Kay’s fourth book, however, marked a departure from tradition. Tigana initiated his transition into the unique genre he carved out for himself and still continues to work in: a hybrid that one critic called “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic.” His epic novels reimagine Justinian’s Byzantium, Islamic Spain, medieval Provence, Tang Dynasty China, and the Renaissance Mediterranean, among other pivotal eras. As Kay wrote in his essay “Home and Away,” this literary strategy “detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions.” These books aren’t fictionalizations of those periods or the historical figures who lived in them; they’re analogues that employ elements of the fantastic to examine the political, socioeconomic, and interpersonal forces that shape epochs. And yet, these are not just novels of the rich and powerful; the lives of people on the fringes of empires are one of Kay’s abiding interests. Tigana, for instance, looks at the effects of power and the suppression of language on cultural identity.
Kay and I met in Toronto in early June. He speaks in paragraphs and cites from history and poetic verse with equal ease; he was a poet first, and still publishes poetry from time to time. A reverence for language runs through everything he writes. His prose is also poetic, often steeped in myth, legend, and folklore. We discussed his new novel, Children of Earth and Sky, the philosophy behind his history-fantasy hybrid, and the role of the fantastic in contemporary literature.
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: Children of Earth and Sky was inspired by a conversation with your Croatian publisher years ago, who mentioned Renaissance-era pirates of the Adriatic. Tell me more.
GUY GAVRIEL KAY: The conversation was while we were driving from Zagreb to the Adriatic coast to an annual conference of librarians. He was holding forth on how the Romans built better roads than modern-day Croatians did, and he suddenly said, “You should write about the Uskoks!”
The Uskoks of Senj had been raiders and pirates along the Dalmatian coast from the Middle Ages through the Reformation. They raided mercantile craft of Venice and Ragosa, Dubrovnik, and they were a thorn in the side of the merchants in those waters. They saw themselves as the heroic defenders of Christendom upon the imperilled border. Unpaid, unprotected, unsupported: A little raiding to put food on your table was perfectly reasonable. When I finished River of Stars seven years later and was casting about for what to do next, something had lodged from that conversation.
Pero Villani, the artist in the novel, declines to comment when the ruler he’s painting tries to draw him into a conversation about warfare. Must an artist work outside the system to be most effective?
I don’t like “musts” in relation to art. There are so many ways of accessing significance, impact, power in art. One way is the alienated artist looking at his or her culture and indicting it from outside the norms. But there have also been a tremendous number of enormously powerful works of art from someone embedded in the center of the culture and writing knowledgably and thoughtfully from that position of awareness.
Outsiders are significant figures in all of your novels, whether as fighters or artists. Is art a weapon?
Art can be, absolutely, but I don’t absolutely believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. That’s both wishful thinking and potentially glib. The relationship between art and power is not so obvious: the art requires the powerful not only to protect it but to commission it. One of the motifs in Children is of art being commissioned and the powerful being a source of a living for the artist.
You could say that the Borgias and Medicis and the emperors are the equivalent of the national arts council today, that you need to turn to those with funds to make art possible. Artists as outsiders, challenging the status quo — that has always been present, but I don’t think it’s definitively the way art has to go.
There are examples of art that has endured after empires have fallen.
Yes, that’s the point, that there’s no single template. You can have a forgotten emperor and the chronicler of the reign is remembered. Ezra Pound wrote, “Small talk O Ilion, and O Troad […] /If Homer had not stated your case.” Which I love, because the only reason we know the names of those people, mythic or real, or some complex hybrid, is by way of Homer and the accidental miracle of it having survived. There are a lot of cases where we have a portrait of a wildly famous figure who is utterly unknown today, whereas the portrait is a great icon in our culture. We can’t define this in one direction or another; they interconnect in unexpected ways sometimes.
Legacy has been an abiding theme throughout your career. In this novel, you use the fantastic to evoke it in a striking way. Two of the main characters, Danica and Pero, end up very far from home, geographically, through ambition and a desire to honor the legacy of their fathers. Can you talk about that?
That’s an exploration of something that was really central in this book, and really central in history: the fundamental importance of family. Those cut off from family — the orphaned, the exiled, those removed from kinship bonds — were in really radical danger. At most times and places throughout history, the only people you could rely upon were your kin. The absence of that structural support throws you back on yourself.
We speak in the Jewish tradition of someone’s oldest son as “my Kaddish,” because the Kaddish is the mourner’s prayer, and if you have a son in the tradition, someone is there to do the mourner’s prayer to carry it on. It’s a role that you take on within a tradition. I’m really interested in the implications of being cut off from support. I looked at that in Last Light of the Sun, too: if your father is exiled, you are, in effect cut off from his shelter. In this book, it takes the form of several characters dealing with the implications of being cut off.
They’re also trying to honor the legacies of their fathers.
