EIBF 2014: George R.R. Martin on Game Of Thrones, writing…

Here's what George R.R. Martin had to say about A Song Of Ice And Fire, writing, Game Of Thrones and characterisation at this year's EIBF...

When George R. R. Martin is not writing or aiming expletives at the fans who find it appropriate to speculate about his death, he’s probably on the road. After stopping off at San Diego Comic Con last month and with a mini-tour of the UK this month (southern fans can attend an evening with the writer and fellow fantasy scribe, Robin Hobb in London on the 19th of August), Martin is a busy man. Many will be dissatisfied to see he isn’t slaving over The Winds Of Winter, the sixth instalment in A Song Of Ice And Fire (for the reaction just look to Twitter: ‘LOCK YOURSELF AWAY AND FINISH THE WINDS OF WINTER, YOUR GRACE’ and ‘I long for the day when you tweet that you’re at home putting the finishing touches on book 6’. You get the gist). But the man’s not a machine and everyone needs a holiday – it just so happens he chose a destination precisely 4,600 miles away.

Martin entertained a rapt audience on Tuesday afternoon, waving away the whoops and cheers as he took to the stage alongside Peter Guttridge, novelist, critic and the session’s chairman. ‘Here we are again,’ Martin grinned (his first event on Monday night can be viewed here) before a fascinating half hour where he discussed his upbringing, his love of comic books and his involvement in Game Of Thrones. As there was a lot of material within the talk, I’ve condensed it to the still rather lengthy highlights and left in the audience Q&A session that followed.

On his childhood, comic books and the books that predated A Song Of Ice And Fire:

Peter Guttridge: I wanted to ask you first, really, about the books that preceded Game Of Thrones.

Ad – content continues below

George R. R. Martin: Most people were startled to find out there were books that preceded Game Of Thrones. I’m a case of working forty years to be an overnight success. For me, [A Song Of Ice And Fire] is a continuum [of my earlier work] and I like to do different things but, certainly, you can look at some of my earlier work and say, ‘yeah, he did this here and he also did a version of it in A Song Of Ice And Fire’. There are certain themes and archetypes that I return to time and time again but, hopefully, I’m doing something different in each book because I don’t like to repeat myself.

PG: And you started writing really early on?

GRRM: Yeah, when I was just a kid selling monster stories to the kids in the projects, complete with a dramatic reading, making the werewolf sounds. My career was aborted early on because one of my main customers started to have nightmares and his mother came to my mother and my mother shut down my whole business.

PG: How old were you, then?

GRRM: I was in grade school, I don’t know. I probably was, like, ten or eleven and my customers were seven or eight so a little younger than me.

PG: But you were making good money?

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: Well, I could buy a Milky Way with one story; with two of them I could buy a comic book so that was pretty good. Stories no longer exist.

PG: That’s going to be a big question later. And this was all in New Jersey?

GRRM: Bayonne, New Jersey: born and raised. It was a blue-collar, industrial town right outside New York City on the other side of the New York Bay.

PG: And your life was very enclosed?

GRRM: We lived in the projects on First Street and I went to school on Fifth Street and that was my world, pretty much. We didn’t have a car; we never went anywhere. But I saw the world. Bayonne’s a peninsula so we were on First Street and across the street from us was the deep water channel that connected New York Bay to the Newark Bay and big ships were passing down there all the time, big freighters with flags from all over the world. I had an encyclopaedia so I would look up the flags: Liberia, China, various Scandinavian countries. Occasionally you would get one from England.

PG: And you would imagine going to all these places?

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: Yeah, and the places that were in comic books because they were even cooler: Barsoom, Middle-earth, the Baxter Building and Gotham City.

PG: So, you were an early reader?

GRRM: Of comic books, yes. We had – and I don’t know what the British equivalent of what my generation learned to read with – Readers, which were these books we had in school. All of them featured the adventures of Dick and Jane and their little daughter, Sally. They were the most boring family who ever lived on the planet Earth. They had a dog, Spot, too, who ran.  Run, Spot, Run… See Spot Run; I couldn’t see the point of reading if it meant hanging around with Dick and Jane some more. Fortunately, I discovered comic books and back then, with Superman and their gang, they were far more interesting than Dick and Jane – so I became a comic book reader.

