George R. R. Martin, the short and stout author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic series of fantasy novels that provides the raw meat for HBO’s Game of Thrones, gives a tour of his office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The walls are lined with the original art from his hook covers, showing doughty swordsmen and brightly hued superheroes. Rooms are decorated with glass cases filled with hundreds of miniature knights and other painted figurines doing battle in epic dioramas. A few years back, the New Jersey native bought the house across the street from his home and converted it into his workplace, complete with stained glass and a library tower – although the city wouldn’t let him build it any higher than two stories. At 63, Martinhas the enthusiasm of a nerdy teen and the distracted air of an overextended wizard. Published last year, A Dance With Dragons, the fifth in the seven-volume sequence, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks, and fans impatiently await the next installment. “I started these books in 1991,” Martin says, and shakes his head. “I’ve gotten much older in that time – but the characters have aged only two or three years.”
Why does the series begin with almost no magic?
I love fantasy, but I also love historical fiction. I wanted to make a fusion of some of the best qualities of both, and that demands a very careful handling of magic. I have the highest regard for Tolkien – and if you look at The Lord of the Rings, although Middle-Earth is suffused with a great feel of magic, there is very little onstage. Gandalf doesn’t shoot lightning bolts from his fingers. If it’s on every page, then magic loses its magic.
Some authors carefully plot out every page, while others improvise the whole thing. Where do you fall in that spectrum?
I have names for those types of writers: I call them architects and gardeners. The architect, before he drives a nail into a plank, has all the blueprints and knows what the house is going to be like and where the pipes are going to run. Then there are the gardeners, who dig a hole in the ground and plant a seed and water it – with their blood sometimes – and something comes up. They know what they planted, but there’s still lots of surprises. Now, you seldom get a writer who is purely an architect or purely a gardener, but I am much closer to a gardener. I know the ultimate end of the series and I know the fates of all of the principal characters, but there’s a lot of minor characters and other details that I find along the way. For me, both as a reader and a writer, it’s about the journey, not the ultimate destination.
Every chapter rotates to another character’s point of view. That makes most of them more sympathetic – but not all.
We all have reasons for the things we do, even the things that might look evil from the outside. Sometimes they’re based on mistaken assumptions or innate selfishness or psychological compulsions, but they’re still reasons. Some of my early science-fiction stories dealt with this theme of telepathy: If we could reach out and read each other’s minds, would that lead to universal love and understanding, or would it lead to universal revulsion?
The books also have elements of horror – the readers have the lingering dread that any character can die at any time.
The sense that no one is safe is because it’s a war story. I was a conscientious objector myself – I never went to war, but I had friends who went to Vietnam and who would talk about their experiences. One of the key things I took away was that it didn’t matter in Nam if you were the best shot or if you could do the most push-ups. Anyone could be killed at any time.
What was the inspiration for Tyrion Lannister, the scheming dwarf?
I wrote a book with Lisa Tuttle in 1981 called Windhaven, and in it there’s a throwaway line – one of the characters is talking about visiting some distant island and says, “There is a dwarf; he’s the ugliest man I ever met, but the cleverest.” For some reason that stuck in my head, and when I started writing Game of Thrones, there he was. And he got his claws into me and became one of the most vital characters who really moved the series forward.
Tyrion and Daenerys are two of the series’ most vivid inventions.
Well, they’re two of the more popular characters, although I think the two most universally popular are Jon Snow and Arya. Every character has his or her fans – and detractors, which I take as a great compliment. We feel that way about real people: One person likes them, another person is irritated by them, and another person thinks they’re a phony. If you create a fictional character and everybody loves the character, or hates the character, you have probably created a piece of cardboard.
Did you anticipate the success of the “Game of Thrones” TV show?
My books were written, almost, not to be filmed. I wrote them coming off a decade in Hollywood, where I was constantly being told that my scripts were great but they were way too expensive – could I have fewer characters? Can we make this battle into a duel? It was not a process that I enjoyed. So when I returned to prose, I said, “Well, I don’t have to worry about budgets anymore.” I just made these novels as big as my imagination could allow, never dreaming that it would be filmed. Now, [HBO series creators] David Benioff and Dan Weiss are the ones who have the migraines, not me.
