On a cold night in January, George R.R. Martin sits inside the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a revival theater that he owns in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has lived since 1979. The Cinema had been showing the first three seasons of HBO’s megahit series Game of Thrones, which is based on Martin’s still-in-the-works saga A Song of Ice and Fire. After viewing the ninth episode, “Baelor,” in which the story’s apparent hero, Ned Stark, is unexpectedly beheaded, with the screen falling to black, Martin sits quietly for several moments, then says, “As many times as I’ve watched this, it still has great effect. Of course for me, there’s so much more to the books.”
And much more to come: The Song of Ice and Fire cycle – first published in 1996 – currently stands at five volumes, with two more books ahead. Those final works, though, won’t be anytime soon. Because Martin is a meticulous and slow writer, it is likely that years will pass before we learn the fates of Daenerys and her dragons, the recriminatory Lannister siblings and the shellshocked progeny in the Stark family. There is even the chance that the HBO series might arrive at key plot points before the books do, and though Martin once dismissed that possibility, he’s now mindful of it. “I better get these books done,” he tells me, on a drive through the streets of Santa Fe.
Later on, Martin takes me to a small house with a book tower that serves as his office and writing space. (The home where he lives with his second wife, Parris, is nearby.) Martin has been writing since childhood, and started publishing science-fiction short stories just out of college in the early 1970s. They quickly established him as a serious and imaginative writer, telling tales of tragedy and, sometimes, of uncommon and hard-won redemption. He spent much of the Eighties and early Nineties working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Then in 1991 he began A Game of Thrones, primarily a story about power and family, about the disastrous nature of both war and the human heart, and so far it has shown nobody – including the audience – any mercies. As is apparent in the fourth season, there are no guarantees that anybody in this story is safe.
At his office, Martin escorts me to the den where we would talk. The room’s walls hold glass cases, full of hundreds of beautiful miniatures of medieval figures and fantasy characters and scenes from Martin’s books. Near a staircase that leads to Martin’s library – at 65, he remains a voracious reader – stands a full-size and operational model of the famous Robby the Robot, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. “Robby the Robot,” he tells me, “it was a great kick to buy him and to show him off. A bunch of money sitting in a pile – what do I get out of that?”
Martin is an affable, candid, terrifically smart man, and he is loquacious. We talked for 10 hours that day, breaking only for dinner. His way of discussing Game of Thrones surprised me: He often spun questions into larger dissertations about history, war and society. Because Martin is a big man, with an infectious laugh and white hair, there might seem something of a Santa Claus aspect about him, except for his eyes, which are constantly flickering with thought – some of it quite dark – conveying a mind as shrewd as that belonging to any of his characters.
One of the more dominant themes in Game of Thrones is family. It’s what gives the characters purpose, but it also ruins them. What was your own sense of family and home like?
I was born in 1948, and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is a peninsula just south of Jersey City. By bus, it was 45 minutes to the heart of Manhattan, but Bayonne really was a world in and of itself. New York was very close, but we didn’t go there very often. Ninety percent of the people who lived in Bayonne worked in Bayonne, and went to school in Bayonne. They raised their children in Bayonne. It was a multi-generational town. We didn’t actually own a house, though. From the age of four I lived down on First Street, in the public-housing projects, facing the waters of Kill Van Kull, with Staten Island on the other side.
My father was a Martin, but he was of Italian and German descent. My mother was a Brady – Irish. I heard a lot from my mother about the heritage of the Bradys, who had been a pretty important family at certain points in Bayonne history. I knew at a very early age that we were poor. But I also knew that my family hadn’t always been poor. To get to my school, I had to walk past the house where my mother had been born, this house that had been our house once. I’ve looked back on that, of course, and in some of my stories there’s this sense of a lost golden age, where there were wonders and marvels undreamed of. Somehow what my mother told me set all that stuff into my imagination.
Your stories empathize with outsiders. Is that how you felt growing up?
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.
Was your relationship with your parents close?
I would describe my relationship with my other as being close and warm. My father was a distant figure. I don’t think that he ever understood me, and I don’t know that I ever understood him. We didn’t use the term then, but you could probably say he was a functioning alcoholic. I saw him every day, but we hardly talked. The only thing that we really bonded over was sports — football and baseball. I was no good at playing any of these sports, but I did get interested in watching it, and then we 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]
Did you get out of Bayonne much before college?
