The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay

Art is a powerful inspiration for more art, and for the artists who create it, as acclaimed author Guy Gavriel Kay found when thinking about Under Heaven, his latest book of historical fantasy. For this one, Kay reached far back in time, to a place and art form many of us here in the West don’t know very much about. I’ll let him share both with you.


So, here’s a big idea for a novel: eighth century Chinese poetry. Bow down all ye dazzled. (Slip quietly out the back, all ye others?)

But the truth is, it was a poem, and a note to the translation, that became catalysts for Under Heaven, my newest book, which is indeed inspired by Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century. That glorious, violent, dazzling era.

The fast backgrounder is this: it is pretty much undisputed (except by a few diehard fans of limericks) that China in the Tang period represents an absolute apex of many elements of culture, with their poetry preeminent. The great names of the High Tang are, really, among the very greatest names of anywhere, any time.

When I started reading and corresponding with academics in preparation for Under Heaven I knew I’d have to try to come to terms with this element of the setting. It wasn’t an ordeal. This is magnificent art, even in translation – though the limitations of that are obvious and enormous. (“Poetry is what is lost in the translation,” Robert Frost famously said.)

I actually owned a few of these translations from years ago (sorry, I’m, er, like that) and while awaiting the arrival of a truckload of new books and articles on various topics from various places, I began reading one of them. It was a Penguin Classics edition of selected work of the two greatest figures, Li Po and Tu Fu (now generally called Li Bai and Du Fu, in the altered spelling system we use).

There’s a poem by Du Fu called ‘Ballad of the Army Wagons’, a risky, unusual work with a remarkable level of identification with ‘ordinary soldiers’ and their families in a society where poets were more likely to write about themselves and their literary friends – or about the court and high deeds, though usually set in a fictional (fantasy?) past.

The poem voices the lament of conscripted farmers being sent off to war leaving families to starve, crops unsown, harsh taxes still demanded. And the ballad ends with a vision that stopped me cold: of the crying ghosts of slain soldiers by a remote western mountain lake, a savage battlefield for past a hundred years, including very recently, in Du Fu’s own time. The image of those ghosts wailing in that mountain bowl hit me hard this time, and immediately.

But that wasn’t all. In a note to the poem, one of the men who worked on that Penguin edition adds a personal story. Seems his father, a mining engineer in the modern day (obviously!), working in this remote northwestern area (north of Tibet) used to pay herders to bring him the bones of soldiers who had died in those battles 1300 years ago and more. They were still there by the lake. And this modern-day engineer felt a need to do what he could to lay some of those long-ago ghosts to rest, to honour them.

The fusion of the poem and the note, and what I’d begun reading about time and place and the dazzling array of possible figures to draw upon for a novel (history done with my usual ‘quarter turn to fantasy’ as one reviewer’s described it) became central to the shaping of my book. That poem, the mountain lake, those battles, the unburied dead … fused into one of the first ‘big ideas’ for Under Heaven. The story begins there.


Under Heaven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven Journal. Find out where he’s on tour this month. Read another essay on Under Heaven.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay”

  1. This one really is a stunner and an immediate must-buy. If I may indulge in a bit of preening, I squeed when Penguin Canada pull-quoted me for the book trailer. I’m told it’s been running in theaters up there! I try to imagine book trailers playing in US theaters and my brain throws a shoe.

  2. I love the way GGK fuses fantasy and poetry — the medieval french poems in A Song for Arbonne, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantinium” in Sailing to Sarantium. His books enrich the poems as much as the poems enrich the books. In fact, like Yeats himself, GGK uses legend, history, and poetry to create work that is complex yet readable. I cannot praise this author too highly.

    However, I cannot speak specifically of Under Heaven because with great discipline, I am waiting to read it when I am in China this summer!

  3. Big Idea and Guy Kay didn’t really have to read any further – but I did. Always have liked his books.

  4. Guy Gavriel Kay is a god. If I ever write anything 1/50th as good as what he is written, I’d be a happy man.

  5. This went immediately to my “must be read” list. My only hope is that it arrives at the library at a time when I don’t have a lot else on my plate – Kay’s novels tend to consume huge chunks of the day without my noticing that anything else is going on around me.

    I do like the evidence of extensive research that Kay provides; I like the idea that an author knows something about what he’s writing about.

    So, yeah, I’m very much looking forward to this. Some mix of Fionavar and Bridge of Birds, one hopes.

  6. I always enjoy reading the Big Idea columns, and this one really makes me want to buy this book right away.

    So many books and so little time.

  7. I had already read this book was coming out and was eagerly awaiting it…everything else I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay has struck some deep resounding chords in me. It’s definitely on my to read list

  8. I’m halfway through this, and it is thoroughly enjoyable, just like everything else from Mr. Kay.

  9. I’m so behind on my Kay reading. Tigana remains a book that I’ve read once and yet can remember so clearly to this day. I’ve actually avoided rereading it because the initial experience was so deep.

