He’s the mind behind the world of Westeros.
George R. R. Martin is the novelist from whose imagination sprung Game of Thrones, the biggest show on TV. His A Song of Ice and Fire book series (whose first book of what is now a planned seven, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996) serves as the source material for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Though the TV series will end in 2018, before Martin’s books do, fans still eagerly await the books ending the way their creator intended — or the way he, discovering new details about the world of Westeros even now, finds his way towards. One of many takeaways from talking to the polymath Martin: “I am going to finish these books!”
Does the writing still feel improvisational for you? Even with an endgame in mind, do you still feel like you’re learning things about the world of Westeros?
Yes. That’s not anything that’s unique to Westeros or Game of Thrones. It’s just the way I work and have always worked.
In the case of any of my novels, I know where I’m starting from, I know where I want to end up, more or less. I know some of the big turning points along the way, the stuff I’m building for, but you discover an awful lot along the way. Characters rise up and seem more important, and you get to what you’d thought was going to be a big turning point and… the thing you’d thought about two years ago doesn’t really work as well, so you have a better idea! There’s always that process of discovery for me. I know not all writers work that way, but it’s always been the way I work.
Do these new ideas along the way occur in reaction to the TV show Game of Thrones? Do you find yourself trying to complicate or diverge from what’s airing on TV, or to dig into characters who aren’t as heavily featured on the show?
I don’t consider it in those terms. The show is the show and it’s developed a life of its own at this point. I am involved in the show, of course, and have been since the beginning, but my main focus has got to be the books. You have to remember that I started writing this story in 1991 and I first met David and Dan [showrunners Benioff and Weiss] in 2007. I was living with these characters and this world for 16 years before we even started working on the show. They’re pretty fixed in my mind and I’m not going to change anything because of the show, or reaction to the show, or what fans think. I’m just still writing the story that I set out to write in the early 1990s.
Aside from the War of the Roses, what do the books draw upon from history or life?
I had read a lot of history, a lot of historical fiction, a lot of fantasy. There’s a certain dialogue that goes on between generations of writers, particularly science fiction and fantasy writers, because we’re part of this subculture. When I read fantasy books by other writers, particularly Tolkien and some of the other people who followed Tolkien, there’s always this desire in the back of my head to reply to them: “That’s good, but I’d do this part differently,” or, “No, I think you got that wrong.”
I’m not specifically criticizing Tolkien here — I don’t want to be portrayed as blasting Tolkien. People are always trying to set up this me-vs.-Tolkien thing, which I find very frustrating because I worship Tolkien, he’s the father of all modern fantasy, and my world would never exist had he not come first! Nevertheless, I am not Tolkien, and I am doing things differently than he did, despite the fact that I think Lord of the Rings was one of the great books of the 20th century. But there is that dialogue that’s going on between me and Tolkien, and between me and some of the other people who follow Tolkien, and it’s a dialogue that’s continuing.
When you began writing this series, the president was George H.W. Bush. Things have changed a lot since then. Are there moments when you’ve been influenced by the politics of the time or commented on it?
I think probably, to some extent, I have. I did not set out to do so. Like Tolkien, who hated the accusation he was doing allegory, and always bristled at the suggestion that Lord of the Rings was about World War II, or even World War I, which he had fought in. I’m not writing allegory either, but I live in these times, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to have some influence on me. But during the process of writing these, I probably would have been much more immersed in the politics of the Middle Ages and the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War.
Your female characters stick out for their strength and complexity, but their treatment at the hands of male characters, often becoming victims of sexual violence, has raised umbrage over the years. Has that reaction surprised you?
Yes, it has, actually. And I take issue with some of it. I don’t think the criticisms are true or apt. I know everyone has a right to their own opinion but… whatever. I’m writing a war story, essentially — the Wars of the Roses. The Hundred Years’ War. They have “war” right in the title of each of my inspirations here. And when I read history books, rape is a part of all these wars. There’s never been a war where it wasn’t, and that includes wars that are going on today. It just seems to me that there’s something fundamentally dishonest if you write a war story and you leave that out.
To a certain degree, also, it’s so intertwined, tragically and unfortunately, with the character histories. Daenerys doesn’t get to where she is unless she’s sold as a child bride, effectively a slave.