Yes, of course, in trying to take revenge for their families. There are ghosts in this book, and it’s a theme. One of the starting points of this book in my own mind was that it takes place on the borderlands in the lives of not-powerful people. The reading I was doing brought home to me that the ambitions and doings of emperors and empresses and sultans and dukes of powerful city-states didn’t really matter that much to the day-to-day desires and ambitions and needs of ordinary people living on the borderlands. They’re impacted by the war that’s coming, but what they’re really trying to do is get on with their lives.
They’re further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
That’s right. That theme played out with the idea that the recently dead also live on the borderlands. It’s a transitional state. The presence of ghosts — of only the very recently dead — trying to keep a tenuous connection with the living they cared for.
Your novels have been analogues to Byzantium, Islamic Spain, medieval Provence, Tang Dynasty China, and in this new one, the Renaissance Mediterranean, but they aren’t fictionalizations of those periods or the people who lived in them. In a review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, you wrote, “Very few readers of historical fiction are in a position to interrogate what a skilled writer offers them as a version of the past.” Can you say more?
It’s an interesting issue. Some writers have said variants of “Anyone can look up the real story.” To my mind, if a reader can pick out what’s made up and what’s real, you’ve botched your storytelling! So I find it a bit problematic.
Having said that, some of my favorite books have done exactly this thing I’m querying. In fact, my review of Bring Up the Bodies is probably the best review I’ve ever given a book over 30 years of writing book reviews. I loved that book! My own comfort zone as a writer doesn’t extend to saying that it should be other people’s comfort zone. I find it both creatively liberating not to pretend I know what Justinian and Theodora’s favorite position in bed was, and I find it ethically stabilizing. By making it Valerius and Alixana, as I did it The Sarantine Mosaic, as opposed to Justinian and Theodora, by letting El Cid inspire a character but not pretending I know whether he loved his children, the reader and I get this joint sense, if I’ve done it right, that we’re speculating about the past. I’m grounding it as well as I can, but I’m aware that these are real lives that I don’t want to presume to co-opt. It doesn’t mean I’m offended when others do it, it just means that’s not how I want to write.
Do you mean that you’re setting the rules of engagement? So your reader knows you’re not talking about Justinian himself?
That’s right. That’s also one of the reasons I’ve used two moons in several of the books. The two moons say, We’re not here.
In a recent tweet, you wrote, “I’m fascinated, & write about, how easy it is to draw false or self-serving (or self-destructive) conclusions from the past.” Why do you think this happens?
We always have an agenda, because it’s amazingly easy to look for support for what we want to do anyway, from what we find in history. The book where I explored this most aggressively was River of Stars, which was based on the Song dynasty in late 12th-century China. What fascinated me in my reading and conversations with academics about that was how badly the Song misunderstood the reasons why the Tang dynasty fell — the great, glorious Tang dynasty of the eighth century. They concluded it was because of an army that was too powerful, and allowing women too much autonomy and influence in the affairs of the world. Their solutions were to radically curtail the scope and ambit for women in their society (that’s where bound feet first entered the Chinese culture) and make physical prowess a threatening, negative thing among men. This is when growing the little fingernail emerged, this was when being carried 20 steps to the next house emerged.
It reflects how the lessons of the past that were drawn were the lessons that society wanted to draw. It’s almost impossible for us right now to look at Western or Eastern history and not see it through the prism of the values, virtues, iniquities, sins that we attach.
Aldous Huxley wrote: “We read about the past, because the past is refreshingly different from the present. A great deal of history is written, whether deliberately or unconsciously, as wish-fulfilment.” Do you agree?
It’s a half-truth. The past is sometimes refreshingly different, but it’s also, for me, staggeringly alien. I think it’s important for people writing about the past to acknowledge and work with that. The beliefs and the world of people one thousand, two thousand years ago, the way they understood their world, is dramatically different from ours. Henry James said that historical fiction was impossible. The further back you go, the more impossible it becomes, because the modern writer cannot assume the worldview of someone in the distant past. He added that even if by some miracle of empathy and imagination the writer could do that, the readers couldn’t follow.
That’s why I’m ambivalent about the Huxley quote. A lot of writing about the past right now is wish-fulfilment in a very particular way: we throw ourselves back into the past. The most successful commercial writing about history turns on relatability, likability. The heroes and heroines need to be relatable. If you have figures who try to capture some of the difference of figures in the past, some readers feel they can’t connect to them enough.
All of your novels are told from multiple points of view. Some scenes are told from several characters’ points of view, each in turn. Is this a counterpoint, or acknowledgment, of the way history is told and who gets to tell the story?
I didn’t think about it that way. If I say yes, I’m giving myself too much credit. One of the themes of Children is that we do not understand everything about our world. We also don’t understand each other very well. This is important to me as a writer. This is why politics and love are so fucked up. I have several scenes in this novel where a conversation takes place, as described by more than one of the people in the conversation. When I switch to another character’s point of view, the conversation isn’t the same. It bears a resemblance, but it’s not the same.
A lot of what we’re doing with our writerly elements is making it possible for the reader to arrive at the space where we want them to arrive. It doesn’t mean they will, but we want to make it possible for that to happen.
