A blurring of fact and fiction

By David Larsen

Guy Gavriel Kay. Photo / Supplied
Guy Gavriel Kay. Photo / Supplied

Guy Gavriel Kay's life makes a good story. It's such a pity he won't let me tell it. I think I'll tell it anyway. Are you sitting comfortably? It goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a boy called Guy Kay. He read lots of books. He particularly loved historical fiction and fantasy. So, when he grew up, he decided to write historical fantasy novels. To learn his trade, he took a job helping to edit one of the great works of imaginary history, Tolkien's The Silmarillion, which lays out the millennia-long backstory of Middle Earth in the ages before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Having received his professional education from Tolkien, Kay decided to make his first work of fiction - his graduate project, so to speak - a tribute to the master: a heroic fantasy trilogy very much in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.

Then he moved on to his real life work, the reinvention of fantasy fiction as a vehicle for exploring world history. His subsequent novels explore specific times and places - Spain in the time of El Cid, medieval Provence, Constantinople under Justinian the First - by moving them just a little outside the confines of realism.

With a large international following and 11 novels under his belt, Kay is recognised today as one of the trailblazers who picked up where Tolkien left off and found a way forward for a genre that had begun to appear moribund.

Kay has no problem, actually, with anyone recounting his career. What he resists is the story-making urge, which smuggles in purpose and direction and reshapes a collection of accidents into a narrative arc. For instance, when I suggest to him that all the fantasy and historical novels he read as a child - "Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, then Mary Renault (still much-admired)" - appear to predict his adult path, he objects politely that I'm ignoring all the other things he read. "I grew up in a bookish family, so I read very widely. I was omnivorous, really."

Likewise, when Christopher Tolkien, JRR Tolkien's son, came looking for an assistant to help him edit his father's posthumous manuscripts into book form, Kay was pleased to take the job - "Who in their right mind would not have been interested?" - but he didn't take it as a stepping stone towards anything in particular. Kay's parents were friends of Baillie Tolkien, Christopher's wife; Kay was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba, in his native Canada, and was thrilled to be asked to move to Oxford for a year. "I learned a great deal in that year, but one of the things I learned was not to rely on writing as a career."

He moved back to Canada and did a law degree, and it was another nine years before he published his first novel, The Summer Tree, book one of The Fionavar Tapestry. "I did see Fionavar as something of a gauntlet thrown down to the barbarians in the temple. The ambitious writers of fantasy in that time, my peers, were abandoning the epic forms to cloners of The Lord of the Rings and trying to find new ways of using fantasy. Urban fantasy, mostly. I wanted to try, by contrast, to show that the epic form need not be merely derivative, that it could cast an eye back to the original forms and motifs Tolkien and others had used, but also introduce elements suited to a more current sensibility."

The three Fionavar books proved so popular, both critically and sales-wise, that Kay found himself under pressure to write more. Series which refuse to die are one of the sour jokes of the fantasy genre; as with Hollywood sequels, it's often the case that original and exciting stories devolve into formulaic potboilers in an effort to live up to their own success. It was the desire to steer away from that danger, rather than any sense of knowing where it might lead, that prompted Kay to write his first standalone novel, Tigana.

"It represented a very deliberate departure, and I was very conscious I was taking a risk." The new book was about a tyrant's attempt to eradicate the culture and history of a people, and therefore implicitly asked readers to consider what culture and history are, and why they matter. And as he worked on it, those questions slowly caught fire in Kay's mind. "It was an evolution, a gradual coming to terms with what I was most engaged by, not a formal staking out of territory. But it started me on a line of thought and inspiration."

His next novel, A Song For Arbonne, was very specifically anchored in a particular time and place - in the troubadour culture of medieval Provence - though, as with all his subsequent books, it reimagined its historical source in fantasy terms, allowing the beliefs and mythology of the period a degree of reality within the story.

"What happens is that I become engaged and entranced by a period and the themes that emerge for me from it, and a book slowly comes out of that. I don't plan ahead, each book finds me. History itself, the resonance of the past with the present, is the common denominator in all of them."

History matters especially in his latest book, Under Heaven, inspired by China's Tang Dynasty and the An Shi rebellion of the eighth century. Here Kay focuses not just on his chosen period, but also on how its history came to be written, and how much of its complexities were smoothed out in the writing. Which is one reason he's so alert, just now, to the tendency of interviewers to oversimplify his own personal history.

"It's worth being suspicious of writers - or anyone! - who does that myth-making thing. There's always a tendency to retrospectively impose structures on a life. Life as it's lived has a far more complex shape."

Under Heaven (Harper/Voyager $36.99)

- NZ Herald

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