In Children of Earth and Sky, Kay takes readers back to a vivid alternate historical fantasy world during its Renaissance, with a large, international cast of characters caught up in plots in which intrigue rules the day.
Why did you choose the early Renaissance as a setting?
When I finish a book I never know what the next will be. It can be unsettling. In this case, the starting point was a remark made by my Croatian publisher as we were driving to a reading on the Dalmatian coast many years ago—a “You should write about” comment. Out of such small things are years of one’s life shaped! This is a less often explored part of the Renaissance, and the tensions between Eastern and Western Europe, and the people living on the borderlands of those conflicts, engaged me emotionally and intellectually.
The story feels lighthearted at times, but underneath, it’s deadly serious.
Yes, Children is very much about not-powerful people trying, as best they can, to get on with their lives in a time of great tension and conflict. One thing I really wanted to try to do this time was work with figures who are not potent, powerful, or important. To explore how an epic scale, and epic events, can be a background to individuals who are trying to shape their own lives.
How much historical precedent was there for this constant intrigue?
Oh, this was widespread, very normal, and not just in this time period. There was an expectation that someone loyal to a given state or faith was keeping their eyes and ears open as they travelled. That applied to merchants, religious figures, physicians, artists. As far as a state formally making someone a spy, the less likely they were to be one, the more useful! I was also interested in how, even back then, commercial espionage was very much present, not just political or military spying. And, of course, they all overlapped—just as they do today.
Did you have any particular historical figures in mind when you created your characters?
No, no single figure. More a matter of recurring patterns in history, like the way in which something like an unwanted pregnancy could undermine a woman’s life. I am always looking for ways to explore issues of agency for women, without, as best as possible, projecting 21st-century attitudes into the past. If you look hard enough, history does give you paths for this.
Did you have any trepidation about diving once again into a multi-threaded story?
Every book is a challenge, and its own particular set of challenges, in part because I’m looking to find those challenges. The need to stay focused, ambitious, motivated, for years on a project demands that. On the other hand, getting older has advantages, and one of them is that one feels one’s craft more securely. Research methods, shaping of themes, handling a large cast in a complex narrative: these are far less worrying if one’s been there before. I also have a very deep trust in my readers, in their own intelligence and desire for nuance. So much popular culture has become about simplifying. I have a sense there’s a market, a yearning even, for work that resists that.