An Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay

I conducted the following interview with Mr. Kay via email and am indebted to his generous response to my ten thousand questions! I’ve divided his answers between this blog and the Historical Novel Review site, so that both blogs provide you with a fascinating insight into this amazing author’s writing and a chance to win a free copy of “Under Heaven.”

1. This is your first foray away from Europe and a Christianity-based world and out of all of China’s massive history, you chose the Tang Dynasty during the An-Lushan rebellion (circa 763) as your focus. Why did you choose this time and place?

I truly never know what a next book will be when I finish one. I am wide open at that time. With The Sarantine Mosaic, I ended up researching that world because three reviews of Lions of Al-Rassan (the previous book) made reference to my ‘Byzantine’ characters and plotting … so I took it as a ‘sign’ to learn more about Byzantium! As I said … wide open.

With Under Heaven, I originally approached it with an idea for a ‘Silk Road book’ but gradually as I read, and corresponded with people, the Tang period began to impose itself on me – the combination of high drama, brilliant figures, flux and chaos, dazzling wealth, and themes that ‘worked’ for me made it ultimately feel like a place I’d want to spend three years. One academic I know wrote me after, ‘I always knew you would do the Tang.’ I wrote back, ‘I’m glad at least one of us did.’

2. Were there any other times in China’s history that appealed to you and do you plan on visiting them?

Absolutely: there were and are other deeply compelling periods. This is a history over two millennia with overwhelming richness for a writer. But as to visiting in the future: see previous answer. I truly never know.

3. Language barriers must have been a challenge when conducting research. What other challenges did you face writing “Under Heaven” that were unique to this book?

Interesting query. Every book has its own issues that confront me, from trying to make sure the names aren’t daunting to looking for legitimate ways to explore the role and scope of women (something I am always engaged by). Language tends not to be a serious barrier, given how much scholarship is available in English. It did enter as I tried (very hard) to come to terms with the staggering achievement that is Tang Dynasty poetry … but so many translators and scholars have felt the same fascination that I did have guides and signposts there.

4. Your characters tend to have depths of intelligence and humor hard to find in many genre novels. How do you approach character development?

It honestly isn’t a grand plan or anything like that. As I have often said, those of us working carefully tend to write the books we’d enjoy if someone else wrote them. I like reading about intelligent, witty characters, and try to invest my own with those traits – when it feels appropriate. I also have my share of flat-out chowderheads, I think. May I give you Pronobius Tilliticus from the Mosaic (Still one of my own favourite character names. I think Dickens would have approved!).

5. Every author works in a different way – would you share how you approach writing a novel? The way you set out the plot, your workplace, anything that contributes to the process.

In general (and I stress that!) I start with period and place and theme. From these I start finding characters and at that point the nucleus of a plot usually emerges. I don’t outline, I do not tend to know my ending (except, at times, in the broadest sense). The writing is legitimately a journey of discovery for me. But this is purely offered as my way of doing things, not as a prescription for anyone else.

6. What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing?

The constant, chronic, inherent inability to say exactly what I want to say. To make it work perfectly. I don’t know a serious writer who doesn’t feel that, mind you.

7. Can you share any advice which may help others get past similar problems?

Ultimately, an acceptance of one’s built-in imperfection as a human being and artist. But not to allow this to become an excuse for taking the easy route through a problem in the work. We mustn’t indulge in obsessive-compulsive desire for uttermost perfection, but we need to chase it some way.

8. What sparks your creativity and keeps you working?

Right now (and probably for some years) it seems to be the journey that each book represents. I learn so much with each novel, about the past, about today, about myself. This is fiercely challenging at times, but also deeply enriching.

9. Have you ever started writing a novel you couldn’t finish?

I’m one of those who can say ‘no’ to that … but at the same time I don’t think that writers who have unfinished manuscripts in a drawer or hard drive file have ‘failed’ because of that. Those pages or pixels very often produce something important down the road, in unexpected ways.
That’s a comforting thought!

10. You’ve written eleven novels of historical fantasy (and one book of poetry) and I’m curious if you’ve ever considered a different or additional genre? For instance, an historical mystery with or without fantastical elements.

Of course I have. One considers almost everything at some point or another (often when dodging the burden of getting back to a difficult chapter!). I may yet surface with a book of seafood recipes for you. Or a baseball novel. I’d enjoy that.
Many thanks again to Mr. Kay for the generous response to my many questions!




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14 Responses to “An Interview with Guy Gavriel Kay”

  1. Karen Lange says:

    Good interview. Thanks to both of you for sharing it!
    Happy almost weekend,

  2. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks, Karen. If you're interested in reading the rest, please head over to

    Also, if you want to be entered in the novel give away this week, please post a link to one of this week's Under Heaven posts. It can be in any social media forum, but if you can let me know where, I'd appreciate it. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Tricia J. O'Brien says:

    I really enjoyed his contemporary YA-ish fantasy, YSABEL.
    Fabulous interview, Victoria. It's so fascinating to hear good writers talk about thier methods.

  4. Victoria Dixon says:

    I did too, Tricia. Ysabel, Tigana, Lions of Al Rassan and Under Heaven are among my favorite books. 🙂 Also, the Fionavar Tapestry is excellent. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Amanda Borenstadt says:

    Great interview!
    Now I'll go to the other blog to read more. 😀

  6. Shannon O'Donnell says:

    Excellent interview – I loved it. So interesting!! 🙂

  7. Janna Qualman says:

    Great interview! And you've got a unique and interesting blog, too. 🙂

    Thanks for visiting my blog this week!

  8. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Amanda, Shannon and Janna! I appreciate the comments, and please do drop by the If you're interested in receiving a free copy of Under Heaven, they hardly have any entrants in the contest over there, so you stand a good chance of winning! Just make a comment and include a link to facebook, twitter or your blog where you mention this week's feature and contest. 🙂 Of course, you can do the same here. LOL

  9. Carolina Valdez Miller says:

    Great interview! I really liked his comments on the unfinished manuscripts. I have so many on my hard drive, I've lost count.

  10. Victoria Dixon says:

    That's partially why I asked him that question, Carolina. I've got so many good ideas that are not published – many of them aren't publishable – and I always think, "Maybe someday…" so his answer gave me hope. 😉

    Thanks for dropping in!

  11. Samantha Bennett says:

    Great interview! I totally relate to his response in #6. It's encouraging to know that even the big dogs still wrestle with words. 🙂 Thanks for visiting my blog!

  12. catwoods says:


    Thanks so much for performing the interview and letting us get an inside glimpse with you.


  13. Jeannie Lin says:

    Wonderful interview! I'm on page 456 now and have been avoiding reading any reviews in case of spoilers — though when I saw how close the backdrop is to the historical accounts of the Anshi rebellion, I already know some of the spoilers.

    Great questions. It's always fascinating to probe into the minds of authors, especially ones with such epic stories.

  14. Victoria Dixon says:

    Samantha, I agree. This was a huge relief. I remember I once tried to record my voice on a handy digital recorder as I got an idea for a book. The recorder got in the way. I can't LISTEN to myself spout all the longing and intensity I want to put on paper. No matter how much I know people will love it (o.k., once it's polished!), I can't listen to my rumbling voice stutter over the sounds until the muse flees! It's almost as bad with pen and paper. Almost. Thanks for dropping in and for the comments, Jeannie and Cat!

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