I have always enjoyed reading interviews of George R.R. Martin. Not because they offer informative illuminating aspects to his masterpiece series A Song of Ice and Fire, which due to its multiple perspectives and often times subtle narrative at once offers the chance of being exposed to provocative information as well as the opportunity to be strung along on multiple elaborate red herrings.
He historically refrains from talking about specifics regarding plot and characters. Neither is it especially because of any tendency by Martin to be controversial in his statements. What I find oddly compelling is that when I read interviews of Martin, I get this image of a busy writer who would rather be doing anything else but talking about himself while he has a book to write, and damn it, there’s something admirable about that.
An author who doesn’t need any publicity, yet instead of leveling off — satisfied that he has reached his goal — he is still in the middle of his magnum opus; indeed perhaps the magnum opus of the epic sub-genre itself, at work at what is possibly the most anticipated novel in our field next year.
In the interview I ask Martin what he felt separated his work from others in his sub-genre, and while he graciously side-steps it (or tells me to go to go to hell — remember he is a master of perspective), I have always thought that what separates his work was that he hasn’t forsaken fan interaction with the story. There is no other contemporary series — perhaps in the history of the genre — that has promoted as much relevant discussion about the story itself. There are more well developed crackpot theories involving this series than there are real plot threads in dozens of other series combined.
It is this epidemic like enthusiasm, and his awareness of it, that I find represents Martin’s uniqueness. Martin doesn’t need to stir up controversy or be a presence anywhere except the bookshelves to be the most discussed author of fantasy whose book’s target audience isn’t mainly represented by children. This defines the residual element all authors should strive for, the element that keeps a book or series on your mind after the last page is read.
Jay — From where came the idea that would lead you to write a multi-book epic sequence that would be told via multiple narratives?
George R.R. Martin — Damned if I know. I was actually at work on a new SF novel in 1991 when the first chapter of A Game of Thrones — the chapter where Bran rides out with his father to see a man beheaded, and they find the direwolf pups in the summer snows — came to me one day, so strongly and so vividly that I knew that I had to put the other novel aside to write it. At the time I had no idea it was part of any multi-volume epic, only that I had to get it down on paper.
The actual structure of the Ice and Fire books, with their multiple POVs and interwoven storylines, was inspired by the Wild Cards shared world books that I’ve been editing and writing for since 1985. Many of the Wild Cards books are mosaic novels, where each of my writers tells the story of his or her own character, and I braid the tales together to make a whole, sort of like a Robert Altman film in prose. Structurally, the Ice and Fire books are Wild Cards mosaic novels with me writing all the parts.
Jay — In a recent interview you made a comment that I really felt was precise regarding the growth of the genre — i.e. the overwhelming dearth of books published now — has negatively impacted the genre as that although variety is indeed fortunate, the fan base has become far more exclusive to each subgenre instead of being fans of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which you also commented, “Fantasy and science fiction have become separate, a trend I think is particularly unfortunate.” Do you feel this was perpetuated by publishing/marketing or merely a reaction by them to fulfill a change in the fan base, and if so, what do you associate with the cause of this shift?
George R.R. Martin — As I see it, the differences between SF and fantasy are far less important than the things they have in common. It is not by happenstance that the two subgenres have been shelved together in bookstores for decades, or that writers like Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, and L. Sprague de Camp moved easily and happily from one to the other and back again throughout their long careers. Both SF and fantasy are varieties of imaginative literature arising out of the romantic tradition.
There are fans who read only SF and loathe fantasy, and vice versa. Enough of them so that some publishers seem intent on building walls between two sub-genres in order to cater their prejudices, in some cases going so far as to tell new SF writers that they need to change their name if they want to do a fantasy. That’s foolishness.
Jay — A Song of Ice and Fire sequence has enjoyed extreme success, not something atypical of an epic fantasy series, however what is rather unique is that you managed to become somewhat of an exception in regards to being able to critical acceptance in fantasy circles. What do you think is inherit in this work that garners this pass that may or may not be present in other works in the sub-genre.
George R.R. Martin — I am the wrong person to answer this question, which should rightly be addressed to the critics and reviewers.
