On Tuesday night the Calgary Public Library hosted Guy Gavriel Kay. He read from his newest book River of Stars, talked about the book, fielded questions and patiently signed everybody’s books. Even those of us who brought multiple things. I restrained myself – I only brought four (I own all 12 novels plus his book of poetry).
Kay is my favourite author. I was introduced to his fantasy classic The Fionavar Tapestry when I was 12. I moved into his somewhat fantastical historical fiction books when I was in university. Kay’s a master of the English language. Anyone who doesn’t think our language can be particularly poetic sounding needs to go give his stuff a read. His characters are always great and the research he does for each novel is simply phenomenal.
For some reason the notebook I normally would have in my purse was absent, so I resorted to taking notes on the back of an art show flyer and a couple of receipts. Here’s some highlights from his talk.
I started taking notes when he began speaking about the state of fiction writing. He noted it is endangered, with many “mid-list” writers no longer able to make a living in this era of stratospheric best sellers. Unless, of course, you are hawking 50 Shades of Da Vinci Code.
Kay said many writers are caught up in the idea they must write a novel a year (he averages about one every three years). He said he’s lucky his readers are passionate but also patient so he can take his time.
“I’m writing the books I want to write at the speed they seem to require from me,” he said.
After two jaunts into Chinese history (River of Stars and Under Heaven), he’s not sure where his next book will take him. After the wonderful Under Heaven was completed a few years ago he hadn’t thought to return to Chinese history, but was apparently independently contacted by many of the academics he uses as sources for research and told the Song dynasty was ideal for him. Or at least no one is fessing up to collaborating.
A strong theme in River of Stars was the influence of perceptions of the past on the present, which Kay said at the event fascinates him. Kay tends to have strong female main characters, a pattern continued with Li Shan in River of Stars and one of my favourite Kay characters ever. He told the crowd at the library this is not for propaganda reasons or to further an agenda, but rather because having strong, complete female characters as well as male characters makes the story better.
Which is way better than thinking you have to include them to further the feminist cause, I thought.
Li Shan is based on real-life 12th century Song dynasty poet Li Qingzhao. Kay said it was helpful that so much of her poetry and writings about her still exist and are in fact still beloved – it aided him in developing the character and gave him rich material to work with. He called it a gift and part of the joy of research.
As for why he uses fictional places inspired by real places, fictional characters inspired by historical figures and plots inspired by true events instead of just writing straight historical fiction, he said he’s never felt comfortable suggesting to readers he knows what Henry VIII’s favourite sexual position was. Instead he likes to use history as a “jumping off point” and spins out tales imbibed with his own fantastical twists. He likes to treat the world as those living then would have seen it rather than taking a modern sensibility that would see some of their traditions or beliefs as “quaint” and letting that modern perception into the prose.
He was distressed to see magical realism defined a few years ago as creating a world, even one with magic or fantastical elements, that the characters accept as part of their existence. “Smite your forehead, have a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat,” he said of his reaction.
At that point he opened himself up to questions and being the over-eager journalist that I am (even when I’m off duty) and he gave a very elegant answer to my question about at what point in the research the story sparks for him. Most of it I didn’t write down but he said he has “Grad student syndrome” and can never quite stop researching. Much of that research sparks various parts or portions of the novel.
“The writing’s really bloody hard,” he said, adding the research is the fun part.
He answered a few other questions, including a rant about how often his excellent use of language is treated separately from his abilities with story and character. “They’re not separate for me,” he said.
All in all, I truly enjoyed getting some insights into his process. He’s my favourite author and if you appreciate good stories, a little bit of magic and prose mastery, go read his books.