Guy Gavriel Kay is the award-winning author of 10 novels whose works have been translated into more than 20 languages and have appeared on bestseller lists around the world. Inspired by China’s 8th-century Tang Dynasty, Kay’s latest novel, Under Heaven, melds history and fantasy.
Why I write
Because, by now, ‘nothing but comes readier to the hand/Than this accustomed toil,’ as Yeats put it. After a quarter century of writing fiction, poetry, social and political commentary, I live my life through the framework of writing. I see and interact with the world in that way.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Certainly while in mid-book I am writing just about every day. I tend, by now, to think in terms of word counts not hours. I am able to feel reasonably content when I’ve written 800-1,200 usable words and will even parole myself for an afternoon lunch meeting or coffee with a friend if that comes fairly smoothly. The reason is this: if I write too prodigiously on a given day, I pay a price in the days that follow, as my conscious mind needs to ‘catch up’ with where the driving energy took the story. So I don’t actually gain time or speed with a runaway day. A novel for me is a marathon not a sprint, except sometimes towards the end. On the other hand, if it takes me all day to produce 800 words, I’ll be at the desk all day.
Worst source of distraction?
Best source of inspiration?
I’m a contrarian here, in that I urge younger writers to regard inspiration as overrated. It is the easiest excuse to not work: I don’t feel inspired today. One has to sit and put in the hours. In a broader sense, I find my main energy and ideas come from delving into history, in widely varied times and places, seeing how what I unearth seems powerfully resonant for today.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
The former is thankfully rare. I work through it. The latter is an every-single-morning experience. I don‘t know a serious artist in any field who does not wrestle with the limitations of their own talent and energy, the space between the imagined work and what is produced. It is inherent in the creative process when undertaken honorably, I think.
Favorite Chinese writer?
That one’s easy, given that the Tang Dynasty is the inspiration for my newest novel, Under Heaven. Du Fu and Li Bai were presiding spirits for the book and their literary achievement is towering, in my view – even through the necessary prism (for me) of translation.
Best book about China?
Edward S. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand. About the material wealth of the Tang Dynasty, what came to the empire from far away, building a vivid picture through that.
I can never answer this in terms of an all-time favorite. The novels I have been sending people to in the last few years are Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. These both impressed me greatly.
Another easy, but hardly distinguished pick: Shakespeare.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Remembrance of Things Past.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I was exceptionally fortunate, and I’m proud of that book. (This was The Summer Tree, the first volume of my trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry).
How did you get started writing?
I always wrote, but never expected to make a living doing so. I graduated law school, expected to practice law, but ‘rewarded’ myself with a year abroad (in a village on the south coast of Crete) to see if I could write a novel, after all. I did. That one was never published, but my agent received very encouraging letters from editors in New York, and I was motivated to try another book (this was The Summer Tree) and that one was accepted and bid for after some editors read the first seven chapters. I did the only logical thing and went back to Crete to finish it! I never did formally practice law.
Does writing change anything?
An emphatic ‘yes’ to this one. Too much vivid and compelling evidence through history.