And I should point out, and you probably know this if you’ve read the books and watched the show, Daenerys’ wedding night is quite different than it was portrayed in the books. Again, indeed, we had an original pilot where the part of Daenerys was recast, and what we filmed the first time, when Tamzin Merchant was playing the role, it was much more true to the books. It was the scene as written in the books. So that got changed between the original pilot and the later pilot. You’d have to talk to David and Dan about that.
It seems like a double bind to not be able to move characters around with freedom because they’ve grown to be quite so beloved by fans.
You want the reader to care about your characters — if they don’t, then there’s no emotional involvement. But at the same time, I want my characters to be nuanced, to be gray, to be human beings. I think human beings are all nuanced. There’s this tendency to want to make people into heroes and villains. And I think there are villains in real life and there are heroes in real life. But even the greatest heroes have flaws and do bad things, and even the greatest heroes are capable of love and pain and occasionally have moments where you can feel sympathetic for them. As much as I love science fiction and fantasy and imaginative stuff, you always have to go back to real life as your touchstone and say, What is the truth?
It must have been a leap to allow this adaptation to happen, knowing it could never be as internal as a novel could.
There was certainly a risk. From basically the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s, I was involved in television. Whenever I turned in the script in my first draft, I would always get the reaction, “George, we love it, but it’s five times our budget, so… Can you go back and cut things? We can’t afford to do the special effects for the things you have, and the big battle you have where there’s 10,000 people on a side, make that a duel between the hero and the villain,” and I would go back and do all of those things, because that was the job. But I always loved my first drafts, even though they weren’t as polished — they had all the good stuff.
And when I finally left television and film and went into prose in the mid-90s, I said, I don’t care about that anymore, I’m going to write something just as big as my imagination, I’m going to have all the characters I want, and gigantic castles, and dragons, and direwolves, and hundreds of years of history, and a really complex plot, and it’s fine because it’s a book. It’s essentially unfilmable. The irony is, of course, that’s what became filmed. But when the book started hitting the bestseller list, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies started coming out, I immediately started getting interest from Hollywood. I had a number of meetings long before David and Dan, with people who said this is the next Lord of the Rings franchise. But they couldn’t get a handle on the size of the material, the very thing that I set out to do. I had all these meetings saying, “There’s too many characters, it’s too big — Jon Snow is the central character. We’ll eliminate all the other characters and we’ll make it about Jon Snow.” Or “Daenerys is the central character. We’ll eliminate everyone else and make the movie about Daenerys.” And I turned down all those deals.
That got me thinking about it, and I said, “I still don’t know if it can be filmed. It’s too big to be filmed. But if it can be filmed, it can’t be a feature film.” It’s too big, and if you wanted to do it as a feature film, you’d have to do it in ten feature films. It was all, “Oh, we’ll make one film, and if it’s a big hit, we’ll make more.” Well, that doesn’t always work out, as you found out if you know about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials [a book trilogy adapted into a 2007 film, The Golden Compass, that has never had a sequel]. If the first one doesn’t work out, you never get the rest of the story. Television can do more. But it can’t be done on network television, because there’s too much sex, there’s too much violence, it’s too complex. These characters were not likable enough. You can’t put incest on [a network].
I decided the only way to do this would be for HBO, or a similar network — Showtime, Starz, or premium cable — as a series, each book as an entire season. That’s the way to approach it. And when my manager set up the lunch with David and Dan, they were primarily feature writers, and they’d been sent the books with features in mind. But they read it and came to the same conclusion: This can’t be done as a feature. So when we had that famous lunch that turned into a dinner, because we were there for four or five hours. I liked them a lot and we hit it off in the beginning. Things could have changed in the doing, things sometimes happen where people get fired and other people get brought in, so I was rolling the dice a little. And fortunately, the dice came up sevens.
How has your involvement in the show changed over time?
