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."
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