David J Howe meets the best-selling author of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors.
I hurry into the hotel where I am due to meet author Guy Gavriel Kay somewhat flustered. Trains have been delayed, maps misinterpreted, and I’m about twenty minutes late. I’m ushered into a quiet reading room somewhere in the labyrinthine bowels of the Mayfair hotel and apologise to Guy, who seems relaxed and mellow considering that he only arrived from America the day before.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a softly spoken yet intense man. It comes as no surprise to me at all that he trained in criminal law, and his observations and clarity of thought show that any criminal unfortunate enough to cross his path would have a very hard time. ‘I read a book called Attorney for the Damned, which was a collection of the speeches and jury addresses of Clarence Darrow of the major trials of his life, and got a very early taste for the dramatic excitement of the courtroom. I also loved writing, but I didn’t expect at any point that I would make a career as a novelist. I thought my best case scenario was that I would take a law degree, practice law and struggle to find time on the margins of that to write books.’
Guy’s future was further shaped when he spent a year in England in 1974/5 working with Christopher Tolkien, the son of J R R Tolkien, editing the manuscripts of The Silmarillion which was subsequently posthumously published. Christopher Tolkien’s second wife’s father was a colleague in Guy’s father’s medical practice, and so when J R R Tolkien died, Christopher asked Guy if he would help edit the manuscript for publication.
‘It was an experience I’ll never forget. We were in this vast barn on the outskirts of a tiny village on the outskirts of Oxford. The isolation, the countryside, the focus, the intensity of the project, it really coalesced the wish that I might be able to do this as well. So with that desire burning in me, I went back and entered law school and spent three years taking my law degree. But all through it, at the back of my mind was the promise I made to myself that when I finished, I wouldn’t start work until I’d given myself a year to write my own book.
‘After getting my degree, I went to a fishing village on the south coast of Crete, bought a battered old German typewriter in a flea market in Athens, complete with umlauts, and I wrote my first novel, a picturesque backpacking-through-Europe story, which was never published. I was completely determined however, and although I got some rejections, they were positive rejections – the publishers wanted to see the next thing I did! What’s the next thing going to be? And the next thing was The Summer Tree, my first fantasy book.’
The Summer Tree was the first book in an impressive High Fantasy trilogy collectively called The Fionavar Tapestry. Since then, however, his books have been more based in human history than pure fantasy worlds.
‘I started to think about a shift away from myth and legend and towards history. I would turn from apocalyptic gods and mortals to human conflict and examine some themes that seemed to me very relevant to today in a framework that, in the case of Tigana, evoked Renaissance Italy but also the break-up of the Soviet Union.’
Guy has strong views on the factual research and development behind his novels. He does not see his role as trying to pin down the facts, more to use them as a springboard to explore wider issues.
‘It’s a fascination with the idea of using fantasy to do something it’s not normally asked or allowed to do, which is to be a tool for looking at our own past. When I tell a story based on a historical period, maybe it’s Renaissance Italy, maybe Medieval Provence, maybe Spain and with the current books Byzantium, I’m not giving you what happened in those time periods, I’m giving you the themes and elements, an attempt to evoke that mood and explore things that I think are intensely interesting from there and yet apply to us. Its a universalising theme which kicks in very strongly.
‘Another aspect of it, has to do with a certain kind of respect for lives lived, for real people. I’m not pretending in The Lord of Emperors that I know what Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora were like as people, what their marriage was like, what their intimate conversation was like, I don’t even throw out the illusion like a historical fiction novel does, that we, for example, know what Henry VIII said to Anne Boleyn the first time they met. What I’m doing, and I’m very happy with this, is saying that these are characters meant to evoke associations with the aura of certain people who lived in a certain place but they are clearly not those people. I find it exhilarating in an artistic way to be freed up to let my imagination go without a sense that I might be appropriating someone’s life.’
Guy’s current series of books – The Sarantine Mosaic – explores the historical world of Byzantium, inspired by the poetry of W B Yeats.
