In response to a twitter request from Vince Burns, here is the interview I did with Mr Game of Thrones 'imself, just before Season One of the TV show and his book tour for A Dance with Dragons.
Apols to those who've seen it before, but Vince was right. It was worth dropping in here for the record.
JB: So, you happy with the TV series?
Martin: Oh yes, I love the TV series. I've been involved since the beginning. I'm an executive producer on it. And I write one script per season, so my involvement has been very active. Not like many novelists who simply sell the rights and then take a hands-off role. I've been intimately involved in the casting and of course I've written my own scripts. I talk constantly with David and Dan the executive producers and show runners. They've done an amazing job and stayed very faithful to the story. There've been some changes, but that's inevitable on a project like this. It's been a great ride so far and I hope it will continue for many years to come
JB: Did you always want to be involved, given that most writers don't.
Martin: Well I have done a lot of work in Hollywood myself. I work in television for roughly 10 years, from the mid-80s to mid 90s. And I was on staff at a couple of shows. I did some feature films, including originals and adaptations. So I knew the process from both sides, and yes, I wanted some involvement. I knew I could not be heavily involved, because I still have more books to write. And the books are long and daunting and time-consuming. There was no way I could join the staff as a full-time member. But I didn't want to just take a cheque and walk away either. For me it's worked out to be a perfect situation.
JB: Does adapting the story for the screen make you see it in different ways?
Martin: (long pause) Well you have to think about different issues. Thankfully most of its been done by Benioff and Weiss. They're the ones who face the challenge of adapting it. The books were written, starting in the early 90s, and almost as a reaction to my 10 years in film. My scripts were repeatedly–all my first drafts anyway–were long and too expensive. I was always having to deal with the fact that on the budgets we had we couldn't possibly produce everything I put in the scripts. So I would combine characters, delete scenes, cut down the battles and so on, but I preferred my first drafts which had so much more good stuff in them before I have to start taking the practicalities of budgets and production into account.
So I write the books, limited only by imagination. Even David and Dan face the challenge of how they can possibly do this on a budget within the shooting schedule. All although we have a generous budget for a television show, it's still a television budget. It's not even close to what the feature budget would be, but on the other hand we have considerably more time.
JB: One of the advantages of doing long form narrative on television is that you don't have to compress as much as you do with a feature. Is this what drew you back to TV?
Martin: Yes, before this HBO project came along, there were many people who contacted me trying to acquire the rights to do it as a feature film. I had a few meetings with them, a few discussions, but it was never anything I wanted to pursue because I simply did not think that the story could be done in two hours. To do it as a feature film you would have had to take out 90% of the characters and the story. To just choose one thread and make that story, and I really didn't want to do that. I think the way we're doing it is really the only way it could be done.
JB: It is an amazing multithreaded narrative, that you say you wrote in reaction to the frustrations of not being able to get on the stories up in script form. When you sat down to write it, did you write from just the germ of an idea or did you have much of the story already worked out in your imagination.
Martin: The beginning really came out of nowhere. I wrote the first part of it in the summer of 91, when I was still doing a lot of Hollywood work. I had a few months off and I was writing a novel, a very different novel, a science fiction novel. And in the first chapter just came to me, and it came to me so vividly that I put the other books aside and I wrote that chapter. That led to another chapter, and another chapter. So the world building and other stuff like character development really grew together with the story. But it was the story and the characters that form the seed. They came first. They're still the most important things, I think.
JB: So this is a story you allowed to tell itself rather than sitting down and blocking it out in the manner of a screenwriter.
Martin: Yeah, to some extent. I've always said there are–to oversimplify it–there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architects clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.
That being said I do know where I'm going. I do have the broad outlines of the story worked out in my head, but that's not to say I know all the small details and every twist and turn in the road that will get me there.
JB: It's such a richly realized space. How much research is involved in making it all fit together?
