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George RR Martin has spent a lifetime telling stories, so it’s strange to see him lost for words. We’re in the back room of Beastly Books, surrounded by the colourful volumes of his work that line the shelves of the charming little shop he opened three years ago in his adopted home of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sunk in a high-backed brown leather chair in front of a wall-sized mural of John Singer Sargent’s Edwardian-era oil painting Nonchaloir (Repose), the author has been playing raconteur for the last hour. Eyes twinkling behind silver-framed glasses, he’s been telling the fantastical tale of the son of a longshoreman from New Jersey who grew up reading Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Marvel comic books, and went on to write his own bestselling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which in turn became the record-breaking, award-hoarding, television-conquering HBO series Game of Thrones.
The runaway success of the show made Martin rich beyond even the wildest fever dreams of a lifelong science-fiction writer, but it’s his first-hand experience of the viciousness of a particular type of hyper-online fan that’s left him uncharacteristically stumped. “I don’t understand how people can come to hate so much something that they once loved,” he says. “If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it! How has everything become so toxic?”
Martin is regularly harangued about when he’s going to produce The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, not to mention a seventh volume still to come after that. He’s also seen the virulent scorn poured by some critics and professed fans on the final season of Game of Thrones, so it’s perhaps with some trepidation that he’s returning to the televisual fray. On 21 August, Martin will take HBO back to Westeros in House of the Dragon, a prequel show set several hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones. It tells the story of the Targaryens, whose royal dynasty was built on their power as dragonlords before a civil war tore the family apart – which means there should be enough fire-breathing and aerial battles for even the most hard-to-please fan.
The author is wise enough not to take any of the online abuse he suffers too personally. After all, the same toxicity seems to infect the discourse around many of the world’s most popular stories. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power isn’t even on yet [it will stream on Amazon in September], but if you follow what’s going on online, the controversy about it is like World War Two. They’re dropping atomic bombs on each other,” he says incredulously of the fans who howl about any perceived deviation from the source material. “You hear controversies about some of the Marvel shows and the Marvel movies, certainly about the DC characters. It used to be if you were a fan of Star Trek, you liked Star Trek. Now it seems like half the people who call themselves Star Trek fans hate Star Trek, and the Star Wars fans hate Star Wars, and the Tolkien fans hate Rings of Power. What the hell? Now maybe it’s because it’s changing, but as a writer you’d go crazy if you didn’t change it somehow. You want to tell new stories, not tell the same stories over and over again.”
Martin knows what it’s like to be a superfan. He grew up in the New Jersey port town of Bayonne in the Fifties, and the first words he ever had published were fan letters in Marvel comics. “‘Dear Stan and Jack, you guys are better than Shakespeare!’” recalls Martin of his heartfelt declarations of the genius of writer-artist team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. How times have changed. “I was a big Marvel fan, and I tried some of those Marvel shows that were on in the Seventies, The [Incredible] Hulk with Bill Bixby and [TV movies about] Captain America. I tried them once and I didn’t watch them again because I didn’t like them very much, but I didn’t go crazy and start writing hate mail,” he says. “I’ve got to think social media has something to do with it.”
In the days when Martin discovered them, superhero comics were just one genre among many. “There were cowboy comic books and there were war comic books, and for the girls there were romance comic books – which I didn’t touch of course!” he recalls. Superheroes were Martin’s favourite, but he found himself losing interest. “The stories never went anywhere,” he says. “Superman would be there, and his girlfriend Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen his best friend, Perry White the editor of the Daily Planet, and something would happen. At the end of the story, everything would be exactly the way it was at the beginning of the story, for issue after issue, year after year.” Then along came Stan Lee, who broke all the rules. “Stan Lee’s writing was so much better than what you’d been getting,” he says. “Things happened. Spider-Man was progressing. It was so refreshing.”
Martin has been using the lessons he learned ever since. He grows animated at the memory of reading Avengers #9, originally published in October 1964, the issue that introduced a new Avenger named Wonder Man. It was soon revealed that Wonder Man was a villain, but in a second twist he ultimately chose not to betray his new friends the Avengers. Then, Wonder Man died. “That’s all Stan Lee, and you can see it all over my work!” points out Martin. “Unexpectedly killing characters, characters who are not what they seem, characters who are partly good and partly bad. Grey characters. You don’t know which way they’re going to jump when the moment of crisis comes. Stan Lee’s fingerprints are all over that.”
