University News

In conversation: George R.R. Martin

‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies’

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2014

George R.R. Martin was always interested in fantasy, dreaming of the world beyond the five blocks he walked to and from school each day in his childhood hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. His first published work was released in 1971, just after he graduated college, marking an auspicious start to a successful career. In 1991, he published “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series that has become an international sensation. This series, which has now seen five of its planned seven books published, catapulted Martin into literary stardom and inspired the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Martin is renowned for his evocative writing and profound characters, assets that have helped him achieve his remarkable success.

Martin and famed fantasy publisher Tom Doherty came to Brown Thursday as the recipents of the first Harris Collection Literary Award, which recognizes authors and publishing professionals for the impact their work has had on contemporary culture. In advance of the ceremony, Martin spoke with The Herald about his growth as a writer, his inspirations, the influence “Game of Thrones” has had on his life and his beloved New York Jets.


Herald: You’re coming to Brown to be recognized for the Harris Award, alongside publisher Tom Doherty. You two have been working together for at least 15 years, correct?

Martin: Oh boy, I don’t know. Of course, I knew Tom even before I worked with him. Both of us go to a lot of science fiction conventions. I can’t swear to 15 years, but there’s certainly a lot of years there.


How big of a help and an influence has (Doherty) been to you, as long as you’ve been working with him and as long as you’ve known him?

Tom’s old-school publishing. He’s always been, I think, one of the most successful and most colorful publishers in the field. He has some great stories about the old days, and it’s always been great to work with him. The publisher, for a lot of publishing companies, is an inaccessible figure sometimes. You don’t often deal directly with the publisher, but Tom is such an amazing guy and an outgoing personality that he’s always been a part of everything Tor (Books) does.


The Harris Award, as it says on its website, “celebrates the influence of literature in pop culture.” As a writer, seeing something you’ve written become as popular as the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series must be a dream, but what about that success is special? What does it mean to you that so many people have embraced what you’ve written?

I’ve been a writer for a long time. You always want a readership, you always hope that you’ll find more readers, and I’ve had enough to have a pretty successful career. But it’s funny, with “Ice and Fire,” and particularly after the “Game of Thrones” show, the readership has expanded to such huge degrees. It’s really more than I ever could have dreamed of. It’s been gratifying, and sometimes it’s a little overwhelming. You show up to do a signing and the crowds are much bigger than you’ve ever experienced before, and the amount of fan mail and email and interviews and things like that is more than I ever anticipated, but it’s fun.

On the flip side of that, do you think one thing you’ve written getting so much attention might overshadow the rest of your work? Is it frustrating to be known as the author of “Game of Thrones,” as opposed to simply a fantasy writer?

Yeah, you do feel that way sometimes, because I’ve written other stories that I’m proud of. You meet some people when you go out to signings or you do events who are clearly completely unfamiliar with that, and they think that my career just began when I started writing “Game of Thrones,” even though in fact I was already a 20-year veteran of the field by that time. You have to put that in proportion, as that’s pretty much true for the vast majority of writers that are out there, even some of the greats from literature. You say Herman Melville, and there’s “Moby Dick,” but he wrote some other novels, too. Some of (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s) other novels are also terrific, but it’s “The Great Gatsby” that has become the defining novel for Fitzgerald. I’m hardly the first writer to go through this, and so I try to keep that in proportion.


After some of your early novels struggled, you stepped away from writing novels and wrote for some TV shows, perhaps most notably the revival of “The Twilight Zone.” How do you think your work in television helped you grow as a writer?

I think working in television improved my sense of structure, which is very important in television. I think it improved my dialogue, because so much of a teleplay or a screenplay is carried by the dialogue. Some of the things that people seem to enjoy in the “Game of Thrones” books is the way each chapter ends, and you want the next chapter for that character immediately, but you switch to another character. In some ways, that’s a television structure that’s ending on what’s called in television an “act break.” So I did learn techniques and the craft of a storyteller in television. As a writer learns and grows, I think it’s good to work in many different forms, experience many different types of storytelling and pick up whatever techniques are useful to you for your authorial tool chest, whether it’s a technique used in television or film or one used in books.


The essay on fantasy on your website talks about fantasy as a means of keeping our dreams alive, as something that evokes magic in real life. Does writing fantasy give you that same feeling?

Yes, I think so. Writing and reading. I love to read. I was a voracious reader before I was a writer. I think that’s why I became a writer, to be able to create the stories I wanted to read. I’ve said in one of the books (that) a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, and a man who does not read lives only one. I certainly feel that’s true of me. I’ve lived hundreds of lives through the books I’ve read. When a book is really good, you lose track of the fact that you’re sitting in a chair looking at words on a page. You kind of fall through that page in your imagination. When you look back on it five years later or 10 years later, if it was a strong enough book, it’s almost more vivid than the memories of what you were actually doing at the time, and that’s what I strive to create for my readers, and certainly that’s a thing that I get as a writer.


You’ve been lauded for your ability to write women well, but there are some who say that the women in “Game of Thrones” are too reliant on sexuality. Are there any things you’re particularly mindful of when writing a female character, and how would you respond to those who criticize the portrayal of women in your books?

You’re always going to get criticized, but I have a wide range of women. Some of them do use their sexuality as a weapon, but by no means all of them. That’s one of the advantages of having a large cast — you don’t have to have a single female character and say, “Well, this is a portrait of women.” Women, like men, come in many different shapes, sizes and personalities. There are strong women, there are weak women, there are courageous women and vain women, there are women who rise to do heroic things, there are women who do very unscrupulous things, and the same is true of men. I try to present all sides of that in a book. My preference has always been for great characters, rather than characters who are purely heroic or purely villainous, because I don’t think real people, regardless of their sex or gender or color, are purely heroic or purely villainous. So I want to write about real, fully rounded human beings. As for sexuality, real, fully rounded human beings have sexuality. Sex is an important part of our lives — always has been since we first came out of the jungle and started walking on two feet — and it needs to be an important part of the story, too.


Another distinguishing aspect of the series is its incorporation of history, as you’ve drawn the inspiration for many events and plotlines from actual events. What’s your process of choosing events around which to base your story?

I wouldn’t call it a process. I read a lot of history, I read a lot of historical fiction, and as you do, you come across some cool things sometimes. You say, “Look at this interesting history. That’s really cool. How can I use that?” You don’t use it directly, but you play with it, you change things, you make things a little more complicated, add a twist to it. Everything a writer reads, everything a writer sees, everything a writer experiences in his own life can be grist for the mill.


One last question — who should be the Jets’ starting quarterback: Geno Smith or Michael Vick?

Matt Simms.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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