Ottawa Writers Festival: The alternate universe of Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay. Photo: Ted Davis

The genius of Guy Gavriel Kay is his ability to take a period of history and shift it without losing connection to the reality of it.

The alternate universes he has created have made him a relatively rare global success story in the field of Canadian speculative fiction. And he’s done it again with his latest called A Brightness Long Ago (Viking).

Kay will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Sunday to talk about writing. Books will be available several days before the book goes on sale worldwide. It’s a rare sneak peek, so no spoilers here.

But before he lands at Christ Church Cathedral he talked about his new novel which has echoes of Renaissance Italy in a time that is renowned for corruption, bloody despots, betrayals and nasty warfare. What’s not to like?

“On one level, how can you not explore it?” he said.

“If you are interested, as I am, in a great many different periods of history at some point I was going to collide with Renaissance Italy.”

He has sort of crossed paths with the period before.

“My fourth novel Tigana was inspired by the squabbling among the city states of Italy making them vulnerable to outside invasion and my last book Children of Earth and Sky was also inspired by essentially this period of time but it takes place more to the east in the Balkans and Constantinople.

“The same set of interwoven historical events have been engaging me for the past six or seven years.”

Kay writes with purpose and that is the case with his latest book.

“I got back to the Renaissance because there were things I wanted to say about it.

The cynical use of power, so evident at the turn of the 15th century, is one thing he wanted to explore. And more so, “one of the starting points is the inherent corruption embedded in such unchecked power.

“It’s exploring the idea, which is historically grounded, that the early 15th century was the age of the despots. These were people who were not readily subject to control or limitation unless your army invaded and conquered them.

“The book also explores the idea of women caught in the limitations and constraints of their society. This was very significant at that time in both upper and lower classes right across the spectrum. And some women, two in this novel specifically, were chafing, resisting or refusing the roles that society wanted to give them.”

I don’t know about you but these themes sound very modern to me.

Kay certainly seems to have a historian’s understanding of the interplay between events and the role of important actors.

His training in the law shows in his use of words that mean something.

That he didn’t become a practicing lawyer is one of those turnings of life’s wheel but really, he said, “I was always interested in writing. I always thought I would write. I am also the oldest son of prairie family and nobody in Canada makes a living writing books.

“It was a given that I would look for and find some way to support myself and maybe a family one day while looking to find time and opportunity to write.

“I get up every morning feeling astonishingly lucky about how things have fallen out for me because the books have developed a worldwide audience and because of that I can write the books I want to write at the speed I want to write them which means research and writing and spending a lot of time pouting and brooding.”

He did have a genuine interest in the criminal law which he ascribes to the drama and conflict inherent in the courtroom.

“I am drawn to people and cultures on the cusp of change and conflict in a very serious way. It may have a wellspring in the same part of myself that is drawn to the intensity of the courtroom.”

The penchant for detail and intricate plot lines in his well-controlled books might also flow from his legally trained mind. There is a lot happening in his books.

“One of the things that matters hugely to me as a reader and as a writer, is the arc, the architecture of a book, the shape of a story.” It would be interesting to see him write a factum.

This emphasis on story arc is one of the reasons he says he’s not particularly drawn to creating a series like Game of Thrones, although he has done a trilogy.

“When books get into five, six or 10 volumes, one of the things you can’t really do as a reader, or even as a writer, is to have a sense of that architecture. I’m not drawn to writing series because it would be abdicating for me one of the important responsibilities of a novel — delivering that shape.”

He compares multi-volume series to a passion for soap operas. Think Coronation Street perhaps.

“You are staying with something for many years. We feel same for mystery series. We get to know the detective, his wife, his assistant, the druggist on the corner and all of that. We end up hanging out with these people.”

Quality clearly matters to Kay. And he sees that quality rising in his area of the fiction world which is fantasy for sake of a better word.

“I have been doing this for more than 30 years. When I started the perception of the genre was much more rigid and carved off from literature that could have ambition.

