Q&A WITH GEORGE R. R. MARTIN

This is an older interview that I did with Martin back in 2011 for a feature on the HBO adaptation of his terrific fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I hadn’t been assigned to review any of his books yet, but I knew I liked his writing and had read most of it since, as a 12-year-old, my friend Mark Crawford lent me a copy of a Hugo anthology that contained “Sandkings,” which gave me horrible nightmares. I recommend it, and Martin’s other science fiction stories unreservedly (you can pick up his big hardcover “greatest hits” collection “Dreamsongs” for a pittance these days, if you’re interested). Martin was extremely pleasant and willing to talk for quite a while, which I appreciate a great deal as an interviewer. I don’t always record my interviews – sometimes I just take notes – but I wanted to get this one down verbatim so I could put it up uncut for posterity. Enjoy.

Sam Thielman: So, why did “A Dance With Dragons” take longer to write than the other books in the series?
George R. R. Martin: Well, you know, that’s a good question and I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that. #1, none of the books have been exactly fast, I mean, I’m a slow writer, I’ve always been a slow writer, and the books are huge. I mean, they’re three, four, five times the size of most novels being published. And they have extremely complex interweaving storylines. I remember back when I did the first book, ‘A Game of Thrones,’ Asimov’s Magazine wanted to publish an excerpt and I pulled out the Daenerys storyline from the first book, and they published that as an excerpt, and after I pulled out all the Daenerys chapters and put them together for Asimov’s, I did a word count and discovered, technically, I had a novel, just about Daenerys. I’m never gonna be one of those writers who has a book a year, or two books a year like some of my colleagues do. I simply can’t write that fast. I do a lot of polishing and revising, and it’s a big task.

SBT: You know, for a long time I didn’t even know you’d written a fantasy series – I just knew “Sandkings,” which I loved [Martin chuckling, apparently he gets this a lot]. One thing that struck me about the novels is that they’re written with the same amount of care you put into your short stories, even though the stories are much, much smaller.
GRRM: Well, I think anything you do should be crafted with the same amount of care whether it’s a short story or a giant megaseries. Obviously when I was first starting out, it was an accomplishment for me to write a short story, and then when I wrote a novelette, which is sort of a longer short story, it was a huge breakthrough and I said, ‘Oh, my, I’m writing a novelette now.’ I never would have dreamed what awaited me 30 or 40 years down the pike. But the stories get longer and more complex. I think they say that you like to write what you like to read. And I like to read these immersive kinds of stories with rich large casts of characters and the like.
SBT: I read, I think in “Dreamsongs,” that you basically wrote ASOIAF to be unfilmable. Were you surprised when HBO optioned the books for series?
GRRM: Yes. I mean, delighted, but I was surprised. It was partly a reaction to my years in Hollywood. I was primarily in television and film for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995, so for a decade. And initially I was on the revival of ‘The Twilight Zone’ on CBS and then on ‘Beauty and the Beast’ [on ABC*]. I was a writer and producer on both those shows, and then I did five years in development, where I wrote a number of feature films and pilots for television shows that were never made. And during that period I was working in television, the one theme was that when I would hand in the first draft, the network or the producer or whoever I was working for would always say, “This is great, George, but it’s too long and too expensive. We don’t have the budget to make this.” And so I would cut it, I would trim it, I would eliminate characters, I would make the big battle scene a duel between two people, I would make it produceable. But I kind of always loved my first drafts much more than I loved my final drafts.
My final drafts were produceable and they were generally more polished because I’d revised them the usual number of times before they actually went before the cameras. But my first drafts had lots of great stuff in them that I was subsequently required to take out in order to make a show that we could fit in the timeslot and fit within the budget.
When I returned to prose after doing all this other stuff, I said, “You know, I’m not going to worry about that anymore. I’m going to do something huge – something with a cast of thousands and gigantic battles and sets that will blow your mind.” And I didn’t worry about it, because when you’re writing prose, you have an unlimited special effects budget. Anything you can describe, anything you can imagine, you don’t have to hire actors to play these characters – someone can come on for just a moment; you can have a small character who only has a few lines in every book and yet is somehow memorable. And you don’t have to worry about ‘oh, how are we going to cast this?’** So I thought no one would ever produce this.
We did… when the books started coming out, and particularly when they started hitting the bestseller lists, I started getting inquiries from producers and studios and so forth, from people interested in optioning it. But mostly they wanted to make it as a feature film, particularly after the success of “Lord of the Rings,” people were looking for other fantasy franchises, and I met with a few of them. But you know, I didn’t think it could be done. My books are simply too big. They’re much bigger than Tolkien’s books; they’re much more complicated than Tolkien’s books, with the number of characters and the complexity of the plots. So when I met Dan and Dave and we talked about how they would do it, it was the one way I had thought from the beginning that it could be done – by somebody like HBO. It couldn’t be done on a regular network, because you would run into too much trouble with the censorship. It was too-adult fare. And it couldn’t be done as a feature film. But as a series of series on HBO was the one way I could see it working – we have 10 hours for this first book and not the two hours we would have for a feature film. And hopefully we’ll have more series to tell the ongoing story.
SBT: Is there any fear that the television series will catch up with you while you’re writing the final two books?
GRRM: [Laughs] I have a considerable head start. So I don’t think they’re going to catch up with me. But ask me again in five years and we’ll see where both of us are. Put that in your calendar.
SBT: How involved are you in the production?
GRRM: I’m somewhat involved in the production; I have a great relationship with Dan and David and I’ve been to the set multiple times, I’ve met most of the actors and I’m writing one script per season. That’s my deal. So I wrote episode 8 of this season and if we get renewed I’ll write one episode of that script and so on.
SBT: Was it difficult to get back on the, uh, scriptwriting horse?***
GRRM: It was fun, actually. I was actually worried about it because it had been more than a decade since I’d done it and I thought, “Well, do I still know how to do this or have I forgotten?” But I did know how to do this again. It all came back to me. The only think that was different was that the software had changed, so I had to get used to new scriptwriting software. The ones that I had used in the old days aren’t used anymore. They gave me Final Draft. I used to use WordStar and run it through Scriptor. I still use WordStar to write the novels; I haven’t changed that at all. I don’t like any of the new word processors.
SBT: Do you ever wish you could be more involved in the show?
GRRM: When I visit the set especially, it awakens something in me that wishes I could be more involved. I start to wish I could write three or four episodes of the script every season like Dan and David are doing – to be there every day for the producers’ meetings, et cetera, but that’s a full-time job and the only way I could do that would be if the books were done, because, as you know, the books take a long time. But if they don’t catch up with me, and I finish the series, and they’re still working on it, maybe I’ll come to them and say, “Hey, I can do a few more things on the show now,” and I’ll be more involved. But I’ve got to finish this fifth book now and I’ve got two more to write after that.
SBT: Ever thing about doing a cameo?
GRRM: I wouldn’t mind doing a cameo. I did a cameo in the pilot, but I wound up on the cutting room floor.
SBT: Have you gotten to watch it yet? HBO screened a couple of episodes for us and it was amazing.