Martin: Although the world is imaginary, it's based heavily on the Middle Ages and medieval Europe. I've done a great deal of reading of history, and biographies, and historical fiction from that era. I wanted to get the feel right, the details right, and give it as much verisimilitude as possible. I read a lot in particular areas that are modeled on, things like the war of the roses, the hundred years war, the Crusades, knighthood and so on. All those things I've researched quite heavily.
JB: It seems a much darker place than most fantasy realms. A lot of fantasy, indeed a lot of genre writing, presents as wish fulfillment. But you wouldn't necessarily wish yourself in Westeros or Winterfell. Was the darkness of the story apparent from the start?
Martin: I have always been a dark writer. If you look at the stuff I was writing before. I prefer the term realistic. I prefer to work with gray characters rather than black and white. I have an instinctual distrust of conventional happy endings. The best fantasy does have a thread of darkness that runs through it. If you go back and look at Tolkien, the master of them all, there's definite darkness in Lord of the Rings. There's a sadness to it, the passing of an age, the elves are leaving, magic is dying, these kingdoms of men are fading. There's a sort of twilight sensibility. He had the scouring of the Shire, even after the great victory over Sauron. It's not all happiness and dancing in the moonlight. Things have been lost, and Frodo is never quite the same. I responded to those elements in it, even when I read it at 13. I think there's a lot of similar elements not only in Ice and Fire, but in all of my work.
JB: There’s a meme current about idea of tragedy as natural, and happiness as something for which we should be grateful when it comes along. (He laughs at this). Is this one of the reasons fantasy appeals to people?
Martin: All fiction, if it's successful, is going to appeal to the emotions. Emotion is really what fiction is all about. That's not to say fiction can't be thoughtful, or present some interesting or provocative ideas to make us think. But if you want to present an intellectual argument, nonfiction is a better tool. You can drive a nail with a shoe but a hammer is a better tool for that. But fiction is about emotional resonance, about making us feel things on a primal and visceral level.
These are some complicated ideas we're touching on now. I hate to make sweeping statements about fiction in general. Every writer does his own thing. But my own view of the world… I don't think I'm a misanthrope, or gloomy. I think love and friendship are very important parts of what make life worth living. There is room for happiness. But that having been said, there are some basic truths. One of them is the death waits for all of us at the end. Whether it's the Middle Ages or today, sooner or later we are all going to be ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. I think that colors things. Any happy ending where everything is resolved, and everything is jolly, maybe rings false because of what is coming for us.
Another thing that is maybe not so big a part of Ice and Fire, but certainly a huge part of my early work, is the existential loneliness that we all suffer. While we interact with other human beings, we can never really know them. I think these things, that we feel on some deep instinctual level, make us feel the resonances in fiction. Historically, tragedy has always had more respect the comedy. I have a great deal of respect for comedy, and I like to do the occasional funny scene, but, he doesn't get respect. Even Shakespeare we teach as tragedy. We enjoyed his comedies, but if you ask what are the greatest Shakespeare plays, people are going to talk about Hamlet and Macbeth. They're not going to talk about Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It. What does that tell us?
JB: So genre can ask the same questions of the human condition as literary fiction?
Martin: Oh I agree completely. I've often said the same thing. My hallmark as a writer has always been Faulkner's statement, from his Nobel Prize speech, where he said, the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.
I agree with that, regardless of genre. The genre stuff is just furniture. You can have a science fiction story with aliens and starships, you can have a mystery story about a private eye walking the mean streets, you can have a fantasy story with dragons and kings and swordfights, but ultimately any of these genres or the other genres are all about the human heart in conflict with itself. That's what makes fiction worth reading.
JB: Some of the critical reaction to the television show was writing about the furniture, rather than about the hearts of the characters.
Martin: I hated those two particular reviews. (Slate, New York Times). They were very controversial. My readers hated them too. In the New York Times one, which said women wouldn't like fantasy, they had so many responses that the Times had to close down the comments section. My tens of thousands of female fans were very annoyed to be written out of existence by the Times reviewer. (Laughs).