Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

River of Stars: One on One with Guy Gavriel Kay

To be honest, I wasn't really sure what to expect for this event. I had never seen Guy Gavriel Kay speak before, but as my husband and I made our way through the crowded room to find seats, we settled ourselves in the thick of Kay's loyal fans. Papers rustled as they shifted in their chairs, checking their watches or sipping their wine. All eyes were directed to the front of the room, eagerly waiting for the event to start. Maybe they had seen him speak before and knew that we were in for a treat. Maybe they just knew how much research Kay does to write his books, so they wanted to hear about his craft. Maybe they just wanted to listen to a very intelligent man talk about the world for a while. (Or maybe they were like me, not quite sure what to expect—but happy to end up with all of the above.)


In his opening remarks, Kay noted that River of Stars is (in part) about the way in which memory—individual and collective—can distort the events of the past. We shape and create legends, vilify others, and use this memory of the past to guide how we act in the present day. He plays with the idea of "fighting the last war" and how desperately trying to avoid the mistakes of the past can lead us to make new mistakes altogether. After this brief introduction, Kay read a passage from the book centred around its female protagonist, Lin Shan.


Like most of Kay's books, River of Stars was inspired by a period of our own world's history (the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century this time). Later in the evening, Kay joked about how the academic friends and contacts that he had developed during his research for his previous novel, Under Heaven, had just taken it "as a matter of course" that he would "stay in China for the next book." They gave him research, books, and unpublished monographs about the time period, and he was hooked. Happiest when he has "a trove of material to work with" for his research, it's no wonder that the richness of the Song culture (and the information available about it) seemed too good to pass up.


As usual, River of Stars involves a rather large cast of characters. "Someone once wrote that 'Kay never met a secondary character he didn't like,'" he said with a chuckle, followed by a shrug. "I can live with that."


That said, you won't find famous historical names in Kay's books. He is much more comfortable saying that his characters are inspired by real people from the past. "For one thing," he noted, "it is creatively liberating. For another, it also feels more grounded." Kay doesn't want "an illegitimate boost from readers" by doing something shocking with real people from the past. Instead, by creating settings for his novels that are inspired by the past and by real historical figures, Kay has more freedom to explore the themes of a time and place with his readers.


"I want to share with the reader the notion that, when we work with the past, we're making it up. We're using educated guesses," he said. "I won't pretend that I can nail down the reasons for why things happened [the way they did in the real past], but I can offer what I think."


Kay also emphasized that, for him, working with the past means respecting past cultures and their beliefs. His underlying mantra is "to make the world of the book to be the way that they [people from the time period] would have believed it to be." It isn't about looking down on the past with smug contemporary superiority; it's about giving validity to the way that they saw the world. It's also why he uses what he calls his "quarter turn to the fantastic" in his writing: these elements of the supernatural give credit to the beliefs of previous cultures.


The amount of research that Kay does to bring his stories to life is mind-boggling. It isn't just the grand, sweeping tales of historical figures that grab his attention. He also focuses on the little details of the time period, the minutiae of everyday life. He talked about a "stunningly dry academic book that got [him] alarmingly excited" (by Dr. Alan Cameron, retired from Columbia University) for one of his previous novels, and explained how having primary sources in his research lets him show his audience his characters and their culture at the same time. For example, if he has two characters disputing a technique for creating tesserae, he is able to show that his main character knows his craft and is also able to show elements of their current society (shifts in technology, generational tensions, the importance of art).


During the Q&A session, one audience member pointed out Kay's skill in writing the subtlety of politics and political strategies. Kay laughed about how it would be fun for him to have political advisors to help with his books, but in truth he is drawn to conflict and to cultures on the cusp of change. "That tension lets me spin a story into it," he said. "Those cultures tend to have equally conflicted politics, so I'm drawn to their politics as a way of illuminating the culture I'm working on."


Another audience member drew everyone's attention to Kay's shift to the present tense in the novel for his female protagonist's perspective (based on the passage he read to start the event). Kay answered that he uses this writing technique for many different purposes.


"I want to keep you up until 3am, move you emotionally, and make you think," he said. The shift to the present tense for his female characters emphasizes the razor-sharp perception that women would have needed during that time period to have any impact on their own lives. Kay wanted to portray their ability to be in the moment (and be observant in the moment) and to give a sense of immediacy to their experiences. "Most readers do not overtly notice [the changes in tense], but on a subliminal level, because it has been constructed that way, it has an impact on the reader."


Kay certainly provided his readers—and even aspiring writers—with a wealth of ideas to chew on for the evening. I left feeling that Kay is a rare and gifted craftsman...and I can't wait to dive into more of his books.