GRRM: I haven’t actually seen any finished episodes yet. I’ve seen scenes, I’ve seen all the trailers, when I was in Belfast I saw a 20-minute trailer they put together so I could see some of the scenes.

SBT: Do those scenes look the way you imagined they’d look?
GRRM: I have a very vivid picture of what it looks like in my head, because I’ve been working on this on and off since 1991. So things don’t look exactly the way they do in my head. But, you know, it’s sort of a double-take process for me. The first time I encounter anything, whether it’s on the screen or on the set, it’s usually me saying, “Oh, that’s not right! That’s not how it looks!” but then I step back and say, actually, it’s pretty good the way they have it. I think that working in Hollywood for 10 years and having written so much television and film myself has given me batter perspective than a lot of novelists whose work is adapted to television and film. I know a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy community who have a hard time dealing with something of theirs that’s being changed – what do you MEAN the character has black hair? He has RED hair – And I’ve been on the other end of the process and I understand the realities of production. There’s usually a good reason for stuff like that.
SBT: Just logistically, did you have to talk to people about what’s going to happen in future books – who’s going to die and who’s going to surprise us by returning and so forth?
GRRM: I did do some of that, yes. David and Dan have used me for that. And that’s a concern. That’s one of the concerns as we go forward with the series and we do run for seven or eight seasons. Because I had never structured these books for a television series; I did not take the practical realities of that sort of thing into consideration and instead I’ve done what I thought was an interesting thing to do in the story, where people who are minor characters in book one assume great importance in book five. And you can do that in prose, and it’s great. I like for people to reread my books and hopefully they’ll discover things on rereadings that they didn’t discover the first time.
SBT: How do you cast for someone who’s going to have to disappear for thousands of pages?
GRRM: It’s much more difficult in television, because what do you do? You need a really great actor, because he’s going to have all this stuff to do in the fifth season, but in the first season he has three lines. So do you cast a major actor and pay him a ton of money to say the three lines and then say, “Five years from now, if we’re still on the air, you’ll have some great stuff?” That’s hard to do. Or do you change actors, and suddenly you’ve got this guy in the fifth season who’s important? Television deals with this all the time, and HBO has dealt with it on other shows. If you look at a show like “The Sopranos,” you see a character like Ralphie Cifaretto who comes on in season three or something like that, and is like a major earner and captain for Tony’s crew but he’s never been mentioned before. Well, where did he come from? Did he transfer from the gang in Chicago? Well, no, he’s been there all along, and you have to buy that. And the important characters who step up in season four or season three or season two, we’ll just have to say they were there all along.
SBT: Does thinking about this kind of stuff have any effect on the way you write the books?
GRRM: The books have such momentum in my mind that so far I haven’t noticed very much impact on it. I’ve often used the analogy of a journey; if you set out to drive from Los Angeles to New York, you probably know your destination and you know the first night you’ll end up in Flagstaff and the second night you’re in Kansas City, but you don’t know what’s around every turn. You don’t know if you’re going to pick up a hitchhiker or something; those are the adventures you have while making the journey. And as a writer I find certain things while making the journey. I still know my ultimate destination and I know the landmarks I’m going to reach long the way.
SBT: A friend of mine was reading the books and said something to the effect of, “These are terrific, but they can’t possibly have any overarching structure, can they? They’re just way too complex.” And I kind of feel like we’re beginning to perceive the bigger structure of these books, but reassure me – you have a plan, right?
GRRM: I mean, certainly for the major characters. Some of the minor guys we meet along the way, who knows? That’s one reason it takes so long; I hope to have it all tied up fairly satisfactorily by the time I reach the end of that seventh book. There’s a file on my computer, but I keep most of it in my head.
SBT: How?
My previous books were all stand-alone novels and I wrote them in one sitting, even though it took, you know, a year.
*And fwiw, anyone bitching about Martin killing your favorite television characters has had 20 years to prepare for the shock. Go back and watch “Beauty and the Beast” to remind yourself what I’m talking about.
**Except that you do now!
***This would clearly be an awesome horse to have and ranks among my worst metaphors as a writer. So proud.
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