I had a better time than I expected at Kay’s author appearance at the University of Waterloo yesterday evening. Kay is a familiar face on campus as a frequent guest lecturer for various English courses; Professors at the school have noticed his work since the mid to late 80’s. So when one of the presenters mistakenly thought he may have been the writer-in-residence he expressed no great surprise.
It started out with one of the book store folks introducing the main presenter, a self-described “science fiction and fantasy junkie”, followed by his introduction of Guy Gavriel Kay who, besides writing novels, also pens poetry and academic essays. They quickly got down to business, engaging in a short but informative interview.
Kay was first asked what he would say his latest novel Ysabel was about, primarily. (The Fionavar Tapestry was about “myths”, Tigana primarily about “memory”.) Kay divulged that he was continually intrigued with history and how it influences the actions of peoples and nations whether they are aware of it or not. We were living in, he thought, one of the most ahistorical periods and pointed to his Sarantine Mosaic as a story in which he explored the consequences of that kind of ignorance.
I really enjoyed his answer to this question because, besides confirming my opinion on some of his books, I thought that fantasy is an incredibly satisfying way to explore that kind of theme. Extending it to the status of myth in society and how that ties in to collective and personal memory, fantasy allows one to explore this in a very…naked way for want of a better word. I could have listened to a whole lecture on this but we had to move on.
He was also asked about the motivations behind including characters from older books in Ysabel, which allowed Kay to discuss the aesthetic effects he was going for when he wrote them in both for older readers and those who were coming to his books for the first time.
Another good question referred to an essay he did titled Reflections on an Ethical Society which primarily dealt with the ethics surrounding the incorporation of real people in fictional works. He had to be short but he compared how Judith Regan was pilloried for working on a novel by a baseball player that included scenes of Monroe cheating on DiMaggio with Mickey Mantle while Joyce Carol Oates published a novel in the voice of Monroe and provoked no protest. He questioned the wisdom of such moves, the dubious commercial benefits and how easily we often separate our moral and aesthetic responses when it comes to works of art. Very, very interesting for me as I had not been aware of this side to Kay.
The last question, ending the interview on a lighter note, prompted a funny anecdote on favourite swear words and then he read a scene from Ysabel. Afterwards there was a very short Q&A in which I bravely raised my hand after some bloke asked about the progress of confirmed and rumoured movie adaptations. (eye roll) My question was whether he thought the fantasy genre was unique giving him room to develop such markedly different writing styles depending on what kind of aesthetic feel best suited each novel, whereas, to the best of my knowledge, lit fic authors seem inclined to put on different genre hats when they wish to experiment in a similar fashion.
He replied that in fact for lit fic that kind of word play is more expected vs genre fiction which tends to rely on the predictable, in that sense, so he attributed it to taking his time. It was not unusual for him to take 3 years on a book; and the deliberate change also comes from a need for the next book to be as unlike the previous as reasonably possible. The response to one of his changes for The Last Light of the Sun–prose was shorter, rougher, abrasive, there was less romance, no courtly dialogue–was mixed but he felt that it stayed true to the setting, the characters, the overall “world” of the novel. (A stance with which I wholeheartedly agree. Pedestrian fans annoy me.)
I didn’t get to ask my other question (:() but that’s all right because afterwards he signed books!