PG: And then you moved onto superhero ones?

GRRM: Yeah, yeah, and, you know, Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel was one of the first books I read, given to me at Christmas by a friend of my mother’s. But then I started buying actual books, and that [Heinlein’s book] was the only hardcover I owned for about ten years. All the science-fiction paperbacks were all in a rack next to the comic books so I would go down there [to the store] every week and try and divide my massive allowance to see which comic books and which book-books [I could get]. Book-books were much more expensive.

PG: Were you a library user? Did you get books out?

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: I did, I did. We had a little library on Fifth Street round the corner from my school and I went through the science-fiction section quickly. It was a science-fiction section but also a young-adult type section, as they’d call it now, but in those days it was ‘juvenile’ – and they didn’t let me take out books from the adult section so I ran out of books to read at that library. Then I had to take the bus to the bigger library uptown, on Thirty-First Street.

On writing television and adapting A Song Of Ice And Fire for another medium:

GRRM: One of the things you learn [when writing for television] is the act break. I don’t know if you guys have it over here but do you have commercials? Do the BBC have commercials?

PG: Oh no, the BBC don’t but everything else does.

GRRM: Well, all American TV, at the time, had commercials so you had to structure your stories in a four-act teaser or a four-act tag or five acts but it depended on the format of the show. But, whatever it was, they would have these breaks in-between where they’d try to sell you toilet paper so the structure of American television is that you always have an act break, which is, sometimes, a cliffhanger but not always. It can be a twist, a revelation, a point of rising tension, a character reveal. You have to go out with something that will, hopefully, cause the viewer to stay through the toilet paper so they’ll come back afterwards to find out – and so I learned to do act breaks. When I wrote Game Of Thrones that was something I definitely carried over. You’ll notice the viewpoint structure with A Song Of Ice And Fire and that I end every chapter with some sort of act break where you want to find out what happened to, say, Tyrion next but you don’t get to because instead of a commercial I have six other characters and, eventually, you get back to Tyrion but meanwhile you may want Tyrion but now you have to read this Arya chapter and at the end of that you have another act break and you want to know what happens to Arya next but you don’t get that and now you have to follow Ned etcetera. Basically, it’s a television structure.

PG: But we must also assume that when you completed that that it was pretty much unfilmable.

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: You know, I didn’t even care that it was unfilmable. I went to town on it and I made it as big as possible and all the battles and the characters and everything that I could possibly think of I threw in there. I never thought it would be filmed because it was impossible to film so I thought these people at HBO [when they approached me to make the TV show] were insane.

PG: But the movies came calling first?

GRRM: Well, there was this guy called Peter Jackson – you may know of him – and he had some success with these The Lord Of The Rings movies and Hollywood is very imitative so the minute The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring hit big every other studio in town that wasn’t New Line started to go, ‘wow, we gotta get us one of these. Are there more of these fantasy thingies? Oh, look, there’s a whole bunch of them and they’re all on the bestseller list!’ So they all got snapped up for options: Robert Jordan and Ray Feist and David Eddings and Robin Hobb. On and on, all the big fantasy series had movie studios sniffing around including mine but, in my case, I said, ‘you gotta be kidding. You can’t make this as a movie, there’s no way, they’re bigger than Tolkien’ – and Tolkien’s great but he just wrote three books and by modern standards they’re actually pretty small books. They were huge for the standards of the fifties, which is why they broke The Lord Of The Rings into three but by the standards of the nineties, they were not that big. They gave Peter Jackson three films to make them in and my books would require nine films just to make the three that were in print by the time they were phoning so I turned down the studios. I had a few meetings and I listened to what they had to say but I was in a fortunate position – I didn’t need the money – and so I didn’t see the sense of doing a deal that would result in a bad adaptation…

PG: But television?

GRRM: Television was a different animal and it got me thinking: how could we do this? It had to be done for television, not for the movies because you’ve got a lot more time but it can’t be done for the traditional television I used to work for like NBC or CBS, there’s too much sex and violence and I didn’t want to lose either the sex or the violence. I didn’t want to tone it down and produce a tepid version but HBO on premium cable was the answer. Fortunately, David Benioff and Dan Weiss [Game Of Thrones showrunners] had the same idea as me and I had a great lunch with them and gave them leave to go ahead – and here we are today.

