George R.R. Martin Talks Ice and Fire
A Book Help Web Exclusive InterviewGeorge R.R. Martin shook up the fantasy genre with the publication of his sweeping epic, Song of Ice and Fire.
The saga's fourth book was published in 2005 and now numbers 3,904 pages of intense political intrigue, adventure, blood, and sex. It is the War of the Roses made bigger, bloodier, scarier, and more intense. It is peopled with noble and common families who can trace their bloodlines back for thousands of years.
All four have been nominated for either a World Fantasy, Nebula, or Hugo award. The most recent release, A Feast for Crows, has been nominated for a 2005 Hugo Award, giving Martin the chance at a fifth Hugo along with nominations in every decade since 1974. Martin has also written and produced for television shows such as The Twilight Zone remake and Beauty and the Beast.
Immersed in the next book -A Dance With Dragons-he graciously took time to speak with Book Help Web.
BookHelpWeb: What has been the most memorable or unusual response you've gotten from a reader of your books?
George R.R. Martin: I've gotten letters from people who say they got together romantically because of my books. They saw someone reading one of my books and they got to talking. Later they got involved or got married. Those are always interesting letters to get.
I got a letter from a guy in Iraq who had a buddy killed. They found my book in his buddy's effects. The guy started reading it and now whenever he reads my books, he's always thinking of his friend.
There is a growing trend for naming children after my characters. Some are clearly inspired by the characters themselves. Others just like the sound of the name. A lot of people today are picking names for children on that basis. It's kind of strange for me. I'm of an older generation and grew up in the tradition of naming people after other people-people you admire. Today they pick names from a baby book that they like the sound of.
BHW: How did you come up with the names for Song of Ice and Fire ?
Martin: I picked names from a baby book.
Actually, the names in Song of Ice and Fire were something I devoted a fair amount of thought to. I violated a fair amount of rules that they teach you when you are a young writer. When I was younger, I tried not to violate them: Never have two characters in a story whose names start with the same letter; people will get confused. Certainly never have two characters with the same name because people will get really confused.
I knew the first rule wasn't going to work because after the first chapter I had more than 26 characters and you don't want a lot of X and Q names running around. I read a lot of medieval history in preparation for this series. I encountered English histories and the names are all Henrys and Edwards. In French history it is all Louies and Philips. Even the secondary families are using the same names over and over again. There were particular names associated with particular houses. I decided to do that-to hell with the rules. The readers can pay attention. I even have characters occasionally get confused about which Brandon is being talked about.
I felt this gave the world more verisimilitude. Our world-even our modern world-is filled with Davids, Stevens, and Brians. How do you keep them straight? You can use the same techniques for the book.
BHW: You've received numerous awards-Nebulas, Hugos, Locuses, etc.-which one has meant the most to you or had the most impact on you?
Martin: I don't think any of the awards have an impact on your writing. They shouldn't anyway. You can't write to win a Hugo or a Nebula. You write to tell the best story you can. If someone later wants to give you an award for it, that's great. That it gets an award doesn't make it any better. If it fails to get an award, it doesn't make it any worse. It doesn't affect the creative process.
Commercially, awards are helpful-especially to a young writer. I was nominated for a Campbell Award in 1973, the first year it was offered. I lost, but the fact that I was nominated for it, that I was named one of the best five new writers of the past two years, really encouraged me and excited me.
They say it is an honor just to be nominated for an award and that's true. I got a lot of encouragement from awards in those early days and got the sense that people appreciated what I was doing.
As you get older, the awards continue to be gratifying but they no longer make a commercial difference to your career.
BHW: If you were able to pick only one of your books to be honored as "great" above all the others, which one would you choose?
Martin: That's a difficult question. Song of Ice and Fire is really one long story. To pick one of the books and say it is great is like saying that chapters 17 to 32 are great, but chapters 32 to 35 are not.
Hopefully by the time I finish it, that story will be great, but I'm not done yet. I can't say that yet because I could still screw it up. Or I could get hit by a truck and it would remain unfinished. You can't call it great if it remains unfinished. A great story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It is the biggest and most ambitious story I've ever attempted. It really is a song of ice and fire.
BHW: You have said, "Art is not a democracy. People don't get to vote on how it ends." So how do you shut out all the fanzine stories, the e-mails, the in-person demands that one character or another be saved or a plot line sent in one direction or another? How about a critic-did anything they ever wrote influence your future work?
Martin: I do get letters from fans about what I'm doing with the story. Some of them stop reading my books because they're disturbed that their favorite character has died. For every one of those letters, though, I get 100 saying 'thank you for killing these characters' because it makes the opus more real.
I get a fair amount of people writing "please let this person live." I say, 'thank you for the suggestion' and tell them to keep reading.
In the beginning of my career, I would actively seek out criticism. I lived in Chicago and founded the Windy City Writers Group. It was a group of professional science fiction writers who got together to exchange stories and critique them. It's helpful to get that kind of criticism, especially when the story is unpublished because you can still make changes to it. That's something that you need less as you get more experience as a writer. You get more confident as a writer-maybe over-confident. You get more of a sense that you know what you're doing and you find your own voice.
For a young writer, going to something like a Clarion or a Clarion West is a terrific way to launch a career.
BHW: Have any of the characters/plot lines had developments that you did not expect or have they stayed pretty disciplined in sticking to your original plan?