We never had a car. My father always said that drinking and driving was very bad, and he was not going to give up drinking. [Laughs] My world was a very small world. For many years I stared out of our living-room window at the lights of Staten Island. To me, those lights of Staten Island were like Shangri-La, and Singapore, and Shanghai, or whatever. Whatever they were, they were places I would never be. But 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. So I read books, and I dreamed of Mars, and the planets in those books, and of the Hyborian Age of Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, and later of Middle-Earth – all these colorful places. I would dream of those places just as I dreamed of Staten Island, and Shanghai.
Tell me a bit about those early interests in comics, science fiction, weird tales and fantasy.
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.
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 Heinlein and Andre Norton off their pinnacle.
Tolkien’s books have met with both devotion and condescension over the years. No matter what anybody might think of them, they have a great staying power.
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.
When you read the Tolkien books, did you ever dream of doing something that might match that stature?
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. 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.
Then I found I could tell stories that people really seemed to like. 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 1966, you entered Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois. I know that in the years that followed you underwent some serious moral and political changes due to your opposition to the Vietnam War.
I was, like many kids of my generation, a hawk. I accepted that America was the good guys, we had to be there. When I got into college, the more I learned about our involvement in Vietnam, the more it seemed wrong to me. Of course, the draft was happening, and I decided to ask for the conscientious-objector status. I wasn’t a complete pacifist; I couldn’t claim to be that. I was what they called an objector to a particular war. I would have been glad to fight in World War II. But Vietnam was the only war on the menu. So I applied for conscientious-objector status in full belief that I would be rejected, and that I would have a further decision to make: Army, jail or Canada. I don’t know what I would’ve done. Those were desperately hard decisions, and every kid had to make them for himself. To my surprise, they gave me the status. I was later told – I have no way to prove this – that I was granted the status because our conservative draft board felt that anyone who applied for CO status should be granted it, because that would be punishment enough: Then it would be part of their permanent record, and everybody would know that they were a Commie sympathizer, and it would ruin their lives.
I don’t think America has ever quite recovered from Vietnam. The divisions in our society still linger to this day. For my generation it was a deeply disillusioning experience, and it had a definite effect on me.
Do you think your interest in the books you’d been reading had an effect on your views?
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.
After college you went on to teach writing at a college in Dubuque, Iowa. How did that affect your writing life?
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.
Where does your imagination come from?
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important. I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own. It’s the combination of ingredients, it’s the details, making the character come alive, adding something to him. I mean there’s something of Richard III in Tyrion, but he’s uniquely different. But I don’t know where it comes from, yet it comes – it’s always come. If I was a religious guy, I’d say it’s a gift from God, but I’m not, so I can’t say that.
Your earliest novels, Dying of the Light and Fevre Dream, did well. But The Armageddon Rag temporarily stopped your literary career. Then you spent years in Hollywood, writing for TV series. Do you think your subsequent writing – which, of course, would be A Song of Ice and Fire – benefited from mastering screenplays?
I do. The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it’s much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose. William Goldman said everything that needed to be said about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: It’s all structure, structure and dialogue. Being there improved my sense of structure and dialogue. I’d spent so many years sitting alone in a room, facing a computer or typewriter before that. It was almost exhilarating to go into an office where there were other people – and to have a cup of coffee, and to talk about stories or developments in writers’ meetings. But there were constant limitations. It wore me down. There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too “politically charged,” how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people. They wanted us to show him picking up someone and throwing them across the room, and then they would get up and run away. Oh, my God, horrible monster! [Laughs] It was ludicrous. The character had to remain likable.
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.
You’ve talked before about the original glimpse of the story you had for what became A Song of Ice and Fire: a spontaneous vision in your mind of a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. That’s an interesting genesis.
It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn’t have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. Not the prologue, which I wrote some time later, but the first chapter where, from Bran’s viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you’ve read.
How long did it take to do the world-building work?
Basically, I wrote about a hundred pages that summer. It all occurs at the same time with me. I don’t build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don’t know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive. In the meantime, I still pitched shows in Hollywood, but this Ice and Fire thing wouldn’t leave my head. I kept thinking about it and scenes for these characters. It was just never far from me. I realized I really want to tell that story. By then I knew it was going to be a trilogy. Everybody was doing trilogies back then – J.R.R. Tolkien had sort of set the mold with The Lord of the Rings. Around 1994, I gave the hundred pages to my agent with a little two-page summary of where I saw the book series going. My agent got interest all over town – about four publishers bid on it. Suddenly I had an advance and I had a deadline, so I was able to say to my Hollywood agents: no more screenplays until I finish this novel.
