Your earliest novels, Dying of the Light and Fevre Dream, did well. But The Armageddon Rag temporarily stopped your literary career. Then you spent years in Hollywood, writing for TV series. Do you think your subsequent writing – which, of course, would be A Song of Ice and Fire – benefited from mastering screenplays?
I do. The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it's much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose. William Goldman said everything that needed to be said about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: It's all structure, structure and dialogue. Being there improved my sense of structure and dialogue. I'd spent so many years sitting alone in a room, facing a computer or typewriter before that. It was almost exhilarating to go into an office where there were other people – and to have a cup of coffee, and to talk about stories or developments in writers' meetings. But there were constant limitations. It wore me down. There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too "politically charged," how violent things could be. Don't want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn't want blood, or for the beast to kill people. They wanted us to show him picking up someone and throwing them across the room, and then they would get up and run away. Oh, my God, horrible monster! [Laughs] It was ludicrous. The character had to remain likable.
You've talked before about the original glimpse of the story you had for what became A Song of Ice and Fire: a spontaneous vision in your mind of a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. That's an interesting genesis.
It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn't have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It's from Bran's viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you've read.
How long did it take to do the world-building work?
Basically, I wrote about a hundred pages that summer. It all occurs at the same time with me. I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive. In the meantime, I still pitched shows in Hollywood, but this Ice and Fire thing wouldn't leave my head. I kept thinking about it and scenes for these characters. It was just never far from me. I realized I really want to tell that story. By then I knew it was going to be a trilogy. Everybody was doing trilogies back then – J.R.R. Tolkien had sort of set the mold with The Lord of the Rings. Around 1994, I gave the hundred pages to my agent with a little two-page summary of where I saw the book series going. My agent got interest all over town – about four publishers bid on it. Suddenly I had an advance and I had a deadline, so I was able to say to my Hollywood agents: no more screenplays until I finish this novel.
By deciding to write a trilogy – and now it's projected as seven books – were you worried you'd have to measure up to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?
Not particularly. From the 1970s, Tolkien imitators had retreaded what he'd done, with no originality and none of Tolkien's deep abiding love of myth and history. But I'd always been regarded, at least in the genre, as a serious writer. Also, this story had such a grip on me. I thought these books could have the gritty feel of historical fiction as well as some of the magic and awe of epic fantasy.
With the exception of the fantasy elements, Game of Thrones might well have been a reimagination of the Wars of the Roses.
I did consider at a very early stage – going all the way back to 1991 – whether to include overt fantasy elements, and at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel. But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what's going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren't going to escape. I wanted to make it more unexpected, bring in some more twists and turns. The main question was the dragons: Do I include dragons? I knew I wanted to have the Targaryens have their symbol be the dragons; the Lannisters have the lions, the Starks have the wolves. Should these things be literal here? Should the Targaryens actually have dragons? I was discussing this with a friend, writer Phyllis Eisenstein – I dedicated the third book to her – and she said, "George, it's a fantasy – you've got to put in the dragons." She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I'm deep into it, I can't imagine the book without the dragons.
How did you come up with the Wall?
The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian's Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn't know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.
Given the complexity of A Song of Ice and Fire, did you have concerns over how faithfully it could work onscreen?
About the time of the third book I started getting calls from people in Hollywood. That interest accelerated when the Lord of the Rings movies started coming out, and suddenly studios wanted to do their own Lord of the Rings. Every fantasy in the world got optioned. Those films showed that an audience would respond seriously to dragons, and things like that. But I never thought, from the moment I started this, that it could be filmed. I said it's impossible. Tolkien's trilogy is about the size of A Storm of Swords. I have far more characters, far more settings, far more of everything, so it can't be filmed.
Some people I met thought we have to find the story's through line. Who's the important character? Somebody thought that Dany's the important character – cut away everybody else, tell the story of Dany. Or Jon Snow. Those were the two most popular characters to build everything around, except you're losing 90 percent of the story. Somebody else suggested, "We'll just tell the beginning in one movie, and when it succeeds we'll do more movies." But if the film doesn't do well you never see the second movie; you get a broken fragment of an epic. I was in a fortunate position of not having to worry about paying my mortgage. So I said no to all these offers, but it did get me thinking: The only way it can be done is for television – but not for CBS or NBC, because it's too sexual, too violent, too complicated. The only way it could be done is by somebody like HBO.
The show has given you millions of new fans, who, judging from online debate, are extremely passionate about your work. . . .
It's a terrific feeling, knowing you have not only a lot of readers or viewers, but that they're so intense, and bringing so much thought and interest to bear. But maybe that's part of what's slowed me down – the knowledge that so many people are looking at every line, and waiting on every turn and scene. We have the untold-history book coming out later this year, where I've written a fake history. I find it amusing, and secretly pleasing, that I have so many fans who are interested in the history. I'm not sure if they would so eagerly study real history, you know? In school perhaps they're bored with all the Henrys in English history, but they'll gladly follow the Targaryen dynasty.
History was my minor in college. I don't pretend to be a historian. Modern historians are interested in sociopolitical trends. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the stories. History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It's better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.
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