I’m a co-executive producer on the show; David and Dan are the showrunners. Right from the first, we knew that they were going to do the lion’s share of the work, but I did wanted to be involved. Initially, I was involved in all the casting — I wasn’t physically present — I was here in Santa Fe. But through the wonders of the internet, I was able to look at all of the actors reading and to write them long letters and to have phone calls where I discussed which actors I like and which actors I didn’t like. And in the early seasons, I wrote one script per season. I would have gladly done more, but there just wasn’t time. I’m still trying to do these books. It takes me about a month to write a script and I didn’t have a month to spare, so I said, I think I’ll sit out season 5. I’ve sat out seasons 6 and 7 too, just trying to concentrate on this book, which as you know is massively late. So in that sense, my involvement in the show has diminished over time, though, I’m still here whenever they want to talk to me, and I’m always glad to weigh in. David and Dan have come to Santa Fe and we’ve discussed many of the ultimate developments, those landmarks that I spoke to at the end of the road that we’re both driving for. So I don’t need to be quite as involved as I was at the beginning.
When you met in Santa Fe, was there a valedictory feeling, or a sad sense of time passing?
Well, there’s certainly a feeling on my part that time has passed so quickly. I know that meeting was years ago but it seems to me that it was last week. Television moves very fast, and unfortunately I don’t write as fast as that in terms of the books. So even as late as that meeting I never dreamed that the show would catch up to the books, but it has, so we are where we are now. And hopefully we’re taking two roads to the same destination.
The knowledge that these are two different roads must grant a degree of comfort in writing — that you’re still able to be your own writer.
I try to be! I can’t be influenced by the show. The show is great, but a television show and a novel are different things. The television show has real-world concerns that I don’t have. There’s a very big budget, it’s one of the largest budgets in television, but it’s still a budget, they can’t just keep adding characters. I can! They have actors’ contracts to consider, they have shooting schedules to consider, locations, all of that real-world stuff that I don’t really have to worry about.
Has the increased level of attention in the years since the show came on made you feel like more of a perfectionist in your writing? Is it more challenging to write now?
Yes! And that doesn’t necessarily just revolve around the show. Although the show may, indeed, be part of it. The books have been enormously successful. I think I’m now in 47 languages, which is pretty astonishing. My earlier work was always translated but, boy I’m being translated now into languages I’ve never heard of, in every corner of the globe. The books have been nominated for many major awards and they get prominent reviews. That’s great, but it also brings with it a certain pressure. Instead of just writing a story, there’s this little guy in the back of my mind saying: “No, it has to be great! It has to be great! You’re writing one of the great fantasies of all time! Is that sentence great? Is this decision great?” When I started in 1991, I was just trying to write the best story I could. I didn’t think this will be a landmark thing for all time. The fact that this has gotten all this favorable attention and praise, wonderful reviews, award nominations, it does increase the pressure to do it again.
It’s funny to imagine the perfect storm — the TV series premiering around the time A Dance With Dragons came out — that took your work from widely-read and well-regarded to among the most famous series on earth.
It did build, too. When the show first came out, some of the early reviews were critical, though some were very positive, but we were not even close to the top HBO show at the time. True Blood was getting far more viewership than we did. But over the first season, second season, [and] third season, word of mouth spread, the storm spread, and it built. The same thing is true of the books. A Game of Thrones, when it initially came out in 1996, didn’t hit any best-seller list. None at all. A Clash of Kings, the second book, when it came out in 1999, that hit, I think it was the Wall Street Journal list at #13 for a week and then was gone. A Storm of Swords, a year later, was higher-up on the list and stayed around for a couple weeks. Each book has done better than the one before it, each season of the show has done better than the one before it. Which I take as a real compliment — it’s word of mouth.
When you’re walking down the street in Santa Fe, do new character or historical details just pop into your head?
Sometimes it happens to me on long-distance drives. When I was younger I loved to take road trips, and get in the car and drive for two days to get to L.A. or Kansas City or St. Louis or Texas. And on the road, I would think a lot about that. In 1993, I think it was, I visited France for the first time. I had begun Game of Thrones two years before in ‘91 and I had to put it aside because television was happening. And for some reason, I had rented a car, I was driving all around Brittany and the roads of France to these little medieval villages and I was seeing castles, and somehow that just got me going again. I was thinking about Tyrion and Jon Snow and Daenerys and my head was full of Game of Thrones stuff.
You’re in unusual territory, with your characters very much still in your hands but also out in the world being interpreted for TV. Are you able to have walls in your mind such that your Daenerys, say, is your Daenerys, and Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys is hers and the show’s?
