The Beatrice Interview: George R.R. Martin (2000)

After years of writing amazing fantasies set in a world very much like our own, like Fevre Dream (perhaps the best American vampire novel ever) and Armageddon Rag, why would George R. R. Martin turn to a multivolume saga of royal intrigues set in a completely imaginary medievalesque universe? “Well, it was just a story I wanted to write at the time,” he shrugs when I put the question to him in a Seattle restaurant. “I do like to, as a writer, try different things; I think that’s the only way you keep yourself fresh. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, I think, no matter how good you are, you’re bound to get stale.” In any event, he doesn’t see the A Song of Ice and Fire series as that radical a shift from his earlier novels and stories. “I really never made any distinctions as far as science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I read Heinlein when I was young, and Tolkien the next day, and Lovecraft the day after that. I read all of them and sort of lumped them all together as close cousins, as imaginative literature, although my father used to call them weird stuff. As in, ‘Why do you like all that weird stuff?'” But Martin has done all right by “that weird stuff,” especially in recent years, as the thousand-page-plus volumes of his fantasy series begin to reach higher and higher positions on the New York Times bestseller list. Like thousands of fans, I devoured each book in as few sittings as I could possilby manage, totally caught up in the intricate shifts of balance among the various noble families of Martin’s world, and eagerly await volume four, currently scheduled for release in the fall of 2002.

In an interview a while back, you mentioned the War of the Roses as a historical starting point from which you soon went off in very different directions.

If I was going to do something with a medieval flavor, I wanted to know as much about the medieval period as I could to try to capture that with a little verisimilitude, so I read a lot of history. I’d read history anyway, because I love it. I’d read about the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War, the Crusades– they were all grist for the mill, probably the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War more than anything else. Some fans have taken that too far and have looked for exact parallels to the Wars of the Roses, to say this character is actually Edward IV and this character is Richard III but none of that really holds up. My characters, while they may be inspired in one facet or another, are not actual historical characters under other names. I prefer to do something other than that.

And the whole point of a “departure point” is that you’re not beholden to that exact sequence of events.

That’s true. I wanted these books to have some of the feel of historical fiction, but with the added suspense of not knowing what sort of resolution there would be. I read a lot of historical fiction, but the problem with historical fiction is that if you know the history, you know how it’s going to come out. So, any suspense is necessarily limited or at least is of a different kind than when you read a story where you don’t know how it’s going to end.

The series was originally planned as a trilogy, right?

That was my original conception, but it became apparent even before I finished the first book that I had too much story and too many characters to be able to do it in three books, even three huge books. So now I’m looking at six books.

How much of the world and the narrative did you have figured out before you wrote the first word of the first volume?

I have a general idea, but I don’t have a detailed outline. I prefer not to work that way. I think that’s where the writing comes in, as much as choosing words—determining the actual events and how they’re going to unfold. And I prefer to discover that in the course of writing. But I do know the major events that are going to occur later down the road, I know the ultimate destination. What I don’t know is every twist and turn, or the ultimate fate of every minor character. Some of those things I’ll work out in the course of writing.

Do you have a favorite character?

I love them all. They’re all my kids in that respect. But I got to admit that Tyrion is my favorite. He’s very easy to write and he’s a beautiful shade of gray. I like gray characters. I think all black and all white characters are, by their very nature, boring and one-dimensional. But gray characters can have all the subtle shadings and contradictions that make us human and make for an interesting person. And Tyrion is certainly that.

How do you maintain the pace? What’s your writing schedule like?

Well, I write every day, except Sundays during NFL season. I get up in the morning, have my coffee, and go write. On a day that it goes good, I start work and when I look up, it’s dark outside. On a different day, I may struggle and every word comes with a few drops of blood, and I might I tear up everything the following day.

The bulk and the pacing of the series allows you to unfold character’s motivations, and the dynamics of your fictional cultures, very slowly. In the first book, for example, Theon is there, although his role is somewhat vague, and it’s not until a thousand pages later that his role becomes a lot clearer.

It’s something you can do given the epic scale of the books and the size of the books, and that’s valuable. I worked in Hollywood before beginning this series and enjoyed many things about it, but still, for a television program, you have a certain number of minutes. You can’t exceed that. You can’t go over. You have to be descriptive within a certain length so for ten years I had been in the habit of cutting and trimming and making scripts into a very tight fit. After a decade of that, I was really in the mood to do something more expansive, something that gave me room to do the kind of things that you’re talking about.

Not everybody in your world has the ability to do magic. When it occurs, it’s really magical—a special, bizarre event.

I think the handling of magic in fantasy is one of the genre’s trickiest aspects, one where we have to make a very important decision going in. I wrestled with this for a long time when I was first starting the books. I looked at Tolkien, of course, who’s regarded as the very master of modern fantasy. Virtually everything that all of us are doing today is pretty much patterned to Lord of the Rings, which created the genre as it now exists.

Middle Earth is a very magical place. You read the books and you certainly get the view that magic suffuses the world and the culture, but there’s actually very little onstage magic. Gandalf is a wizard, but he fights with a sword; he doesn’t perform incantations or pull down lightning from the sky. Most of the magic, when it does occur, is of great import, but he never really gives wiring diagrams as to how it works.

To my mind, that worked, and it worked better than most of the other alternatives I’ve seen. If you make magic too explicit, it ceases to become magical. Magic should be wondrous and terrifying. It should be outside our realm of knowledge—supernatural, not natural. That’s the way I tried to handle it. I’ve also made a decision which relates to the design of the books, to increase the amount of magic in each book. So, A Game of Thrones has the least magic and there’s a little more in Clash of Kings and yet a little more in Storm of Swords, and that will continue as the series progresses.