Over the course of 10 hours, Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gillmore sat with A Song of Fire and Ice author George R.R. Martin — the man responsible for the books that provide the source material for HBO’s insanely popular fantasy series Game of Thrones — and discussed a wide range of topics. While most of the material made it into the Rolling Stone Interview, there were a few of Martin’s answers that were left on the cutting-room floor. Here are some choice outtakes from the Q&A.
On growing up in the projects of Bayonne, New Jersey:
“As I say, we were projects kids; we lived in public housing, so I knew at a very early age that we were poor. I don’t want to play the victim card. It wasn’t too bad. These were perfectly respectable families, but they just happened to be poor. Sometimes at school I would hear, ‘Project kids aren’t as good as regular kids.’ But I never really felt like an outcast, and most of my friends, at least at an early age, were other project kids.”
“I look back on it now and say, gad, what an interesting childhood I had, what an interesting environment I lived in — so much more interesting than kids who grew up in the suburbs. We had our project, and right next to it there were warehouses and industrial plants, and a working dock across the street from us. We had an amusement park. We would go wandering into the warehouses in the industrial part of town, guards would chase us away. There were tall iron ladders that went up to the roofs of some of these warehouses that we’d just climb to see the view from the roof, going up like four stories on some of these huge warehouses, or up the sides of water towers, things like that. It was a varied world. But I didn’t think of it as a varied world. To me it was boring, and familiar.”
On his parents:
“I would describe my relationship with my mother as being close and warm. I was no good at playing any of these sports, but I did get interested in watching it, and then [my father and I] could talk about Johnny Unitas — we had that bonding over sports. My father was also a gambler. I think I cost him a fortune when I went to college, because I went to Northwestern, in Evanston, which was a member of the Big Ten, but not really good at most sports. My father felt an obligation, and I think he lost a lot of money betting on Northwestern all through my college years. [Laughs]”
On his early influences:
“I first got into comics as a young kid, I read all kinds of comics—Superman and Batman were around then. But I also read Archie comics, and also Harvey Comics, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sugar and Spice and Baby Huey, all of that stuff. Then when Marvel hit with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, I started writing letters — all those books had letters columns — and a few of them got printed. In those days when they printed your letter they put your whole address in it. People started seeing my address and I got letters from other comic fans around the country, and I started getting fanzines. Then I thought, ‘Hey, I could write something for these fanzines. They’re pretty bad; I could write something just as good as that.’ I did, then my stuff started getting published.”
A formative writing experience for me was in a high school English course. The teacher assigned us to write a new ending for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Poe’s ending is actually crap: The guy is trapped, the pendulum is going lower and lower, it’s about to slice him in half, then suddenly there’s a trumpet blast and the Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies; the good guys have arrived and they save him. I wrote the horror ending; nobody comes to save the character, the pendulum cuts him in half. I described the blood and the excruciating pain; rats come out and are eating him and nibbling at his eyes, and wriggling into his chest. Another teacher might have been horrified and sent me to school psychologist, but fortunately, this particular teacher liked what I’d written, and had me read it in front of a class. It was like I was the class hero for a day. It was an all-boys school, and the boys loved the rats and the eating of the entrails, the blood and the guts. For a day I felt like the quarterback who had just won the big game here. Everybody loved my horrible-ending story. [Laughs] It was in high school when I started deciding that I would try to be a writer.”
“In some ways, in my early days as a writer, when I was writing for comic fanzines and stuff, I got my greatest inspiration from bad stuff. Some of these fanzines that I read, the stories were semiliterate — they were terrible. I said, even as a 10-year-old, I could do better than this, and that encouraged me. Indeed, I did do better than that, and when my stories came out in these little magazines, I got praised. I had not been a real confident kid. I was very shy. I was great in school—I always got honor roll and good marks—but there were a lot of things I was not good at, like sports, as I mentioned before. I couldn’t hit or catch a baseball. I couldn’t run fast, or jump high, or any of these things. It eats at you, you know, and your self-confidence.”