“A number of people have played a role in helping to erode that. I was proud to be named one of those writers 25 years ago who was helping to bring some literary credibility to a genre that tended to not be allowed to have it.

“But there is something else going on now that is equally interesting. This is the number of significant literary figures who are happy, even excited, to explore elements of fantasy or science fiction in their work. Authors such as Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Marlon James are writing fantasy and science fiction without any questions attached.”

It is changing the perception of the field, he said.

Kay, himself, doesn’t neatly fit into the fantasy box, nor the historical fiction box either.

“On one level the elements of the fantastic are extremely limited.” He’s certainly not giving fans of the genre what they want such as dragons, elves and six volumes.

“On the other hand I’m setting my novel in a near Italy. I don’t let lovers of a straight historical fiction know what year the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. for example. Many readers of historical fiction love the sense of self-improvement, that feeling they are actually learning stuff. That’s a bit tricky for me.

“The luck is that I have gotten away with it.”

He studies history but he is not anchored to it.

“I feel I am responsible for knowing the history really well. If you are going to do variations on a theme you have to know the theme.

“One of the things from very beginning that was central for me, was getting back to the space between genre and literature.” He doesn’t believe in the the zero sum game that says books are either all about headlong narrative or they are about well crafted language and strong characters.

“We have a culture now that seems to divide books into either camp. It is our job to try to deliver all of those elements. We may fail but every book I make it my task, my challenge to try to give characters you will care about, some themes that you will take away and a story where you are turning pages at 3 a.m. I live to keep you awake until 3 a.m.

Given his penchant for deep research and his intense writing process, Kay doesn’t have a ton of time for reading other authors.

“I reread more than I read. My own tastes and passions in literature are more mainstream and historical right now. I feel guilty about this but I do read historical fiction, Hilary Mantel for example. Her books about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) were superlative.”

He’s also fond of, and was friends with, the late Dorothy Dunnett, a Scottish historical fiction writer.

“She was a magnificently detailed researcher. She said to me once, after reading one of mine, ‘Guy, you do almost as much research as I do and then you throw it all away’. I said ‘I’m not throwing it all away I’m doing it differently.'”

In a career dotted with important turning points, it’s not surprising that his work on The Silmarillion is a key one. Through family connections, he was invited by Christopher Tolkien to work on preparing JRR Tolkien’s stories of his mythic world, including Middle Earth, for publication.

“That year working on the Silmarillion out of Oxford, on the Tolkien papers,  crystallized the feeling that what I wanted to do was write.

“It was very significant internal year but when I finished I came home to Canada and entered law school.” There’s that prairie pragmatism again.

Still, from that time on he knew he wanted to write “and would do whatever I could to do it.” He started with poetry.

But he said his life-changing break was being introduced to the legendary criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan and to George Jonas the writer, poet, producer and motorcyclist.

“We worked up a series called The Scales of Justice. I was principal writer and associate producer and we did that on radio for seven years.

“That paid the rent when I was writing my first books. For seven or eight months a year I’d help produce 13  one-hour radio dramas and the I would get on an airplane two days after the last show was in the can and disappear somewhere for four or five months to write seven days a week.” It kept him going until the breakthrough novel Tigana was published and found a global audience.

This wasn’t his only contact with another medium. He also worked up an adaptation of Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone for TV with Jonas. It was a great experience, he said, but it was never made.

He’s had a similar experience with options on his books taken by producers. They tend to lapse. And now that Game of Thrones has raised the bar for fantasy on TV, such a project could be an expensive adventure.

So he’s sticking to books and he’s about to release his latest to the world.

“This is the moment when a book that has belonged to me for three years while working on it will belong to everybody and they can do what they want with it.

“I’m lucky on tour. I have bright and generous people who ask intelligent questions. I get the occasional guy who asks ‘Why did you kill so and so’, but for most part, it’s  rewarding. Meeting good people with a generous response to what you have done, is a pretty good feeling.”

In town: Guy Gavriel Kay will be at Christ Church Cathedral on May 5 at 4:30 p.m. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.