    Onto the pile it goes!

  10. @9 Murphy Jacobs: Don’t be afraid. The second reading of Tigana is actually just as good, in a different way.

  11. I read this last week. An absolutely beautiful novel. It borders on poetry.

  12. GGK has been on my “buy upon release” list for several yeas. “Under Heaven” is clearly his best book since “The Sarantine Mosaic”; it’s a very, very well done story with brilliant characters.

    (I read it in a night, staying up well into the wee hours, after it was delivered to me upon release. :))

  13. I got my copy from last week. Unfortunately, last week also turned out to be Week From Hell (TM) at work, so I haven’t been able to start reading “Under Heaven” yet. And since this week is looking to be The Return of the Week From Hell (TM), it will probably going to be a while until I can start reading it… *sigh* Adulthood is kicking my butt again :-(

  14. Heh, back when I was studying in China, I knew some of Li Bai’s poems by heart. To have one of the Tang masters as the basis of a western novel sounds very intriguing indeed! GGK (Well, Tigana) has been on my TBR pile for far too long now, but I think Under Heaven just made a massive overtaking manoeuvre.

    A lot of the soldiers and peasants who collapsed on Mao’s Long March also remained unburied, especially on the Tibetan plateau. Their bones get collected as well (probably along with Tang-era bones, together with Han-era bones, ..) especially by children, which has always intrigued me to no end. The Long March was one of the truly epic feats of the 20th century, and deserves tons and tons of respect, no matter what came from it. (Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates manages to capture some of the March’s humanity and epicness with Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs, which was simply brilliant.)

  15. Wow, this is really exciting! I’ve loved everything I’ve read of GGK’s and I can’t wait to read this. Made the request at my library already.

  16. i learned to read some chinese characters during a long stay in china. written chinese is easily the most beautiful language humanity has constructed. there is an expression of abstract poetry in ever chinese character and phrase. learning new characters is as addictive as pistachios.

    unfortunately, mandarin chinese is also one of the harshest and most impenetrable spoken languages there is. german sounds like jazz in comparison to spoken chinese.

  17. Mick @16
    Just curious…
    Were they speaking Mandarin in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? I found that lovely to listen to. Perhaps you are referring to a tonal dialect. Like the difference between BBC English and Geordie. (I get to say this, I’m a northern Brit myself).

  18. I suspect the language in CTHD was Cantonese, the language of southeast China. Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually incomprehensible in spoken form; they aren’t really dialects or accents, they are different languages. HOWEVER, they share a common written expression, which is a situation unique to the Chinese language family, and is truly weird.

    There is a harsh buzzing ‘r’ sound in Mandarin that I don’t hear in Cantonese.

  19. I have ( and reviewed) Under Heaven. It is, of course, brilliant.
    I have all of Kay’s books and re-read them every couple of years. As far as I am concerned He is a national treasure.
    His book of poems “Beyond This Dark House” indicates he is no mean poet himself.

  20. John @ 18 — No, the language in CTHD (and likewise in the other recent “artsy” martial arts movies — House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, e.g.) was Mandarin.

    I’m currently about 100 pages into Under Heaven and it’s unsurprisingly lyrical and brilliant.

  21. Am halfway through this book, and am finding it a real treat. Particularly since I am Chinese, and it’s kind of fun picking out things that I actually recognise, like that poem at the beginning that ran “Before my bed the light is so bright” (Jing Ye Si/Thoughts On a Still Night, by Li Bai).
    …Although I will admit, that recognition does throw me off a little too: “Wen Jian” might make a perfectly good name depending on the Chinese characters used, but devoid of the actual characters and tonal indications, the first thing that pinyin brings to mind is the Mandarin term for “documents”, which is not something I’d name a character XD

    John @ 18 and Joe @ 21: yep, CTHD–and most other martial arts movies–are in Mandarin (it’s the mafia movies that tend to be in Cantonese, don’t ask me why), though John may have watched a Cantonese dub, I dunno.
    On that note, Cantonese and Mandarin are actually pretty close in spoken form, at least from my experience (my parents speak to me exclusively in English, and I only know Mandarin from school, yet I can still understand my parents when they talk to each other in Cantonese if they speak slowly enough), and are in fact dialects rather than separate languages. It’s just a slight “twist” in the pronunciation that makes the difference; for example the term “to know” in Mandarin is “zhi dao”, whereas in Cantonese the same characters would sound something like “ji dou”. Which I suspect is how all the dialects came about, eventually: huge geographical differences resulting in “twists” in pronunciation unique to that geographical location.
    That “buzzing r” sound that was mentioned is a result of accent rather than dialect, in the same way that spoken English can have accents. “Pure” mandarin is what you get in songs and news reports and so on, however many mainland Chinese like to round their vowels a lot more and add a little “er” sound at the end.

%d bloggers like this: