George R. R. Martin, Author of "A Song of Ice and Fire" Series: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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George R. R. Martin

This week, our guest host is John Hodgman. John is a Famous Minor Television Personality and best-selling author, whom you likely know from his work as a correspondent on The Daily Show, his podcast Judge John Hodgman, and his many literary works -- including his upcoming book, to be released November 1st, called THAT IS ALL.

He speaks with George R. R. Martin author of the very popular series of fantasy books called, collectively, A Song of Ice and Fire. The most recent installment is A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five. The series was recently adapted for the acclaimed HBO show A Game of Thrones. Martin joins us to talk about creating a fantasy universe, (very) involved fans, and more.

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JOHN HODGMAN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm John Hodgman in for Jesse Thorn. My guest is George R.R. Martin; he is the author of an extremely popular series of fantasy novels collectively known as A Song of Ice and Fire. There will eventually be seven of them, the most recent, the fifth is called A Dance with Dragons. It was published in July after a several year wait. Martin has received numerous awards for his writing and was named by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people of 2011, named by me, by the way. I wrote the piece.

A Song of Ice and Fire was recently adapted into the HBO series A Game of Thrones. He's also written some of the scripts for the television version, including its pilot. Here's a clip from that episode. In it, King Robert, played by Mark Addy, has just brought on Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean, to be his second in command, The King's Hand.

First of all, George R.R. Martin, congratulations on all of the recent success of the TV show and the new book, A Dance with Dragons, and getting that done and out there and the number one best selling success of it all.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Thank you very much. It has been a pretty exciting year.

JOHN HODGMAN: I would imagine so. Let's go back a little bit. I'd like to talk about something from early in your body of work. On the end of August a letter surfaced and was reprinted all over the internet; it was a letter you had written to the letters column of The Avengers comic book in 1964.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Hahaha, yes indeed!

JOHN HODGMAN: I believe you would have been about 16 at this time. In this particular letter, you had suggested that Avengers number nine was slightly better than Fantastic Four number 32. My question is: do you remember why?

You can comment on the particular story, because I believe Avengers #9 was the introduction of Wonder Man.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Oh, yes, I liked Wonder Man! You know why? Now it's coming back to me vividly. Wonder Man dies in that story. He's a brand new character, he's introduced, and he dies. It was very heart wrenching. I liked the character; he was a tragic, doomed character. I guess I've responded to tragic doomed characters ever since I was a high school kid.

JOHN HODGMAN: Especially those who might die at any minute.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Of course, being comic books, Wonder Man didn't stay dead for long. He came back a year or two later and had a long run for many many decades. The fact that he was introduced and joined the Avengers and died all in that one issue had a great impact on me when I was a high school kid.

JOHN HODGMAN: I imagine it was pretty surprising in a comic book in that time to see a whole story arc resolve tragically in that way in one issue.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes. It's hard to understand, I think, from the vantage point of 2011 exactly what was going on back in comics in the early 60s. It was the Marvel comics that I was writing letters to, who were really revolutionary for the time. Stan Lee was doing some amazing work. Up till then the dominant comic book had been the DC comics which, at that time, were always very circular. Superman or Batman would have an adventure, and at the end of the adventure they would wind up exactly where they were. Then the next issue would follow the same patter, so nothing every changed for the DC characters.

The Marvel characters were constantly changing. Important things were happening. The lineup for the Avengers was constantly changing. People would quit, then they would have fights and all of that. As opposed to DC where everybody got along and it was all very nice and all the heroes liked each other. None of this was happening, so really, Stan Lee introduced a whole concept of characterization to comic books and conflict; maybe even a touch of gray in some of the characters. Looking back on it now, I can see that probably was a bigger influence on my own work than I would have dreamed.

JOHN HODGMAN: I presume at this point that you were getting your first letters printed that you already had in mind that you wanted to be a writer.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Well, once I gave up on the idea of being an astronaut. At a certain level you actually think, I'm gonna fly to other planets, and then you think, well, maybe I'm not gonna fly to other planets. I think I should just write about other planets and other civilizations. I think it was high school that I first determined that I would try writing stories for a living; although, I'd been making up stories for a decade before that. Even when I was in grade school I would write little monster stories and sell them to the other kids for their projects for a nickel, which would buy me a candy bar at the time.

JOHN HODGMAN: Would this be in Bayonne, New Jersey?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Bayonne, New Jersey, yeah.

JOHN HODGMAN: What kind of candy bar are we talking about?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Milky Way. I'm a Milky Way guy.

JOHN HODGMAN: Sure.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Maybe it was the science fictional name of the candy bar.

JOHN HODGMAN: You were always looking to the stars.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: That's right.

JOHN HODGMAN: It was in those letter columns where a lot of what we term as fandom in the comic book/science fiction/fantasy world, really, people first met each other, long before there was an internet, that's where that sense of community came from.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: It actually began long before my birth. Science fiction fandom grew out of the letter columns in Amazing Stories and Astounding back in the 1930s. When you had a letter printed in those days, they would print your full address. So fans of the science fiction stories of the time saw that their were other fans out there, and they could see their addresses and they wrote them a letter and correspondences, and grew up. Then eventually some people decided, well, let's get together and actually meet in the flesh, and they would get together in, I think the first gathering was in Philadelphia, and then there was one in New York. That's where science fiction fandom, which is the grand daddy of all fandoms, began; in the 1930s and early 1940s.

JOHN HODGMAN: You just got back from WorldCon, the world science fiction convention.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes.

JOHN HODGMAN: Which you've been going to for a number of years.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes, the first one I went to was 1971. I go almost every year.

JOHN HODGMAN: For the listeners who maybe are not so familiar with the world of the conventions, particularly one that's as old and as storied as WorldCon, what is it like? Particularly, what did it offer you in 1971 and in the 70s when you were coming up as a writer?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: WorldCon goes all the way back to 1939, that was the first one. It did grow out of the early science fiction fandom when the people were reading each others letters and they decided to get together and meet each other in the flesh, and then conventions grew out of that, and eventually somebody said, let's have a world convention. They had the first one in New York City in 39 to coincide with the 1939 New York World's Fair. People came from as far away as Philadelphia, I think, and Boston; actually, I think there were one or two people who came in from California. It's been going ever since.

JOHN HODGMAN: As someone who personally at one point wanted to be a serious short story writer, a very misguided ambition of mine, much like your wanting to be an astronaut, it was never to be. But there were no conventions for me to go to, for example, for serious short story writers. I guess they call them MFA programs, but you had to pay a lot of money.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes, yes. It's unfortunately a whole different world, the literary genre, let us say.

JOHN HODGMAN: For the writer of any of the many genres that might fall under the umbrella of science fiction or any of the challenges to that genre, what does WorldCon offer you that, say, someone who's writing in a literary genre can't find because they don't have anything like that?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: It's a chance to meet your readers face to face, and I've always felt, that's one of the great things about science fiction, fantasy, and the imaginative, the imaginative side of literature. We do have this fandom and we can go and meet people who've read the stories. We sign their books and they come up to us and we party with them at night and they say, hey, we like this story. We didn't like this story. This is what the problems have. I liked your story except you got this stuff wrong about the planet, there's a lot of scientists and stuff who are there.

We get this feedback. I have a feeling a lot of times that a lot of people working in the literary genre, they write the stories and it's like throwing it down a well. They never meet anyone who's actually reading their stories.

JOHN HODGMAN: Well, for a lot of them, there aren't very many.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: There is that, too.

JOHN HODGMAN: But you're right, there's just a lack of a conversation in the same way that you've traditionally seen in science fiction and fantasy writing. Frankly I think that now there is even more - - there's actually an emphasis the publishers are making to their writers who don't necessarily fall into literary but maybe don't fall into science fiction or fantasy to start that conversation with readers.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: The internet is changing everything.

JOHN HODGMAN: Yeah, through the internet. It has not been a part of literary publishing before, but now people are suggesting you should be doing this, in order to find and nurture an audience.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes, I don't think you can be J.D. Salinger anymore. At least the publishers don't want you to be J.D. Salinger. Writing your stories and living in your splendid isolation. They want you to have web pages and to Facebook and Twitter and all of this stuff.

JOHN HODGMAN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm John Hodgman in for Jesse Thorn. My guest is the George R.R. Martin. He's the author of the series of fantasy novels known as A Song of Ice and Fire, also commonly known as Game of Thrones for the HBO series that is based upon it. Here's a clip from the show. In it, members of the warrior brotherhood known as The Night's Watch discuss the mysterious threats that lie north of the enormous Wall which they've been sworn to protect.

One of the things that first struck me when I first found the books was that this was a fantasy world which not a lot of people would fantasize about living in. Not a lot of fantasy aspect to it in the sense that it is set in an alternate world, or made up world.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Secondary universe, Tolkien called it.

JOHN HODGMAN: We'll call it a secondary universe, that's a term I came up with for it independently just now. Didn't steal from Tolkien at all there.

It's set in a secondary universe, and it has certain sword and sorcery trappings, although more swords than sorcery certainly in the first book; but, it also is really rooted, grounded, if not sort of mired in the harsh realities of medieval life, and a harsh feudal caste system, where the only medicine around is a kind of poultice and people are routinely seen elderly at the age of 35 because they're dying all the time.

It's not a place or a world or a time where most people would want to live. Why was it important to you to write in that setting?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: As I said, I read a lot of different things, not just science fiction/fantasy. One of the things I read a lot of is history and historical fiction. I'm a big fan of historical fiction. I did read fantasy as well. As I read that, I sort of had a problem with a lot of the fantasy I was reading, because it seemed to me that the middle ages or some version of the quasi middle ages was the preferred setting of a vast majority of the fantasy novels that I was reading by Tolkien imitators and other fantasists, yet they were getting it all wrong. It was a sort of Disneyland middle ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that. The trappings of a class system, but they didn't seem to understand what a class system actually meant.

JOHN HODGMAN: Or would mean to the people who are trapped within it, on both the high status and low status alike, it's a kind of a life sentence.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: It was like a Ren Fair Middle Ages. Even though you had castles and princesses and walled cities and all that, the sensibilities were those of 20th century Americans. You didn't see that in good historical fiction. There were people who were writing fine historical fiction that really grasp it. In my kind of cross-genre/genre-bending kind of way was to go, you know, what I'd like to do is write an epic fantasy that had the imagination and the sense of wonder that you get in the best fantasy, but the gritty realism of the best historical fiction. If I could combine those two threads, I might have something fairly unique and well worth reading.

JOHN HODGMAN: One thing in the book, which I presume is made out of whole cloth of imagination, is the religions of this world. These are not religions of the primary world that we live in; the world of your novels has several major religions, some minor sects, the continent in which most of the characters spend most of their time have two well developed religious philosophies with a new sect that's coming to the continent and gaining inroads. I was curious as to - - how does one sit down and create a religion?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: The religions are made up religions, in that sense, imaginative religions. I based them on real world religions just tweaking it or expanding it a little. The faith of the Seven is of course based on medieval Catholic church and their central doctrine that there is one god who has seven aspects is partly based on the Catholic belief that there is one God but he has three aspects: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. With the Seven, instead, you have The Father, The Mother, The Maiden, The Crone, The Smith, The Warrior, and a Strangers, who's the death figure.

That's the general process for doing fantasy, is you have to root it in reality. Then you play with it a little; then you add the imaginative element, then you make it largely bigger. Like the Wall in my books, of course, was inspired by Hadrian's wall, which I visited on my first trip to the United Kingdom back in the early 80s. We climbed to the top of Hadrian's Wall and I looked north and tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman soldier stationed there in the first century. At the end of the known world staring at these distant hills and wondering what lived there and what might come out of it. You were looking off the end of the world. Protecting the civilized world against whatever might emerge from those trees. Of course, what tended to emerge from those trees was Scots, and we couldn't use that. So I made the Wall considerably bigger and made it of ice, that's the process of fantasizing.

JOHN HODGMAN: Because Hadrian's Wall was, I think, made of Lucite originally.

It is beyond the Wall that magic and the supernatural comes to invade the realistic world that you've built to the south of the wall. One of the things I really enjoy about the book is that you're in the midst of a fantasy book that is labeled as a fantasy book, and maybe this is one of the ways where the labeling as a fantasy actually plays nicely on the readers expectations, because you get to mess around with them a bit.

All of the main characters, for the most part, believe that the fantasy trappings that are normally part and parcel of a fantasy world: the magic, and the supernatural creatures and everything else, are themselves legendary. The stuff of kind of juvenile fairy tales and juvenile fantasy, and yet it's starting to, as the books go on, become more and more a part of the characters every day lives.

One of the areas where I think this is interesting, but also kind of troubling as I read on, is with regard to death. We talk about how Wonder Man can be brought back. Without giving much away, I can say that there are characters in the book who you do not expect to die, and who do. Your characters are extremely fragile. It is one of the things that was most exciting to me as a reader, to realize that these characters who you're following very closely could be maimed, and that those scars would stay. They could be psychologically maimed and transformed by those scars, and that would stick to the book. And they could die. However, as magic seeps into this world, which is of course part of this unfolding story, not even death is really permanent anymore. What do you think about that?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I do think that if you're bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that's a transformative experience. Even back in those days of Wonder Man and all that, I loved the fact that he died, and although I liked the character in later years, I wasn't so thrilled when he came back because that sort of undid the power of it. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”

What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he's sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.

My characters who come back from death are worse for wear. In some ways, they're not even the same characters anymore. The body may be moving, but some aspect of the spirit is changed or transformed, and they've lost something. One of the characters who has come back repeatedly from death is Beric Dondarrion, The Lightning Lord. Each time he's revived he loses a little more of himself. He was sent on a mission before his first death. He was sent on a mission to do something, and it's like, that's what he's clinging to. He's forgetting other things, he's forgetting who he is, or where he lived. He's forgotten the woman who he was once supposed to marry. Bits of his humanity are lost every time he comes back from death; he remembers that mission. His flesh is falling away from him, but this one thing, this purpose that he had is part of what's animating him and bringing him back to death. I think you see echoes of that with some of the other characters who have come back from death.

JOHN HODGMAN: There is, I'm sure you are aware, a saying around the internet, that if you piss George R.R. Martin off, he'll kill a Stark.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yes, someone has used that as their avatar on one of the blogs.

JOHN HODGMAN: I read the books for the first time starting last year, I was late coming to them. I was very excited by it, they sort of took over my life for a year, as I plowed through them. I do remember the first moment on Twitter when I mentioned that I was reading them, first of all, I suddenly got so much more response on Twitter than almost anything I say about my own life or work or anything that I do. Second of all, a lot of it was weirdly angry. It was only later that I began to appreciate that there was this weird community of people out there who were feeling impatient to get the next book, which just came out this year, but after some delay.

Fandom, particularly science fiction and fantasy fandom, has this sense of proprietorship over its treasured authors, and also the sense that somehow they're in collaboration with them. How does that help your process and how does it complicate it?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: In one sense it's great; it's exhilarating to know that you have so many readers and so many people are anxious of the next book, and so many people are saying nice things about the book. There are dangers there as well. Way back in the 90s, the late 1990s I think was when the first website devoted to the series started. It was a website called Dragonstone, started by a guy in Australia. When I first discovered that, look it's a fan site. All these fans are discussing my books and they're analyzing them. It was very exciting. Oh, look, they're actually paying attention. You're working hard on these books and you're putting in little things, foreshadowings or symbolisms or things that have double meanings. You're trying to hide things and these people are analyzing it and they're finding the things, and that's all great.

But it wasn't very long after that site started and I was reading it and enjoying it that I began to say, I probably really shouldn't be reading this stuff. For one thing, they're generating so many theories, that some of those theories are bound to be right. What do I do if I'm setting up a mystery that I'm going to solve in book six, and people have already guessed this mystery as of book two and they're discussing - - do I change it? Do I say, oh my god, they've already guessed it, they're four books ahead of me, I better change what I'm planning. I think it's a mistake to do that, because that's what you've planned. All the clues and the foreshadowing and the super structure that you build is in place for that reveal, you can't change it just because someone's got it. So I sort of distance myself from the sites.

A lot has happened since 1999. There've been several explosions, the books have gotten progressively more and more popular. Dragonstone is long gone, but many other sites have taken its place like Westeros and Tower of the Hand, Winter is Coming, gigantic sites with many thousands of members where these discussions go on. When the TV show came along, that increased it by orders of magnitude again. It's exciting that it's happening, and I'm glad the fans are enjoying it. But I can't be apart of it. It'd be too much involvement.

