Guy Gavriel Kay on Writing River of Stars
When you pick up a Guy Gavriel Kay book, you know you are in for an intense experience. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at creating compelling, complex, human characters in which the reader can’t help but become invested—even if their initial presentation is somewhat less than heroic. His fluency with themes can make you actually care about abstract concepts just as much as you do about the life or death of a character. And the combination of the above makes for books known for both their poignancy and resonance.
So, of course, I was beyond thrilled when Guy Gavriel Kay—winner of the 2008 World Fantasy Award, the International Goliardos Prize, two-time winner of the Aurora Award, and internationally bestselling author besides—agreed to do an interview on how he wrote his upcoming novel, River of Stars.
I hope you enjoy!
Susan: One of the most striking things about River of Stars is that it feels so incredibly human and grounded—the relationships between the characters in particular, but also the battle scenes—which gives it great poignancy and gets us readers super invested. How does a writer achieve that level of realism?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I have a longstanding one-liner, but it is only partly a joke, that “I've always depended on the intelligence of strangers.” The riff on A Streetcar Named Desire is actually at the center of my writing. The kind of “investment” on the part of readers that you refer to depends, it seems to me, on an author respecting both readers and characters—and I think they amount to the same thing. This means, of course, giving room for characters to emerge and become significant for a reader. I think that's a key.
Susan: At the same time as feeling grounded, River of Stars has the resonance of a myth or legend. How do you invest your writing with that kind of feeling?
Guy Gavriel Kay: You are being generous right off the top here. Thank you. In River of Stars I was interested (as always) in how the past affects the present day. The present time of the story, but also, by extension for the reader, his or her own time and life, if I do it properly. Looking back on long-ago events can carry that kind of legendary quality, and I wanted to explore an awareness that even as things are happening now in the book, later generations might see them as legendary events of their past—and, as we all know, the past gets changed by how it is remembered. That's a theme of the book.
Susan: There are many smaller tales in River of Stars that all wind together in ways that seem at first largely inconsequential (plot-wise), and then become incredibly, earth-shatteringly important. How do you make sure the reader can trace back the ripples of every stone?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I suppose that's part of working on a large scale. I wanted to make the setting of the novel become almost a character, to be vivid and memorable, and that ties to my first answer above, giving room for this to happen, for the reader to be immersed. This includes characters, not just the sometimes contrived “world-building” that goes into standard fantasy (or even historical fiction). I have been accused of never meeting a secondary character I didn't like . . . and I plead guilty, if by “like” we mean “be interested in,” since I've created quite a few I'd dislike intensely as people! If you have a larger number of compelling characters it becomes more natural to achieve the effect you are describing, where those lives also come to matter a great deal.
Susan: The passage of larger amounts of time—and the corresponding character development—is incredibly tricky! But you pull it off beautifully. Any tips on how aspiring authors might also work with time in their books?
Guy Gavriel Kay: That's a tricky question for me because River of Stars broke my usual pattern. I have always liked compressing time, having a great deal happen in a single night, for example. I've enjoyed adding “one more thing” to a sequence just when the reader (and the characters) think, “Finally I'm done for tonight!” In River my principal two characters age from young adults to fully grown, significant figures, and that was a new challenge. In technical terms (and I gather that part interests you) one element of addressing it is to blend both the personal and the “global” in writing about the passage of time. Micro and macro, both.
Susan: The character interactions in River of Stars are very intense and poignant—and yet at the same time, they are often on the quiet side, and there is very rarely any shouting. How do you manage to create so much tension and emotion while keeping the characters relatively reserved?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Shouting can be overrated. (The best actors know this, too.) Of course a character can be prone to bluster and shout, but it isn't the key to intensity, it is just one possible way of establishing it. For me, it turns on not just “what would this person do” but, in all my books, “what is the style of this culture,” and in River of Stars I'm working with a sophisticated culture where a quiet word or a short letter can be lethal. Merely failing to give someone their proper title (this happens once) is like a depth charge exploding. This ties in, obviously, to the earlier answer about having the setting come to life for the reader.
Susan: There is a real feeling of repercussions in River of Stars—like every action may have tremendous consequences for you and your entire family. I found myself worrying on many occasions about even the smallest seeming actions! And this despite the fact that you sometimes tell us who survives throughout the novel. How do you accomplish this?
Guy Gavriel Kay: This is another angle on what we've been talking about here. That sense of repercussions links to reader investment in characters. I think an author also has to be willing for there to be repercussions. A very long time ago another novelist, when we were both young, told me with a shake of his head that because I'd killed a major character fairly early in my first trilogy I could “do whatever I wanted from then on” to readers, because they'd never be sure of the fate of people. Characters dying has become a trendy topic in the last decade or so, but I think the idea of real risk has always been central to creating the sort of intensity and emotional engagement that all authors want from their readers.