How far along are you on the next book, The Winds of Winter?
Not as far as I’d like. It’s going to be another 1,500-page book, and I have about 200 pages done. So I still have a lot to write.
Are you worried about the show catching up with the books?
I wouldn’t say worried. I have a considerable head start. But check with me in another year – I might have a different answer! I have a number of other projects that I’m juggling; I have to clear the decks so I can concentrate on the books. I have to learn to say no when people approach me for a short story or a foreword. Last week, I spent the entire week writing introductions, for three different books. The truth is, I’m a slow writer, no matter what I do, whether it is a giant fantasy epic or a foreword. “This is only a thousand words, you can knock it off in an afternoon.” No, I can’t – I’ll be sweating over it for three days.
What was the moment when you realized you didn’t have to worry about money?
I’m not sure that moment has arrived yet. Growing up poor as I did, a kid from the projects of Bayonne, New Jersey, I’m always conscious of the way money can go away. Back when I sold The Armageddon Rag [his 1983 rock & roll murder-mystery novel], it took me about a year to write and I got $100,000 for it. And when that happened, I said to myself, “I now make $100,000 a year,” and that was a huge mistake. I bought a house and a new car, and then the book failed to sell at all. We had to get a second mortgage, and I thought, “How am I going to make my payments?” So every time I get a check, I think, “What if this is the last check I ever get?”
If it ever is, there were a lot of checks that came before it.
I’ve been a writer all my life – I used to sell handwritten stories to the other kids in the projects. I sold my first story to a professional magazine in 1971, I went full-time in 1979, and I’ve done pretty well. Like any writer, I’ve had good years and bad years, but there have been a lot more successes than failures. But these last couple of years, I’ve become a celebrity writer, which is different from being a successful writer. I’m being recognized at restaurants and airports, and every time, it takes me by surprise. That doesn’t happen to writers. Cormac McCarthy lives here in Santa Fe, and I have no idea what he looks like. He could be the next guy in line at the grocery store and I wouldn’t know it.
Do you ever think about how much time you have left as a writer?
Well, there’s an element of my fans who are constantly pointing out my mortality to me and writing me letters about what plans have I made for when I die, and who’s going to finish the series. I’m not planning on dying soon. I have a few health problems that come with age, but I’m in pretty good health. I hope to have another 20 years or so – plenty of time to write. And who knows how medicine will have advanced by then? Maybe I’ll be immortal. I would like that.
Some people criticize the “sexposition” on the show – but your books have plenty of sex. Do you ever take heat for that?
I get letters about that fairly regularly. It’s a uniquely American prudishness. You can write the most detailed, vivid description of an ax entering a skull, and nobody will say a word in protest. But if you write a similarly detailed description of a penis entering a vagina, you get letters from people saying they’ll never read you again. What the hell? Penises entering vaginas bring a lot more joy into the world than axes entering skulls.
What are your writing habits like?
On my best writing days, which don’t come very often, I lose track of all time and space. I fall into my chair in the morning, and then look up and it’s dark outside and my back hurts. You know, I think about the purposes of fiction sometimes, and how what we remember becomes part of our lives. I have a few pictures of my third-grade class; I recognize myself and a couple of my close friends. But who the hell are these other kids? I don’t remember their names. Undoubtedly I was alive every day I was growing up, but most of those memories are gone. Growing up in Bayonne, I had a world that was five blocks long. My house was on First Street and my school was on Fifth Street. But my imagination wanted a world that was much bigger than that. So I would read about distant planets and ancient Rome and Shanghai and Gotham City.
And that made you a better writer?
I never saw the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock or the parties on Gatsby’s lawn, but they seem more vivid than things that I actually lived. If we are the sum of our experiences, as I believe we are, then books are a more important part of my life than my actual life. That’s what I try to do with my own fiction: Fill the stories with imaginary people who will become more real to my readers than the people in their lives.
This story is from the May 24th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.