In the first of a not at all ongoing series of interviews here at the rarely updated STFUI, Matt Bickerton and special guest writer Brent Jones talk with celebrated author George R.R. Martin. No really. They did. And it was totally awesome.
Brent Jones: First things first: When will Eddard Stark be coming back to life in your novels?
George R.R. Martin: [Laughs] When Hell freezes over.
BJ: Fair enough. Your fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has become one of, if not the definitive modern fantasy series. When you first started writing it, did you ever anticipate that it would have the immense cultural impact that it has?
GRRM:Oh, no. Of course not. But, then again, you don’t anticipate. You write the books, and you hope that people will enjoy them, and that they will be popular, but it’s foolish to try and guess how well any book will do. I learned that very early in my career with books my publisher told me would be a big bestseller, and then you know, it doesn’t sell well at all. It’s a crapshoot out there in the world of publishing, and I had high hopes, I thought it was a good book, a good series, and I was hopeful it would find an audience. But really, all you can try to do is write the best book that you can write.
Matt Bickerton: How does it feel to have such a large and dedicated fanbase for the series?
GRRM: Well, it certainly beats having no fanbase. [Laughs] It’s very pleasant. It is a little strange at times, especially this last year, because I’ve been a writer since 1971, and I achieved a certain measure of success fairly early in my life. I won a Hugo award in 1975, I’d been nominated for Hugos and Nebulas before that, I worked in Hollywood before that, to make a living. So, I had an audience, I had a fair amount of success, but now, the success and the size of the fanbase has reached levels I never could have dreamed of. You know, I’ll go to a signing in, say, Slovenia, like I did a few months ago and have 2000 people show up. And that’s great in one sense, but it’s a little scary in another sense. I’m getting recognized which I never did before. Writers, even very famous and successful writers are generally anonymous. I mean, we know what actors look like, we know what politicians look like, but we don’t necessarily know what writers look like, so a writer can usually live his life and go to a book signing or something and meet his readers there. But I think mainly because of the HBO show and my face being on some of the promos, people are recognizing me in the grocery store, and in the airport and approaching me in my daily life for autographs. And that takes a little getting used to, but I’m certainly not complaining. It’s great to have so many readers.
MB: Do you ever feel like, when you’re writing the novels, that you have to please the audience?
GRRM: You can’t think about the audience when you’re writing. Well, you can, but I don’t. Otherwise, it’s almost like you’ve got a censor sitting over your shoulder saying “Oh no, they won’t like that. That won’t be very popular.” You know, you tell your story and you try to be true to the demands from the story itself, and you hope that people will enjoy it, you hope that the audience will respond. But ultimately, as I’ve said before, art is not a democracy. The audience doesn’t get to vote on it, and I think that’s the best way to produce good art, because if you are too conscious of how the audience will respond to anything, it forces you to make the safe choices. You’ll say “Oh, this will be popular. I’ll do that.” and that leads to, I think, mediocre work.
MB: Right. It’s kind of like our joke question about Eddard. I’m sure if everybody in the fanbase had their way, he’d be right there in the story again.
GRRM: Well, I’m sure if I’d put it up for a vote, he wouldn’t have died in the first place. If there had been a poll at the end of one of the HBO episodes, “Should we kill Ned?” I’ll bet the vote would have been overwhelmingly against it.
BJ: Branching off a bit towards the origins of the series, were there any major inspirations for the story in A Song of Ice and Fire? Or, to put it another way, what or who had an influence on your work?
GRRM: Well, certainly. One of the things I wanted to do when I set out writing this thing, was to try to combine a lot of great storytelling traditions, like the wonder and magic that good fantasy has, with the grittiness and realism of historical fiction. So in that sense, I was influenced on one hand by fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance (a particular favourite of mine), and on the other hand by writers of historical fiction, like Thomas B. Costain or Maurice Druand, the French writer, Nigel Tranter, the Scottish writer, Sharon Kay Penman. All of these writers, in some sense were influences on my work.
MB: Several of the more recent novels in the series have taken longer to write than earlier volumes, as I’m sure many fans have taken great pains to point out to you. Were there any major issues you encountered while writing the books?
GRRM: Of course, there were a lot of difficulties – it’s why the book took so long! You know, I’m dealing with a lot of balls in the air that I’m juggling, and sometimes it’s very difficult to juggle all of them. There was, particularly something I called the “Meereenese Knot” – a series of characters meeting in the city of Meereen – which was very difficult to figure out the correct chronology for, both in terms of story time, and in terms of dramatic pacing. So I wrestled with that, and wrote it and rewrote it several times. Generally speaking, I’m a slow writer anyway, and so the size and scale of this project has slowed me down even more.
MB: The series was originally planned to be a trilogy, wasn’t it?
GRRM: Yeah, way back when, in the early nineties, that was what I had envisioned, a trilogy, but as Tolkien once said about the Lord of the Rings, “The tale grew in the telling.” I can definitely attest to the truth of that.
MB: So, continuing on that tangent, how do you manage the writing process for each novel? How much time would you say is set aside for planning versus writing, for example?
