork… even though the Kitai of River of Stars is somewhat diminished, its imperial bureaucracy continues to thrive. You’re a lawyer by training, and your novels traditionally feature the rulers of lands as major characters. How have your own experiences with law, government, and politics influenced your work?
Another cool question. And you are right about bureaucracy in the book. Often as a nation or empire diminishes, its administrative rigidity grows. I am absolutely certain that ‘influence’ comes into all of us in wide and varied and often invisible ways. (We overfocus far too much on what books or writers influence an author, or what painters an artist.) But did an early interest in that dangerous political aspect of the human dynamic make me interested in law, or did my exposure to criminal law make me write a certain way afterwards? See what I mean? It can cut in so many different directions. I do believe that training in courtroom law shaped my writing in one strong way: courtroom lawyers need to become very good at gaining ‘instant expert’ status in something. That’s not a ‘real’ expertise, but you have to get to a point where you can examine or cross-examine a true expert on their own ground. My research in various periods and motifs of history (Byzantine chariot racing!) probably takes advantage of training in that way.
Your novels have now explored vast tracts of Europe and Asia — and Toronto, if one goes back to THE FIONAVAR TAPESTRY. Which points in space and time have captured your interest since the completion of River of Stars? Which is another way of asking, “What might you write about next?”
Nice try, Robert! Teasing aside, my standard answer is still my answer: I never know what a next book will be. I don’t know right now, as I answer these questions. The only exception was that after Ysabel I knew I was going to do a China-inspired book, because I had intended to do that when I was ‘hijacked’ in the south of France, where we’d gone for me to research and write a book evoking the Silk Road. Returning to Provence after many years overwhelmed me with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and a sense of the past there… and Ysabel emerged from that. So I did know, that one time, what would follow. But even then, it shifted: Under Heaven was not a Silk Road book after all, it was shaped by the Tang Dynasty.
I had to try. I’d personally love to see your interpretation of imperial Russia, and Africa, and colonial America — but of course, it’s time to savor this novel and take a well-deserved break. Last time, you introduced us to Springbank Scotch and the “Dark and Stormy.” Can you recommend a refreshment to accompany the reading of River of Stars and otherwise sustain your readers through the summer?
Ah, summer drinks. It is still chilly outside right now, but seasons do turn. I am a campari fan, but the heads-up is that many people find that aperitif too bitter. If so, try it with orange juice in a campari and orange. I like it with soda (not too much), and I have been drinking Negronis, too: campari, gin, sweet vermouth. If you switch in bourbon for the gin you get something called a Boulevardier and that is really quite… well, give it a shot, so to speak.
Fantastic. Thank you for your time and cheers!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a hardback copy of River of Stars. We need to send it to a U.S.A address.