On a cold night in January, George R.R. Martin sits inside the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a revival theater that he owns in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has lived since 1979. The Cinema had been showing the first three seasons of HBO's megahit series Game of Thrones, which is based on Martin's still-in-the-works saga A Song of Ice and Fire. After viewing the ninth episode, "Baelor," in which the story's apparent hero, Ned Stark, is unexpectedly beheaded, with the screen falling to black, Martin sits quietly for several moments, then says, "As many times as I've watched this, it still has great effect. Of course for me, there's so much more to the books."
And much more to come: The Song of Ice and Fire cycle – first published in 1996 – currently stands at five volumes, with two more books ahead. Those final works, though, won't be anytime soon. Because Martin is a meticulous and slow writer, it is likely that years will pass before we learn the fates of Daenerys and her dragons, the recriminatory Lannister siblings and the shellshocked progeny in the Stark family. There is even the chance that the HBO series might arrive at key plot points before the books do, and though Martin once dismissed that possibility, he's now mindful of it. "I better get these books done," he tells me, on a drive through the streets of Santa Fe.
Later on, Martin takes me to a small house with a book tower that serves as his office and writing space. (The home where he lives with his second wife, Parris, is nearby.) Martin has been writing since childhood, and started publishing science-fiction short stories just out of college in the early 1970s. They quickly established him as a serious and imaginative writer, telling tales of tragedy and, sometimes, of uncommon and hard-won redemption. He spent much of the Eighties and early Nineties working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Then in 1991 he began A Game of Thrones, primarily a story about power and family, about the disastrous nature of both war and the human heart, and so far it has shown nobody – including the audience – any mercies. As is apparent in the fourth season, there are no guarantees that anybody in this story is safe.
At his office, Martin escorts me to the den where we would talk. The room's walls hold glass cases, full of hundreds of beautiful miniatures of medieval figures and fantasy characters and scenes from Martin's books. Near a staircase that leads to Martin's library – at 65, he remains a voracious reader – stands a full-size and operational model of the famous Robby the Robot, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. "Robby the Robot," he tells me, "it was a great kick to buy him and to show him off. A bunch of money sitting in a pile – what do I get out of that?"
Martin is an affable, candid, terrifically smart man, and he is loquacious. We talked for 10 hours that day, breaking only for dinner. His way of discussing Game of Thrones surprised me: He often spun questions into larger dissertations about history, war and society. Because Martin is a big man, with an infectious laugh and white hair, there might seem something of a Santa Claus aspect about him, except for his eyes, which are constantly flickering with thought – some of it quite dark – conveying a mind as shrewd as that belonging to any of his characters.
One of the more dominant themes in Game of Thrones is family. It's what gives the characters purpose, but it also ruins them. What was your own sense of family and home like?
I was born in 1948, and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is a peninsula just south of Jersey City. By bus, it was 45 minutes to the heart of Manhattan, but Bayonne really was a world in and of itself. New York was very close, but we didn't go there very often. Ninety percent of the people who lived in Bayonne worked in Bayonne, and went to school in Bayonne. They raised their children in Bayonne. It was a multi-generational town. We didn't actually own a house, though. From the age of four I lived down on First Street, in the public-housing projects, facing the waters of Kill Van Kull, with Staten Island on the other side.
My father was a Martin, but he was of Italian and German descent. My mother was a Brady – Irish. I heard a lot from my mother about the heritage of the Bradys, who had been a pretty important family at certain points in Bayonne history. I knew at a very early age that we were poor. But I also knew that my family hadn't always been poor. To get to my school, I had to walk past the house where my mother had been born, this house that had been our house once. I've looked back on that, of course, and in some of my stories there's this sense of a lost golden age, where there were wonders and marvels undreamed of. Somehow what my mother told me set all that stuff into my imagination.
Your stories empathize with outsiders. Is that how you felt growing up?
As I say, we were projects kids; we lived in public housing, so I knew at a very early age that we were poor. I don't want to play the victim card. It wasn't too bad. These were perfectly respectable families, but they just happened to be poor. Sometimes at school I would hear, "Project kids aren't as good as regular kids." But I never really felt like an outcast, and most of my friends, at least at an early age, were other project kids.
Was your relationship with your parents close?
I would describe my relationship with my other as being close and warm. My father was a distant figure. I don't think that he ever understood me, and I don't know that I ever understood him. We didn't use the term then, but you could probably say he was a functioning alcoholic. I saw him every day, but we hardly talked. The only thing that we really bonded over was sports — football and baseball. I was no good at playing any of these sports, but I did get interested in watching it, and then we could talk about Johnny Unitas — we had that bonding over sports. My father was also a gambler. I think I cost him a fortune when I went to college, because I went to Northwestern, in Evanston, which was a member of the Big Ten, but not really good at most sports. My father felt an obligation, and I think he lost a lot of money betting on Northwestern all through my college years. [Laughs]
Did you get out of Bayonne much before college?
We never had a car. My father always said that drinking and driving was very bad, and he was not going to give up drinking. [Laughs] My world was a very small world. For many years I stared out of our living-room window at the lights of Staten Island. To me, those lights of Staten Island were like Shangri-La, and Singapore, and Shanghai, or whatever. Whatever they were, they were places I would never be. But I look back on it now and say, gad, what an interesting childhood I had, what an interesting environment I lived in — so much more interesting than kids who grew up in the suburbs. We had our project, and right next to it there were warehouses and industrial plants, and a working dock across the street from us. We had an amusement park. We would go wandering into the warehouses in the industrial part of town, guards would chase us away. There were tall iron ladders that went up to the roofs of some of these warehouses that we'd just climb to see the view from the roof, going up like four stories on some of these huge warehouses, or up the sides of water towers, things like that.
It was a varied world. But I didn't think of it as a varied world. To me it was boring, and familiar. So I read books, and I dreamed of Mars, and the planets in those books, and of the Hyborian Age of Robert E. Howard's Conan books, and later of Middle-Earth – all these colorful places. I would dream of those places just as I dreamed of Staten Island, and Shanghai.
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