jueves, 25 de octubre de 2012

Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

Literatura Fantástica is the new imprint of Spanish publisher RBA devoted to fantasy and science fiction. One of their first titles was Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, translated into Spanish by Francisco García Lorenzana as Los caballos celestiales (if you read Spanish you may want to download a preview with the first chapter of the book from this page). To celebrate the occasion they interviewed Kay and now they have kindly let me publish the original version of the interview (thanks a lot!).   

Literatura Fantástica: The first question is almost mandatory: How would you describe the type of fantasy you write?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I have always resisted labels and categories, in fact. I think they do more harm than good. Trying to figure out what 'box' to put a book in can get in the way of a more important question: Is it good? Having said that, the usual description for my work these days is 'historical fantasy'. I am 'accused' of having just about invented the form, and of course a number of others explore it now. I do extensive research into a time and place, then shift it slightly. One scholar called it 'a quarter turn to the fantastic'. I do this for many reasons, but one is respect for the actual lives lived in the past. I don't want to pretend I know the innermost thoughts of real people, from El Cid to the great Tang Dynasty poets. I prefer to share with the reader an awareness that the book is inspired by real events and people, but we must be honourable and respectful in how we deal with them. Thus, the mixture of history and the fantastic.

: What are the advantages of grounding your stories in “alternate” histories instead of writing a more conventional historical novel?

GGK: I have partly answered this above, of course. But let me mention some other things. The form allows me to sharpen the focus on themes. I can 'telescope' events while still honouring the grand sweep of real history. I can also change some things, keep the reader guessing, turning pagves, even if they know what 'really happened'. I can also - and this is important for me - universalize - a story. In a book like Tigana, which is about the way tyrants try to erase a conquered people's identity and resistance by taking away their language, their history, their names, I can tell a story in an invented setting and let the reader project or imagine the theme as applying to so many times and places in history, including their own country, sometimes. Over the years, as I have been working this way, I have discovered many, many advantages to this process.

LF: Throughout your works you have explored several cultures reminiscent of existing ones in our world, even visiting some of them in more than one occasion. Can you explain the process you follow to select a specific culture?

GGK: I wish I could! That would make it easier to figure out what my next book will be. But the truth is, I never know what I am going to be writing next, after I finish a novel. I travel, I read a great deal of history. I correspond with academics all over the world. I look at themes of today that seem to me echoes of past events and themes. Someone tells me, 'Your writing is Byzantine in its intrigue!' and that makes me buy and read books about the Byzantine Empire (this is a true story!) and I end up writing The Sarantine Mosaic inspired by 6th century Byzantium.

: When writing your books, how would you describe the relation between setting, characters and plot?

: An interesting question. Usually (not always) the sequence is: setting, theme, characters, plot. As I research details of a period and place, themes and motifs emerge for me that seem compelling and powerful for modern readers about that time. Often they are themes that seem important for us to consider, in our own lives. From this also emerge characters, some inspired by real people, some invented, and from this blending together, a narrative emerges. I should add that I don't outline the books in advance ... I am discovering them as I write. And I do believe that this sense of the writer on a journey of discovery can come through to readers, leading them to feel the reading experience that way, too.

: As the rest of your works, Under Heaven could be described as “ideas-based fantasy”. What are the main subjects that spanish readers may expect to find in your book?

GGK: I am endlessly fascinated by the past. How different it is from today, for which the great quote is by the English writer, L.P. Hartley: 'The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.' But also, and at the same time, how familiar and immediate so much of the past can be. Love and hatred, parenthood, desire, ambition, art and conflict, conservatism and reform, engagement with the world, and withdrawal into quiet reflection ... I try to write novels that give readers all sides of this at all levels of society. And for each book there are individual, distinctive themes. There is an epigraph at the beginning of Under Heaven, from a Chinese Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, about how a good man can be a mirror for others, showing them the right way to conduct themselves in the world. The novel, in part, explores that. This book also has several powerful female characters, and it looks at how women have so often been forced to be indirect, oblique, in how they try to influence their own lives and the wider world.

: How would you explain, in narrative terms, the individualism shown by Tai under a society as heavily devoted to protocol as the one from Kitai?
GGK: Another good question. As a writer producing a book for modern readers it is deeply challenging (in a good way!) to show or evoke a society much more formal and ritualized than our own. One has to hint at it, suggest it, but not bring the novel (and the reader!) to a halt with this formality. My protagonist, Shen Tai, must find ways to survive, and influence events, even though his 'formal' rank and status make that challenging. At the same time, because of an overwhelming gift he receives at the beginning of the book (for deeply honourable behaviour) his status is hard for others to determine! He is a figure who challenges the rules of a rigid culture, and for a novelist, that's an engaging kind of character to work with.

LF: Can you give us any news from River of Stars, your novel set up in the world of Under Heaven expected for 2013, and of its relation with the story of Tai?

: River of Stars is not a sequel to Under Heaven, but it is set in Kitai, my almost-China setting. It takes place about 350-400 years later, inspired by the Song Dynasty, just as the earlier book evokes the great Tang Dynasty. The story as such doesn't 'connect' to the earlier one after so many centuries. One theme of the new one is how we are shaped by our own past, we make mistakes trying to be different, we make mistakes trying to be the same! But I wrote it in such a way as to ensure that no one needs to read the earlier novel to read River of Stars.

: Thanks a lot for your time. Would you like to address some words to the readers of Under Heaven in Spain?
GGK: I do want to say how honoured and pleased I am by the company in which I find myself, launching this new imprint for RBA. Ursula Le Guin and J.G. Ballard are figutres who shaped my own youthful reading, andI have enormous respect for both of them. I think the three of us work in very different ways, but I believe we share, as writers, a desire and ambition to show the range and power that speculative fiction can have. One reviewer, years ago, described my fiction as, 'The kind of escape that brings you home.' I hope that's true. I want it to be.

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