At the age of 21, Martin sold his first short story, “The Hero”. A space-age tale about a genetically enhanced super-soldier trying to get discharged, the story was inspired by tales of shell-shocked veterans and Martin’s own political opposition to the war in Vietnam. He credits its publication, in a 1971 issue of Galaxy Magazine, with helping him to gain conscientious objector status and avoid the draft. It also got him his first pay cheque as a writer. “I got $94,” he remembers. “That was a lot of money in 1970.”
When Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972, it sparked a short-lived chess craze in the US, which for a while meant Martin could earn a living running chess tournaments on the weekends. This supported his writing during the week, and helped him progress from short stories to novellas. He was teaching English and journalism at Clarke College in Iowa by the time he published his debut novel, Dying of the Light, in 1977 – a science-fiction story set on a dying planet.
After quitting his job in 1979, Martin moved to Santa Fe to focus on writing full time. His fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag, published in 1983, was supposed to be his commercial breakthrough. He describes the book as a “big, hard-to-classify mystery-thriller-supernatural novel about rock’n’roll in the Sixties”. There was only one problem. “It got great reviews. Unfortunately, very few people bought it.” Sales stank so bad, no publisher wanted to go anywhere near his next book. “That was a scary period of time. I was thinking maybe I should get a realtor’s licence,” he says, before offering a brief but deeply endearing demonstration of what it would be like if George RR Martin tried to sell you somewhere to live. “‘This house has four bathrooms,’” he pantomimes. “‘Would you like to see the upstairs?’ That kind of thing.”
Thankfully for Martin, if sadly for the real-estate business, one person who did buy the book was Hollywood producer Philip DeGuere Jr. He optioned The Armageddon Rag and then hired Martin to join the writing staff for his 1985 reboot of The Twilight Zone. Martin wrote five scripts, one of which made it onto the air at the very end of the season. “That was the first time I ever visited the set,” he remembers. “It was like words on my paper were suddenly real. There were carpenters building Stonehenge because it’s in a scene. A novelist or a short-story writer lives in their head, and you have these dreams, but the first time you see them assuming tangible reality is very exciting.”
After the show was cancelled, Martin went on to work as a writer for proto-CGI satire Max Headroom, and for fantasy series Beauty and the Beast, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. He was still mostly working in television by 1991 when, during a lull in productions, he attempted to write another instalment in his long-running Thousand Worlds science-fiction series. Instead, he was struck by an image for a whole new story, in a world he’d never even dreamt of before. “I just suddenly got this vision of these direwolf pups being found in the summer snows,” he recalls wistfully. “That phrase ‘in the summer snows’ was always part of it, from the beginning. These were ‘summer snows’, which meant something had to be wrong with the climate. I started writing it, and there were castles and guys with swords. I wrote it very quickly. In three days, I had finished the chapter, which is fast for me. As you may know, I’m not usually reckoned one of the fastest writers in the world!”
Martin likes to describe his writing style as that of a “gardener”, in contrast to an “architect” who plans out their stories well in advance. The world of Westeros and the story of Game of Thrones grew together organically as he tended them. “The Wall and the Night’s Watch, where did all that come from? I don’t know,” he says. “I was gardening, and suddenly something was sprouting at the end. It took me over, pretty much for the whole of the summer of 1991.”
A Game of Thrones, the first novel in A Song of Ice and Fire, was published in 1996. By the time the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, came out in 2000, Martin had been living with his characters for the best part of a decade, so you can imagine how cut up he was about having to kill off so many of them off for the novel’s notorious Red Wedding. “I finished the entire book, except for the Red Wedding,” recalls Martin with a grimace. “That was such a painful chapter for me to write, losing some characters that I had come to know and love. Nine years I’d been with these characters, and now I was going to kill them horribly! That was difficult.”
