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The author of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series talks about his imagination and the success of ‘Game of Thrones’
November 13, 20147:00AM ET
You started writing “A Song of Fire and Ice” in 1991. It got published in 1996. It took 20 years from the time you started writing until it hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. What do you think accounts for that delay?
Well, it built slowly. The first book, “A Game of Thrones,” when it came out in 1996, didn’t hit any best-seller lists. It sold OK, but not as well as the publisher thought it would sell. The second book, “Clash of Kings,” was the first one to hit any best-seller list. And it was, I believe, No. 13 on the list for a week and then was gone. But that was quite a thrill. I remember when they sent me on a book tour for that. And when I returned to New Mexico, my wife was waiting for me by the gate with a clip out of the page, had a sign that said, “You’re No. 13.” So I was very thrilled to be No. 13.
Each book is doing better than the book before it. And of course then when the TV show came on, all bets were off.
Can you describe that sort of burning passion to create such a sophisticated and complex project of “Game of Thrones” and “Song of Ice and Fire” and what it takes?
In some ways, it came out of my 10 years in Hollywood. And there was a real pattern to how my scripts were received in Hollywood. Every time I would turn in a first draft, the producers would say to me, “George, this is great. We love it. But it’s, like, five times our budget. Could you please cut these 107 characters down to six? And, you know, this giant battle you have at the end with 100,000 people? Could you make that a duel between the hero and the villain?”
I was a notorious budget buster. So they liked my work, but they always had to rein me in. So you do a lot of rewriting in Hollywood. But after doing that for 10 years, I was sick of doing that. I did it because it was my job, but I always preferred the first-draft scripts, the ones where I just threw in everything I could think of, the ones that were big and rich and expansive. So when in the mid-’90s I’d decided it was time for me to return to writing novels,writing prose, which had always been my first love, I said, “Well, this is great. I’m writing books again. I don’t have to worry about a budget. I don’t have to worry about a shooting schedule. I can make this just as big as my imagination. And I’m going to make this big. I’m going to make this epic. I’m going to have giant castles and battles and dragons and direwolves and a cast of hundreds or maybe thousands.”
For people who are not familiar with your work, the series takes place in an imaginary world. There is a struggle for control of the kingdom. This dynastic war is essentially one of three main plot lines. There are the other plot lines involving these sort of superhuman characters, and then there’s the exiled Targaryen daughter who seeks the return of her ancient throne. Why those three main plot lines?
Well, of course, the two outlying ones — the things going on north of the Wall, and then there is Targaryen on the other continent with her dragons — are of course the ice and fire of the title, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The central stuff — the stuff that’s happening in the middle, in King’s Landing, the capital of the seven kingdoms — is much more based on historical events, historical fiction. It’s loosely drawn from the Wars of the Roses and some of the other conflicts around the 100 Years’ War, although, of course, with a fantasy twist. You know, one of the dynamics I started with, there was the sense of people being so consumed by their petty struggles for power within the seven kingdoms, within King’s Landing — who’s going to be king? Who’s going to be on the Small Council? Who’s going to determine the policies? — that they’re blind to the much greater and more dangerous threats that are happening far away on the periphery of their kingdoms.
And of course, you can see that all through history. It’s a common dynamic that takes place in history. You know, the Greek city-states, before the birth of Christ, you know, and fighting with each other, squabbling with each other, even as Philip of Macedon built up his armies to conquer them all. But you even see it in modern times, you know — the political struggles of France, under the Third Republic, while the Nazi threat is rising.
But the French politicians would almost rather befriend the Nazis than each other. And maybe our lessons in the modern day too. Who knows? I mean, we have things going on in our world right now like climate change, that’s, you know, ultimately a threat to the entire world. But people are using it as a political football instead of, you know … You’d think everybody would get together.
This is something that can wipe out possibly the human race. So I wanted to do an analogue not specifically to the modern-day thing but as a general thing with the structure of the book.
