Edinburgh seems the perfect place to be speaking to George R.R. Martin, here for the book festival, because one of the city’s residents is among the few authors able to empathise with his predicament.
The closest parallel to the impact made by J.K. Rowling’s seven-book fantasy sequence and related movies about Harry Potter is Martin’s projected seven-book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the globally successful spin-off HBO miniseries A Game of Thrones, named after the first of the five books that have so far appeared.
Rowling once said she still suffered moments of shock at the global industry and cultural phenomenon that had resulted from telling a story. Does Martin feel a similar sensation? “I wouldn’t use the word shock. But, yes, it does seem unreal at moments. I’m constantly forgetting my life has been transformed. I think Rowling was a different case because they were her first books. I’d had 20 years of fantasy and science fiction books that had done well, but not like this,” he says.
“There’s part of me that [thinks] I’m still that person and can live that kind of life. And then I’m reminded I’ve become a celebrity. There are nice things about it and not so nice.”
The negative aspect, he says, is “loss of privacy and the fact that it’s out of your control”. He and Parris, his third wife, came to Edinburgh three or four years ago and could listen to the street musicians and go to plays and performances. And, “in the whole week we were here, maybe three people recognised me, and I was happy to sign autographs.
Now, three or four people recognise me every block. I can’t go out any more; I can’t walk the streets. And it’s great to have all these readers and fans who, for the most part, are nice people … but there are so many of them and it just doesn’t end. Oh, and selfies! If I could clap my hands and burn out every camera phone in the world, I swear I’d do it!” He is nostalgic about his years of manageable fame: “I could go to a science fiction convention and put on a name badge. And I’d get this thing that science fiction fans call an ‘ego-boo’ – ego-boosting – when people see the badge and say: ‘Oh, George R.R. Martin, sign my book.’ But then I could take off the name tag and become just some guy and go to a restaurant.”
Martin’s reference to “most” of his readers being nice people sounds calculated to exclude those who speculate about his longevity or aggressively demand the sixth and seventh volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. “That’s one of the pressures on me,” he says. “My publishers want the [next] book, so do HBO, so do my readers. And nobody wants it more than I do. [But] the books are what I’ll finally be judged on. If the novels are still being read in 50 years, no one is ever going to say: ‘What’s great about that sixth book is that he met his deadline!’ It will be about how the whole thing stands up.”
Martin – all white hair and beard – is a big, amiable, Santa-like man.
His appearance is one reason there was such shock when he recently snarled “F*** you!” at a questioner who asked whether, as a 65-year-old with a high body mass index, he was sure that he could complete the last two books.
But the apparent feeling among his fan base that he should lock himself away until the narrative is completed reflects the extraordinary success of the franchise, which began quietly, in 1996, with A Game of Thrones, introducing the fantasy continents of Westeros – where seven kingdoms, uneasily united under a ruling dynasty, are sliding into civil war – and Essos. The northern border of Westeros is protected by an ancient wall of ice, an aspect of his imagined world that has provided Martin with an answer to all those who have pressed him in Edinburgh to take a side in the Scottish independence debate: “I’ve suggested building a giant wall of ice between the two nations.”
Fiction has already imitated Scottish history because Westeros’ defensive barrier is inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. His study of Scottish, Irish and English (especially the Wars of the Roses) military history has informed the stories, which also draw on literature.
The title and general atmospherics of A Song of Ice and Fire were influenced by a poem called Fire and Ice by American poet Robert Frost. Published in 1920 – just after the end of the first world war – the short poem muses on the nature of a final planetary conflagration: “Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favour fire./But if it had to perish twice,/I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.”
Apart from suggesting the extreme and extended seasons of heat and cold in Martin’s world, Frost’s poem also contains the words “hate” and “desire”, which, in intense scenes of sex and violence, are the driving forces of the narrative. “Yeah. Love and hate, sex, revenge: these are a big part of history and a big part of my books.
You read about the Wars of the Roses and it’s an endless series of revenge killings, effectively.”
We are talking on a day when the news headlines are again dominated by the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Gaza, which feels appropriate because one reading of A Song of Ice and Fire is that war and border disputes are almost inevitable to human communities.
“Certainly, one of the major themes of the books is war. Almost all fantasy fiction since J.R.R. Tolkien has been concerned with war. In the Tolkien imitators, it’s always a fight between good and evil, and the evil ones wear black or are ugly. I wanted to stand some of those things on their heads and so I put my good guys – the Night’s Watch men – in black, and there’s good and evil on both sides. But it’s not an allegory. If I wanted to write a novel about Vietnam or Syria, that’s what I’d do.”
Despite the disclaimer, one reason for the huge success of both the book and TV versions may be that people of different races and places detect their own experience in Martin’s world. Depending on your perspective, the great dividing barrier in the books could be Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China or the security fence on the West Bank.
“It was Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve never been to China. [But] those meanings may very well be there.”
One example of unintentional influence is the place in which a writer lives and works, and Martin has written his epic about clashing civilisations in New Mexico, on the border between an ancient culture and a modern superpower. “Yeah.
There are certainly three distinct cultures there – the original Indian culture, the Spanish and then the Anglo civilisation that conquered that – and I’m a kid from New Jersey, so I bring my own perspective to it all,” he says.
Living in a US state that has a border with Mexico, Martin is also well placed to observe the fear of invading foreign hordes that seems to have become a feature of most societies. “Yeah,” he sighs. “Lately, it certainly seems to be, which is distressing, especially in America.
The US has been the ultimate nonhomogeneous culture, created by immigrants. So how hypocritical can we be to get concerned with immigration now?” Underlying Martin’s books are two rejections of institutional dogma: first, lapsing as a young man from his family’s Catholic faith – “even as a kid, I asked questions that made the nuns and priests uncomfortable” – and then refusing to fight in Vietnam, succeeding in being classified by his local draft board as a conscientious objector.
“Often, to get that status, you had to be a total pacifist on religious grounds. Now, number one: I’m not religious. And number two: I’m not a complete pacifist. They would say, ‘Would you fight if Hitler was raping your grandmother?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, probably would.’ But they passed me, anyway. I sometimes think the second world war has changed our entire western civilisation’s view of war, because, of all the wars in history, the second world war is closest to fantasy war, in which there is a dark lord, whose guys are actually evil and dress in black and wear skulls on their uniforms. The first world war was a much more typical war: what were all those people really fighting for?” Many of Martin’s comments end interrogatively, which, he says, reflects his temperament: “I’m not the sort of writer who gives answers; I prefer to raise questions. One of the most pleasurable things about the success of the books has been the debates they have sparked, with people arguing online about what was the right thing to do.”
Are there thousands of thrownaway pages or does he write to a target length? “There are discarded chapters and paragraphs and everything in between because I follow the characters and they sometimes lead me down dead ends. So, at the end of the sequence, I will probably have tens of thousands of words or even hundreds of thousands of words of unused material.” Would he publish them? “Mmm, no. Some of them are just earlier versions of scenes that appear. Well, there’s at least one deleted chapter from book five – which left me in the wrong place – which I have been tempted to publish as a sort of short story.”
The Frost poem is about the end of the world, and this seems to hint that Martin’s invented universe must perish, through heat or cold or possibly both, at the end of the seventh book.
The writer cackles: “Well, I’m not going to comment on that. You can worry about that for two books. But it’s true that all men must die.”
Finally, while it seems unlikely that he’ll reveal the state of readiness or probable publication date of the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, I wonder what answer he gives to the fans and publishers who presumably ask him all the time.
“I tell them all the same thing,” he says, with slightly steely sweetness.
“It will be done when it’s done.”
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