GRRM: Well, I don’t outline. I know the general shape of the book, I know the major events of each book, and certainly I know the ultimate end of the story and the fate of all of the major characters. But I don’t outline on a chapter by chapter basis. In a more cursory way, I sit down and sort of sketch out how many chapters in this book each character will have, and the main event of each chapter. Then I start writing, and of course, before I’m very long into writing, that little rough outline thing that I’ve done at the beginning has got to be thrown into the trash basket. Because the characters take over, and they move the story in unexpected directions. Or maybe something that I thought would happen in one chapter actually requires three to do it the way I want to do it. Chapters get combined, chapters get separated, so it’s almost a simultaneous procedure. It’s not like I outline and then I write. Both of them occur simultaneously.
BJ: How does it feel to see these novels that you’ve worked on for so long be adapted for telvision?
GRRM: Well, it feels good. [Laughs] Especially since it’s a high quality television show that’s very true to the books, and that’s very gratifying. I mean, it’s always nice to sell an option or your work to television or film. For one thing, they pay you a lot of money. For another thing, if they actually produce the TV show or movie, you get a lot of new readers who come to it because of that. And that’s great, because you want people reading your work. The downside of it is, in some cases, what’s going to come out the other end may bear only a passing resemblance to your story, and it may not be very good. I’ve had these experiences before with other works in the past – both good and bad experiences. So, with A Song of Ice and Fire, I was very careful about who I was in business with, and I think I found some great partners with HBO, on the one hand. Their reputation for quality is unsurpassed, and with the writers and showrunners David Benioff and D.B, Weiss who are both amazing guys and amazing writers and producers, who have done a really incredible job of bringing my story to the screen.
BJ: And as you mentioned, I was one of the fans who saw the show on HBO and decided to start reading the books, and about the only major difference I noticed was the amount of time devoted to the wolves was significantly lower in the TV series.
GRRM: Well, as a writer, I can make the wolves do whatever I want. I just write “And then Summer got up on his hind legs and did a little tapdance.” [Laughs] When they actually film it, it’s a little more tricky to get the dogs up on his hind legs to dance. So we ran into a few challenges there. Hopefully they’ll have worked some of that out for the second season.
BJ: And since we know that you’ve written a few episodes of the series, as well, do you think you could elaborate on the differences between writing a scene for television and writing a scene for a novel?
GRRM: The main difference is keeping practicality in mind, like I just referred to with the wolves. There are limitations to budget and shooting schedule. And you know, I’ve worked in Hollywood myself, so I know that, and as a producer on the show, I have a good idea about our budget myself, and the kind of things we can afford. And you have to keep that in mind. I can write a scene in the novel and have twelve characters sitting around a conference table having a heated debate. Then i can give all twelve of them names and all twelve of them will have a line or two as they kind of hash the issue that’s being discussed. Well, when you film that scene, do you really want to cast twelve actors? I mean, that’s what you need. If they have a line, you have to cast an actor and certain guild minimums come into effect, and that has an impact on the budget. Or maybe, do you want to do the scene so that only three people have anything to say, and the other nine people are sitting there, and they can be cast as extras and not paid as much. But then, wait a minute, do you really need the nine people who aren’t going to say anything? Maybe you should just write the scene with the three people who have something to say. So, you know, you have to approach these things with that in mind, with what you can film [on a budget].
MB: So it’s kind of like in the one episode, where Tyrion fought in the battle between the Mountain clans and the Northmen, and it’s kind of a huge battle and a defining moment for Tyrion in the books, but in the show, he just gets knocked unconscious, and wakes up after the battle. Probably one of those areas where a big expensive battle sequence might have been impractical to film.
GRRM: Yes, battles are particularly troublesome. And when I was originally working in television, they were really troublesome, because you had to cast them with actual people. These days we have a lot of CGI tricks, so we can make huge armies as Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings without casting 10,000 people. Which is good, but even CGI costs money. So, it’s not something to be used casually. Yes you could do it for every episode, if you had unlimited funds, but while the HBO budgets are very substantial compared to most television shows, they’re not comparable to the budgets of feature films. And even feature films don’t have unlimited budgets. You always have to be cognizant of what you can afford to put on the screen.
MB: Once you’ve completed work on A Song of Ice and Fire, do you think you’ll ever return to the world of Westeros?
GRRM: Well, I’m already writing the Dunk and Egg series. So I will continue to write those – I actually have to do another one this year, and then there will be more beyond that. I don’t know, but that’s years down the pipe, so I’m not going to make any promises. I’ll cross each bridge as I come to it.
BJ: So we might be holding off on seeing a novelization of Robert’s Rebellion or Aegon’s Conquest?
GRRM: Well, I’m dramatizing Robert’s Rebellion in hindsight right now, so I can’t really see myself writing a story about it. Other periods of Westerosi history are another question.
MB: What does the future hold for George R.R. Martin?
GRRM: It holds two more books in A Song of Ice and Fire, most immediately. I have to get those done, and hopefully it won’t take me as long as these last two did, but again, I make no promises. One page at a time.
MB: Well, I think I speak for most people when I say I’d rather have a really excellent quality final copy of a book that took you five years to write than something rushed out in six months to meet demand.
GRRM: Well, that’s my feeling about it, too.
George R.R. Martin is the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, and a producer on HBO’s Game of Thrones, its television adaptation.
Matt and Brent are acting students at Niagara College.