‘There are a lot of people who think that ‘Game of Thrones’ was the beginning of my career, but nothing could be further from the truth. I published my first story in 1971. I’d had a whole 10-year career in Hollywood … But I’d never been near a best-seller list.’
George R.R. Martin
What’s so different about your literary work is you started off with nine different sort of characters and points of view. And then you expanded that to 35. How do you do that?
There are days I wonder if I bit off more than I can chew, where I sit around telling myself, “Did it really have to be seven kingdoms? Why couldn’t it have been five kingdoms?” Five kingdoms would’ve been a lot. But having thrown the balls in the air, I do feel compelled to keep on juggling them. I use point-of-view structure in the books, a very limited, third-person point of view. So each chapter is seen through the eyes of a particular point-of-view character. And you hear his thoughts or her thoughts. You see the things they see. You hear the things they hear.
So unless one of my point-of-view characters is present at a particular event or conversation or battle, you can only hear about it secondhand, or you can only hear rumors of it that might be distorted. That’s been the structure, really, of most of my writing. When I was a younger writer, back in the ’70s, I experimented with other things like omniscient point of view or first person.
But I settled on this, which I think is most effective — this tight viewpoint structure, third person. And I think it’s the best way to tell a story because that’s the way all of us perceive the story. We each look out through our own eyes. We can only hear what we’re hearing, and we’re not God to switch between them. I’ve never found the omniscient point of view persuasive. But with a big story, you need multiple points of view. I mean, I’m writing the equivalent of a medieval World War II. So let’s say I was doing a World War II novel. How do you write a novel about World War II?
Except the difference being that in World War II, there have been literally tens of thousands of historians who have collected all those points of view. With King’s Landing, it’s just you.
Well, that’s right.
How do you keep it straight? How do you remember and adjust and reflect the points of view and the personalities in so many different ways?
I have glibly said in some interviews, “With increasing difficulty.” But that’s not far from the truth. It is big. I have charts. I have genealogies. I have maps. I have various files. I refresh myself. I’m aided by the fact that I think my brain is wired differently than a normal person’s. I seem to use the brain synapses that normal people use for real people for my fictional characters. So I forget real people instantly. I will remember some guy who appeared briefly in a book that I wrote 12 years ago.
Is it difficult to do a book project like the one that you’ve just done, “The World of Ice and Fire,” and have to rely on or collaborate with fans — people who are so obsessed with your material that they can essentially fact-check and help? That’s a bit unusual for many authors.
Yeah, it is not that unusual in fantasy, in science fiction, oddly enough. But I suppose in other areas, it is. But Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, who worked with me on “The World of Ice and Fire,” have been fans of the “Ice and Fire” books since the very beginning, since the first one came out in ’96. And they formed the Westeros website, which is the premiere website, fan website, devoted to this. And they displayed an almost obsessive knowledge and detailed knowledge of my world, to the extent that I’ve often said, "They know it better than I do." They catch mistakes. And when they first wrote me, they were pointing out a couple mistakes I had made in my own continuity where I’d gotten little details screwed up. So they’ve been a great help, actually.
It’s very much of a coffee table sort of book. It’s got illustrations.
Well, I love fantasy artwork. I grew up when I was a kid with illustrated books. Things like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Tales of King Arthur and his Knights.”And unfortunately, illustrated books have gone out of fashion. But I always try to get them back. And when the fans started asking me for something like this worldbook, when I started getting these emails with all these questions about the history and the legends and “Could you tell us more about this?” or “We’d like to know the whole story of that,” I decided that, as other fantasy authors have done before me, that we would do a concordance, or a world book. But I was determined that it would be a heavily illustrated book with art on every page and that we would get some of the best fantasy artists in the world. And I think we’ve done that. In some cases, I was able to work very closely with them to try to get the visions in my head, the things described in the book, down as accurately as we could. That’s certainly true with the castles.
And this was especially true of the Iron Throne. You know, no one had gotten the Iron Throne right. But the one who had come closest to it was Marc Simonetti, a French artist. And he’d done a very striking version of it, but it was still wrong in certain respects. So when we came to do this book, Marc and I worked very closely together and went back and forth half a dozen times till he got the Iron Throne the way I saw it.
