University News

Pop culture, science fiction intersect at talk

George R.R. Martin, Tom Doherty bring science fiction down to earth through literature

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2014

Tom Doherty and George R.R. Martin received the Harris Collection Literary Award, a prize given by the Brown University Library that “celebrates the influence of literature in pop culture.”

The world is in a “golden age of fantasy,” proclaimed best-selling author George R.R. Martin, invoking an image as whimsical as his stories to a packed Salomon 101, where he and publisher Tom Doherty were interviewed about their experiences in science fiction and fantasy writing Thursday.

The powerful sci-fi pair was accepting the inaugural Harris Collection Literary Award, a prize presented by the Brown University Library that “celebrates the influence of literature in pop culture” and is “inspired by the love of the arts demonstrated” by namesake Caleb Fiske Harris 1838, according to the library’s website.

Martin, a fantasy writer for over 40 years, became famous for his series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which serves as the basis for the wildly popular television show “Game of Thrones.”

Doherty has been a towering figure in the world of publishing for decades and is most notable for founding the fantasy publishing group Tor Books, which is now owned by Macmillan Publishers.

Author Jon Land ’79, who helped to organize the evening, and Professor of Modern Culture and Media Lynne Joyrich moderated the talk, in which Martin and Doherty spoke at length on many topics, primarily discussing their backgrounds and the fantasy publishing industry as a whole.

Doherty recounted his rise through the publishing industry — from his start working at companies like Simon and Schuster and Ballantine Books to finally founding Tor — and the journey he has taken since then. In its entirety, his career has played an instrumental role in creating modern science fiction literature culture by helping to popularize fantasy for adults and in mass-market paperbacks.

On his quest to bring the genre to the forefront, one of his driving tenets was the idea that a fantasy story succeeds based on its themes and characters, regardless of setting. “When interesting characters are created, people want more of them,” he said.

Martin opened on a light note, joking to the audience that it was “nice going to an awards ceremony where I know I’m going to win.” The moderators peppered him with questions of a large variety, asking about his growth as a writer, his experience with the creation of “Game of Thrones” and the popularity of the book series.

“History was huge for me,” he said of his writing process and his desire to separate his work from the rest of the genre. Specifically, he sought to incorporate historical events into his writing to differentiate his work from that of authors he thought were simply imitating “The Lord of the Rings” author J. R. R. Tolkien. While others adapted the tropes of pure good and evil used in Tolkien’s books, Martin spoke about subverting them as he aimed to “weld” fantasy with “the grittiness of history.” For example, Martin based the Red Wedding, one of the series’ most iconic moments, on the Black Dinner, a similar event that took place in 15th-century Scotland.

Another essential aspect of Martin’s writing is the depth of his characters. He invoked Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner in explaining it, repeating Faulkner’s famous line: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

“I believe that,” Martin added.

In an audience question-and-answer session following the talk, Martin handled questions about the specifics of his books and his continuous process of writing them. Holly Gildea ’16 asked about how the series’ popularity affected his ability to write the surprises in the books, given how many more people now pore over and assemble the small clues he has dropped in the text.

“People can write their predictions and propagate them through the reader base much more quickly,” she said, referring to the online forums dedicated to solving the books’ many mysteries.

Martin said he avoids the online theorists as much as possible, but acknowledged that some detectives may have connected the dots enough to see the big picture.

Gildea told The Herald afterward that she enjoyed the event as a whole, but particularly appreciated Doherty’s presence, even if he was the less recognizable figure. His attendance “gave an interesting perspective into the field of publishing as a whole,” she said.

Though Doherty’s story fascinated the crowd, Martin clearly drew the most attention. He gave insight into his views of fantasy and his writing process, in which he said he prefers to create nuanced characters and let the story flow through them.

“I’m a gardener, not an architect,” he said.