RE­SIST­ING THE NICHE

His­tory in­forms nov­el­ist’s urge to delve into fan­tasy

The Sudbury Star - - YOU - JAMIE PORT­MAN

A Bright­ness Long Ago Guy Gavriel Kay

Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada

Guy Gavriel Kay is chat­ting about how to ac­ti­vate a curse: You must carve a “curse tablet” in wax and, af­ter bak­ing and hard­en­ing it, cast it into the grave of some­one newly dead.

He learned about this while re­search­ing the cul­ture of sixth-cen­tury Byzan­tium for his best­selling pair of nov­els known col­lec­tively as The Saran­tine Mo­saic.

A mo­ment later, he’s mat­ter-of-factly talk­ing about “the an­cient Chi­nese be­lief that un­buried ghosts haunt the place where they died.”

And then of course there’s that mo­ment in Kay’s lat­est novel when a dead woman con­tem­plates her own mor­tal­ity.

Grist for the mill of the fan­tasy writer? Well, yes, but there’s a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor when it comes to try­ing to place Kay in that niche. He doesn’t quite be­long there — not when his books are so an­chored in his­tory. And not when he be­lieves it im­per­a­tive for to­day’s reader to un­der­stand that the fan­tas­ti­cal was once an ac­cepted com­po­nent of ev­ery­day life. To Shake­speare’s au­di­ences, the witches in Mac­beth were not a play­wright’s in­ven­tion but a real pos­si­bil­ity.

“There’s an al­most in­evitable ten­dency in many peo­ple to feel whim­si­cal or pa­tron­iz­ing or su­pe­rior about these ‘silly be­liefs’ of the past,” he says. (Kay is char­i­ta­ble enough to re­frain from tak­ing a swipe at those among us who shud­der when a black cat crosses our path.)

“What I want to do is give value to those be­liefs,” he says. “If the peo­ple I’m writ­ing about thought some­thing was so, I’ll write about it.”

He says this is not just play­ing nar­ra­tive games, it’s to let the reader more fully com­pre­hend the world view of peo­ple liv­ing it in the past.

Kay — who Time mag­a­zine once de­scribed as “a global phe­nom­e­non” — is in his pub­lisher’s of­fice to dis­cuss his lat­est novel, A Bright­ness Long Ago. Evok­ing the high drama of Re­nais­sance Italy, it’s a thun­der­ing saga of re­venge, ret­ri­bu­tion and re­demp­tion. But a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion is also a del­i­cately ex­e­cuted mem­ory piece fil­tered through the prism of a tai­lor’s son named Danio Cerra who finds him­self plunged into the world of two ri­val war­lords who are headed for a deadly show­down.

“I’ve never done first-per­son sin­gu­lar be­fore,” Kay says, and he sounds a bit sur­prised over hav­ing done so.

“My cranky old agent says that this may be my most ele­giac book,” he says, again with some won­der­ment. “But I re­sist the idea that it’s be­cause I’m get­ting old.”

On the con­trary, he says, it has to do with con­tin­u­ing artis­tic growth. “If you’re only in­ter­ested in the same things at 60 that you were at 30, you haven’t grown. If you’re an artist and se­ri­ous about it, there should be changes.”

In con­ver­sa­tion, Kay re­veals an in­trigu­ing ca­pac­ity for self-ex­am­i­na­tion. For ex­am­ple — his refusal to pre­pare an out­line be­fore he be­gins one of his in­tri­cately plot­ted nov­els. He prefers the ex­cite­ment of “dis­cov­er­ing” where the book wants to go. “I’m like Graham Greene, who once said, ‘I never out­line, be­cause if I know where the book is go­ing, I get bored writ­ing it.’”

Kay also wants to make one thing clear about the riv­et­ing open­ing chap­ter of his new novel. It deals with the bloody dis­posal of a mon­strous sex­ual preda­tor known as The Beast. “It’s tai­lor-made for the #MeToo and post-Har­vey We­in­stein era,” he says, “but I will tell you that I wrote that open­ing eight months be­fore all those stories started break­ing.”

There’s also the mix­ture of dis­com­fort and weary res­ig­na­tion he shows over be­ing placed in the “fan­tasy” genre — a des­ig­na­tion dat­ing back to his tri­umphant de­but at the age of 29 with The Sum­mer Tree, a mythic spell­binder that was the first vol­ume in a much-loved tril­ogy, The Fion­avar Ta­pes­try.

“You’re put­ting your fin­ger on some of the most chal­leng­ing, in­ter­est­ing, dif­fi­cult as­pects of my hav­ing been a stub­born Prairie kid all my life,” says Kay, who was born in south­ern Saskatchewan and grew up in Win­nipeg. “We’re a cat­e­go­riz­ing species … and I’m dif­fi­cult to cat­e­go­rize.