Of course, right now, I mean, in most of the world, HBO’s Iron Throne has become the iconic Iron Throne. And it’s a very nice-looking Iron Throne. But it’s actually quite small. As large as it seems, it’s quite small compared to the monstrous throne described in the books, which is huge and towering and dominates the hall. And the king has to climb up a ladder to sit in it, and he’s 10 feet tall above the head of everybody else in the hall, looking down on them. And the throne is asymmetrical and ugly, like a hunched, black beast, because it was put together by blacksmiths, not by furniture designers. It’s got no beauty to it, but it’s a symbol of domination and conquest. And it’s meant to overawe the people who stand under it. And that, I think, is what Marc finally captured in what I regard as the definitive Iron Throne.
After spending that much time and that much attention to detail and working with the illustrators and the artists, what was the feeling when you had to work with HBO and some of these things would either be simplified or, as you mentioned, the Iron Throne, would be quite different? Or the characters, such as Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, and how that character compares with your books? Was that difficult?
You know, it wasn’t difficult. It was actually fine. I can describe a character. The reader’s imagination always fills in the blanks, you know. So I can describe a character as incredibly handsome, and then you cast an actor for it, and the fans will start saying, “Oh, I thought that he was much more handsome. It says in the book he’s really handsome. This guy’s only semi-handsome.” But, you know that some of that is subjective. You’re never going get a character who walks and who looks exactly like what you described in the book, you know. And in the case of Tyrion, yes, Peter Dinklage is considerably better-looking than Tyrion, who is described in the books, repeatedly, as quite ugly. He’s also considerably taller. Tyrion is at least probably a foot shorter than Peter. But nonetheless, Peter is Tyrion.
Time magazine wrote of you, “What really distinguishes Martin and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a struggle between good and evil.” Do you agree?
I think the struggle between good and evil is central to fantasy and, indeed, in some ways, central to most fiction. It’s certainly a worthy subject for fiction. But I regard the struggle between good and evil as being waged within the individual human heart. It’s not waged as fantasy would have it, where a character called the Dark Lord gathers all the evil people together and puts them in black clothing and you know they're evil ’cause they’re really ugly and all the good people are handsome and they wear white and they meet on a big battlefield. In the real world … very few people get up in the morning and say, “Oh, I’m evil. What evil can I do today? I'm gonna cover the world with darkness, and my legions of evil will rule all.” That’s silly. You know, the greatest monsters of history, as we look back on them, thought they were the heroes of the story. You know, the villain is the hero of the other side, as sometimes said. That doesn’t mean that it’s all morally relative. That doesn’t mean that all things are equally good and evil.
I think there is good and there is evil in the world. But you know, it’s sometimes a struggle to tell one from the other and to make the right choices. And all of us, I’ve always been attracted to great characters, maybe because that’s what I see when I look around the real world, whether I read about it in history books or the news or just people I meet.
I mean, all of us have it within ourselves to be heroes. All of us have it within ourselves to be villains. We’ve all done good things in our lives, and most of us have also done selfish things, cowardly things, things that we’re ashamed of in later years. And to my mind, that’s, I don't know, the glory of the human race. We’re such wonderfully contradictory, mixed-up creatures that we’re endlessly fascinating to write about and read about.
But most of us also have the potential to be anarchists. And it does seem in “Game of Thrones” that the anarchists are having the most fun.
Well, anarchy can thrive in a chaotic situation, sure. Sure. But we’ll see who’s having fun at the end.
Speaking of the end, has your writing slowed down over the years?
Yeah, I think it actually has, you know. Some of it is the sheer size of this that we spoke about earlier and how complex it is. There’s a lot of checking and so forth. Some of it also may be the fact that I’m, of course, older than I was when I started this back in 1991. Some of it is the number of distractions. Success brings with it a certain amount of other obligations, you know. Meetings and interviews and book tours and all of the stuff that is actually part of the job of being a writer that goes beyond the simple writing. And it takes up time, and it distracts me from the books. But that doesn’t mean it’s stopped me.