On Robert Heinlein and Star Trek:
“I’d read Robert Heinlein. The early Heinlein — he later became nationalistic — was convinced that sooner or later we were going to destroy ourselves with atomic bombs unless we formed a world government and we all came together. You look back on the science fiction that I grew up with, and of that period, and that unspoken assumption is everywhere. When we spread out among the stars, and we would face other alien races, and some of them might be nice and some of them might be evil, monstrous creatures wanting to conquer us, we would face them and fight them or defeat them, or work with them, but we would do so as earthmen, or as Terrans. You grow up reading that stuff and you start to think of yourself as an earthman, as a Terran, not as an American, or a Californian.”
“Star Trek comes along and that really codified it. Star Trek had a Russian on the bridge; it had an Asian guy on the bridge; it had a black woman with an African name. All of these were revolutionary at the time. But Gene Rodenberry didn’t invent that stuff. In people like Heinlein, with the one-worlders, there was just this unspoken assumption that there’s two ways that we’re going to go as the human race: completely going to destroy ourselves with atomic bombs, or we’re going to somehow overcome our difficulties. That’s something that at least the old science fiction really sold, on a very subconscious level. It’s an almost idealistic way of looking what our future was like.”
“Unfortunately I don’t really see us heading that way. I see these divisions becoming more and more distinct, and people hunkering down on them, and god, it’s scary stuff here. We’re not on the path to becoming all earthmen. The idealistic kid who graduated high school, a big believer in truth, justice and the American way, all these great values of superheroes of his youth, was certainly less idealistic by the time I got out of college.”
On discovering J.R.R. Tolkien:
“Quartana, one of the fanzines I hoped to write for, was covering mostly sword and sorcery and fantasy. They had a story about this English guy, Tolkien, and his story about hobbits and rings. It sounded cool to me, so when the first pirated Ace edition of Tolkien came out in paperback I snapped it up. I had a very mixed reaction when I started it. I was a high school sophomore by then. I thought this was like Conan? What the hell is all this stuff, Hey nonny nonny, and little guys with hairy feet smoking pipe weed. Conan would always begin with a half naked woman and a giant snake [Laughs], and I was looking for the giant snake. But by the time I got to the Black Riders and Bree, I was hooked, and by the time I finished Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien had become like my favorite writer, finally knocking Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton off their pinnacle.”
As I read Return of the King, I didn’t want it to be over. That last book blew my mind, particularly the scouring of the Shire. I didn’t like that when I was in high school. The story’s over, and they destroyed the ring — but he didn’t write “and now they lived happily ever after.” Instead, they went home and home was all fucked up. The evil guys had burned down some of the woods; a fascist-like tyranny had taken over. That seemed anticlimactic to me. Frodo didn’t live happily ever after or marry a nice girl hobbit. He was permanently wounded; he was damaged. As a 13 year old, I couldn’t grasp that. Now, every time I re-read The Lord of the Rings — which I do, every few years — I appreciate the brilliance of the scouring of the Shire. That’s part of what lifts the book from all its imitators. There was a real cost to Tolkien’s world. There’s a tremendous sadness at the end of Lord of the Rings, and it has a power. I think that’s partly why people are still reading and re-reading these books.”
“By the time I finished Lord of the Rings it actually somewhat depressed me, because I didn’t think I could ever do anything of that stature. Fortunately, I got over that.”
On teaching and writing his first novel:
“I actually completed my first novel, Dying of the Light, right before I moved to Dubuque, then sent it off to my agent. That was when the science fiction world went crazy, and the whole thing changed. I was in exactly the right place at the right time. Until 1977 or so, for a first novel in science fiction you’d get a $3000 advance. Now, though, it was the summer of Star Wars, and science fiction was suddenly hot and I just sold my first novel for I’d make in three years teaching job.”
“I kept teaching, though, and I discovered that I was writing very little. I wasn’t writing any more novels, and that was bothering in some sense, but fuck, I’m young, I figure. I’m still in my 20s, I’ve got all the time in the world. Then, in 1977, a friend of mine, Tom Reamy, won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He was about 10 years older than me. He’d finished his first novel, and then, early in 1978, Tom died of a massive heart attack, at his typewriter. He was writing and was seven pages into a new story, and they found him slumped over, with his head on his typewriter — gone, just like that. It hadn’t even been a year since he’d been proclaimed the best new writer in the field. Tom’s death had a profound influence on me. I thought I have all the time in the world; how much time do I really have? I gave my notice at the college, and then I went fulltime in 1979. That same year my marriage broke up, and I decided to leave Iowa. I moved down here to Santa Fe. Fortunately it went pretty well, though not without bumps.”