“If you be­gin in a cer­tain genre and achieve recog­ni­tion and some de­gree of promi­nence in it,” he says, “the odds are that un­less you go wildly away from it, that will con­tinue to be how you’re per­ceived.”

His frus­tra­tion is un­der­stand­able. Af­ter that ca­reer-mak­ing tril­ogy, Kay em­barked on his own highly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic path, im­mers­ing him­self in his­tory to cre­ate par­al­lel fic­tional uni­verses for Byzan­tium, China’s Tang dy­nasty and Is­lamic Spain. In the case of this new novel, A Bright­ness Long Ago, his in­spi­ra­tion is the tur­bu­lence of early Re­nais­sance Italy, its city states and war­lords.

Fel­low nov­el­ist Robert Wiersema once de­fined Kay’s unique­ness this way: He spe­cial­ized in “his­tory with a quar­ter turn.” It’s a phrase that Kay em­braces.

“I’m not do­ing straight his­tor­i­cal fic­tion,” he says. Yet his nov­els are steeped in his­tory, re­flect­ing Kay’s own par­tic­u­lar quest for truth.

“I don’t want to write a book in which I sug­gest to the reader that I know Henry Vlll’s favourite po­si­tion in bed or what Jus­tinian and Theodora’s relationship was like when no one else was in the room with them,” Kay says. His method is to write a novel in which the world of Byzan­tium be­comes the world of Saran­tium or in which the city states of Re­nais­sance Italy can be reimag­ined as Firenta, My­la­sia and Ser­essa. In that way he and the reader en­ter a shared relationship: “We’re in­vent­ing the freedom and moral com­fort for me of not hav­ing to im­pose thoughts and feel­ings on real, his­tor­i­cal peo­ple.”

In the lat­est novel, his fic­tional char­ac­ters achieve their own fo­cused re­al­ity in a world where such dis­parate events as a bloody as­sas­si­na­tion and a fixed horse race pro­vide stun­ning com­men­taries on the power pol­i­tics of the time. The two war­lords, Teobaldo and Folco, driven by their ha­tred for each other, are mem­o­rable pres­ences, but so are other mem­bers of Kay’s gallery — among them a strange and enig­matic fe­male healer named Je­lana and a young woman of courage and tenac­ity named Adria.

Kay is a grey­ing 64 now. Yet there’s still a boy­ish en­thu­si­asm when he talks about his work. As for his firm be­lief that he’s still on a learn­ing curve cre­atively, the ex­pla­na­tion for that prob­a­bly goes back four decades to when he was a young Cana­dian who found him­self in Ox­ford, Eng­land, as­sist­ing J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christo­pher, in edit­ing The Sil­mar­il­lion, his late fa­ther’s mon­u­men­tal his­tory of Mid­dle-earth.

Archival exposure to the Tolkien world had a huge im­pact on Kay.

“I learned some re­ally im­por­tant things,” he says. “I learned pa­tience. Tolkien was in­ex­haustibly slow and pa­tient in de­vel­op­ing his nar­ra­tives. He rewrote end­lessly — and I re­write end­lessly.”

Kay also learned the im­por­tance of hu­mil­ity.

“I saw early drafts, the scrib­bled notes to him­self, the doo­dles on a piece of news­pa­per. Fa­mously he be­gan The Hob­bit on the back of an exam pa­per. And I learned that even fa­mous writ­ers have false starts and lame drafts, and make out­right mis­takes.”

Kay is a firm be­liever in what he calls “For­tune’s wheel” — the el­e­ment of chance in life. It in­forms a novel like A Bright Long Ago, and it in­forms his own mem­o­ries of hav­ing the good luck to be­come im­mersed in Tolkien’s cre­ative world and find­ing re­as­sur­ance as a young as­pir­ing nov­el­ist in the dis­cov­ery that “even Tolkien screwed up in his early drafts, had in­fe­lic­i­tous phras­ing and bad plot di­rec­tion. That was an enor­mous gift.”

It’s be­cause of Tolkien that Kay re­fuses to be rushed. Eigh­teen months of in­tense read­ing were re­quired be­fore he felt ready to start A Bright­ness Long Ago. And as he pre­sides over its launch­ing, his prime emo­tion is grat­i­tude.

“I’ve had such good for­tune — this stub­born Prairie kid be­ing al­lowed to write in a way that doesn’t fit into boxes, slots, cat­e­gories in any con­ve­nient way ... to be pub­lished around the world while be­ing al­lowed to write the books I want to write at the speed at which I want to write them.

“For 35 years that’s been a gift from my readers,” Kay says. “To be able to do that — I look back with grat­i­tude.”

TED DAVIS

“I’ve had such good for­tune,” says Guy Gavriel Kay, “this stub­born Prairie kid be­ing al­lowed to write in a way that doesn’t fit into boxes.”

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