The 'Quarter Turn' of History: A Conversation with Guy Gavriel Kay
Fantasy is a genre steeped in history. Mammoth novels outline thousand year dynasties and shorter works hint at machinations decades in the making. Their imagined histories lend a level of immersion and context for the reader. But when our own history is woven into the fabric of the fantastic, you find yourself reading a slightly different kind of story.
It is undeniable that Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of historical fantasy. His unique way of weaving world history into engrossing fantasy novels has earned him numerous accolades and praise around the world. His latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, follows a Dickensian cast of characters making their way in a world not too far off from our own Mediterranean in the Renaissance. A young woman seeks vengeance. A painter is summoned to immortalize a king. Spies lurk between borders and pirates ravage the seas. Countries play politics. The world is poised for uproar.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of numerous novels and a book of poetry. In addition to the World Fantasy Award and the International Goliardos Prize, Kay was named to the Order of Canada for his contributions to literature. It is the country’s highest civilian honor. Children of Earth and Sky was published by New American Library this past May.
Many of your novels pull from history and Children of Earth and Sky is no exception. What does your research process look like?
Lots of books and academic monographs, Moleskine notebooks, several of them filled over time, pens, emails back and forth with academics, some travel, and about a year or so before some evil voice within says, ‘This is meaningless if you don’t start writing.’ And I do. But the research phase is absolutely my favorite—I’m just learning things, no responsibility till later to produce something from it.
You’re known for being exceedingly thorough when researching your novels. What is the most extreme length you’ve gone to in pursuit of knowledge for a novel?
Hah! There are a few stories. One is when I was writing Sailing to Sarantium and I came across a complete disagreement in texts as to chariot racing in Constantinople, as to where the best horse of four in a quadriga was placed—on the inside or outside. Inside would be so that its force of personality, as it were, would stop the others from drifting too high (and thus going farther), or on the outside because it had the farthest distance to run. Both made sense. I chased down some harness track trainers! Closest I could get, I figured. (For those interested: there was a discussion, but consensus was the best would go outside as the added distance, across four horses and many laps, was real. The charioteer could keep them from drifting out, if he had to.)
Under the surface of your newest novel, there are a lot of systems in place governing culture, politics, and societies. How do you go about creating an intricate system of interconnected countries with their own customs and beliefs?
I don’t think I can answer with any kind of “system.” I don’t work that way. I learn as much as I can about the actual setting. I have often said that before you can do variations on a theme you should at least try to know the theme. None of us are perfectly accurate when we work with history (for many, many reasons) which is one reason I like my ‘quarter turn’ to the fantastic . . . it acknowledges right from the outset that we can’t get it exactly right. We are in a near-Europe of the Renaissance (for this book), not Europe. I like that the reader and I thus share this awareness.
You mention that the “origin story” for this novel lies in Croatia. What was it about the area, and the Uskoks in particular, that interested you?
I think part of it was—honestly—that I had never heard of them! I like finding corners of history that have been under-explored. As I learned more, I was also fascinated by the vast gulf between how the Uskoks were seen by (say) Venice and Ragusa/Dubrovnik, and how they viewed and understood themselves. They were either savage pirates and raiders, or the unacknowledged true heroes of the endangered borderlands against the encroaching, invading Ottomans. That kind of gap is very fertile ground for a novelist.
With such an elaborate cast of characters, how do you keep them all organized while writing?
To some degree this is where having done it for a long time helps, I suppose. You learn your own methods and craft after a while. In truth, this novel is fairly focused on the (different) journeys of my protagonists, both actually and internally, the cast isn’t as big as some others I’ve done. I wanted to write a book that felt epic, against the backdrop of a great war—but that was, in truth, about non-powerful men and women trying to get on with their lives on those dangerous borderlands.
Not only are your characters numerous, each of them is also quite layered and complex. Do characters like Danica or Jacopo Miucci have any inspiration or basis in history?
Complexity, nuance, enough depth to engage readers, that’s what I am always trying for. As to the two you mention, inspiration, yes, actual figures behind them, not in those cases. Miicci is a doctor. I did do reading into how Dubrovnik obtained its physicians from Venice (or elsewhere in Italy) and in Venetian spying (Everyone spied! That was as much about commercial espionage, not just political/military.). As for Danica, one of the slanders against the raiders of Senj (my Senjan) was that their women were as violent and bloodthirsty as their men and that they also had access to magic (usually associated, in the stories I saw most often, with controlling the winds at sea).
What was your favorite bit of history or folklore you picked up while researching Children of Earth and Sky?
Wow! Tough one, good one. So many. I loved learning about the origins of books being bound in Venice, though it is only a small bit in the novel. I loved reading the history of Dubrovnik, how it survived, unconquered, for so long (until Napoleon!), despite relying pretty much entirely on good walls and brilliant, subtle, unceasing observation and diplomacy. I learned a lot about the role and impact of weather and distance in military campaigns of the period. And about cannons. And horses.
Did you travel to the Mediterranean region while researching this book? If so, which place really captured your imagination?
I did travel through Croatia and the Balkans, and to Prague . . . but in the time just before the book became the next book. I know for certain that all these travels were embedded in the decision to write Children, but they weren’t trips taken to specifically prepare for it. It many ways, for a writer, his or her life is always a part of research.
Is it difficult to strike a balance between historical influences and the more imaginative elements of the story?
Everything about a novel is difficult! I’m not one of those who races through having fun. I feel a huge responsibility, primarily to the story and characters, but also to deliver something that will satisfy. You can never please every kind of reader, but I do want to please myself, and that involves this loyalty to the story being told. So the balance as to history and the invented is one challenge. So, in this novel, was the balance among five protagonists who all had to hold and engage readers—because they all move to the center in different parts of the narrative. Balancing, in fact, is one of the core things a novelist has to do, and it operates in many different ways.
What period of time or area of the world are you interested in featuring in your next novel?
No real idea. I never do know at this stage. I am interested in a great many times and places—but ‘interest’ isn’t enough. I spend a long time in whatever setting I end up using. There needs to be something very compelling, a reason for me to ‘live’ there for years, and to feel I have something to say to readers about it. So, I never know, when I’m done, what the next book will be.
Since you’ve deeply researched an array of places and times in history, is there any particular one you’d like to live in or at least visit?
I’ve visited many of them, from Tuscany to China. I think a part of my heart is always in Provence, in or near Aix-en-Provence. I’ve based two novels around there (A Song For Arbonne, and Ysabel) and written there on four different occasions. Sit me outside on the Cours Mirabeau at a cafe, or walking in the countryside towards Mont Saeinte-Victoire, and I’m a happy man.
What about one of the worlds you’ve created?
Always hard, but to be consistent (why not?) I’ll say the Arbonne of the troubadours. I do share William Butler Yeats’ feeling, too, though, that Constantinople at the time of Justinian would have been a remarkable place to be, so my own Sarantium is another option.
Chris Urie is a writer and editor from Ocean City, NJ. He has written and published everything from city food guide articles to critical essays on video game level design. He currently lives in Philadelphia with an ever expanding collection of books and a small black rabbit that has an attitude problem.