Guy Gavriel Kay has carved out a unique niche, writing fantasy novels that take real-life historical settings and transforming them into something new and different. His latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, takes place in a version of 16th century Europe that’s under threat from a version of the Ottoman Empire, and includes a fictionalized version of real-life Croatian bandits called the Uskoks, who stole from the Venetians and the Ottomans for justice. We talked to Kay about just how he manages to turn real-life history into a world all his own.

In Children of Earth and Sky, a young woman in the coastal town of Senjan—which is famous for its pirates—sets out to get vengeance for her lost family. And in the rich city-state of Seressa, which is known for its canals and its lagoon, a young artist travels East to paint the powerful Khalif, and an angry young woman poses as a doctor’s wife but is actually a spy. And then their stories become intertwined when the Khalif sends his army West.

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You can read an excerpt, introducing the character of Danica, here.

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Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Gary K. Wolfe praises Children of Earth and Sky and says that as the novel goes on, “we begin to appreciate Kay’s real genius at unveiling history as a large tapestry of individual ambitions, betrayals, loyalties and simple efforts to negotiate survival in a radically unstable world.”

We had the chance to talk to Kay about his process of researching and transforming real-life historical settings, and here’s what he told us.

When you’re writing novels that are a “quarter turn to the fantastic” from recorded history, does that mean more research into the actual historical realities, or less? Or is it just a different kind of research?

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I don’t think it is a question of more or less, though for me the research phase is always a solid year of reading, notes, correspondence, sometimes travel. One thing the quarter turn does, among other things, is let me make use of some elements I couldn’t have in a straight history. For example, in Children, my ‘emperor’ is inspired by Rudolph II and his court in Prague (alchemists!) which didn’t actually emerge until the late 16th c, about a century after ‘my’ core period. But a chance to open the novel with an eccentric, but underestimated monarch (it is a bit of a MacGuffin, the first chapter) akin to Rudolph was so appealing - and working as I do, it became possible. But that meant research into figures of a later century!

And when you research a time like Renaissance Europe, or Song Dynasty China, are you looking mostly at primary sources, or books about the period by scholars?

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My limited language skills preclude most true primary sources, but I do chase them down when I can in translation. For the two China-inspired books the poetry of Tang and then Song dynasties that were hugely useful (and inspiring). The Song, for example, has the most beloved female poet in Chinese history (Li Qingzhao), and she and her poetry are the direct inspiration for one protagonist in River of Stars.

Do you have a standard method for researching a historical period, or is it just something where you dive in and start reading a lot of stuff? How long do you usually set aside for research before you start writing, and do you keep doing research during the writing process?

At the outset, ‘diving in’ is about right—with the caveat that I am diving into lots of different lakes until I sort out what the next book wants to be. Once that happens I start chasing down as many of the most respected works (books, essays) on a period and its people that I can find. I use really archaic notetaking with a pen and a series of Moleskine notebooks. Usually I end up making ‘notes of notes’ - as this process goes on so long that I have to reread my own notes and compile a ‘best of’ - the ones that I think will matter most to the book that is close to being started. I do keep researching while writing, but by then it is more fact-specific, as I realize I really have to know more about how houses were built or fields tilled along the Yellow River in the 8th century, or whether egg tempera painting could be used on canvas or only on wood.

Have you ever gotten halfway into writing one of these novels, only to realize that you needed to go back and find out a lot more about some area that you hadn’t researched yet?

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I do have times when I need to pause while I source something that has come up. Often I’ll just reread one of the books I did read, to confirm or sharpen my sense of something. Sometimes, too, because I am slow, new books or scholarly articles appear while I am working, and I will sometimes make time to process these. People (cruelly!) like to tell me when something new is out. One other aspect of this is that our connected world has made it so much easier for me to be in touch with the people who’ve written the works I am using and I can, you know, ask them questions! In years and years of doing this I have never not had a generous response from a scholar.

In Children of Earth and Sky, you’re returning to an altered version of Europe after two novels set in a version of China. Do the themes of social change and conservatism resonate differently in a European context than in a Confucian society?

