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‘Fantasy needs magic’ An interview with George R. R. Martin

Meduza
11:33, 22 august 2017

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press / AP / Scanpix / LETA

For the first time ever, George R. R. Martin,  the mind behind “Game of Thrones” and the hit fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” visited Russia this month. Meduza film critic Anton Dolin met with the American writer at the Petersburg Fantasy Assembly conference and spoke to him about murdered Starks, American fantasy literature, political metaphors in his fiction, and the beloved heroes and villains of his novels.

I’m one of these critics who started with reading your books, and only later came to the television series. Maybe that’s why I still prefer the books. Do you find yourself at all jealous at the success and popularity of characters on the show, or do you consider them and the show to be equally your children?

Well, I started with books, too. And then I worked in TV for ten years, and then I came back to books. And now I have a foot in both camps.

As for the books, obviously they are 100 percent mine. The television series is partly mine; it’s my world, with my characters, and I have written a number of scripts for it. I wrote four scripts — one for each of the first four seasons. But there are a lot of other people who go into making a really great TV series, and David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the two showrunners, have done a phenomenal job. And so have all of our directors, our amazing cast, the below-the-line people. The number of Emmys that we’ve won for things like costume design and casting and stunt work and cinematography and special effects. We’ve won more Emmys that any other show on television because the people in those jobs have done their jobs superlatively well. So I’m very proud to be associated with the show.

How independent are the showrunners from you? Simply put: could they save the life of a character you’ve decided to kill? Or could they kill someone who’s still alive in your books?

They are independent. They can do whatever they want. I don’t have any power… any contractual right to [stop them]. I consult with them. I talk to them on a regular basis. Of course, years ago, we had a series of very long meetings, where I told them some of the big twists and turns and huge events that were coming in the last few books. So they’ve been touching [on] some of these, and doing some of the reveals, but they have also been departing in various ways.

The biggest one is one that you just mentioned: probably right now, right as we talk, there are close to 20 characters who are dead on the show, who are still alive in the books. Some of them are very minor characters, but also there are major characters, like Rickon Stark, Barristan Selmy, Myrcella Baratheon. All of them — dead on the show, but alive in the books.

There are also a number of characters in the books — fairly important characters — who have never been in the show at all. Characters who were omitted totally. It’s not a question of killing them; they’re just not there. They were never a part of it: Lady Stoneheart is one of them; Arianne Martell, the heir to Dorne, who’s a viewpoint character; and Victarion Greyjoy, one of the sons of Quellon Greyjoy and brother to Balon and Euron. All of these characters are quite important in the books and missing totally in the show.

In your work, you have essentially captured Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphonic fiction, where the characters are equal, and the reader can root for any of them. This has been impossible to convey on the TV series.

I wouldn’t say all the characters are equal, but they have (hopefully) human traits, especially the viewpoint characters. I have seven viewpoint characters in the first book, and each book has a few more. So, by now, we’re probably up to 12 or 13 viewpoint characters, and those are the ones where I go actually inside their skin, so you’re seeing the world through their eyes. You’re hearing their thoughts. You’re feeling their emotions. And I try to paint over those viewpoint characters, and some of them are noble and just, and some of them are kind of selfish, and some of them are very intelligent, and some of them are less intelligent and even stupid. But they’re all human, and I want to portray their humanity.

I’ve always been interested in writing what I call “gray characters,” and not painting in shades of black or white. A lot of fantasy novels portray the clash between good and evil as the heart of the novel — as the thematic core. And I certainly think that’s a valid thematic core for a book, but as I look on that, the fight between good and evil is not fought on a battlefield, where one side is wearing white and the other side is wearing black, and the guys in black are all really ugly and they eat human flesh, and they have horns and stuff.

Like in Tolkien!

Tolkien did it magnificently, but it’s become a cliche in the hands of the Tolkien imitators who have followed. I wasn’t interested in writing about Dark Lords or the equivalent. I think the battle between good and evil is fought all over the world, every day, in the individual human heart, as we all struggle with the choices that define us and define our lives. And we have to choose what we are going to do, and sometimes the choice is not easy; it’s not this absolute juxtaposition of the good guys and the bad guys. And I wanted to get to that with my characters, and show some of the difficulties that they face.

