LoneStarCon 3: The George R. R. Martin Interview

'Game of Thrones' creator discusses how he writes and why

Do you know the way to Westeros?
Do you know the way to Westeros?

Amid reports of a dramatic uptrend in babies named “Khaleesi” and tourism to Dubrovnik, Croatia (aka King's Landing), we're guessing George R. R. Martin doesn’t need much of an introduction.

Having brought five books' and three seasons' worth of beheadings, behemoths, and blue-eyed undead into our lives and living rooms, Martin has probably done more to raise the profile of fantasy fiction than any writer since that other guy with the initials “R. R.” in the middle of his name. The characters of Westeros are now more real to many Americans than our co-workers—and, thanks to the talented cast of the HBO television series Game of Thrones, certainly better looking.

But those who fell for the rakish Tyrion Lannister before Peter Dinklage ever stepped into his diminutive leather breeches know that Martin has always been a novelist first. Dragons are cool, but for readers, the draw of Martin's world comes from a deeply-felt humanism and historical imagination that, when the books are at their best, could justly be compared to Tolstoy. (With his bushy beard and signature cap, Martin also kind of looks like Tolstoy if you squint. But that's probably just a coincidence.) A Song of Ice and Fire examines, at length, the role of individuals and families in a medieval society torn by political power struggles. Martin, who was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, knows something about resisting the tide of war. His characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are not usually so fortunate.

Martin’s reputation as a writer intent on probing the human condition began almost 40 years ago with another song: “A Song for Lya,” a haunting science fiction story about the human longing for connectedness that won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1975. Since then, he has kept up a steady stream of award-winning work, as well as editing the long-running Wild Card shared-universe series, collaborating across genres on anthologies, and writing for the television series Beauty and the Beast in the 1980s. Season One of Game of Thrones scooped up last year's Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Martin is co-executive producer on the show), and this year his Season Two episode “Blackwater” has been nominated for a short-form award. But for many attending the Hugo Awards ceremony at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio this weekend, whether he wins or not is immaterial. They won't be happy until he finishes the series, and with two more books planned, it's going to be a while.

They’ll just have to wait. Juggling his ambitious writing with side projects like his purchase and renovation of the historic Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe – we caught Martin on the phone just days before the Aug. 9 grand opening – you could say Martin is a man of many interests. Luckily for us, talking is one of them. The grandfather of dragons gave us plenty of detail about his writing process, the challenges of television, and why he can't be rushed.

Austin Chronicle: You’ve had a long career with a lot of early successes, and now you have this wildly popular HBO show, and readers are waiting with bated breath for your next novel. Was this the kind of career you imagined for yourself when you were first starting out in science fiction and fantasy?

George Martin: Not really, because when I was first starting out, which was a thousand years ago, no one had this kind of career. I made my first professional sale in 1971, and at that time, although there were many successful science fiction writers, there had never been a science fiction book on any national bestseller list, even in a low position. Science fiction was a backlist title; the books did not sell a lot of copies when they first came out, but they sold for years. That was the kind of career pattern that I was looking forward to – saying, can I really do a book a year, and will my books stay in print? Will people like them? Maybe some day I'll be nominated and win a Hugo Award, that was about the extent of it. But of course things changed. The whole future I was looking forward to in the Sixties and early Seventies radically changed in 1977, when Star Wars came out. The first big science fiction boom began, and suddenly there were science fiction books on the bestseller list. And then the fantasy boom came along, and then the horror boom. Your career goes up and down. I never dreamed that I would be working in television and film, but it came about for me in the mid-Eighties through a series of unforeseen events. So I tell young writers, it's not a kind of profession where you can plan your career. All you can do is tell your stories and write your books, and try to be professional about it, and hope it will have a good result. But it's not a profession for anyone who wants security.

AC: You worked on Beauty and the Beast and other TV shows before Game of Thrones. What are the challenges of translating your own work into TV, as opposed to writing stories directly for TV?

GM: Well, I only do one script a season, so I basically work from the script they come up with. But there’s no doubt there are challenges to the problems of adaptation. It's like walking a tightrope. You’re dealing with problems that the prose writer or novelist doesn’t have, things like budget and visuals. You can do a scene in a novel where two characters are just talking to each other for five pages, you can carry the whole thing with dialogue, but if you put that onscreen, it's just two guys sitting here for 10 minutes on a couch just talking. It’s not as interesting. So that's the kind of thing you’ve got to wrestle with. One thing I was always hitting in my days when I was writing for TV and film, was that everything was too big, everything was too expensive, there were too many characters, too many battles. We couldn't possibly do it on our budget. I almost wrote Ice and Fire in reaction to that. After 10 years of that, I wanted to do something that would smash all that, and be as big as the imagination. And I did. So now [show-runners] David [Benioff] and Dan [D. B. Weiss] have the headache of having to fit it all in and decide what has to be cut.

AC: What are the things on television that you can do that you can't do in a book?