Do you have an ending already in mind?
I have and have had since the beginning, yeah, in broad strokes. You know, I know the fates of all the major characters but not necessarily the fates of many of the minor characters. And things do change, sometimes, as you approach the finish line. You come up with a better idea or a twist you hadn’t thought of when you start. So I leave it open that I may change a few things when I get to the last book. But for the most part, yeah, I know how it’s going to end.
‘I know the fates of all the major characters but not necessarily the fates of many of the minor characters. And things do change, sometimes, as you approach the finish line. You come up with a better idea … But for the most part, yeah, I know how it’s going to end.’
George R.R. Martin
One of the dramatic moments in the HBO series, and I think there was even a YouTube video of this, was people watching the Red Wedding and what happened. And the video of people watching that became viral. Were you surprised that that’s the entry point that a lot of people made into both the series and to your work?
I was surprised by the videos. I was not surprised by the reaction to it because I’d been through a similar reaction when the book came out, “A Storm of Swords,” 13 years prior to it. I remember one tweet that someone posted the day after the Red Wedding episode aired that said, “Now you know why your nerdy friend was really depressed 13 years ago.” And there was a certain amount of truth to that. I got letters at that time saying, you know, “I hate you. I threw your book across the room. I’m never going to read you again. I threw your book in the fire.” That was a good one ’cause it was like, “I threw your book in the fire, and then three days later, I went out and bought a new copy ’cause I had to find out what happened next.”
But now we’re talking about millions of people reacting to it. The Red Wedding was brutal in the book. But in some ways, it was even more brutal on TV ’cause David and Dan, the show runners, did turn it up to 11 by adding the Talisa character and her unborn child, who don’t exist in the book. Rob is married, but he has a different wife, and she’s not pregnant, and he doesn’t bring her to the wedding. He says, “No, it’s going to be dangerous here.” So he keeps her at Riverrun, where he knows she’ll be safe. So by including her, they made the scene even more brutal, which, I think, increased the reaction to it even more. But the most astonishing thing was those videos. The fact that people who knew what was going to happen actually set up their wives and husbands and children and parents and brothers and sisters and friends and loved ones to capture their dismay and shock at the moment that that wedding hit was something I never could’ve anticipated. I don’t think anyone did. But it was pretty amazing.
And a great feeling?
Yeah, yeah. You know, when you write, when I write, anyway, I want to engage my readers’ emotions or my viewers’ emotions. You know, death is a big thing. When we experience death in real life, it affects us, you know. When a spouse dies or your parents die, your brother dies, your dog gets run over or, God forbid, one of your children dies, rips your heart out. It affects you, emotionally. If we’re creating characters that we care about, we should react in a similar way when they die in fiction or television. It shouldn’t be just, “Oh, OK. That character’s dead. Let me go out and get a sandwich during the commercial.” I mean, then you’re not doing your job. I want to grab hold of my readers and make them cry and make them grieve and make them laugh as well and experience joy, experience the worlds on the page as if they were living them. That’s the dream of me, at least, and I think of most writers.
Pop culture has grabbed “Game of Thrones.” It’s been featured in “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” What goes through your mind when you see these references?
Well, I think it’s tremendously cool, of course. It’s nice to be doing something that everybody is so aware of and that has entered the cultural zeitgeist in that manner. The only aspect of it that really astonishes me is not that the characters and the story is being parodied or referenced in these various places but the extent at which I personally am. I mean, when I see myself as a character on “South Park” or I see Bobby Moynihan imitating me with the suspenders and the hat on “Saturday Night Live,” when I see companies selling Halloween costumes, not Halloween costumes to be Jon Snow or Daenerys but Halloween costumes to be me, that’s pretty freaky. That’s something I could never have anticipated, and I just don’t know what to think of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Slideshow: Inside George R.R. Martin’s 'The World of Ice & Fire'