Winter is coming to the Seven Kingdoms, a killing winter that will last for decades. On the tip of a lance, on a boar’s tusks, in a poisoned cup or at the hands of silent, supernaturally powerful warriors, death is easy to find in George R.R. Martin’s virtuostic new fantasy, A Game of Thrones.
The desolation and cold of the novel seem at odds, however, with the warmth and clutter of Martin’s Santa Fe, N.M., home. The house is adobe, all rounded-off right angles and earthtones on the outside, all heavy wood beams and dimness within. The living room is dominated by a couch carved with dragons, something Martin picked up during his years as a Hollywood scriptwriter. The bookshelves are jammed with copies of Martin’s own work and with his awards—Hugos, Nebulas, a Bram Stoker statuette. The walls are covered with fantasy art, much of it the original cover art from his books. Near the door, a whatnot displays part of Martin’s collection of hand-painted toy soldiers.
The artwork gives some indication of the variety of Martin’s publishing record. He sold his first short story while finishing up a master’s degree in Journalism at Northwestern University in 1971. Although his early work was hard science fiction, he wrote two horror novels in the 1980s and then went off to Hollywood to script TV series, among them The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Now he’s writing a new fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Game of Thrones, the first volume, is out from Bantam this month (Forecasts, June 10).
Switching from one genre to another has become a hallmark of Martin’s career, although, as he is quick to point out, it’s generally discouraged by publishers and disparaged by critics. “I think you can do all of these things simultaneously; at least you used to be able to. And aesthetically, artistically, I don’t think there’s any reason you can’t. In some ways it keeps the writer sharper to do different genres, to try different things. I think you get very stale if you write the same kind of book over and over. I know that in the present publishing climate the well-known writer who does one kind of book over and over and over again is considered to be the most commercial, but I think it would drive me crazy if I had to do that.”
When Beauty and the Beast finished its run in 1990, Martin went on to other Hollywood projects. He developed a number of television pilots, one of which, a science-fiction series called Doorways, was actually shot, though the series was never made. With SF writer Melinda Snodgrass, he wrote and sold screenplays for several feature films, but the scripts were orphaned when Disney went through a major upheaval and, in all probability, will not be produced. As Martin says: “I was paid very well, but as a writer I just can’t stand spending a year of my life on a project and then nobody sees it except four guys in some office in Burbank.”
So, in search of readers, Martin decided to go back to writing books, but his agents, Kirby McCauley and Ralph Vicinanza (who’d represented him virtually from the beginning), suggested that his career was a little unfocused. “No one knew whether I was a science-fiction writer or a horror writer; so my decision then to do a high fantasy book was partly motivated by the Imp of the Perverse in me refusing to be typecast. After A Song of Ice and Fire, my next book may well be science fiction or horror or something else.”
Word of Martin’s return to the genre has generated excitement in the SF community and, with an initial print run of 75,000, Bantam clearly believes that A Game of Thrones has the potential to be both a bestseller and an award winner. This saga, centering on a bloody contest to control the throne of the Seven Kingdoms, is an enormous novel, much longer than anything Martin has previously attempted. “I knew it was going to be a big project,” Martin says. “But I don’t think that when I typed that first sentence I had any notion of exactly how big it was going to be. I’ve recently come to the realization that I’m not going to be able to do it in three books, even though the books are bigger than I thought they’d be. I expected about 700 pages in manuscript, but the first one was close to 1100.”
There are various reasons for this, Martin explains. “In Hollywood, [television] screenplays are very tight. They have to come in at 46 1/2 minutes; you can’t go 46 minutes because you have a lot to say that week. Such economy can be a virtue, but at the same time there’s a richness in being able to create a whole world, in having the time to look at minor characters and allow things to happen on die side. It adds a level of reality to the experience that in Hollywood you rely on other people to provide, people like the set decorator or the costumer. In prose you have to do all that yourself. It’s been incredibly refreshing to be able to take my time to do it right.”
A Game of Thrones is high fantasy, a genre made popular in the 1960s by J.R.R. Tolkien’s phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although other writers have produced excellent work of this sort over the past several decades, and a number of them—Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Brooks and, most recently, Robert Jordan—have made die bestseller list, such works have often been criticized as being little more than warmed-over Tolkien.
Asked how his work differs from other high fantasies, Martin replies: “Tolkien had a great influence on me, but the other influence on A Song of Ice and Fire was historical fiction, which I don’t think is really true for a lot of the other fantasies that are coming out. Their historical background, the texture of their worlds, tends to be rather thin. Another difference is the whole question of the use of magic, which I agonized over considerably.”
There’s very little magic in A Game of Thrones but, as Martin points out, “there’s really very little of it in Tolkien.” To Martin’s mind, magic that is subject to laws loses its wonder. “I don’t want it to be an everyday thing where you go to magic college, like you’re going to barber college. That seems to trivialize it. Magic has to be something vast and unknowable and that’s what I was groping toward. The readers will have to decide whether I succeeded.”