On HBO breaking the ‘likable hero’ mold:
“I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television. The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO.”
On his initial idea for the Fire and Ice “trilogy”:
“When we signed that initial contract, they asked what kind of deadline should we put in? Oh, a year, I said—a year for each novel. Of course, I wasn’t at the point that these Ice and Fire novels would be four times the size of any of those earlier novels of mine, so they can’t be written in the same amount of time. The first thing I did was blow the deadline on what would be Game of Thrones, and then even as I approached that first book’s end I realized I had way too much: I was on page 1400 here, with no end in sight. That’s when I decided it would be four books, not three. I managed to finish and deliver Game of Thrones in 1995, then it came out in 1996. It took me three years to get A Clash of Kings, which came out in 1999, and then A Storm of Swords, in 2000.”
On why the Queen of Thorns may have wanted Joffrey dead:
“Everything she’d heard about him, he was wildly unstable, and he was about to marry her beloved granddaughter. The Queen of Thorns had studied Joffrey well enough that she knew that at some point he would get bored with Margaery, and Margaery would be maltreated, the same way that Sansa had been. Whereas if she removed him then her granddaughter might still get the crown but without all of the danger.”
“Taking human life should always be a very serious thing. I always loved Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood western. A kid who was all braggadocio kills a man and Morgan Freeman says, ‘It’s a big thing to kill a man. You’re taking away all he has, and all he ever would have, and all those possibilities. It’s a big thing to kill a man.’ And it should be a big thing to kill a man—in a book, in a movie, in real life, everywhere.”
On why he killed Ned Stark:
“For one thing, many of the stars are [Ned’s] children, and you’d have to remove daddy for them to come into their own. That was part of it: I wanted to remove the certainty. There are moments in motion pictures or in books where the death of a character has enormous impact, not only because you miss the character and you identified with the character, but also because the remaining characters are now in serious trouble.”
On the show’s ambiguious line between good and evil:
“I don’t necessarily want to tell you what I’m thinking but to return to what I pointed at earlier, I like people that ask these questions, not necessarily provide them with the answers. So as the books unfold, there will be more and more to think about in these regards.
Again, there’s always the question, in politics and in the fiction that I’m writing — which has a political basis to it — of whether the ends ever justify the means? And are the means a worthy means? We see a moral evolution, perhaps, on the part of the human race. But there are collapses and detours, and strange periods of aberration. Remember, we had democracy in ancient Greece. We had a republic in ancient Rome, and yet then somehow for the better part of 2000 years, we forget about those forms of government in most of the world and went to dictatorship, despotism, monarchy, of various forms. Only slowly did those form of government that we now look at and say are better kind of creep back in. So it’s not a straight-line kind of thing. Human beings are too interesting for that. [Laughs]”
On losing readers:
“You hate to lose any reader, but it is going to happen, regardless. In a long series, readers who loved the early books may envision the story going in certain directions. Often those directions are wildly divergent. When the later books actually come out, some of those readers are inevitably going to be upset, because the story on the page does not correspond with the one in their heads. Others may be delighted. I have lost readers with every book, I am sure… but I’ve gained a lot more. The fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, was far and away the most popular in the series. In any case, no, it’s not something I worry about. When this question came up on my Not A Blog a few years ago, I embedded a clip from Rick Nelson singing “Garden Party. “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. Truer words were seldom sung.”
On the parentage of Jon Snow:
Benioff and Weiss later said that during that meeting you asked them who they think Jon Snow’s mother was, which is one of the earliest — and seemingly one of the central — mysteries in A Song of Ice and Fire.
I did ask that at one point, just to see how closely they’d read the text.
Did they get it right?
They answered correctly.
Some readers, I think, would also ask who Jon Snow’s father truly is, even though Jon was always claimed to be Ned Stark’s bastard son.
[Martin smiles] On this I shall not speak. I shall maintain my enigmatic silence, until I get to it in the books.