The TV series “Game of Thrones” started off with these graphic, explicit scenes of sex and violence. Some of that has gradually disappeared from the show, but not from your books. What do you think of this decision by the showrunners?

I don’t disagree with it. The show is the show. David and Dan are doing it, and they have to make choices with parameters that I don’t have to deal with. Questions about what audiences will accept and not accept, questions about running time, questions about what they can actually do. For example, in the first season, our budget was much smaller and we really couldn’t do battles. So you have something like the Battle of the Green Fork. It was a huge battle in my book, but in the TV show, Tyrion gets knocked in the head, and he’s unconscious through the battle, because we simply didn’t have the budget to hire all the extras and do all the special effects to film that.

The books are my absolute vision of the story, and I present what I want to, including the sexuality and violence. This is essentially a war story, as are many fantasies, including Tolkien. The War of the Ring! And if you’re doing a war story, I think you have to be honest about the nature of war, and war is certainly a powerful theme that goes all the way back through the history of literature. We hardly have anything the predates the Iliad, and what is the Iliad but an account of the Trojan War? You have Tolstoy writing about War and Peace. War is the great bane of mankind, but it’s been with us since the beginning, and I don’t know but sometimes I despair that it will be with us to the end. It’s certainly a powerful thing to treat in fiction, whether it’s fantasy fiction or realistic fiction.

We often read “Game of Thrones” as a collection of political metaphors about our world. Are we right to look for your political views in this story? Or would that be projecting unfairly?

I think it’s a bit of both. Certainly, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a meditation upon power — the uses and abuses of power, the things people do to get it, and what they do when they have it. It’s a meditation upon governance, and of course it’s a story about war. All those are factors, and you can perhaps sense my opinions about some of that by seeing what I do in it.

What it is not, however, is an allegory about the 21st century and 2017 politics. The people who try to apply that are as wrong as the people who tried to do that with Tolkien, talking about Lord of the Rings being about World War II. It wasn’t about World War II; it was about the War for the Ring. If there are any politics being reflected in my books, it’s the politics of the Hundred Years’ War, and the Crusades, and the Wars of the Roses — not anything that’s happened in 2017.

The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in “Game of Thrones”?

I have to draw a distinction between viewpoint characters and other characters. The viewpoint characters are the ones where I’m actually crawling inside their skin and living in their heads and showing you the world through their eyes. To make a viewpoint character come alive, you do have to use parts of yourself — even if the character is very different from you. Obviously, I’ve never been an exiled princess, I’ve never been a dwarf, and I’ve never been an eight-year-old girl. But I think, with the common traits that apply to all humanity, we have far more in common than what sets us apart. Considering nationality or religion, or gender or sex, or any of these questions, I try to make all of these characters fully human.

Which character do you feel most closely resembles you? Which character in the story would you most like to be? And which character would you fear becoming?

[Laughter.] Tyrion is the character I’ve always had the easiest time writing. Maybe that’s the character I wish I could be, in a sense, despite all of his drawbacks. But of course I’m obviously not Tyrion. Tyrion has a wonderful wit to him, and he throws off witticisms every moment that take me weeks to come up with. I have to rewrite them four times, before I get the line just right. In real life, I’m always the guy thinking, “Ah! That’s what I should have said!” But I only think of it three weeks later.

The character I’m probably most like in real life is Samwell Tarly. Good old Sam. And the character I’d want to be? Well who wouldn’t want to be Jon Snow — the brooding, Byronic, romantic hero whom all the girls love. Theon [Greyjoy] is the one I’d fear becoming. Theon wants to be Jon Snow, but he can’t do it. He keeps making the wrong decisions. He keeps giving into to his own selfish, worst impulses.

In some senses, Theon is struggling all the way through to be a hero. They both come out of the same situation: they’re both raised in Winterfell by Eddard Stark, but they’re not part of the real, core family. Theon is a ward, and Jon Snow is a bastard son. So they’re both a little outside, but Jon handles this successfully, and Theon fails to handle this. He is poisoned by his own envy and his sense of not belonging.

