Guy Gavriel Kay Talks Progress in Alternate History and Shared-World Easter Eggs in His Reddit AMA

Author and Officer of the Order of Canada Guy Gavriel Kay took a break from his whirlwind book tour (10 flights in 13 days) for Children of Earth and Sky to return to Reddit’s r/fantasy for another AMA! Three years and one book after his last visit to the subreddit, Kay—armed with his favorite Springbank whisky—was ready for reader questions: how to write like a “detached historian” in alternate history, how he decided who would survive that duel (you know the one), why Lord of the Rings might not have been able to be written in this day and age, and keeping magic hidden from the light.

Inviting readers to share their own drinks of choice, Kay led a lively discussion delving into the intricacies of his (as they’re commonly known) “histor[ies] with a quarter-turn to the fantastic” and the Easter eggs found therein. Click through for the highlights!


Turn a Page, Wipe Your Eyes

xolsoiion: You’ve made me cry. Lots. How does that make you feel, you monster?

GGK: Someone said ‘He makes me cry, but in a good way!’ (Hey, just saw that JayRedEye said that here, too, below!) I can live with that. Tolkien once wrote ‘tears are the very wine of blessedness’ … they aren’t always, of course, but they can be. And an emotional response to art (if it is true emotion and not created by sentimental manipulation) is a reflection of imaginative empathy, in the writer and the reader. My lawyers advise silence as to Kleenex.


Light and Magic

opsomath: Hi Mr Kay. In a previous AMA, you mentioned this quote as a guide to the way you use magic and the fantastic in your stories. “We must not let in the light upon magic.” Are there any other authors whom you think follow that maxim well writing right now? Any who violate it but whose stuff you like anyway? Thanks!

GGK: What an interesting question, thank you, needs more time and thought than we have here.

Off the top I’ll say Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez embodied this idea of not spelling everything out. Magic realism (which in many ways is a literary word for the use of the fantastic when a ‘serious’ critic wants to approve of a book using these elements!) is built around this idea, generally. Most gaming-inspired fantasy will go the other way, into rules and ‘clarity’, which is not to say these aren’t or can’t be very good books, but that they have a different angle on this question, normally.


Characters On and Off the Page

Thirteen books makes for at least a hundred characters, so Kay has had plenty of practice populating his alternate histories with authentic, compelling players. One Redditor had a question about craft…

ZinKitten: My question is this: how do you go about crafting your characters? What inspires you to create these particular characters? They are so complex, and so genuine, that they seem so much more real than many other characters in fiction.

GGK: Characters. I honestly believe this is about giving them time and the reader space to allow them to grow and develop, to become important to someone reading a book. I have seen some readers say variants of ‘it starts slowly but despite that there’s a big emotional kick at the end’. This is, and I say it with respect, missing the obvious: the big emotional hit comes because of not in spite of you the reader, and I the writer allowing each other that room and time. This isn’t a fashionable pop culture view, where we seem to want things to rocket along, where young authors are urged to ‘hook’ the reader on page one or risk losing her entirely. I think it damages books, and the range of reading experiences, to think this way. It certainly takes away rhythm and shape from a book, the ‘build’ of it, and of the characters. I doubt either War and Peace or Lord of the Rings could be done today. Some might say, ‘I’m down with that!’ but I confess I’m not.

…while another homed in on the supporting casts:

Sarantium: I love your secondary characters. They seem to come alive, fully developed, and then rush “off screen” in a few pages to live their own stories. Do you ever feel the desire to follow them?

GGK: Thank you. Someone once wrote I’d never met a secondary character I didn’t like. Not quite true. There are many I dislike (Pronobius Tilliticus, anyone?) but they do tend to interest me, and I hope that’s true for readers, too. I actually hope you feel that desire to follow them, as you put it, to think about them, realize that the story being told in the novel could have been a story about some others. This was fairly explicitly laid out in Last Light of the Sun, inspired by a motif used in the Sagas.


Alt-History: Advanced Course

No surprise, the majority of the discussion touched upon how Kay’s novels converge with and diverge from recorded history. Kay has discussed his research methods in more detail elsewhere, but he answered some questions about what grabs his attention…

MikeOfThePalace: Many of your books have pretty obvious real-world analogues. Sarantine Mosaic = Constantinople under Justinian II, Lions of al-Rassan = the end of Muslim Spain, etc. How did you come to choose the times, places, and events you did?

GGK: As for choosing times and places … I never know what is coming next when I finish a book. Somehow (so far) something has always emerged to compel my attention. It has to be more than just ‘interest’ … I will be living with a book for a long time, and I need to feel I have something to add.

…as well as tone:

RinellaWasHere: Oh, man, holy shit, I just finished reading River of Stars this week!

I really enjoy the tone—it feels like it was written as a historical document full of foregone conclusions, with the narration casually mentioning future events, etc., even as the events that will bring them about occur. How did you arrive at that particular style for the novel? Was there a specific inspiration?

GGK: Thanks. Briefly, I took the style and tone from reading (in translation) in histories from the period, and especially in thinking about how historians of the Song Dynasty (the one that inspired River) misinterpreted the reasons for the fall of the Tang Dynasty, several hundred years before—which led to some very destructive attitudes and decisions concerning the role of women and the role of the military. I wanted a tone that caught a little of that ‘detached historian’ voice for some parts, which contrasts, of course, with the more intense scenes in the book.