All a writer can do is try to produce the best possible book, and hope it does well. It does no good to sit around fretting about “critical acceptance” or the lack thereof.
Jay — Recently a Time article anointed you ‘the American Tolkien’. Did you know pre-publication of that statement, and what was your reaction?
George R.R. Martin — I knew that TIME might be running a review, but until I actually read the article I had no idea what it would say. When I did, I was thrilled. Tolkien is the father of modern fantasy, and one of the great writers of the 20th century. He also had a profound impact on me personally, when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings back in high school. He and I are very different writers, to be sure, but all the same I was tremendously pleased and flattered by the “American Tolkien” label.
Jay — You frequently praise the work of Vance, and I think one can see reflections of an influence in Tuf Voyaging. What is it about Vance that separates him from others in your mind, making him equally effective in Fantasy and Science Fiction (and for that matter mystery)?
George R.R. Martin — His style. His imagination. His world building. His ear for names, for language. No one else writes like Jack Vance. He’s unique.
Jay — You make principle of not speaking out on authors, but you try to highlight some newcomers. Recently you have made positive statements about two I have read and enjoyed as well, being Daniel Abraham, who had his debut A Shadow in Summer recently released, and Scott Lynch whose debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora was released this month. In a genre that has too many releases what separated these works from the rest for you?
George R.R. Martin — Their quality. I get sent a lot of galleys, and try to give most of them at least a glance. In some cases I need only read a chapter or two to know that this is just the same old stuff in a new box, but Abraham and Lynch each captured me right on the first page and never let me go. There was a freshness to their work that I do not find in many of the books I’m sent…and characters I could care about as well.
Jay — In 1981 in a response about Disch’s Labor Day Group quip you said, “The division between popular and literary fiction is a recent and heinous one.” 25 years later the same discussions seem rampant in the genre. Do you think it is worse now or then, and has your stance at all changed?
George R.R. Martin — My stance has not changed, no. I do think that there have been a few signs of the chasm closing a bit during the past few decades. Major newspapers and magazines are more willing to review SF and fantasy titles than they were twenty years ago.
Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Stephen King won the National Book Award for lifetime achievement, and Tolkien has come out on top in a number of surveys of the most important novels of the 20th century. This is not to say that the division has ceased to exist by any means, but we do seem to be moving in the right direction.
Jay — You have commented on the pains associated with the publication of A Feast for Crows stemming from several reasons. What were you most pleased with in the book; in terms of a character or plot thread that worked out better than you first foresaw it would?
George R.R. Martin — I am far too close to the book to be able to evaluate it objectively. Ask me again in twenty years, and I may have an answer for you.
Jay — Do the forthcoming Dunk and Egg stories have a home yet?
George R.R. Martin — I still haven’t finished it, alas. Once it is done, I don’t expect I will have much trouble placing it. I’ve had several tempting offers.
Jay — The Ice Dragon is going to see print again, and I was wondering if there are plans for more short fiction (non-Dunk and Egg) whether new or reprinted in the future?
George R.R. Martin — Tor’s new edition of The Ice Dragon is a young adult version illustrated by the wonderful British fantasy artist Yvonne Gilbert. My lady Parris has been telling me for decades that The Ice Dragon would make a great children’s book, and I finally listened.
Our hope is that the book will help to introduce my work to a whole new generation of readers, who will then grow up and try some of my other stories. It is likely to be a one-time thing, however. The Ice Dragon required only some very light editing to make it suitable for younger readers, but that’s not true for any of my other stories, so this is likely to be my only YA.
For adult readers, however, I do have a British edition of my huge, career-spanning collection GRRM: A RRetrospective (first published by Subterranean Press in 2003) coming out from Gollancz under the title Dreamsong. That’s half a million words of my short fiction, teleplays, and autobiography.
Jay — Now to the important question! Can you promise a loyal fan that Bronn will survive?
George R.R. Martin — Sorry. No one is safe in my books.
If you enjoyed this interview you may enjoy a post I have about the making of this interview or maybe some thoughts I had on GRRM’s Fire & Blood.