Guy Gavriel Kay: Patience is one aspect of it, and here I have always been tremendously lucky in my readers. I don't rush the writing, and I am able to emerge with books at a pace that lets me give time to thinking through characters and themes, and do that balancing between narrative drive and people a reader cares about. I use a lot of different focal points in all the books, pretty much, and it does take time to ensure that the voices are different, and engaging. We all dislike the books where one strand is way more interesting than others, so that we're irritated when we leave the one character who intrigues us . . . Having noted that, I have no doubt that for some readers that's true in my work as well. Readers bring what they are and what interests them to a book. I often repeat that writing and reading are a dialogue, not a monologue.
Susan: In River of Stars, you really make us care about not only the characters, but also things like what the spirit of Kitai will be, and how history will remember the events of the novel. How do you manage to secure reader investment in such seemingly insubstantial things (ie, not a character’s life or a plot point’s success)?
Guy Gavriel Kay: Again, thank you. I did want the idea of history, how it shapes us and how it is remembered, to come to matter to the reader, specifically in terms of this story, and more thematically in terms of an understanding of how the past shapes us and is shaped by us, looking back. In my last book, Under Heaven, one of my own talismanic lines in the book is: “Time runs both ways. We make stories of our lives.” We do. We define ourselves by how we tell our own life story, and that applies to empires and nations, too.
Susan: A disturbing amount of the time, I found myself rooting for (or otherwise liking) “villains”! How do you manage to create investment even with characters doing actions we might otherwise abhor?
Guy Gavriel Kay: You're making me happy saying that, of course. I think we all write the books we'd like to read if someone else wrote them. I am bored as a reader by obvious villains and obvious heroes. I am way more interested, reading, when complexities emerge, when illumination is offered into figures doing things we detest. (There's an assassin in River of Stars that I am guessing is one of those to whom you are referring. I very greatly enjoyed bringing him to life. I believe—or at least I hope!—you don't ever cheer for him, but you do get a fair bit of insight.)
Susan: You have poetry in River of Stars—and it is really good. Each unquestionably sounds like the character in question, and they often seem to provide the emotional climax of a scene—slipping right into place (rather than sticking out) and taking the emotion to a whole new level (especially This Flower Will Not Be Like Any Other, and I Cannot Keep the Leaves From Falling). How can a writer effectively use poetry in their novel?
Guy Gavriel Kay: At the risk of being glib, it starts with a passion for poetry, and some experience writing it. I began as a writer with poetry, my first published work, my first award. And it was the great, great poets that drew me to China for Under Heaven and now, in a setting 400 years later, with River of Stars. In addition, and critically, these were both periods when poetry mattered. A person's rising in the world was affected by their skill in this (and in calligraphy, too). That means, for River of Stars, that if I do it right, the reader understands how organic this motif is. It isn't an author being self-indulgent, it fits. I worried, of course, that poetry in a novel can be the “kiss of death” for some readers, if it isn't working. But that comes back to one of my core beliefs as a writer: respect your readers. Trust them to go with you.
Susan: Even when events don’t turn out the way some of the characters might wish, you still manage to give the reader a feeling of satisfaction and success. That had to be super tricky. How did you manage that?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I'm grinning a bit wryly here, because of course it is up to each reader to decide how well something works for them. I'll say this: endings matter hugely to me, and the “right” ending for each book has been different in pace, tone, and plot. This comes back to my comment about being a reader, too, and how I react to books myself. I put an absurd amount of writing and rewriting energy into sorting through the balance and the effects at the end of a book. I never rank my own novels, I use the cliché of not choosing among your children, but I do know the ending of River of Stars is unique among my own books in terms of what I wanted it to do to the reader. I'm very glad it worked for you.
Susan: Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Guy Gavriel Kay: I'm unhappy when novelists start holding forth on “how to do it.” Writing is so demanding and so personal that I worry about senior figures setting up shop as having a light to show the way. Yes, it happens all the time, it is almost an industry these days, but I'm a believer in individual vision. I'll say this: a great deal of one's approach to the writing of a book turns on the nature of one's ambition. If it is to “make a living” or “master a genre” or “get something into print” these will involve different focus than if someone is aspiring to achieve the enduring and memorable. So the idea of writing, the word, covers such a wide range of aspirations and works. Partly because of this, giving advice needs to be accompanied by a fair bit of humility. I do believe in craft, that writing is rewriting. And I also believe that as artists we are made larger and better if we try to make ourselves larger and better as people.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the internationally bestselling and award winning author of eleven previous novels and a volume of poetry. He has written social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail and for The Guardian in England, and has spoken on a variety of topics at universities and conferences around the world. In 1990 Viking Canada's edition of his novel Tigana reached the national bestseller list, and his next book A Song for Arbonne debuted at #1 nationally. Kay has been a bestseller with each novel since.
Translations of Kay’s works now exceed twenty-five languages and he has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards and is the recipient of the International Goliardos Prize (presented in Mexico City) for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. Guy Gavriel Kay lives in Toronto with his wife and sons.