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. 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.
Was your relationship with your parents close?
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.
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. 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.
In 1966, you entered Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois. I know that in the years that followed you underwent some serious moral and political changes due to your opposition to the Vietnam War.
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn't a complete pacifist; I couldn't claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status in full belief that I would be rejected, and that I would have a further decision to make: Army, jail or Canada. I don't know what I would've done. Those were desperately hard decisions, and every kid had to make them for himself. To my surprise, they gave me the status. I was later told – I have no way to prove this – that I was granted the status because our conservative draft board felt that anyone who applied for CO status should be granted it, because that would be punishment enough: Then it would be part of their permanent record, and everybody would know that they were a Commie sympathizer, and it would ruin their lives.
I don't think America has ever quite recovered from Vietnam. The divisions in our society still linger to this day. For my generation it was a deeply disillusioning experience, and it had a definite effect on me. The idealistic kid who graduated high school, a big believer in truth, justice and the American way, all these great values of superheroes of his youth, was certainly less idealistic by the time I got out of college.
Where does your imagination come from?
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own. But I don't know where it comes from, yet it comes – it's always come. If I was a religious guy, I'd say it's a gift from God, but I'm not, so I can't say that.
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