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.
By deciding to write a trilogy – and now it’s projected as seven books – were you worried you’d have to measure up to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?
Not particularly. From the 1970s, Tolkien imitators had retreaded what he’d done, with no originality and none of Tolkien’s deep abiding love of myth and history. But I’d always been regarded, at least in the genre, as a serious writer. Also, this story had such a grip on me. I thought these books could have the gritty feel of historical fiction as well as some of the magic and awe of epic fantasy.
With the exception of the fantasy elements, Game of Thrones might well have been a reimagination of the Wars of the Roses.
I did consider at a very early stage – going all the way back to 1991 – whether to include overt fantasy elements, and at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel. But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what’s going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren’t going to escape. I wanted to make it more unexpected, bring in some more twists and turns. The main question was the dragons: Do I include dragons? I knew I wanted to have the Targaryens have their symbol be the dragons; the Lannisters have the lions, the Starks have the wolves. Should these things be literal here? Should the Targaryens actually have dragons? I was discussing this with a friend, writer Phyllis Eisenstein – I dedicated the third book to her – and she said, “George, it’s a fantasy – you’ve got to put in the dragons.” She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I’m deep into it, I can’t imagine the book without the dragons.
How did you come up with the Wall?
The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.
Given the complexity of A Song of Ice and Fire, did you have concerns over how faithfully it could work onscreen?
About the time of the third book I started getting calls from people in Hollywood. That interest accelerated when the Lord of the Rings movies started coming out, and suddenly studios wanted to do their own Lord of the Rings. Every fantasy in the world got optioned. Those films showed that an audience would respond seriously to dragons, and things like that. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a children’s book, but his main work, Lord of the Rings, is an adult work that has profoundly serious themes. I took meetings with some of them and had conversations with others. But I never thought, from the moment I started this, that it could be filmed. I said it’s impossible. Tolkien’s trilogy is about the size of A Storm of Swords. I have far more characters, far more settings, far more of everything, so it can’t be filmed.
Some people I met thought we have to find the story’s through line. Who’s the important character? Somebody thought that Dany’s the important character – cut away everybody else, tell the story of Dany. Or Jon Snow. Those were the two most popular characters to build everything around, except you’re losing 90 percent of the story. Somebody else suggested, “We’ll just tell the beginning in one movie, and when it succeeds we’ll do more movies.” But if the film doesn’t do well you never see the second movie; you get a broken fragment of an epic. I was in a fortunate position of not having to worry about paying my mortgage. So I said no to all these offers, but it did get me thinking: The only way it can be done is for television – but not for CBS or NBC, because it’s too sexual, too violent, too complicated. The only way it could be done is by somebody like HBO.
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.
The show has given you millions of new fans, who, judging from online debate, are extremely passionate about your work….
It’s a terrific feeling, knowing you have not only a lot of readers or viewers, but that they’re so intense, and bringing so much thought and interest to bear. But maybe that’s part of what’s slowed me down – the knowledge that so many people are looking at every line, and waiting on every turn and scene. We have the untold-history book coming out later this year, where I’ve written a fake history. I find it amusing, and secretly pleasing, that I have so many fans who are interested in the history. I’m not sure if they would so eagerly study real history, you know? In school perhaps they’re bored with all the Henrys in English history, but they’ll gladly follow the Targaryen dynasty.
History was my minor in college. I don’t pretend to be a historian. Modern historians are interested in sociopolitical trends. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the stories. History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.
It’s a shockingly brutal story that you tell. The first major jolt comes when the knight Jaime Lannister pushes a child, Bran Stark, through a window because the child witnessed Jaime and Jaime’s sister, Cersei – the wife of Westeros’ King Robert – having sex. That moment grabs you by the throat.
I’ve had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, “Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before.” Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He’s young King Arthur. We’re going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don’t expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [Laughs]
Both Jaime and Cersei are clearly despicable in those moments. Later, though, we see a more humane side of Jaime when he rescues a woman, who had been an enemy, from rape. All of a sudden we don’t know what to feel about Jaime.