James Wood wrote that a novel succeeds when an author has “finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations,” that we’re satisfied with what they give us.
I like that one. We discover that there are writers whose scenes we like to explore. When the writer says, “I’m bored with that, I want to go a different part of the forest,” in all fairness, the mere thought that I want to go to a different part of the forest carries no implications for whether you, the reader, also want to go there. For some writers we’ll say, “I’ll read their grocery list.” But not necessarily so.
His comment also underscores what I feel is the conversational nature of the author-reader relationship. The reader has to be willing to enter the space the author is engaged by. If they’re not, no conversation will happen.
The fantastic is making increasing appearances in contemporary fiction, in works by Helen Oyeyemi and Kazuo Ishiguro for example. Why do you think that is?
One reason is, there’s a generation that has grown up with the fantastic dead center in popular culture. I’m of a generation where fantasy and science fiction were an illicit taste. The generation before me hid the magazines under the mattress, so to speak. There was a fringe quality to reading and writing in this vein. That’s not even remotely the case now, if you’re looking at Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Buffy … I could give you another dozen that involve and embrace elements of the fantastic and the supernatural.
The other reason, which is parallel, is a destigmatizing of categorization. The rigidity of categorization is starting to be eroded in many ways. Creative nonfiction, for example; there’s a recognition that a biographer or historian is in a way doing a fiction, so a novelist can deploy some of the techniques of nonfiction. The emergence of intensely personal journalism, which is brought over from first-person fiction. All of these categories and borders are blurring, so it makes sense that this would be one of them.
You’ve written that employing the fantastic “detaches the tale from a narrow context, permits a stripping away, or at least an eroding of prejudices and assumptions.” Why did you decide that this was necessary?
I think most things happen intuitively and instinctively, not as some kind of overarching battle plan that I’ll bring to the books I’m about to write over the next 20 years. When I wrote Lions of Al-Rassan, I was interested in exploring interactions, not ideologies. I wanted to look at what happened when any holy war supervened on the lives of the characters, based on Islamic Spain, the beginning of the Christian reconquest, the presence of a Jewish community in the midst of all of this. I didn’t want the book to get sandbagged for readers by their understanding of the past or feelings about the present day in terms of the faiths that were playing out.
People have said to me, how did you anticipate 9/11? Of course I didn’t. That’s the point of the fantastic detaching us. It has always been true that when warfare, whether religious, political, dynastic, any combination of these, imposes itself on people, we lose our space to negotiate our own friendships, loves, communities. That happened in Yugoslavia in the ’90s. You lose the ability to decide for yourself how you’re going to relate to people. In Lions, I wanted to use the fantastic to suggest that this isn’t only about that time and place. It’s potentially about any time and place.
Same thing happened with Tigana. In that book, I’m writing about the endlessly iterating technique of conquering powers, which is to take away the language and the books and the art and the history of the subjugated people. If you start stripping those things away, they lose their sense of identity as differentiated from you; they lose their inclination to resist. I thought I could write a novel where I used magic — the idea that the very name of a conquered place couldn’t be heard by anyone not born there. Of course it’s a metaphor for taking away identity and memory.
Whenever I’m speaking on tour in different countries or being interviewed about Tigana, the first or second question is, “Were you writing about us?” In Poland I got that, in Mexico, in Quebec. I was asked to write an afterword for the Korean edition that tied it to their own history. That’s, for me, a huge advantage with working with this slight shift toward the fantastic. I realized, as I worked in that vein, that it felt right, and I started to discover why it did: the universalizing element, the detaching of the reader from their own preconceptions, my not assuming I know the real nature or pretending to the reader that I have some insight into a real life.
How else does the fantastic serve your purposes?
A lot of the time, when we think about the past, there’s a slightly smug patronizing attitude that kicks in. We know so much more than our ancestors did. We make it a joke: can you believe that in Tang dynasty China they thought that ghosts of soldiers, if they weren’t buried, would live in some limbo forever, floating above the battlefield in their unburied bodies?
There’s always the risk, or the reality, of that slight pulling back, for the modern reader, from connecting with or understanding the past. We always have this space between the foolishness, from our point of view, of what they thought of the world, and the correctness of our understanding of it.
What the fantastic lets me do, along with the other things that we’ve discussed, is make the world be as my characters believe it to be. When I do that, when I make the reader understand it, the reader is there, the ghosts are there above that battlefield. They’re actually there. You read a book that takes that matter-of-factly. That’s one of the definitions of magic realism, by the way: the world is presented as the characters believe it to be, without any sense that the worldview is quaint.
The strength of this, for me, is enormous, because it removes that smugness from the reader who’s willing to go there, to be immersed in it. You accept the way the world is, the way the characters do, because that’s what you’ve got. That’s one of the things the fantastic gives me.
Or, I’ll put it differently. Anything that’s given to me is given to the reader. Any strength for the writer, from form, from craft, from technique, becomes a strength for the reader, because we’re in this together.