Martin: Some of the characters definitely have minds of their own. You write a chapter and think it is going to be about one thing and a character will do something or say something that takes you off in a different direction. So you follow that where it goes. Sometimes it doesn't work out. Sometimes you write for three days and then say this is not working at all, go back and rip it up, slap the character around and get back on path.
Sometimes, though, the detour is the more rewarding path. You have to trust your instincts on it.
Actually, I don't tear anything up these days. I set it all aside. I work on the computer and if I excise something, I put it in a file of bits. I save previous old versions. If at some later point in the process, I think that the first version is actually better than where I've ended up after rewriting it four times, I can go back to it. If it is as wonderful as I remember it, I can plug it back in.
BHW: How much backstory have you created? Have you mapped out the world's physics, geography, history, astronomy, etc.?
Martin: I have a huge number of genealogies that are in the appendices. The appendices grow with each book. I also have a fair amount of back story in my head. In the genealogy for a house, I'll list the three children of a particular lord and lady. As I write them down, I have something in my head or in my notes. I have some secret about them or their personality or their fate. There is backstory-but it is subject to change. Nothing is actually canon until it appears in the novel.
I've made this point with some of the spin-off products. Some of the gaming products want to use my notes or some materials I have. I've allowed that, but I caution them that I'm still telling the story. If I change it, the version in the books is canon. The spin-off products are fun, but not canon.
It's sort of a strange, artificial distinction I've run into. It reminded me of when I was a kid reading Superman comics. They would occasionally have an "imaginary story." What if Superman and Lois Lane got married? Even as a kid, I thought, "if these are imaginary stories, what are the other ones?"
I did leave the scale out of the map on purpose because I didn't want people with their rulers writing me obsessive-compulsive letters saying, "you said it would take five days, but I've measured it and it should take only three days." I still get these letters despite my best efforts to be vague. Perhaps I should have been more specific. Tolkien was very methodical. He had every distance down and knew where every character was every day. It took him 15 years to write the books and more to write The Simarillion, which was unfinished at his death. My fans were unhappy with my taking five years to write the last book. I didn't want to get bogged down in that type of detail.
BHW: How did you determine which characters would go into Feast for Crows and which would go into Dance with Dragons?
Martin: It was largely a matter of geography. The first thing I did was to take out the chapters that were on another continent. Chiefly Dany, who has been far away from everyone else for all four books. I also took out other characters who had moved to other continents.
Then, I took out the characters who were mostly concerned with the North, partly because it was geographically separate from King's Landing. When I made the division, the book was not done. It was too long to be publishable and I still had hundreds of pages to write. I took out the unfinished parts so I could get a finished book.
It broke down pretty well according to geography. I could have omitted Arya. I hesitated over her because she is on the other continent, but she had only three chapters. I was moving Jon Snow, Tyrion and Dany-three of my four most popular characters-into the other book. If I moved Arya too, it might not be a good idea. She'll actually appear in both books.
BHW: Why is the wall so tall?
Martin: To keep out bad things.
Hadrian's Wall was an inspiration. In fantasy, everything is bigger. A friend of mine, Lisa Tuttle (we wrote Windhaven together), had just moved to Scotland and was giving me a tour. We were driving in her car and got to Hadrian's Wall at the end of the day. The tour buses were leaving. We walked along the top of the wall just as the sun was going down. It was the fall. I stood there and looked out over the hills of Scotland and wondered what it would be like to be a Roman centurion from Italy , Greece , or even Africa , covered in furs and not knowing what would be coming out of the north at you. I wanted to capture that feeling.
Hadrian's Wall is impressive, but it's not really tall. A good ladder would be all you need to scramble right on over it. When you're doing fantasy, it has to be bigger than in real life. The castles are grander. Fantasy is painted in larger scale and brighter colors.
BHW: You've written a lot of screenplays and were heavily involved in the productions of The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. You said once that it could take 18 movies to tell the story, but what about adapting The Song of Ice and Fire into a multi-year television series? If a television series, would you still be as ruthless in killing off beloved characters?
Martin : My agents are taking offers, but so far we haven't had anything. It's very big and very complex. It's not a simple kind of popcorn story. The characters are very complex. Actors and directors will like it, but I don't know that studios will like it. There is a lot of sex, incest, violence, massacres, and betrayals. Some of us like that kind of thing, but it couldn't be a network television show. It would have to be Showtime, HBO, BBC-someone doing more adult material.
I worked in Hollywood long enough to know that some of a story is going to change because the medium is different. Those are valid changes-a television show is not a movie is not a book. The story has to fit into the medium. However, 90 percent of the changes made are not necessary changes. They're not made to suit the medium; they're made because you have some asshole of a director or screenwriter who thinks they can do it better and most of the time they can't.
Take the atrocity that was Earthsea. There was no need to essentially throw out the story and rewrite it with the same character names. It's a roll of the dice-you don't know what you're gong to get.
Roger Zelazny was a dear friend of mine. When people were talking about Damnation Alley-a story of his which was made into a really bad movie-he would quote James M. Cain, " Hollywood hasn't done anything to my books. They're right over there on the shelf, they're the same as when I wrote them."
BHW: You do tabletop role playing games. Would you play in a Song of Ice and Fire world or would that be too much like work?
Martin: No, that would be uncomfortable. I'm glad other people playing in it, but I'm too close to it.
Photo by Parris and published with kind permission of George R.R. Martin.