The Iron Throne, shipped from New Jersey for $4,000, was a fiberglass replica identical to the one HBO uses for its hit show Game of Thrones. Sitting on the throne was Daenerys Targaryen, also known as Amy Dixon, who hadn't traveled quite so far: she drove to Missoula, Montana after finishing the semester at Carroll College in Helena. The dragons at her side, two red and blue hand puppets, materialized from somewhere in the hotel's "Lobby of Doom" just before she competed in the Gameshow of Thrones, part of the 26th annual Missoula Convention (MisCon) for science fiction and fantasy fans.
The event featured six fans dressed as major characters from the Game of Thrones series. They drank poison (Kool-Aid), dueled (with trivia, not swords), and answered anachronistic questions in character (what would Stannis Baratheon think of global warming?). A rowdy audience voted and heckled them off stage until only Amy remained, the queen of the Lobby of Doom.
She was just one of a thousand-plus enthusiasts who descended on Missoula for the event, drawn by a shared love for genre stories, cosplay and the opportunity to attend panels and activities like "Raising Little Geeks," "Ancient Aliens: Fact or Fiction?" or "Throwing Axes, Swords and Knives." At almost all hours various R.P.G.s (role-playing games) were unfolding in hotel rooms.
But the biggest attraction at MisCon 2012, the thing that made people drive nine hours from Portland, or pull their kids from school, or fly in from Pennsylvania, was the presence of one very special guest: Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin.
Martin entered his first event at MisCon flanked by two big guys in purple shirts and black Utilikilts, which are distinguished from normal kilts by an alarming number of straps, slots and pockets for weapons. As Martin walked to the front of a conference room, a kilted security guy whose nametag identified him as Love-a-lot-bear said into his headset: "Ops, this is Echo, was anyone able to find Alpha?"
Love-a-lot-bear and his team seemed assembled less to protect against any real threat than to provide themselves with a chance to wear fancy wireless headsets and say things like "Ops, this is Echo." The security team was like an R.P.G. that hadn't quite realized its status as a game. Martin, in a capacious pair of black Levi's, suspenders and newsboy cap, made it safely to the panelists' table and began taking questions.
"Why do you kill all my favorite characters?" someone asked. Martin flashed a wicked grin and laced his fingers in a cartoon villain's pose. "Give me a list of your surviving favorites and I'll see what I can do."
"Is Jaime Lannister cursed by the Gods?" another asked. Martin put his elbows on the table and leaned forward, "Do you really believe there are Gods? I'll answer whether there are Gods in my books when I see definitive evidence about whether there are Gods in this world. Maybe if God turns up and is interviewed on CNN or something." Another fan asked Martin if he ever just wanted to shake some of his favorite authors for making a particular choice in a book. "I'm opposed to shaking authors," he said dryly.
A vocal minority of Martin's fans post angry comments on his website. Typically they're angry at him for not delivering the next book in the series rapidly enough. He used to reply to disgruntled fans, but he soon learned the folly of online debate. "Don't feed the trolls. Delete and ignore them," he told me over cheese and cherries after his first panel. But the impatience of some fans puzzles him. "I grew up with four T.V. channels. If you missed a show, you missed it. You gotta wait a week for the next one. I'd mail-order books: take a quarter, get an envelope, send off for it and wait until it arrived. I grew up waiting for things."
On the second day of MisCon, hundreds of fans were waiting in a snaking line to get books signed. However strident some might be online, his fans looked vaguely amorous when they reached the front of the signing line. They smiled shyly or stared as if they couldn't quite believe he was real. With the Iron Throne replica looming just behind him, it was hard not to see Martin as monarch, greeting his awestruck subjects in a New Jersey accent.
Each fan could get two books signed and one personalized. One man passed Martin a book with a yellow post-it with the message he wanted: I will sit on your lap. Martin chuckled and said in a friendly tone, "I don't think I can write that." It wasn't the strangest personalization request he's ever seen. At one convention a fan asked him to write a marriage proposal. He pointed out to the young man that if he wrote "Will you marry me?" it might seem as if he, George R.R. Martin, were proposing. So instead he wrote Mary, will you marry John? At a room party that night, John presented the book to Mary, whose response was something along the lines of, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" They had met only two days before.
Near the end of the signing, a man presented Martin with two books and his daughter. "This is Daenerys," he told Martin, "I sent you a letter about her five years ago." Daenerys, a squirmy blonde in a pink jacket, looked about five years old. "Hello there," Martin said, "do you like dragons?" She nodded, and they made room for the next fan.
Martin has had countless pets and a handful of children named after characters from his series. "One little boy was named Tywin," he told me. "It's a nice name, but I do wonder about the role model aspect there." He's also had fans ask him to sign various body parts before they rushed off to get his signature tattooed at a local parlor.
