Sometimes people read what happens in these books and they wonder how these fates befall your characters – such as when Ned Stark is beheaded. He's the moral compass, and then he's gone.
Well, that was my intent. I knew right from the beginning that Ned wasn't going to survive. Both as a writer and as a reader I like stories that surprise me. Hitchcock's Psycho has tremendous impact because Janet Leigh is the movie's star: She's stealing, traveling across country – are the cops going to get her? – and all that. The next thing is, she's being knifed in the shower – you're only 40 minutes into the movie. What the hell is happening? The star just died! After that, you really don't know what the hell is going to happen. It's great; I loved that. That's what I was going for with Ned: The protector who was keeping it all together is swept off the board. So that makes it much more suspenseful. Jeopardy is really there.
That jeopardy prevails more than ever now, after the ending of the third season and the slaughter of Ned's wife, Catelyn, and his eldest son, Robb, the King of the North.
The more I write about a character, the more affection I feel . . . even for the worst of them. Which doesn't mean I won't kill them. Whoever it was who said "Kill your darlings" was referring to his favorite lines in a story, but it's just as true for characters. The moment the reader begins to believe that a character is protected by the magical cloak of authorial immunity, tension goes out the window. The Red Wedding was tremendously hard to write. I skipped over it until I finished the entirety of A Storm of Swords, then I went back and forced myself to write that chapter. I loved those characters too much. But I knew it had to be done. The TV Red Wedding is even worse than the book, of course, because [GoT creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] turned it up to 11 by bringing in Talisa, pregnant with Robb's child, none of which happened in the book. So we get a pregnant woman stabbed repeatedly in the belly.
We talked earlier about your unwillingness to fight in Vietnam. The Ice and Fire books are shot through with the horrors of war. As Ygritte says to Jon Snow, "We're just soldiers in their armies, and there's plenty more to carry on if we go down."
It's true in virtually all wars through history. Shakespeare refers to it, in those great scenes in Henry V, where King Hal is walking among the men, before the Battle of Agincourt, and he hears the men complaining. "Well, I hope his cause is just, because a lot of us are going to die to make him king of France." One of the central questions in the book is Varys' riddle: The rich man, the priest and the king give an order to a common sellsword. Each one says kill the other two. So who has the power? Is it the priest, who supposedly speaks for God? The king, who has the power of state? The rich man, who has the gold? Of course, doesn't the swordsman have the power? He's the one with the sword – he could kill all three if he wanted. Or he could listen to anyone. But he's just the average grunt. If he doesn't do what they say, then they each call other swordsmen who will do what they say. But why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history. Going back to Vietnam, for me the cognitive dissonance came in when I realized that Ho Chi Minh actually wasn't Sauron. Do you remember the poster during that time? WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME? That's one of the fundamental questions here. Why did anybody go to Vietnam? Were the people who went more patriotic? Were they braver? Were they stupider? Why does anybody go? What's all this based on? It's all based on an illusion: You go because you're afraid of what will happen if you don't go, even if you don't believe in it. But where do these systems of obedience come from? Why do we recognize power instead of individual autonomy? These questions are fascinating to me. It's all this strange illusion, isn't it?
You're a congenial man, yet these books are incredibly violent. Does that ever feel at odds with these views about power and war?
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that's become the template. I'm not sure that it's a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, "What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?"
There's only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you're Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes. That's something that's very much in my books: I believe in great characters. We're all capable of doing great things, and of doing bad things. We have the angels and the demons inside of us, and our lives are a succession of choices. Look at a figure like Woodrow Wilson, one of the most fascinating presidents in American history. He was despicable on racial issues. He was a Southern segregationist of the worst stripe, praising D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. He effectively was a Ku Klux Klan supporter. But in terms of foreign affairs, and the League of Nations, he had one of the great dreams of our time. The war to end all wars – we make fun of it now, but God, it was an idealistic dream. If he'd been able to achieve it, we'd be building statues of him a hundred feet high, and saying, "This was the greatest man in human history: This was the man who ended war." He was a racist who tried to end war. Now, does one cancel out the other? Well, they don't cancel out the other. You can't make him a hero or a villain. He was both. And we're all both.
The Red Wedding, upon broadcast, became the most infamously shocking scene in TV history. It angered a lot of the people who watched it.
It did so in the books too. In 2000, when the book came out, I got tons of letters from people: "I'm so angry with you – I'm never going to read your work again. I threw the book into the fire, then a week later I had to know what happens, so I went out and bought another copy." Some people were so horrified that they said they will not read any more of my work. I understand that.
Those characters mattered – the readers took them seriously, couldn't bear those fates. One letter I got was from a woman, a waitress. She wrote me: "I work hard all day, I'm divorced, I have a couple of children. My life is very hard, and my one pleasure is I come home and I read fantasy, and I escape to other worlds. Then I read your book, and God, it was fucking horrifying. I don't read for this. This is a nightmare. Why would you do this to me?" That letter actually reached me. I wrote her back and basically said, "I'm sorry; I do understand where you're coming from." Some people do read . . . I don't like to use the word escape, because escapism has such a pejorative aspect, but it takes you to another world. Maybe it is escape. Reading fiction has helped me through some bad times in my own life. The night my father died, I was in Michigan and I got word from my mother. I couldn't get to a plane until the next day, so I sat around thinking about my father, the good and the bad in our relationship. I remember I opened whatever book I was reading, and for a few hours, I was able to stop thinking about my father's death. It was a relief. There are some people who read and want to believe in a world where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and at the end they live happily ever after. That's not the kind of fiction that I write. Tolkien was not that. The scouring of the Shire proved that. Frodo's sadness – that was a bittersweet ending, which to my mind was far more powerful than the ending of Star Wars, where all the happy Ewoks are jumping around, and the ghosts of all the dead people appear, waving happily [laughs]. But I understand where the other people are coming from. There are a lot of books out there. Let everyone find the kind of book that speaks to them, and speaks to what they need emotionally.
Early on, one critic described the TV series as bleak and embodying a nihilistic worldview, another bemoaned its "lack of moral signposts." Have you ever worried that there's some validity to that criticism?
No. That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it's moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic.
Some of your most contemptible characters are also among the story's greatest truth-tellers. One of the most riveting moments in the TV series took place in the Battle of Blackwater episode, which you wrote the script for, when Sandor says to Sansa, "The world was built by killers, so you'd better get used to looking at them."
Truth is sometimes hard to hear. Two of the central phrases are true, but they are not truths that most human beings like to contemplate. Winter is coming and Valar morghulis – all men must die. Mortality is the inescapable truth of all life . . . and of all stories, too.
This story is from the May 8th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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