‘The image we have of Byzantium is filtered through a sense of the supernatural, the alchemical, the spiritual, paganism co-existing with state religion, the idea of the pagan gods. The idea of Byzantium contained within it for me a strong component of this supernatural, and it fit the story, so the magic has been boosted to give it that underpinning of the supernatural. For me, that’s not only legitimate, it’s necessary to try to evoke what something would have felt like both to those who lived there and to how we visualise it. When we think about Byzantium if we ever do, there’ll be two or three of those components. I suppose underlying that is a belief that magic is not what defines fantasy. That’s part of the pushing of the envelope thing. Something’s not a fantasy because it has a wizard and somebody has to learn the seven spell systems of Shangri-La or something like that, that’s not what makes a fantasy.
‘The theme of these two books really is the ways in which we all try to leave something behind us. The notion that we want to leave a footprint on the sand. For ninety-nine per cent of us, the only way we are going to be able to do that is through our children and grandchildren, our name being possessed by a grandchild, an anecdote being told through the family about how granny used to make apple pie every Easter or something, and it’s told down through every generation. But a small segment of the population, and the books look at this, can aspire to something that might endure. They are the artists, then there are the quote, unquote great men and women, the politicians, the kings, the emperors, the church leaders, the people who might, because of their lot in life, say: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings”. That’s where Lord of Emperors comes from. Who is the lord of emperors? It’s the person who decrees how later generations know about the emperor. If Goya paints the Spanish royal family as inbred cretins, that’s how we see them. Procopius of Caesaria, the great sixth century historian of Justinian’s reign, wrote the most savagely pornographic character assassination we have from the ancient world about Justinian and Theodora. He also wrote official, sanctioned state histories, one called The Wars and one called The Buildings, they are the dry, formal histories; but he would go home and write these viciously obscene things about his rulers. That’s the book that everyone remembers: The Secret History. I started thinking about that when I did my research, the way in which the artist controls how the emperor is remembered. The emperor aspires to be remembered, but it might be the minor historian he didn’t even know about whose manuscript lasts a thousand years and shapes how we remember him. I became very interested in the relationship between art and power. Because of course the emperor could kill the artist, can commission him to do a great work, can reject the great work and have it hacked down, can give him enough financial independence to do whatever work he wants or leave him poor so he has to do hack work. So in some ways the emperor controls the artist. But in other ways, if the artist’s work lasts, it controls how later generations remember the emperor.
‘Also, think about the difference between art forms. It’s all changed in the last fifty or a hundred years, but before then: a dancer, an athlete, a singer … their art was gone as soon as it was made. It was by definition ephemeral. We have no idea how Richard Burbage played Hamlet. We can’t hear him. We can’t see how the dancers of the sixteenth century or the great Russian ballet dancers of the eighteenth century danced. We can read somebody’s account of seeing them, but that doesn’t work. We can’t see them. But we can see Rembrandt’s work, we can read Defoe’s novels. My point then becomes that certain art forms have at least a claim on lasting, while certain other art forms, by definition the artist knew they couldn’t last, that what they did was gone as soon as they were finished. That’s the irony. We’ll always know how Michael Jordan played basketball, how Gary Lineker played football, we know what John Lennon sounded like. That’s a big change in history. So in the book, there’s this deliberate paralleling or contrasting of a mosaicist whose work might last, an architect whose dome might last, and a singer, a dancer, a chef, a chariot racer and an athlete whose art is lost as soon as it’s made.
‘I want readers to think about these things. I write my books with two ambitions. One of them is very sadistic: I want to keep you awake until three in the morning because you have to find out what happens next. That’s the straight story-teller’s drive. I want to keep you going.
‘Also, when you’ve closed the book, when you’ve raced through to find out what happens and you’ve read my story, I want something to stick around. A week, a month, a year, a decade later, ambitiously, I want something to linger about what the book was about, why I was telling you that story, that there’s a point to it. My hope is that at the end of the book, this dance of characters, will leave you thinking about something. I want readers to comment that they’ve never thought about that before. That’s the double edge of what I’m trying to do.’
David J Howe