Journeys to Imaginary Places
Intense, broad shouldered and bearded, Martin could easily play one of the characters from his own fantasy novel. His clothing and manner are unaffected, though there’s still an aura of the 1960s about him, in part due to his longish hair and his love of odd hats. The romantic streak in his life and his work came in large part from being raised in prosaic, working-class Bayonne, N.J., not going anywhere except in his fantasies. “My father was a longshoreman. My mother worked for Maidenform. I grew up in a federal housing project and we didn’t even own a car. As a child, I built wonderful dreamcastles in my imagination and that runs all through my fiction, a love of dreams and songs, a love of the romantic vision, but coupled with the tension and pain that occur in real life. Someone who loves books too much, or lives too much in the world of imagination, is going to have this faint sense of disappointment about what life actually brings them.”
A conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, Martin did alternative service with VISTA from 1972 to 1974, after college, and then briefly earned a living directing chess tournaments. Married in 1975, he took a job teaching journalism at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1976, but became a full-time freelance writer in 1978. He was divorced in 1979.
Among the early influences on Martin’s work, he says, were the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, H.P. Lovecraft and Tolkien, as well as superhero comic books. The first SF novel he ever owned was the Heinlein juvenile Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and Martin still possesses most of the comics he collected as a kid. Indeed, his first publication, as a preteen, was a letter to the editor in Fantastic Four.
Martin says that the editor who most influenced him was Ben Bova of Analog. “I often wonder if I would have had a career if John W. Campbell, [the previous editor of Analog] hadn’t died in 1971, because Campbell was much more conservative than Bova, who really opened up Analog to stories with more anthropological and sociological content, as well as stories with sexual elements.” Martin’s early novels, Dying of the Light (1977), Windhaven (1981, coauthored with Lisa Tuttle) and the horror novels, Fevre Dream (1982) and The Armageddon Rag (1983) all came out under Simon & Schuster imprints, including Pocket Books, Timescape and Poseidon. The first 12 volumes of Wild Cards, Martin’s anthology series featuring super-heroes as characters, were published by Bantam, though the last three books were brought out by Baen Books, which offered more money. Jennifer Hershey originally purchased A Game of Thrones for Bantam but has since left that publisher, and Martin is currently being edited by Ann Groll. Although he has worked with, and had cordial relationships with a number of well-known SF book editors, including David Hartwell, Shawna McCarthy, Jim Baen and Betsy Mitchell, Martin doesn’t believe that any of them exerted a particular influence over his work.
One factor that’s impervious to influence is his emphasis on characterization. Lord Stark, the king’s oldest friend and the novel’s initial protagonist, seems the classic hero of romance, a warrior, a wise judge, a man of honor, but even he can’t keep his feet in the morass of double-dealing that surrounds him. Martin tells PW that Stark is modeled on a number of rulers from Western history, most notably the medieval French king John the Good, who, with the best will in the world, nearly destroyed France.
Lord Stark is merely one of many well-developed characters in A Game of Thrones: Martin’s King Robert is a man of enormous strengths and appalling weaknesses; the villainous Lannister clan are all distinct individuals. Even the minor characters come to life. This, Martin says, is important to him. “Every character is the hero of his own tale. The spear carrier thinks that the story is about how he happened to meet the king that day. Good fiction needs to be cognizant of that. Every time you write a lesser character, you should really step back and think, how is he looking at these events? Is he frightened? What sort of person is he? Those little touches do matter.”
Martin’s romantic vision has a dark underside and this darkness plays a major role in A Game of Thrones. The novel, for example, features a beautifully detailed joust. On the surface, everything is pageantry, but it’s rotten underneath; knights scheme and cheat, the treasury has been nearly bankrupted to fund the spectacle and there are rumors that an attempt will be made on the king’s life.
Although heroic fantasy, in the hands of writers like David Eddings and Robert Jordan, make the bestseller lists on a regular basis, Martin also hopes “that people who don’t normally read fantasy will come to this book and find things in it that they respond to. I hope readers will appreciate my handling of magic, the strong attention to language, characterization and historical detail, the effort to make the book less predictable. I think that a lot of contemporary high fantasy falls down because it’s too predictable. It’s a journey we’ve taken before. I want to provide a journey we haven’t taken before, take the readers to new places, show them things that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Martin believes that fiction is at its most powerful when it functions as vicarious experience. “I look back on my own past and I can’t remember many of the things I did in high school, but I remember most of the books I read, the places that they took me, imaginary places. I remember Tolkien’s Gondor better than Jersey City. That’s what I’d love to do in A Song of Ice and Fire, too, take people to a place that they haven’t been before, but where they’ll be glad to have gone.”