One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don’t have an answer. This is one of the areas where I’m asking the next question—just the two of us talking here, but also in my fiction. Is there the possibility of redemption? How do we forgive people? When do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he’s apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently?
What about Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? Can they have redemption? Can they rejoin society? Does a good act make up for a bad act? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you’re a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don’t know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what’s the answer then? [Pause]
You’ve read the books?
Who kills Joffrey?
That killing happens early in this fourth season. The books, of course, are well past the poisoning of King Joffrey.
In the books – and I make no promises, because I have two more books to write, and I may have more surprises to reveal – the conclusion that the careful reader draws is that Joffrey was killed by the Queen of Thorns, using poison from Sansa’s hairnet, so that if anyone did think it was poison, then Sansa would be blamed for it. Sansa had certainly good reason for it.
The reason I bring this up is because that’s an interesting question of redemption. That’s more like killing Hitler. Does the Queen of Thorns need redemption? Did the Queen of Thorns kill Hitler, or did she murder a 13-year-old boy? Or both? She had good reasons to remove Joffrey. 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.Is it a case where the end justifies the means? I don’t know. That’s what I want the reader or viewer to wrestle with, and to debate.
I don’t know if somebody like Jaime or Cersei can be redeemed. Cersei’s a great character – she’s like Lady Macbeth.
Well, redeemed in whose eyes? She’ll never be redeemed in the eyes of some. She’s a character who’s very protective of her children. You can argue, well, does she genuinely love her children, or does she just love them because they’re her children? There’s certainly a great level of narcissism in Cersei. She has an almost sociopathic view of the world and civilization. At the same time, what Jaime did is interesting. I don’t have any kids myself, but I’ve talked with other people who have. Remember, Jaime isn’t just trying to kill Bran because he’s an annoying little kid. Bran has seen something that is basically a death sentence for Jaime, for Cersei, and their children – their three actual children. So I’ve asked people who do have children, “Well, what would you do in Jaime’s situation?” They say, “Well, I’m not a bad guy – I wouldn’t kill.” Are you sure? Never? If Bran tells, King Robert is going to kill you and your sister-lover, and your three children. . . .
Then many of them hesitate. Probably more people than not would say, “Yeah, I would kill someone else’s child to save my own child, even if that other child was innocent.” These are the difficult decisions people make, and they’re worth examining.
By contrast, when Ned Stark beheads the Night Watchman, and later, when Ned’s son Robb beheads another man, those killings take a toll on the two Starks. It’s not easy for them to do it. It weighs on them.
As it should, I think. 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. There’s something very close up about the Middle Ages. It would be closer than you and I are, here in this room. You’re taking a sharp piece of steel and hacking at someone’s head, and you’re getting spattered with his blood, and you’re hearing his screams. It leads to a different kind of, I don’t know, a different kind of human being. In some ways maybe it’s more brutal that we’ve insulated ourselves from that. We’re setting up mechanisms where we can kill human beings with drones and missiles where you’re sitting at a console and pressing the button. We never have to hear their whimpering, or hear them begging for their mother, or dying in horrible realities around us. I don’t know if that’s necessarily such a good thing.
You see this same moral struggle all through history. It’s always the question, when you’re at war, do you do whatever it takes to win, or do you actually maintain your own moral standard and ideals? Should we be waterboarding people? What if we get valuable information that saves our lives? Well, even so, aren’t we compromising ourselves? But if it prevents another 9/11, is torture worth it? I don’t know, but it’s a question worth asking, and it’s a question that’s been asked since those days. Do you commit horrible crimes to stay alive so your side should win?
A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
Real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.
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. You can look back—there’s so many wars. How many generations, through all of human history, have lived their entire lives in peace, without a war sometime during their lifetime, or several wars, to carry them off and wipe out their goods or their sons? 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. I was not, when I applied for Conscientious Objector status, a pacifist. I’m still not a pacifist today. 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, because I think we are 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.
That seems to apply as well to your fantasy or magic elements: If there’s a God of Light, he seems awful. Are the walking dead out of the north beyond any reclaim? And then there’s Daenerys’s dragons: They seem kind of promising, like they could be a force of justice or good.
Yes, that’s the way they seem. I hope. [Laughs] 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]
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. For one thing, many of the stars are his 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. 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, who had his own men and his own children, all of that 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.
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.
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.
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.