In Conversation with Guy Gavriel Kay

By Marcie McCauley

In the short excerpt Guy Gavriel Kay read from River of Stars, a son recognizes his father’s brush strokes in a stained and crumpled letter addressed to him.

Kay’s readers can recognize, similarly, with only a few pages of the novel, the author’s rich and melodious style, a complex history of relationships underpinning the events dDSC_0023escribed, expansive world-building and a fundamental love of story.

The event’s host and interviewer, James Grainger, first asked Kay about his experience editing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in 1974 with Christopher Tolkien. The questions that followed loosely sketched Kay’s career.

His first three novels, comprising the Fionavar Tapestry, threw down a gauntlet to the imitators of high fantasy, containing elements of every mythic tradition. His next novel, Tigana, explored the relationship between history, culture and the identity of conquered peoples.

With that, his approach to storytelling “shifted a quarter-turn,” as Robert J. Wiersema would later describe, blending history and subtle fantasy in the novels that followed.

In his acknowledgements for Under Heaven, Kay refers to the poetry of China’s Tang dynasty as a gateway to that time and place. The works of Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei and Bai Juyi helped him to create a world a “quarter-turn” removed from theirs.

In his conversation with Grainger, Kay spoke of returning to that Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He shared with the air of a confidante that this poetry was actually the starting point for River of Stars. The audience seemed to collectively lean in.

The fantastic is only one of several tools in Kay’s writer’s toolbox. First, it is important to listen to the book that wants to be: to tell the story that must be told. Then, his priority is the shaping of his stories: arc, shape and architecture. His dependence upon fantastical elements is limited by the nature of the story and its telling. And his research must validate his desire to focus on characters who challenge society’s constraints. He referred to specific scholars whose works consider historical figures who exhibited the kind of determination his fictional characters possess.DSC_0030

Grainger’s final question for Kay was about baseball, because he had lamented not having been asked about it at IFOA Owen Sound. A devoted Yankees fan, Kay said, “I’m interested in everything. Not the Boston Red Sox. But I’m interested in everything else.”

Kay can’t say who will win the next World Series (although in a parallel world—and he specializes in that kind of thing, doesn’t he—it will be the Yankees) and he also can’t say where he is headed next in fiction, but his love of story resonates in every setting.

In the segment Kay read from River of Stars, geese flew above in the night sky. Listeners in the audience could see a gull circling above through the venue’s skylight. Worlds aligned and a tale took shape, those familiar brushstrokes pulling the listeners into story.

Marcie McCauley‘s work has appeared in various publications, including Other Voices (Canada), Room of One’s Own (Canada), Ars Medica (Canada) and Mslexia (UK). She writes about books and bookishness at Buried In Print.