That terrific question needs an essay! First of all (very briefly) this theme of change and conservatism was at the heart of the second of my China-based books, River of Stars: how society had changed from the time of the first one (Song dynasty, several hundred years after Tang) in response to a perceived set of reasons why the earlier dynasty fell. I focus on attitudes to women and to the military, and how these emerged, were justified in people’s minds, and were so damaging to the culture. But one of the dualities that has fascinated me all my life is how the past can be both utterly strange and startlingly familiar. I like to try to work with both of these in the novels, and to carry themes from one setting to another. So, for example, in Children, the motif of how society curtails the scope for women to shape or control their own lives is present (as it was present) in both medieval China and Renaissance Europe. I like the books to engage in a conversation with each other that way, even though I also try to make sure each one stands by itself. (Another kind of duality!)

The clash between East and West is again a big deal in Children of Earth and Sky. The clash between the Ottoman Empire and the West is part of the fabric of the book, just as the Moorish Occupation of Spain was a big deal in your earlier book, The Lions of Al-Rassan. What is it about these “clash of civilizations” stories that you find compelling—and are they especially meaningful in the post-9/11 era?

I’m drawn to writing about times and places on the cusp of transition, of one kind or another. It allows for (creates!) legitimate drama, and characters forced to cope with those transitions (successfully or not). Borderlands have always been, for me, compelling in that way, and in Children I make this explicit: what living on the borders can do to people. And in the novel the borders are shifting - as the boundaries and margins and cultural definitions of our world are in flux. So of course the past has things for us to think about. I’m always wary, though, of proposing clear ‘lessons’. I don’t want to be that didactic. (I’m more likely to note in the books how one can draw the wrong lessons from the past!).

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When you write about characters who were stolen as children (as one major character in Children of Earth and Sky was) and have lost their identity, what is it about that theme that fascinates you? Is it something about assimilation, or about how our identities are shaped by our circumstances?

I hadn’t thought about it as a recurring motif, but yes I am engaged by thinking about what makes our sense of self. How do we define ourselves? There are so many variables that come into play. And we can shift over time, too, individually, and collectively.

In Tigana, perhaps most of all, I was looking at how our history, our name (literally so, in that book) can be taken away, and in fact tyrannies, occupying powers have long known and exploited the idea that resistance to them can be weakened in a people’s sense of identity is eroded. That’s why independence movements are often associated with reclaiming a language and changing place names. So, yes, now that you mention it, I suppose the loss of identity, the ways we seek to hold on to it, or redefine it, reclaim it … that does interests me a lot. Good one!

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What was it about the real-life Uskoks of Senj—those Croatian bandits who raided both the Ottoman and Venetian territories—that inspired you? What is it about the idea of a “social bandit” that seems relevant?

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Many things interested me once I started reading about them. One was the huge gap between their self-identity (there’s that word again!): heroes of the border, proud, honorable, soldiers of the Christian world, defenders of the emperor’s lands and his people … and the perception of them in much of the world as pirates, raiders, violent, destructive, lawless, worthy only of being hanged or beheaded.

That sort of discrepancy is in the primary sources, and it has to fascinate, doesn’t it? I was also drawn to elements of how their women were regarded in Venice and elsewhere: as being as violent and dangerous as the men, hacking off limbs from slain enemies to drink the dripping blood in the belief that this would make their children more fierce. (A pretty classic legend/libel, in fact.) Their women were also ‘rumored’ to have magic, controlling the winds among other things. That gave me ideas.

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Finally, they were just so damned cool in how they operated, with small, quick boats, raiding through mountain passes inland. They are only a component of the novel, but they were the starting point, yes.

And finally, you talked to the Guardian a few years ago about working with Christopher Tolkien on the manuscript of The Silmarillion. What was the most important thing you learned about world-building from reading so much of Tolkien’s rough drafts? And do you think fantasy has grown beyond being a mere offshoot of Tolkien?

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Fantasy is vastly more than Tolkien today, but has been for awhile. Indeed, it was more than Tolkien before JRRT! He became ‘defining’ and dominant because of both excellence and widespread popularity (they aren’t always the same thing), but there’s no way an entire genre could ever be circumscribed to that template. He wasn’t writing in or to fit any formal template, anyhow. That came after, as clones always emerge - either from love or commerce, or both.

For me, two things dominate what I took away from the time working there. One is patience. No one can realistically take decades to shape or think through a world or a story as he did, but taking time—to my mind—does create huge benefits from an artistic point of view. (I’m not talking commercial benefits, the culture likes speed, new books fast, but excellence won’t necessarily arrive in a rush.) Second thing for me was a connected awareness of how obviously rewriting and rethinking had been a part of process for him. That links to patience, of course, and I suppose it meant I really could not ever have been a book-a-year guy!

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Children of Earth and Sky comes out on May 10.