When talking about plot points, Kay avoided spoilers but still gave satisfying answers about his intentions:

CommodoreGenitals: Hi Guy, The Lions of al-Rassan was an amazing book and I was wondering how you decided who would survive the duel at the end? Thanks!

GGK: Ending of Lions killed me, too, just so you all know. My main purpose towards the end, trying not to spoil here, was to induce, with the way it is handled, an experience for the reader that the grief is as strong whichever way that duel went, by having them ‘live with’ both results.

More than one Redditor asked if he would return to a given world down the line:

Glory2Hypnotoad: Let me start by saying that I just finished Children of Earth and Sky and loved it. It was a joy to revisit the setting of The Sarantine Mosaic. Did you expect to be back in that world after finishing Lord of Emperors, or was it an idea that came later? And do you think you would want to revisit it again in an even more modern era?

GGK: It is actually the same near-Europe that is in Lions and Last Light too. The Sarantium books are a more obvious link because of the geography/setting—but we are 900 years later, after all. I had no planning or larger scheme in mind back then, or now, really. Just the obvious truth that people of a given time might be aware (sometimes wrongly) of aspects of the past, or forget parts of it, and some structures might endure—and others crumble. Which is what happens, of course.

And of course, the thread was rife with dream casts for a someday movie:

BennJosef: Do you think there will ever be any plans to make your famous works, such as Tigana or Lions, into a major motion picture?

GGK: The film question comes up regularly—and quite legitimately. Short answer is that my agent in L.A. is engaged in extended flirtation (rising to foreplay at times) on various of the books with a number of different companies or studios. Lions did come close, optioned by Warner Brothers for Ed Zwick to direct as a feature a number of years ago, but no one was happy with the scripts developed and after renewing the option once we parted ways at that time. The more likely possibilities these days, for reasons you’ll all know, are in long form television.

There is a Pinterest board on my work and there’s a Casting Couch page there where people play with casting ideas. Have a look. Who would you cast in Lions? I retain a veto over Danny DeVito as Rodrigo, so don’t even try to go there.

BennJosef: I think that, for Rodrigo, Benicio Del Toro might fit the bill! Looking forward to any and all adaptions made from any of your brilliant works. I think a tv series, like Vikings or Game of Thrones would be perfect!

More Redditors picked up the casting later in the thread, nominating Eva Green, Viggo Mortensen, and others (including Danny DeVito).



Progress and Agency

Redditor Sono-Chi-No-Sadame asked the deep questions:


  1. Is it safe to characterize the ‘barbarian’ characters (the Muwardi, the Altai) in your works as evil? Or are they victims of harsh environments that render them antagonistic to civilization?
  2. Do you see history moving in a progressive manner from past brutality to future enlightenment?
  3. Do the characters in your works have agency, or are they swept up in grand historical forces beyond their control?
  4. In the fantasy market, many readers increasingly want authors to have more diverse casts of characters in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Do you think this is a fair demand, or does it limit the freedom of authors?

GGK: Oh, hardly evil, and I’d truly hope reading the books makes that clear. I’m not especially interested in purely evil cultures as an idea, though I do believe people can do evil (and having a sympathetic backstory doesn’t resolve that). No, I don’t see history as a straight line progression towards ‘better’, though on the whole I think it is trending that way.


A Twist on the Standard Book Recommendation Question

wishforagiraffe: [W]hat book was the right book for you at the right point of your life?

GGK: Right book at right time? There have been many (and some great books at the wrong time, too, another story there). I’ll say I encountered Frazer’s The Golden Bough young but ready to respond to it, and it led me to so much, and to so many other writers and books.


Easter Eggs

This came up more than once, as well: What Kay calls “grace notes”—referencing various worlds in seemingly unattached books—readers like to think of as Easter eggs. While one can pick up any of Kay’s books and dive right in, there are some treats for those who know his full body of work:

0rontes: Hello Guy. Without being spoilery: so much of your work takes place in the same built world, and references your other works. Do you imagine a difference between readers who have read all of them and readers who are encountering them “out of context.” Is there a literary difference or are many of the references more like “easter eggs?”

GGK: This could be an all-nighter. Great question.

Short answer, in Ysabel in particular I was engaged in trying to offer a particular experience to those who had never read me before (Fionavar, in particular). Those readers are actually in the position of my protagonists, and that was deliberate: namely,that there is something that happened, just as there is something that is happening now, and both the characters and the readers know that, see it, they just don’t get all of it. (See the question here and last AMA about not letting daylight in upon magic).

Those readers get a very ‘pure’ experience of the novel, they are in the space of the characters, whereas readers who know Fionavar get what many called the ‘squee’ moment. I worked pretty hard to give value to both sets of readers.

Children takes place long after the four books in the same near-Europe, it glances back at times to history, but with 900 years gone by since the Sarantium pair (for example) it is meant to stand on its own, offer those emotional grace notes (or your easter eggs).


Read the rest of the AMA here!


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