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G U Y  G A V R I E L   K A Y : Lord of Fantasy
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, May 2000)

Guy Gavriel Kay
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

Guy Gavriel Kay, born November 7, 1954 in Canada, received a B.A. in philosophy in 1975, then trained to be a lawyer, receiving an LL..B. in 1978. He worked in the ’70s as an assistant to J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, preparing The Silmarillion for publication. While working on CBC radio series The Scales of Justice from 1982 to 1989, his fantasy novels began to appear. The first three -- The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986), and The Darkest Road (1986) -- make up "The Fionavar Tapestry", a trilogy whose deliberately Tolkienesque elements don’t preclude originality, as contemporary characters find their own archetypal qualities in a fantasy world. Next came Tigana (1990), which he has described as "historical fiction set in an invented world," which resembles Renaissance Italy. A Song for Arbonne (1992) takes place in the same world (recognizable by its two moons), but is set earlier, in a time similar to Europe before the Renaissance when the Courts of Love ruled, while The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) moves back further to the equivalent of Spain under the rule of the Moors.


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Index to Locus Interviews

Kay’s latest work, duology "The Sarantine Mosaic" - Sailing to Sarantium (1998) and Lord of Emperors (2000) - reaches even deeper into alternate history to invoke his version of Byzantium under the rule of Justinian and Theodora, its magics influenced by the writings of Yeats.

He won Canada’s equivalent of the Hugo in 1986 (when it was called the Casper) for The Wandering Fire, and in 1991 (as the Aurora Award) for Tigana, which was also a World Fantasy Award nominee. He married Laura Beth Cohen in 1984, and they have two sons.

"I’ve always instinctively felt that the demarcation line between genres has to do with science fiction being extroverted and forward-looking, and fantasy being introverted and backward-looking. By ‘introverted,’ I don’t mean shy; I mean looking inward to the psychological elements of what we do. Fantasy is backward-looking in the sense of examining myths, roots, legends, sources, origins. Not ‘backwards’ as in reactionary, but looking back to when we were afraid of the dark, and why, to the formation of the myths and legends by which we attempted to explain the workings of our world.

"Fantasy, as perceived, tends to be under­-explored, both by its practitioners and by its readers. It’s capable of doing and being significantly more. Readers of fantasy tend to have certain expectations imprinted upon them. That’s one reason why fantasy has somewhat less intellectual credibility than science fiction. Fantasy’s commercial scope is greater; therefore the commercial implications come down more heavily upon it. But because fantasy can succeed so much more, there’s an aspect of the genre that factors in commercial numbers to a greater degree than science fiction does.

"What I’ve been specifically interested in is how the examination of themes and trends, moments in history, can be intensified by dealing with them through fantasy. Not softened, not fudged, but sharpened. One way is kind of obvious. You can telescope events. The actual Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain took almost 400 years. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, I examine what I see as some of the underlying themes of the holy war that took place in Muslim and Christian Spain, and focus it down to two generations, while keeping (I hope) a significant perception of what was moving through that period. One of the reasons I always give the historical sources in the acknowledgments is because one of my most common sorts of letters will be people saying, ‘Where can I read more about this?’

"Another thing fantasy lets you do is open up a useful doubt in a reader’s mind about what happens next. If anyone writes a novel about Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, you know what happened. The novel can be brilliant, consuming, exquisitely crafted - one of my favorite historicals of all time, Death of the Fox by American writer George Garrett, about Sir Walter Raleigh, is a dazzling book. But as a storyteller, which remains one of my principal drives, I love the idea that because I’ve served notice to you that my setting is not Byzantium in Sailing to Sarantium - it’s a fantasy on themes of Byzantium - even though you know Justinian and Theodora and Count Belisarius, you still can’t know where my story’s going. I’m reserving to myself the right, the responsibility, to let the history unfold as what I see the story is demanding.

"I love that framing device that fantasy gives to put the reader into a receptive mode for a story that is about something important. These myths and legends matter. This is why we need to crusade against the trivialization of the genre. Today what we’re losing, in the minutiae of figuring out magic systems and things like that, is the significance, and the potential significance, of the genre. That’s one of the things I want to hang onto.


"When I go to Poland or Croatia, on tour for my publishers there, the single most common recurring question is, ‘Were you writing about us?’ When I toured for Tigana, which is about oppression and the eradication of a culture, the importance of naming and language to identity, they stood up in Zagreb, Warsaw, and Cracow, and asked me, ‘Were you writing about us?’ I was deeply moved and touched, because I was and I wasn’t. I was writing about all such scenarios.

"These readers in Europe, Eastern Europe especially, were used to seeing fantasy and science fiction as important, as cloaking devices for writers who could not write directly about their society because of censors. And the readers instinctively knew how to decode and apply. In North America, we’ve had it so easy by comparison, and the histories of the genres in popular culture functioned so differently, we’re not even used to looking beyond the exciting narrative. In pop culture terms, we need to be guided or alerted, given a signpost that fantasy or science fiction can be more than just something to read before you go to bed at night, on the beach on a holiday, or on the subway. And of course they can!"

© 2000 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.