I conducted the following interview with Mr. Kay via email and am indebted to his generous response to my ten thousand questions! I’ve divided his answers between this blog and the Historical Novel Review site, so that both blogs provide you with a fascinating insight into this amazing author’s writing and a chance to win a free copy of “Under Heaven.”
1. This is your first foray away from Europe and a Christianity-based world and out of all of China’s massive history, you chose the Tang Dynasty during the An-Lushan rebellion (circa 763) as your focus. Why did you choose this time and place?
I truly never know what a next book will be when I finish one. I am wide open at that time. With The Sarantine Mosaic, I ended up researching that world because three reviews of Lions of Al-Rassan (the previous book) made reference to my ‘Byzantine’ characters and plotting … so I took it as a ‘sign’ to learn more about Byzantium! As I said … wide open.
With Under Heaven, I originally approached it with an idea for a ‘Silk Road book’ but gradually as I read, and corresponded with people, the Tang period began to impose itself on me – the combination of high drama, brilliant figures, flux and chaos, dazzling wealth, and themes that ‘worked’ for me made it ultimately feel like a place I’d want to spend three years. One academic I know wrote me after, ‘I always knew you would do the Tang.’ I wrote back, ‘I’m glad at least one of us did.’
2. Were there any other times in China’s history that appealed to you and do you plan on visiting them?
Absolutely: there were and are other deeply compelling periods. This is a history over two millennia with overwhelming richness for a writer. But as to visiting in the future: see previous answer. I truly never know.
3. Language barriers must have been a challenge when conducting research. What other challenges did you face writing “Under Heaven” that were unique to this book?
Interesting query. Every book has its own issues that confront me, from trying to make sure the names aren’t daunting to looking for legitimate ways to explore the role and scope of women (something I am always engaged by). Language tends not to be a serious barrier, given how much scholarship is available in English. It did enter as I tried (very hard) to come to terms with the staggering achievement that is Tang Dynasty poetry … but so many translators and scholars have felt the same fascination that I did have guides and signposts there.
4. Your characters tend to have depths of intelligence and humor hard to find in many genre novels. How do you approach character development?
It honestly isn’t a grand plan or anything like that. As I have often said, those of us working carefully tend to write the books we’d enjoy if someone else wrote them. I like reading about intelligent, witty characters, and try to invest my own with those traits – when it feels appropriate. I also have my share of flat-out chowderheads, I think. May I give you Pronobius Tilliticus from the Mosaic (Still one of my own favourite character names. I think Dickens would have approved!).
5. Every author works in a different way – would you share how you approach writing a novel? The way you set out the plot, your workplace, anything that contributes to the process.
In general (and I stress that!) I start with period and place and theme. From these I start finding characters and at that point the nucleus of a plot usually emerges. I don’t outline, I do not tend to know my ending (except, at times, in the broadest sense). The writing is legitimately a journey of discovery for me. But this is purely offered as my way of doing things, not as a prescription for anyone else.
6. What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing?
The constant, chronic, inherent inability to say exactly what I want to say. To make it work perfectly. I don’t know a serious writer who doesn’t feel that, mind you.
7. Can you share any advice which may help others get past similar problems?
Ultimately, an acceptance of one’s built-in imperfection as a human being and artist. But not to allow this to become an excuse for taking the easy route through a problem in the work. We mustn’t indulge in obsessive-compulsive desire for uttermost perfection, but we need to chase it some way.
8. What sparks your creativity and keeps you working?
Right now (and probably for some years) it seems to be the journey that each book represents. I learn so much with each novel, about the past, about today, about myself. This is fiercely challenging at times, but also deeply enriching.
9. Have you ever started writing a novel you couldn’t finish?
I’m one of those who can say ‘no’ to that … but at the same time I don’t think that writers who have unfinished manuscripts in a drawer or hard drive file have ‘failed’ because of that. Those pages or pixels very often produce something important down the road, in unexpected ways.
That’s a comforting thought!
10. You’ve written eleven novels of historical fantasy (and one book of poetry) and I’m curious if you’ve ever considered a different or additional genre? For instance, an historical mystery with or without fantastical elements.
Of course I have. One considers almost everything at some point or another (often when dodging the burden of getting back to a difficult chapter!). I may yet surface with a book of seafood recipes for you. Or a baseball novel. I’d enjoy that.
Many thanks again to Mr. Kay for the generous response to my many questions!
To honor his deceased father, a general who led imperial forces in their last great war, Shen Tai has spent two years alone at a battle site by a mountain lake, burying the dead. At night he can hear the ghosts moan and stir. When a voice falls silent he knows that a ghost has been laid to rest.
One morning he learns that his vigil has been noticed at the highest level: the court of their one-time enemy is pleased to bestow on him two hundred and fifty coveted western horses. The Heavenly Horses are an overwhelming gift. They exalt Tai, and could bring him great power – or have him killed before he ever leaves the mountains, let alone reaches the imperial city.
Before he leaves the lake, he is threatened and a friend, murdered. Then things get more difficult as Tai hires a female body guard who annoys and attracts him, is tempted and threatened by local magistrates and entwines himself in an Empire-shaking rebellion. “Under Heaven” is the story of Tai’s journey home to his former life and all the unrest entailed there; it is a tale filled with love, loyalty and secret machinations.