I’ve arrived at that point. The walls are up in my mind. I don’t know that I was necessarily there from the beginning. At some points, when David and Dan and I had discussions about what way we should go in, I would always favor sticking with the books, while they would favor making changes. I think one of the biggest ones would probably be when they made the decision not to bring Catelyn Stark back as Lady Stoneheart. That was probably the first major diversion of the show from the books and, you know, I argued against that, and David and Dan made that decision.
In my version of the story, Catelyn Stark is re-imbued with a kind of life and becomes this vengeful wight who galvanizes a group of people around her and is trying to exact her revenge on the riverlands. David and Dan made a decision not to go in that direction in their story, pursuing other threads. But both of them are equally valid, I think, because Catelyn Stark is a fictional character and she doesn’t exist. You can tell either story about her.
What was the hardest moment to write in the series?
The Red Wedding, without a doubt. I knew the Red Wedding was coming and I’d been planning it all along, but when I came to that chapter, which occurs two-thirds of the way through A Storm of Swords, I found I couldn’t write that chapter. I skipped over that chapter and wrote the hundreds of pages that followed. The entire book was done, except for the scene with the Red Wedding, and even all the aftermath of the Red Wedding,. It was just so hard to write that scene, because I’d been inhabiting Catelyn for so long, and of course I have a lot of affection for Robb, too, although he was never a viewpoint character, and even for some of the minor characters. They’re minor characters but you develop a relationship to them too, and I knew they all were going to die. It was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done, but it’s also one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever done.
Did Lady Stoneheart come about because it was hard to say a permanent goodbye to Catelyn?
Yeah, maybe. That may have been part of it. Part of it was also, it’s the dialogue that I was talking about. And here I’ve got to get back to Tolkien again. And I’m going to seem like I’m criticizing him, which I guess I am. It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. The Red Wedding for me in Lord of the Rings is the mines of Moria, and when Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! He’s the guy that knows all of the things that are happening! He’s one of the main heroes here! Oh god, what are they going to do without Gandalf? Now it’s just the hobbits?! And Boromir, and Aragorn? Well, maybe Aragorn will do, but it’s just a huge moment. A huge emotional investment.
And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful. That’s, in some ways, me talking to Tolkien in the dialogue, saying, “Yeah, if someone comes back from being dead, especially if they suffer a violent, traumatic death, they’re not going to come back as nice as ever.” That’s what I was trying to do, and am still trying to do, with the Lady Stoneheart character.
And Jon Snow, too, is drained by the experience of coming back from the dead on the show.
Right. And poor Beric Dondarrion, who was set up as the foreshadowing of all this, every time he’s a little less Beric. His memories are fading, he’s got all these scars, he’s becoming more and more physically hideous, because he’s not a living human being anymore. His heart isn’t beating, his blood isn’t flowing in his veins, he’s a wight, but a wight animated by fire instead of by ice, now we’re getting back to the whole fire and ice thing.
Is there anything we didn’t get to talk about?
I suppose there are issues we could have explored more with the whole question of sexual violence and women — it’s a complicated and fraught issue. To re-address that point a little, I do a lot of book signings, and I think I have probably more women readers than male readers right now. Only slightly, but it’s probably 55 percent, 45 percent, but I see women readers at things and they love my women characters. I’m very proud of the creation of Arya and Catelyn and Sansa and Brienne and Daenerys and Cersei and all of them. It’s one of the things that gives me the most satisfaction, that they’ve been so well-received as characters, especially by women readers who are often not served.
In the future, when A Song of Ice and Fire is concluded, do you hope to return to working in multifarious genres?
Yes… but I’ve still got years of this to go, and I’m already 68 years old, so… I have enough ideas right now to write other books until I was 168 years old. But I’m probably not going to live to be 168 years old. So how much time do I have? I’m always having new ideas, so I might never write some of these old ideas. So who knows? I write the things that I want to write.
I’ve been lucky with the success of these books and the show. I am going to finish these books; I think I have that obligation to the world and my readers. It’s the thing I’m going to be remembered for. But I will write other things after that, I hope. I might go back to writing short stories. I loved writing short stories. I haven’t done them in many years, but there is something to be said. I am never going to write again a gigantic seven-book opus that takes 30 years!