PG: I know you’re an executive producer now… I think that’s your title…

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: Co-executive producer.

PG: My apologies but in the first series, how close were you to the production? Did you keep back and let them get on with it?

GRRM: Well, I was involved because I wrote one script for the first season [The Pointy End] and I was heavily involved in a lot of the casting. I couldn’t be physically present in Belfast or London or Dublin where most of the casting took place but they had a website that I could access where I’d enter a code-word and look at all the audition videos and wade in with my choices. That being said, although I’ve had involvement with the show, my job is still to write the books. It might have been different if the entire series had been finished and that they were filming a complete product but it wasn’t finished so I still have to complete the series to give them material to adapt.

Moving onto the Q&A session when the event was opened to the audience…

Audience member 1: Is there any character in particular that you’ve felt disappointed about being left out of the television adaptation?

GRRM: I’m fond of all my characters so every time one doesn’t make the cut I’m a little disappointed although I understand it. I wish Strong Belwas was in there although he might have gotten me in trouble, he might have been a controversial character but I had a certain affection for him and he’s fun to write about. I like the two Tyrell brothers who have been dropped: Willas and Garlan. Willas hasn’t actually appeared yet in the books but he will appear in these later books and he has been referred to. Garlan has but they were both dropped and Loras was, essentially, made the only Tyrell son. Again, I understand why all of it is done. We have a lot of critics saying that there are a lot of characters and they don’t know who’s who and if we put in all the characters from the books their heads would explode.

Ad – content continues below

Audience member 2: Speaking of the enormous cast of characters you have, as good as the writing and the locations and the sets are, your show can only ever be as good as the performers and I’m delighted that both Peter Dinklage and Dame Diana [Rigg], whose actually performing in Edinburgh this week, have been nominated for Emmys but out of all the cast who have you been most thrilled and most pleased with?

GRRM: You’re asking me who is my favourite child! And any parent knows that that will get you in trouble but, certainly, Peter Dinklage has been outstanding from the very beginning. He won an Emmy a few years ago for his work in season one and he’s been nominated every year since and I really hope he wins this season’s for his performance in season four, which is just extraordinary. We have the best cast on television and one of the factors I’m been most impressed with is the quality of the child acting. Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner and Isaac Hempstead-Wright in the roles of Arya, Sansa and Bran have all been extraordinary and it’s hard to find good kid actors because there are a lot of kids who want to act and they can memorise lines but they’re not really acting. There’s a smaller minority that have been told that acting is emoting and they emote the hell out of every line and they are almost painful to watch. Most kid actors, certainly in Hollywood, work a lot in sitcoms and their main role is to deliver zingers and to be cute. Our kid actors have to show an entirely different range: grief, fear and rage; some very dark emotions and very dark scenes to do, and that’s demanding. We found three extraordinary talents in our young actors so I’ve been very, very pleased with them.

Audience member 3: Why is there so much more sex [cue mild British titter] in the TV show and how do you feel about that?

GRRM: I’m not really sure that there is more sex in the TV series…

PG: [pointing at someone in the front row] He disagrees.

GRRM: I was talking to some people just earlier today about this and there’s a big difference between seeing something and reading about it. It’s the difference between two art forms. When you see something it has a more powerful, visceral effect upon you. In the books, there are scenes that take place in a brothel and I’ll say, ‘well, they were in the brothel and there were a lot of scantily-clad women around’ and you’ll just glance over that. But when they dramatized that, when they put that on the screen and you actually see the scantily-clad women, it has much more impact. You’re saying that there’s a lot more sex here but I don’t think there is that much more sex. But until someone actually does a count of the number of sex scenes, which I haven’t done so I could be wrong about this, we don’t know.

