You're just about to publish A Feast For Crows (Reviews, Oct. 3), the latest installment in your highly successful fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. But before that, you had retreated to Hollywood, making a living as a screenwriter after your first foray into novel writing went bust. What happened?
I wrote Fevre Dream, which was a historical horror novel. That was the first of my books to be published as "mainstream" [Poseidon, 1982]. It did quite well, got excellent reviews—sold better than my previous books. I was a hot commodity. Then I wrote The Armageddon Rag [Poseidon, 1983], which was a real hybrid: rock and roll in the '60s, horror and dark fantasy, a little bit of a murder mystery and a mainstream novel of character, all blended together. It was probably my most ambitious novel, my most experimental novel. Unfortunately, it was a total commercial disaster. Instead of taking me to the next level, it almost destroyed my career.
The novels in your fantasy series are certainly ambitious in length and in terms of intricate plots and dozens of well-developed characters. Do you have each one plotted out in detail before you sit down to write?
I've never been a writer who outlines his whole story ahead of time and has everything worked out, and then sits down and fleshes it out. I would find that a very unpleasant way to work. It makes the actual writing drudgery if you're just following a skeleton, where you've already crossed every "t" and dotted every "i." It's much more fun to let the characters take you along.
Fans and critics alike have noted that your Song of Ice and Fire series is much more substantial than the standard fantasy books on the market. Can you quantify what it is you do that sets your fantasy series apart from all the others?
I wanted—in writing this series—to get away from the traditional good guys and bad guys clichés of so much of contemporary fantasy. I'm a huge fan of Tolkien, but some of the things he did very well, in lesser hands, the hands of his imitators, have become terrible weights on the field of fantasy. One of them is the notion of absolute good versus absolute evil, of a dark lord who's responsible for everything and is brooding there and sending forth his evil minions in order to plunge the entire world into darkness. The struggle between good and evil is certainly a legitimate topic; but that struggle is not waged against dark lords with evil minions. It's waged within the individual human heart. All of us have good and evil in us; the question is, what choices will we make when we're confronted with difficult and dangerous situations? That's the approach [to fantasy] that I wanted to take.