GM: You can have some wonderful collaborators in television and film. You have, for example, the composers. By adding music to a scene you can make a scene more suspenseful, or you can affect the mood of a scene and make it sad by putting in sad violins, or you can make it more exciting by putting in a kind of pulse-pounding drive to a big action scene, and so forth. You have all the people involved, the actors of course, and the special effects that you can add to make something visually more spectacular and larger. It's one thing for me to write that it was a huge battle and 10,000 people were on each side. Okay, that's just a word. What is the reader going to see? How is he going to imagine 10,000 people? But when you do it it onscreen, if you can afford 10,000 extras or you have good special effects, and you actually see these huge armies crushing with each other. That gets across the point in a way that it's hard to do with just words.

AC: Every once in a while there’s a scene in the show that couldn't have existed because of point-of-view issues in the book. How do you decide what characters get their own points of view in the book, and how do you decide how that changes from book to book?

GM: I've always had the general structure in mind for the series, where I begin with a relatively small number of characters who are mostly together in a single location, Winterfell, at the beginning of the first book, and then as the action grows, more and more people come into it, and more and more places come into it, and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It's modeled on history: World War I starts in Austria-Hungary, where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, and you only have three people there: the Archduke, his wife, and the guy who kills them. And first Serbia and Austria are arguing with each other, and then Germany gets involved, and then Russia gets involved, and pretty soon armies are on the move. It just gets bigger and bigger. That’s the overall structure I had. I’ve always written from a tight third-person point of view, because I think that's the way we perceive things. None of us are omniscient. We don't know what other people are thinking; we just can see the events around us from our own eyes, and the only thoughts we hear are our own thoughts. But to present a complicated situation, you can't just tell it all from the viewpoint of one person. If you were writing the story of WWI, how do you write the story of WWI from one person? Is there one person who is absolutely central to WWI? No, you need a whole bunch of people. You need someone on the Eastern Front, someone on the Western Front. And you need a common guy to show what life was like in the trenches, and you need, maybe, a pacifist who's opposed to the war, or a communist, and then you need the Tsar or the King of England or the prime minister, you get a wide variety of people. So that was the number of people necessary to tell this story in all of its grandeur.

AC: The richness and depth of the world draw people to the books – it’s a wide-scale view, but it has a great deal of detail and specificity, too. Where do you draw all that detail from?

GM: People have pointed out that probably the main influence on Ice and Fire is the War of the Roses, and that's certainly true. I've also read about a lot of other medieval conflicts. The Hundred Years War was another huge influence, the Crusades and the Albigensian Crusade, and a lot of details from Scottish history, which was particularly bloody. So you take events from real history, but I don't believe in just transcribing them. Like, taking something that happened to Henry the Eighth and having it happen to my characters in the same way, just change the names? To my mind that's cheating, that's too easy. You take a bit of this, you take a bit of that. You combine them, you rethink them. You add new twists that maybe even a student of history doesn't see coming, and you add fantasy elements to make everything bigger and more colorful.

AC: I’ve heard you say in interviews that you don't start out with an intricately mapped world, you set out with certain goals in mind and find them as they come. Does that lead to copious amounts of revision?

GM: Yes. In a word, yes. That's why the books are so slow. I trust my muse, I suppose, but sometimes my muse leads me down dead alleys and mugs me. So then I have to slap around my muse and get back to the main street, and the way that's well-lighted. Yeah, there's no denying that. But sometimes also, the story goes in unexpected directions, and it turns out to be much more interesting than the way that I originally envisioned it going. So sometimes it does make sense to follow that muse where it goes, but you never know until you try it. And that's what I'm doing.

AC: What character or characters have surprised you the most over the course of the book?

GM: Well, Catelyn surprised me a fair amount in the early going. She's certainly one who surprised me. I think Sam surprised me from time to time; he's a character who's undergone a lot of growth. But you never really know.

AC: In the process of doing all of this, you work on other things from time to time. Do you feel like it's important for you, for your process, to get out of that headspace for a little while?

GM: Some of my fans are very annoyed about this, but I work on other projects. I edit anthologies, I still edit and write for my Wild Card series of books, which has 40 other writers involved, and of course I'm involved in a TV show, which is the same characters, but not quite the same characters, and they’re at a different time in the story. I do find that sometimes it helps to shift gears a little, to get away for a while. The other factor, though, is that even when I'm just writing the Ice and Fire books, in a sense I'm not just writing one story, I'm writing a dozen different stories. When I switch gears and I go from writing some Tyrion chapters to writing some Jon Snow chapters, it's a whole different voice, he's in a whole different part of the world, surrounded by completely different characters with different issues. So it's almost like I am switching gears, even though I'm in the same universe and telling the same story. Ice and Fire, ultimately, is not just one novel, but it's like a dozen different novels woven together, and the structure is very intricate, and the voices are very different from one another.

AC: How do you decide what you're going to work on, whose voice you're going to work in today?

GM: Well, I don't write the chapters in the order in which you read them. I get into a character’s voice. It's always difficult to switch gears, actually. When I do make that transition from one character to another, I usually struggle for a few days trying to get back the voice of the character I'm just returning to after some hiatus. But once I get into it, I tend to write not just one chapter by that character, but three or four. So I'll be writing Jon Snow chapters, and I'll carry that Jon Snow sequence as far as I can. And then at some point, maybe I'll get stuck or not be sure what I should do next, or maybe I've just gotten way ahead of all of the other characters in the books, so I need to sort of rein myself in and make myself switch from Jon Snow to Sansa or Daenerys or somebody like that.