Ad – content continues below

Generally, I’m in favour of sex and I think a large portion of the audience is, too. It’s kind of odd in American television and, again, you guys have a very different structure over here. I remember seeing I, Claudius in the United States and when it was televised in its initial running back in the 1970s, it was heavily censored. They cut out the violent stuff where Caligula eats a child and they cut out almost all the breasts. In those days, American television didn’t show that stuff but you guys did and you didn’t really think twice about it. I think yours is probably a saner attitude and in America we can’t have any sex at all on the broadcast channels so we have a lot of sex on the non-broadcast channels. It’s like breasts are either forbidden or compulsory. It would be better if there was so kind of healthy medium in-between.

With the criticism I get for the books and the TV series, it has always astonished me that the criticism I get is more about the sex than the violence and I think that says something about us that is not necessarily a good thing. I can write a scene describing in detail a penis entering a vagina and there would be a portion of the audience that would get very upset about that. I can write a scene of an axe entering a human skull, nobody would blink. Generally speaking, I’m much more in favour of penises entering vaginas than axes entering skulls. But the world seems to accept the violence a lot easier than the sex.

Audience member 4: You’ve said that these characters were in your head for many years before the television series and then you see them on television and I’m wondering if that affects the way you see them in your head and how you write them?

GRRM: It doesn’t, not on me. I accept that it does on the audience. For the vast majority of people, Arya will forever more be Maisie Williams and Tyrion will forever more be Peter Dinklage etcetera. The image of the actors has solidly rooted across the globe but not for me. I lived with these characters intimately for sixteen years so it’s not going to affect me.

Audience member 5: A lot of fans see books written from historical perspectives, looking back on family lineage so, with so many different characters and families, I was wondering what perspective you were looking at when writing the worlds?

GRRM: Well, I based it on history, of course, but I didn’t want to just transcribe history. Certainly, families like the Lannisters and the Starks were, very loosely, inspired by the Lancasters and the Yorks and the influence of the War of the Roses. But I don’t believe in taking a real historical character and changing their name so, in writing, you take elements of a character and you make them into something new.

Ad – content continues below

Audience member 6: How much do you find yourself projecting onto your characters? How much does Tyrion embody your wit or Cersei embody your utter insanity? And also, to what extent do you feel your characters are unreliable narrators because sometimes we get accounts of important situations from different viewpoints and it’s very interesting to see what each character focuses on so would you say, from their perspective, that that’s not exactly what’s happening, that’s just how they see it?

GRRM: Those are two big, big questions and quite different ones. First of all, let’s divide the viewpoint characters from the non-viewpoint characters. To write the viewpoint characters I have to live inside their skin and make them come alive from inside out. Non-viewpoint characters are just looking in externally so we don’t really know what they’re thinking. With viewpoint characters I do draw heavily on myself because I am the only person I really know from the inside out, not being a telepath or a wizard or anything like that. I see the world from my own eyes and these characters do embody qualities that you find in yourself, experiences you have in your life, your dreams, your desires, your fears, all of this stuff. Tyrion’s wit is, of course, my wit: I make up all the lines Tyrion says. The only difference is, Tyrion tosses them off at the appropriate occasion while, in real life, I usually think of something witty to say about a week and a half later when the occasion has passed. These witty lines that Tyrion spouts take me weeks to come up with and usually gets revised before I’m satisfied with them. One of the hardest parts of writing is to be able to create a character like that and it’s writing from the gut or the heart or something like that rather than intellectually. It was a big breakthrough for me as a writer back in the seventies when I was doing those science-fiction stories. I think my very earliest stories were all intellectual exercises and I was writing from experiences I had never had about characters who were about an inch deep. When I teach writing at things like Clarion [Workshop in San Diego for new or budding sci-fi and fantasy writers] I always give my students exercises where they really have to open a vein and bleed all over the paper and that’s the way you get the important characters. Sooner or later every writer worth reading writes a story his mother wouldn’t read and having to get that stuff out is part of one’s growth as a writer.