Martin’s philosophy is that death should be difficult. Difficult to write and difficult to read. “It’s a horrible chapter, and it upsets people,” he says. “It makes people angry, it makes people sad. People throw the book against the wall or into the fireplace. When it was on TV, it had the same effect on tens of thousands, if not millions, of people. To my mind, that’s good. We’re talking about death here!”
Too often, Martin believes, death is trivialised by being reduced to a mere plot point or inciting incident. “We all in our real lives have experienced death,” he says. “Your parents die. Your best friend dies. Sometimes, in a really tragic situation, your children die or your wife or husband dies. It’s terrible. It affects you. It makes you angry, it makes you sad. In our entertainment, television, film, books, over the centuries as it’s evolved, death is often treated very cavalierly. Somebody is dead, we’ve got a mystery, and the detective has to figure out who did it. We never consider who the corpse is, or what his life was like... what it’s going to be like without him. If I’m going to write a death scene, particularly for major characters, I want to make the reader feel it. That’s what the Red Wedding, I think, successfully accomplished. People felt that death.”
In any case, he argues, his reputation as a gleeful mass-murdering character-assassin has been woefully exaggerated. “Star Wars kills more characters than I do!” he argues. “In the very first Star Wars movie they blow up the entire planet of Alderaan, which has, like, 20 billion people on it, and they’re all dead. But you know what? Nobody cares. Everybody on Alderaan is dead. Oh, OK. But we don’t know the people on Alderaan. We don’t feel their deaths. It’s just a statistic. If you’re going to write about death, you should feel it.”
Star Wars kills more characters than I do! In the very first Star Wars movie they blow up the entire planet of Alderaan. But you know what? Nobody cares
George RR Martin
In other words, don’t bank on anybody from the House of the Dragon cast making it all the way to the end of the season. The new show hits HBO two weeks before Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and as an avowed Tolkien disciple, Martin will naturally be tuning in to both. “It’s kind of a weird deal, as you know. Amazon bought Tolkien, but they didn’t actually get any of the books,” he explains. “They didn’t get The Lord of the Rings, they didn’t get The Hobbit, they didn’t even get The Silmarillion. I don’t think they got Farmer Giles of Ham or Leaf by Niggle, but they got the appendices, I guess, and they’re constructing a Second Age story about that. There’s a lot of myth about that, so it’ll be interesting to see what they did.”
Martin points out that when he was a kid, the TV schedules were packed with Westerns, so there’s surely room for more than one epic fantasy. “I know a lot of articles, the minute the dates were announced, it’s: ‘Oh, the battle for fantasy supremacy. It’s Rings of Power versus House of the Dragon, who will win?’ I don’t know why they always have to do that,” he says. “I hope both shows succeed. I’m competitive enough. I hope we succeed more. If they win six Emmys – and I hope they do – I hope we win seven. But nonetheless, it’s good for fantasy. I love fantasy. I love science fiction. I want more shows on television.”
Martin says he’s already seen a few rough cuts of House of the Dragon, and couldn’t help being taken back to late 2010, when he travelled to Europe to watch Maisie Williams and Sean Bean film the scene where Arya Stark talks to Ned Stark while balancing on one foot at the top of a flight of stairs. It was his first visit to the set of Game of Thrones; his first glimpse of the show that would take over TV, and his life. “It was magical,” says Martin. “It was like: here are my characters, they’ve come to life. They’re saying the things they said. The scene is pretty much as I imagined it when I wrote it. There’s nothing like that.”
Whether the show’s fans will take as passionately to House of the Dragon remains to be seen. Martin’s ready to roll the dice. “We’ll see if they accept House of the Dragon as they did Game of Thrones,” he says. “It’s different characters. It’s a different time. It’s the same world. It’s a different story. This profession is a gambler’s profession. You tell your story, and then you see whether they’re standing up and applauding or whether they’ve brought some rotten fruit to the theatre that they’re going to now pelt you with. If it is rotten fruit, you’ve just got to duck and run backstage and invent another story to tell the next time. That’s what I do. I’m a storyteller.”
The Independent, as the international media partner of the Santa Fe Literary Festival, provided coverage across each day of the event. For more visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website