HBO / “Amediateka”

Many of your most beloved heroes are outsiders: children and women, gay people and dwarves, foreigners and intellectuals. Do you feel, maybe not today but earlier in your career, like an outsider in the literature world? Writers of science fiction and fantasy are often very popular, but sometimes still aren’t accepted as “real writers,” it seems.

It is changing. I can’t speak for Russia — I don’t know what’s going on in Russia — but in the English-speaking world, it is changing slowly. I was certainly very conscious of this when I first began my career in the 70s, with my first sales, and even before that, in the 60s, when I was reading and writing little amateur stories and all that. Science fiction and fantasy were not considered real literature, and not part of the canon. I’ve had teachers say to me, “Why are you reading that crap? You get good grades, you write well, and you should be reading the great masters, and not writing that stuff.”

At least in America, what has changed is that there are science fiction and fantasy courses being taught in colleges and universities all across America. Some of them are even teaching my books. In the last few years, we’ve seen Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer, and Stephen King won the National Book Award. These are very very prestigious awards that would never be given to a fantasy writer 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Suddenly these barriers are starting to come down, and also you’re seeing literary writers borrowing the techniques and the settings of science fiction and fantasy writers. So I think the walls are beginning to crumble, but not completely, not yet.

For example, although hundreds of colleges and universities teach courses in science fiction and fantasy, they’re still not including science fiction or fantasy books when they teach 20th century American literature and the canon. The canon will still be Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and John Updike. It will not include Ursula K. Le Guin or Robert A. Heinlein as it should, if I think we’re going to be fully incorporated. But all of that’s true of all genre writers. It’s not just us. They don’t include Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, either — two great giants of mystery writing.

The real test, of course, of any book is will it survive its own time, and will it be read after the author is dead? Will it be read 20 years later? Or 100 years later? I think science fiction and fantasy are doing pretty well in that regard. People are still reading H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and they’re still reading Tolkien. When The Guardian ran a readers’ poll on the greatest novels of the 20th century, Lord of the Rings finished first, ahead of all the so-called great literary novels of the English-speaking world that were written in the 20th century. I think things are changing.

Did you ever borrow anything from Russian literature? From our classics?

I borrowed only one thing from Russian literature that I could think of, which was the little bit I did about the corpse of Tywin Lannister, which was taken from the “Brothers Karamazov.” But I haven’t read a lot of Russian literature, since I don’t read Russian. In college, I read the classics: Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov,” and “War and Peace,” and later I read “Doctor Zhivago.” I’ve tried to read some Russian science fiction, but mostly the only thing we had was the Strugatsky Brothers. Not having any Russian, my exposure was limited.

The world of “Game of Thrones” is very convincing and very realistic, so why did you decide to bring magic into this world? Did it need walking corpses and dragons? What prompted you, as the writer, to introduce magical elements?

I did consider in the very early stages not having the dragons in there. I wanted the Targaryen’s symbol to be the dragons, but I did play with the notion that maybe it was like a psionic power, that it was pyrokinesis — that they could conjure up flames with their minds. I went back and forth. My friend and fellow fantasy writer Phyllis Eisenstein actually was the one who convinced me to put the dragons in, and I dedicated the third book to her. And I think it was the right call. Phyllis, by the way, is distantly related to your Eisenstein, the maker of the great Russian films, “Battleship Potemkin” and “Alexander Nevsky.”

Fantasy needs magic in it, but I try to control the magic very strictly. You can have too much magic in fantasy very easily, and then it overwhelms everything and you lose all sense of realism. And I try to keep the magic magical — something mysterious and dark and dangerous, and something never completely understood. I don’t want to go down the route of having magic schools and classes where, if you say these six words, something will reliably happen. Magic doesn’t work that way. Magic is playing with forces you don’t completely understand. And perhaps with beings or deities you don’t completely understand. It should have a sense of peril about it.

So no Hogwarts?

No. [Laughter.]

One final thing: there’s a running joke that every time someone asks George Martin when he’s going to finish his next book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, he kills off another Stark. Is there something to these rumors?

If that were true, there’d be no Starks left, because I get this question constantly. But we still have a healthy number of Starks running around.

Anton Dolin