Sunsets of High Renown
An Interview with George R. R. Martin
by Nick Gevers
One of speculative fiction's most versatile writers, and one of its most naturally talented storytellers, George R. R. Martin is a Romantic if ever there was one. His early stories, many of which fit into a common Future History of galactic desolation, soon attracted notice by reason of their moody bleak poeticism, their rich infusion of Horror into science-fictional templates: "A Song for Lya" (1974), "Sandkings" (1979), and "The Way of Cross and Dragon" (1979) all won Hugo Awards, with "Sandkings" additionally earning a Nebula, and "Nightflyers" (1980) was filmed, although not very successfully. These and many other tales were assembled in a succession of impressive collections: A Song for Lya (1976), Songs of Stars and Shadows (1977), Sandkings (1981), Songs the Dead Men Sing (1983), Nightflyers (1985), Tuf Voyaging (1986), and Portraits of his Children (1987), the title story of which gained a further Nebula.
Meanwhile, Martin had commenced his career as a novelist with the outstanding Gothic planetary romance Dying of the Light (1977); although Windhaven (1981), a collaboration with Lisa Tuttle, was less energetic, Fevre Dream (1982), marking Martin's increasing transition to pure Horror writing, was to become a classic, and a forerunner of the historical vampire tales that were later to swamp the market. After The Armageddon Rag (1983), an apocalyptic thriller, and the Haviland Tuf stories, Martin moved quite profitably into writing for TV, playing a major role in the development of the eerie Urban Fantasy series Beauty and the Beast; his restless experimentation with mixed genres and media also gave rise to a long sequence of collaborative superhero story cycles and novels in prose, the so-called Wild Cards project. Thus Martin's activities in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
From the mid-Nineties onwards, Martin switched directions yet again, as enterprisingly and shrewdly as ever. He started work on an enormous six-volume Fantasy cycle, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has rapidly emerged as the most significant opus in the vein of the Tolkienian epic since the 1970s. A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), and A Storm of Swords (2000) constitute the first half of a vast and brilliantly detailed tapestry of feudal intrigue, conflict, and passion; High Fantasy seems to have a truly literate champion at last.
I interviewed George R. R. Martin, quite briefly, by e-mail in December 2000.
NG: Looking back at the space operas you produced early in your career, two related features stand out: intense Romanticism, and melancholy Gothicism. What influences, what artistic and personal considerations, impelled you in these literary directions?
GRRM: I was always intensely Romantic, even when I was too young to understand what that meant. But Romanticism has its dark side, as any Romantic soon discovers... which is where the melancholy comes in, I suppose. I don't know if this is a matter of artistic influences so much as it is of temperament. But there's always been something in a twilight that moves me, and a sunset speaks to me in a way that no sunrise ever has.
NG: What made you move away from the writing of SF, into Horror and then into the Wild Cards shared world anthology series?
GRRM: I'm not certain I'd agree that I "moved away" from SF. When I was a kid, my father used to say that I liked "weird stuff." Well, weird stuff came in a lot of flavours -- Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, mysteries, secret agent novels, comic books, what have you. I read them all voraciously, sometimes going from Robert A. Heinlein to H. P. Lovecraft to Tolkien to The Fantastic Four in the same week. I think it was inevitable that sooner or later I would write them all as well. Doing the same thing over and over again is boring. Yes, I am writing High Fantasy now... but I will write SF again, maybe some more Horror as well.
NG: To me, as to many others, you seem to be the finest author of large scale Imaginary World Fantasy now active. To what extent can this success be attributed to your remarkable depth of authorial experience, to your having previously gone through phases as a writer of SF, Horror, multimedia collaborations, teleplays...?
GRRM: Well, I wouldn't call them "phases," but I do believe that a writer learns from every story he writes, and when you try different things, you learn different lessons. Working with other writers, as in Hollywood or in a shared world series, will also strengthen your skills, by exposing you to new ways of seeing the work, and different approaches to certain creative challenges. I have always felt that a writer needs to read broadly, especially in his formative years... and tackling a number of different forms and subgenres expands your armory in somewhat the same way.
NG: A Song of Ice and Fire has much of the complex texture of authentic history, both generally and in its specific echoes of actual historical episodes. What laws and principles (if any) in your view govern human history, and how has your understanding of historical processes shaped the series?