AC: I feel like I have my own guess, but what characters are the most fun for you to write? And is there any character who's a real drag to write? Comparatively, who's hard to get into that headspace?

GM: Tyrion is the most fun to write. He always has been. The hardest to write – I wouldn't call him a drudge or anything, but the Bran chapters are the hardest for two reasons. One is, he's the youngest of the viewpoint characters, especially when the books began. He’s a little older now, but I think he was 7 or 8 years in the first book, and it's hard to write from the viewpoint of a child that young. You have to really look at every sentence and say, okay, he's in the middle of this, does he understand what's happening? What words would he think? Would he understand that word, would he understand the import of what he just overheard? It’s time-consuming. The other factor is, this is a fantasy series, and there is magic in my world. Magic is something that I think requires handling very delicately. You can easily make a mistake with magic. It's like a little salt in a stew, I think. You put in a little salt, the stew tastes a lot better. You put in too much salt and ruin the stew. So I try to be very careful with magic. And Bran is the character who's most involved with the overt fantasy elements. So that's another reason that I have to be very, very careful in writing the Bran chapters and wind up rewriting them a lot.

AC: What are the dangers of using magic? What can go wrong?

GM: Magic should never be the solution to the problem. My credo as a writer has always been Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” That transcends genre. That’s what good fiction, good drama is about: human beings in trouble. You have to make a decision, you have to do something, your life is in danger or your honor is in danger, or you're facing some crisis of the heart. To make a satisfying story, the protagonist has to solve the problem, or fail to solve the problem – but has to grapple with the problem in some kind of rational way, and the reader has to see that. And if the hero does win in the end, he has to feel that that victory is earned. The danger with magic is that the victory could be unearned. Suddenly you're in the last chapter and you wind up with a deus ex machina. The hero suddenly remembers that if he can just get some of this particular magical plant, then he can brew a potion and solve his problem. And that's a cheat. That feels very unsatisfying. It cheapens the work. Well-done fantasy – something like Tolkien – he sets Lord of the Rings up perfectly, right at the beginning. The only way to get rid of the ring, the only way, is to take it to Mount Doom and throw it in the fires from which it comes. You know that right from the first. And if we'd gone through all that, and then at the end of the book suddenly Gandalf had said, wait a minute, I just remembered, here's this other spell, oh, I can get rid of the ring easily! You would have hated that. That would have been all wrong. Magic can ruin things. Magic should never be the solution. Magic can be part of the problem.

AC: The books are so dark and violent. As a writer when you're writing that, do you ever just get to a point where it's too heavy, it's too depressing that you have to inhabit the point of view of these characters who are suffering or causing suffering?

GM: Some of it can be difficult to do. I mean the Red Wedding was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I wrote the entire book, I skipped over the Red Wedding and wrote all the way to the end, and then I came back and did the Red Wedding, because it was just emotionally difficult to do that. But you know, hopefully, if it's hard to write, it'll be hard to read, too. It’ll affect the reader emotionally. I mean if the reader is just reading the book and terrible things happen, and they just put it aside and say, “What’s for dinner,” you’ve kind of failed. Your characters haven't achieved any reality here. If sad things happen in the book, the readers should be sad about them. And that does involve a certain amount of emotional vulnerability on the part of the writer.

AC: Sure. A lot of this darkness and violence comes out of the sense that the characters are grappling with these incredibly difficult moral problems in a society that's just kind of screwed up. Maybe irreparably. Do you ever feel like the world is too hopeless? How do you keep from feeling that way, is maybe a better question?

GM: I don't know that I think my world is too hopeless. I sometimes I think the project is too hopeless. [Laughs] Why did I ever tackle such a big project? Did it really have to be seven kingdoms? Couldn't it have been five kingdoms? Five is a good number! But you know, the real world is pretty dark. One of the sayings that people repeat in Westeros is Valar marghulis, all men must die. That's just as true in our world as it is in the world of Westeros. All men will die. I think that's the central issue in all of literature, in religion. All of us have to grapple with our own mortality at some point: What does it mean, and when is it coming, and what's the meaning of life before that? So, the world is dark. Yes, Westeros is a violent and cruel world, but no more so than the real Middle Ages. In some ways, Westeros is Disneyland compared to some of the things that really went on during the Crusades or the Hundred Years War. We shouldn't delude ourselves in that. History is written in blood.

George R. R. Martin will be at LoneStarCon 3 in San Antonio Aug. 29-Sep. 2. His scheduled appearances include: autographing his books Thursday, 4pm, and Monday, 11am; reading from his work Friday, 5pm; and appearing with Austin science-fiction author Howard Waldrop in "The Howard and George Show," Saturday, 4pm. All appearances will take place at the Henry B. Gonzalez Concention Center, 200 E. Market, San Antonio, Tex. For more information, visit www.lonestarcon3.org.

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