I do use the device of an unreliable narrator, particularly when dealing with memory. I present these scenes sometimes from multiple different viewpoints and the versions don’t quite jibe and then you have to figure out what really happened. The only problem with that is I’ve discovered – not being perfect – that I make real mistakes and I would prefer not to make real mistakes but my readers are very good and they point out my mistakes. I have a horse that changes sex between books and I’m terrible with the eye colours so I’ve got a couple of characters whose eye colour changes. When you make mistakes like that and when you come across the unreliable narrator, people think, ‘oh, he fucked up again.’ Actually, I did fuck up, some of that is quite deliberate and I wish I could eliminate the real mistakes so that the fake mistakes could be seen for what they are, which is a sign of my literary genius. I think the unreliable narrator and the whole concept of viewpoint is that people are telling these stories, they’re looking through eyes and I don’t believe in omission narration so you’re seeing everything filtered through the viewpoints of the characters who are your audience’s eyes and ears in that particular chapter.

Audience member 7: You’ve portrayed so many different cultures in your series of books from the slaver cities and their perspective on the liberation, and the wildlings in the North and their view of the southern structure and hierarchy, and even Dorne has a different view with their women enslaved. I was wondering, what’s your favourite culture that you’ve had to portray and enriched and given a history?

GRRM: I don’t know if I have a favourite and I enjoy them all, in different ways. They all have different ways of looking at the world and I’ve occasionally been asked which one of the Seven Kingdoms I would like to live in if I lived in Westeros and my answer is usually Dorne because they have hot food and hot women. But I have to admit that I enjoy the history of the North, the Starks and there’s something about the cold, bleak, icy, snowy winds of the Wall and that attracts me too. The Ironmen or the Ironborn of the Islands are wonderfully perverse and twisted to write about. The Lannisters are fun… you know, I enjoy all of these families and cultures, and I’ve had some fun too with the world book: The World Of Ice And Fire [a comprehensive history book about the Seven Kingdoms, out in October by Martin, Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson] and creating in detail some of the lands far into the East of Westeros, which are only occasionally mentioned in the main novels because they’re so far away. Some of them have some very peculiar cultures and it was fun to flesh them out, at least in very broad strokes.

Audience member 8: After reading the books I’ve realised that there is a lot of things you could relate to in real life and real history and what I was wondering was, how would you like the reader to perceive your books? Would you like us only to immerse ourselves in the fantasy you’ve created or would you also like us to relate what we’ve read in your books to real life?

Ad – content continues below

GRRM: Art functions as a commentary on life so, yeah… but I’m not a guy who has answers. I’m not a writer who’s preaching some particular philosophy or something but the big questions do concern me and I like to make my readers think and debate and argue with each other and look at some aspect of the world or some act of governance or war or power and have an angle they haven’t considered before, and that’s something I strive for and hopefully have accomplished.

Audience member 9: Aren’t you afraid of not being able to finish your books before the TV show gets to the same level you’re writing at?

GRRM: They’ve certainly caught up to me. They’re writing 60-page screenplays and I’m writing 1500-page books and there’s no doubt that the show is moving very, very fast but, you know, whether I’m concerned about it or not concerned about it makes no difference. All I can do is write one word, one sentence at a time, one book at a time so I’m writing the books as fast as I can write the books and the show is moving along. We’ll see what happens but it’s almost out of my hands so I can’t worry about that, I have to worry about telling stories the best I can, and David and Dan will worry about the show.

PG: Are you still enjoying writing the books as much as when you started?

GRRM: You know, ‘enjoy’ is a tricky word. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed writing something till it’s done. I enjoy having written more than I enjoy writing. When I’m actually in the course of writing, it’s hard work. I feel satisfaction at the end of the day when I’ve written a scene that I really like or when I write a good line of dialogue that I read out to my wife or something like that. But there’s also days where it’s just bloody agony and I go, ‘ugh, this is such crap! Why did I think I had any talent? It’s crazy, it’s terrible’ – and those days are no fun. Those days are depressing but what is great is when they’re finally done: ‘aha, it’s finished and now I feel a great burst of enjoyment and satisfaction’ then the next day I have doubt: ‘is this really good enough? I don’t know. Maybe I should rewrite it some more.’ Some time, ten years in the future when everything is done and I’ll have moved on, I’ll look back on this and I’ll get the full measure of enjoyment. So when I’m actually writing the work, it’s “like wrestling with Tolstoy” as Hemingway used to call it. And that Tolstoy’s a mean motherfucker.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Ad – content continues below