Martin has attended conventions since the early 1970s, when there was "a bathtub full of beer" at every con and frequent "midnight skinny-dipping in hotel pools." (People at conventions call them cons. Wandering MisCon I heard of easily half-a-dozen other cons: RadCon, OddCon, Dragon*Con, WorldCon, Comic-Con, SpoCon). Cons in the 1970s were more literary and less focused on gaming. Everyone read the same sci-fi novels, and despite the beer and nudity, bookish conversation flourished. "I miss that in a way – the intense literary discussions. Now there are so many books, so many authors, everyone's read different things."
One glaring exception to this trend is Martin himself, whose books everyone at MisCon seemed to have read, not to mention his 15 million-plus book sales worldwide. Martin loves reaching a huge audience, but he resists the twin notions that popular literature lacks aesthetic merit and obscure books are always profound. As an undergrad as Northwestern, he took a creative writing workshop and got "pummeled" by the professor and his peers, who wrote self-consciously literary pieces and scorned genre fiction. "The distinction between literary and genre fiction is stupid and pernicious. It dates back to a feud between Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James. James won, and it split literature into two streams. But it's a totally false dichotomy. People in America waited on the docks for the latest Dickens novel to arrive. He was the Stephen King of his day. You can't expect profundity from a 19-year-old in a writing workshop, but at least teach them how to write a fucking plot."
Martin explained just how far "literary" fiction has "its head up its ass." Coming back from England a few months ago, Martin glanced at a review of well-received literary novel in a newspaper. The reviewer quoted and praised a passage that used soaring lyrical language to describe ice cubes melting in a glass of vodka. "I was thinking, OK, the style is very nice, but he's describing fucking ice melting! What does this say about the human heart in conflict with itself?" he asked, alluding to a phrase in William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Good fiction, in other words, doesn't respect arbitrary borders of genre. Some literary stuff is awful and some genre stuff is great.
Martin doesn't think that commercial success inevitably compromises quality, but he does see a danger in making aesthetic choices for commercial reasons. On the "Tackling the Silver Screen" panel, he shared some of his experiences in Hollywood, where between 1985 and 1995, he wrote for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. He explained the corrupting potential of Hollywood by paraphrasing the writer Harlan Ellison: trying to make great art in Hollywood is like a climbing a mountain of shit to plant a single rose. By the time you reach the summit, you might have lost your sense of smell.
During Martin's first ten years in Hollywood, he often found himself "taking script notes from morons," in meetings. He didn't have a problem with collaboration; he had a problem with collaboration with morons. Now that he's working with David Benioff and Daniel B. Weiss on HBO's Game of Thrones, he's happy trading ideas and taking notes. Most of his complaints about the series are minor and budget-related. HBO spends roughly five million per episode, a figure higher than the budgets for most network shows, but still not enough to do everything they want. Special effects are expensive, filming in three international locations is expensive, and actors "have this thing where they like to get paid."
The second night of MisCon, I decided to investigate whether rumors of Martin showing up at room parties were true. I was also hoping to see a bathtub full of beer. Watching the nightlife felt like seeing hundreds of people doing things in public they usually did only before the bathroom mirror. At the drag show, a large man wearing black horns, silver boots and green face paint was lip-syncing the words "I'm a little naughty girl" to raucous applause. There was a general abundance of capes, wings, horns and facial hair.
I found Martin in a room surrounded by a dozen or so people, from college-aged to middle-aged. Someone carried in a bucket plastered with biohazard stickers that was releasing a vapory fog. A ladle materialized and soon bright green drinks were being dredged from the bucket. "Would you like some toxic waste?" a girl asked Martin cheerfully. "Someone gave me a green thing last night, then a brown thing. Tonight I'll stick with a margarita," he said.
The fans' shyness had relaxed since the morning signing, and the toxic waste was helping relax things even more. Martin talked with one fan about various clues that the character Renly Baratheon was gay, smiled for cell phone photo shoots and laughed loudly at jokes. He met his wife at a con, and most of his serious friendships and relationships began at cons. "I never had kids," he'd told an audience that afternoon, "so in a way I think of people at cons as family."
After a while he wandered outside to the balcony overlooking the pool, where no one was yet skinny-dipping. Two college-aged girls whispered to each other when they spotted him. One put a hand over her heart and made fluttering motions. They worked up the nerve to ask for a photo, and he posed with an arm around each girl.
"I'm sorry, I love you," one said, planting a quick kiss on his cheek. He laughed. "No, you love my books." "No, it's the man behind the books!" "Well," he chuckled, "that's a different story."