Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Guy Gavriel Kay: Children of Earth and Sky

One could be forgiven for thinking that Guy Gavriel Kay, author of thirteen works of historical fiction and fantasy, has his feet firmly rooted in the past. After all, his writing has long been lauded as eminently well researched, a meticulously crafted blend of the real and the fantastical. But when hearing him speak it becomes clear that though Kay has an intimate relationship with the past, it is his ability to use history as a lens to tell universal stories that sets him apart as one of Canada’s greatest writers.

An eager crowd awaited him on Friday evening, despite the unrelenting rain and gloom. The audience buzzed with excitement. Which was your first? they asked one another. Tigana , some replied. Or Ysabel. Or Sailing to Sarantium. His titles were whispered and passed around like some form of communion among his devoted fans, perhaps fitting as we sat in a church.

Ottawa Citizen journalist and fantasy author Kate Heartfield delivered a brief introduction before Kay took the stage to a hearty round of applause. He began by introducing his practiced formula of crafting fictional worlds out of real historical events, a process he described as “rich historically and ethically,” as it allows him to write freely without the uncomfortable assumption that he’s occupying the minds of real people. His latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a world that resembles 16th century Croatia and the collapse of Constantinople. The passage he read was from a female perspective and drew the audience in, despite the awkward interruption due to audio difficulties.

For the question period, Kay had his hosts do something unique: paper was passed around for those with questions to write them down, rather than have people line up for a microphone. His theory was that sometimes the best questions are missed when people don’t wish to stand up in front of a crowd, and instead ask them later when getting their books signed. His social experiment was a success; host Kate Heartfield had more questions than time, and it gave her an opportunity to weed out redundant questions or those that would spoil the plotlines of Kay’s books.

The discussion between host and author was rich and interesting. Heartfield, being an author herself, was keen to ask questions about the craft of writing, which can sometimes bore an audience of readers, but Kay knows how to make a story out of even the most potentially mundane topics. He touched on how his goal as a storyteller is to avoid writing about the power players of history and instead focus on the people who were trying to get on with their lives. He spoke of how historical fantasy writing can be a commentary on contemporary times, and how the past fascinates him both because of the different worldviews of people in other times and the similar fears and desires that unite humans all throughout history.

A highlight of the evening was when Kay asked the audience to give a round of applause for the absent Ursula Le Guin on her 87th birthday, acknowledging the work she did and the path she forged for all the fantasy writers who came after her.

A question about the state of publishing fantasy did not elicit what could have been a wholly negative response from Kay, who implored writers to simply “write as well as you can,” claiming that the climate of the publishing industry is not as dire as others would have us believe. The barrier between genre and literary works is thinning as the next generation of writers and publishers grew up on Star Wars/Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They also grew up on the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, as evidenced by the audience before him. Perhaps he will be for our generation what Le Guin was for his: a seminal figure whose body of work helped to lay down a path for those who came after him. Fittingly, only time will tell.