And then there's the dark side of it, that you've referred to in the sense of proprietary feeling that some of the fans have in that - -

JOHN HODGMAN: I don't mean to color it that darkly. I think there is, in the same way someone writing a letter to Avengers and feeling that they get to speak directly to the creators, there is within the genre a sense of kinship and community. That's only been heightened by the internet and the seeming transparency of communication between author and reader that the internet provides.

I think that that is a case where people feel like they're just playing along and helping out and they're kind of part of the process. That takes a weird form of saying, you're doing it wrong. That is one of the main ethos of the internet is, for someone to say to someone else you're doing it wrong. In a weird way it almost brings the creators of these things, when they are available, it creates this impression among readers and enjoyers of works that they're right there next to the author, and they're as much as part of the process as the author is.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: That might be the case. Most of my fans are terrific, I'd say 99% of my fans are amazing. There's a fan group that does parties at conventions, The Brotherhood without Banners that are people who are regulars on sites like Winter is Coming and Westeros.

But there is also that 1%, the trolls or the detractors, I think as they would term in The New Yorker article a few months ago that Laura Miller did about me, who for whatever reason feel some sense of betrayal because I took too long to write the last book, or they were looking forward to the fourth book or something, and it came out and it wasn't the book they expected. Some of those are really, have gone over to the dark side, as one might say. So that's part of the experience too, I guess, of this level of popularity.

JOHN HODGMAN: And there's always going to be that percentage of readers or viewers who feel that way; who take a somewhat contentious pose, but in a sense it's always flattering to some degree too, because they're devoting a fair amount of their lives and their emotions to your work.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: That's true, that's true. Although to tell the truth it's the sort of flattery that I could easily do without.

JOHN HODGMAN: For as much mutual support and fun and excitement that the fandom community around science fiction and fantasy gives to people within it, to the authors within it; a sense of knowing your readers and knowing your readership and feeling their support. For all of that, there is I think a blind spot, which is that, authors may be fans, but not all fans are creators. One thing that John Updike never did was sit down and say, you know, I think there's gonna be four Rabbit novels, and here's when they're going to come out, and I'm going to make these promises to you the reader, because John Updike, to the best of my knowledge, didn't care.

The idea that an author just sits down and writes the best book that he or she knows how to write is a given in almost every other world of publishing, but in science fiction and fantasy there is this sense of beholdeness. I think it comes from a nice place, from a “we're in it together” kind of thing. But I almost feel like, you guys gotta take it easy on yourselves you science fiction and fantasy authors. Just do your thing and don't worry about what they say.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Time is changing, publishing is changing. I'm sure if F. Scott Fitzgerald was alive today his publisher would be saying, hey, how about a sequel to Gatsby. Gatsby did pretty well, could we have Gatsby II, Son of Gatsby? Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's a reality of modern publishing, which has changed radically since the days of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Maxwell Perkins and all of that. It effects the work. I know it's not supposed to, you probably don't get that in literature courses. It's the work and the writer. But there's always commercial realities, there's the realities of writers life. It's something like Tolkien, Lord of the Rings being divided into three books, purely a commercial consideration of his publisher at the time, not a literary consideration. Yet it had enormous influence on all the fantasy that followed for half a century.

JOHN HODGMAN: Well, I hope that it's clear that I absolutely agree with you. But boy, William Faulkner, when's he gonna finish his next book, right?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: That's right.

JOHN HODGMAN: I've been waiting forever, what's going on with that guy?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Yeah, and Harper Lee, when are we going to get To Kill a Mockingbird 2?

JOHN HODGMAN: Lazy.

Have you met Stan Lee?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I have met Stan Lee, yes.

JOHN HODGMAN: Did he remember you from your letters?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: He doesn't, unfortunately. He doesn't even remember me from meeting me. I met Stan Lee about six times and each time is like meeting him for the first time...for him, anyway.

JOHN HODGMAN: The heartbreak of a fan. George R.R. Martin, thank you so much for taking the time. It's a real treat for me, and thank you for being on The Sound of Young America.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: My pleasure, it was a thrill to do it.

JOHN HODGMAN: Thank you.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Take care.

JOHN HODGMAN: George R.R. Martin is the author of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. His most recent book in the series is called A Dance with Dragons

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you're interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

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