The novel is set in an alternative world’s version of the Tang Dynasty during the An Lushan Rebellion (circa 755-763 A.D.) and is Kay’s first foray beyond a European setting. He does a memorable job. There are no jarring moments of modernism or western thought. He did a few atypical things, including a list of names due to the wide cast of characters. He also draws out the ending more than his norm, using it to tie up the various characters’ stories and leaving little ambiguity to the novel’s conclusion. This book has all of the characters and lovely language of a typical Kay novel, but strikes a balance between the plot’s strengths and Kay’s characterizations. Although he’s had stronger characters in previous novels, the denizens of Kitai were real individuals whom I cared for, identified with and plan on re-visiting soon.
For instance, the following extraordinary moment of characterization evokes young love, and the creation of life-long friendships within five sentences:
She shook her golden hair and gave him a look he knew well by then. I am enamoured of an idiot who will never amount to anything was, more or less, the import of the glance.
Tai found it amusing, sometimes said so. She found his saying so a cause of more extreme irritation. This, too, amused him, and she knew it.
For a moment after reading that passage, I flashed back to college. My (future) husband said something intended to exasperate and I responded with this exact look, or perhaps with a comment designed to make him laugh. Remembering that, I became Tai’s lover in this scene. That’s where Kay’s greatest skill lies; he doesn’t write fiction. He writes about us. Throughout his novels, Guy Gavriel Kay enlarges our foibles, failings, successes and courage into an enormous ongoing scene – a tapestry we love examining to find where he put us this time.
A fan asked me recently, “Am I going to hate him for being so good? Am I going to be inspired?” My response: “Was there ever any doubt?”
At the first viewing, one is dazzled by the audacity and beauty of “Under Heaven,” but like so many works of great art, it cannot be consumed in one sitting or in one reading. The reader will need to view it many times before appreciating the depth of craftsmanship. I expect to find the book grows in power upon a second and third reading.
“Under Heaven” is an adult novel, but is accessible to mature young adult readers. It was released April 27th by Roc.
To win, blog about this giveaway, post it on your Facebook page, or tweet it on Twitter. Leave a comment with a link to your post or your twitter user name. This is a separate contest to the one listed at the Historical Novel Review site, so you have two chances to win!
Next, my review of the book. Stay tuned.
Toronto – March 26, 2010 To celebrate the launch of Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay’s much anticipated new novel, Penguin Group (Canada) announced earlier this month that the first book off the press, autographed by the author, was up for bids on Ebay.com. Signed and verified by the publisher, it included a product identification slip and letter from the printing press identifying the book as the first copy printed in Canada. The auction wrapped up with a bid of CDN $535 submitted by Neil Negandhi of Toronto.
Negandhi, a long time fan, has also won an auction of the first copy/first edition of Kay’s Lord of Emperors in 2000, and another for the first copy of Ysabel in 2007. “I’m really looking forward to diving into another one of Kay’s beautifully constructed stories, this time half a world away in ancient China. Supported by fascinating characters and settings, Kay’s thoughtful writing always elevates his work into memorable explorations of ideas,” he raved.
Kay will match the winning bid and Penguin Group (Canada) will contribute $500 for a final sum of CDN $1570 to be donated to Indigo Books & Music, Inc.’s Love of Reading Fund. The fund directly supports high-needs elementary school literacy programs across Canada.
Earlier this month, Penguin Group (Canada) launched www.guygavrielkay.ca, a website dedicated entirely to Kay’s oeuvre, and featuring an array of music files, artwork, and downloadable wallpaper and posters, plus a first chapter excerpt of Under Heaven, a journal by the author, Twitter and Facebook links, book synopsis, and Canadian tour information.
Under Heaven is on-sale in Canada this week. Inspired by the glory of Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century, Guy Gavriel Kay melds history and the fantastic into something both powerful and emotionally compelling. Under Heaven is a novel on the grandest narrative scale, encompassing the intimate details of individual lives in an unforgettable time and place.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of ten previous novels and an acclaimed collection of poetry, Beyond This Dark House. His work has been translated into twenty-two languages and has sold over two million copies worldwide. Kay has twice won the Aurora Award, is a three-time World Fantasy Award nominee, and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Award for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. He is currently writing the screenplay for the second of his novels in development for film. Last Light of the Sun has been optioned by Chartoff Productions and Ravinett Productions.
I just received the following from Guy Gavriel Kay’s publicist. I wish I could bid on this book, but I know it’s beyond me. If you can’t pay your bills on time, you really shouldn’t bid on a book. No matter how much you might REALLY want to.
To celebrate the worldwide launch of international bestseller Guy Gavriel Kay’s much anticipated new novel Under Heaven, Penguin Group (Canada) is auctioning the first book off the press anywhere in the world, autographed by the author. Signed and verified by the printer and the publisher, this first copy includes a product identification slip and letter from the printing press identifying the book as the first copy printed in Canada. The auction begins March 18, 2010 on eBay, and closes March 25, 2010.
All proceeds from the auction will be donated to Indigo Books & Music, Inc.’s Love of Reading Fund. The fund directly supports high-needs elementary school literacy programs across Canada. Guy Gavriel Kay will personally match the winning bid to a maximum of $1000 (CDN). Additionally, Penguin Canada will match the winning bid to a maximum of $500 (CDN).
Under Heaven will go on-sale in Canada on April 3 and April 27th in the U.S. Inspired by the glory of Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century, Guy Gavriel Kay melds history and the fantastic into something both powerful and emotionally compelling. Under Heaven is a novel on the grandest narrative scale, encompassing the intimate details of individual lives in an unforgettable time and place.
Earlier this month, Penguin Group (Canada) launched a website dedicated entirely to Kay’s oeuvre, and featuring an array of music files, artwork, and downloadable wallpaper and posters, plus a first chapter excerpt of Under Heaven, a journal by the author, Twitter and Facebook links, book synopsis, and Canadian tour information.