GRRM: Historical processes have never much interested me, but history is full of stories, full of triumph and tragedy and battles won and lost. It is the people who speak to me, the men and women who once lived and loved and dreamed and grieved, just as we do. Though some may have had crowns on their heads or blood on their hands, in the end they were not so different from you and me, and therein lies their fascination. I suppose I am still a believer in the now unfashionable "heroic" school, which says that history is shaped by individual men and women and the choices that they make, by deeds glorious and terrible. That is certainly the approach I have taken in A Song of Ice and Fire.
NG: A Song of Ice and Fire undergoes a very interesting progression over its first three volumes, from a relatively clear scenario of Good (the Starks) fighting Evil (the Lannisters) to a much more ambiguous one, in which the Lannisters are much better understood, and moral certainties are less easily attainable. Are you deliberately defying the conventions and assumptions of neo-Tolkienian Fantasy here?
GRRM: Guilty as charged.
The battle between good and evil is a legitimate theme for a Fantasy (or for any work of fiction, for that matter), but in real life that battle is fought chiefly in the individual human heart. Too many contemporary Fantasies take the easy way out by externalizing the struggle, so the heroic protagonists need only smite the evil minions of the dark power to win the day. And you can tell the evil minions, because they're inevitably ugly and they all wear black.
I wanted to stand much of that on its head.
In real life, the hardest aspect of the battle between good and evil is determining which is which.
NG: As the title A Song of Ice and Fire pretty clearly implies, the fundamental War of the series is an elemental and eternal one, between potent forces of cold and heat. In this context, is it fair to say that the conflict foregrounded in the first three volumes -- the War of the Five Kings, whatever its superficial oppositions of Stark ice and Lannister fire -- is actually a distraction from the true battle, a pointless dynastic squabble drastically weakening the Seven Kingdoms just when they need to be at their strongest and most vigilant?
GRRM: Maybe. That's a question for my readers to ponder.
NG: Like earlier novels such as Dying of the Light and Windhaven, A Song of Ice and Fire is very rich in feudal atmosphere: there's an enormous amount of aristocratic regalia evident, not least in your very extensive Appendices. What underlies your fascination with mediaevalism?
GRRM: The medieval setting has been the traditional background for epic Fantasy, even before Tolkien, and there are good reasons for that tradition. The sword has a romance to it that pistols and cannon lack, a powerful symbolic value that touches us on some primal level. Also, the contrasts so apparent in the Middle Ages are very striking -- the ideal of chivalry existed cheek by jowl with the awful brutality of war, great castles loomed over miserable hovels, serfs and princes rode the same roads, and the colorful pageantry of tournaments rose out of a brown and grey world of dung, dirt, and plague. The dramatic possibilities are so rich.
Besides, I like the heraldry.
NG: You're very cruel to the Starks, inflicting all manner of agonies and bereavements on them. Is this process a necessary part of preparing them for their longer term roles in A Song of Ice and Fire?
GRRM: Maybe. Time will tell... time, and the books to come.
NG: You've frequently expressed admiration for Jack Vance. How Vancean is A Song of Ice and Fire in conception and style? In particular, does the narrative thread featuring the exotic wanderings of Daenerys Targaryen function in part as a tribute to Vance, to his picaresque inventiveness?
GRRM: Jack Vance is the greatest living SF writer, in my opinion, and one of the few who is also a master of Fantasy. His The Dying Earth (1950) was one of the seminal books in the history of modern Fantasy, and I would rank him right up there with Tolkien, Dunsany, Leiber, and T.H. White as one of the fathers of the genre.
All that being said, I don't think A Song of Ice and Fire is particularly Vancean. Vance has his voice and I have mine. I couldn't write like Vance even if I tried... and I did try, once. The first Haviland Tuf story, "A Beast for Norn," was my attempt to capture some of Vance's effects, and Tuf is a very Vancean hero, a distant cousin to Magnus Ridolph, perhaps. But what that experiment taught me was that only Jack Vance can write like Jack Vance.
NG: Three more volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire wait to be written. What shape do you expect them to take, and are their titles finalized as yet?
GRRM: Yes, three more volumes remain. The series could almost be considered as two linked trilogies, although I tend to think of it more as one long story. The next book, A Dance With Dragons, will focus on the return of Daenerys Targaryen to Westeros, and the conflicts that creates. After that comes The Winds of Winter. I have been calling the final volume A Time For Wolves, but I am not happy with that title and will probably change it if I can come up with one that I like better.
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© Nick Gevers 3 February 2001