By Chris Hammond
It’s too easy to pigeon hole the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series by George R.R Martin. Set in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, Martin’s books centre around the power struggles of the major noble families as they vie for both the Iron Throne and survival at a time of uncertainty and civil war. On the face of it the books are works of fantasy, but fans of the series will tell you that there’s much, much more to these tomes than swords, castles and dragons. Martin’s prose is lucid, his pacing excellent and the various plots involved in the storyline are woven together impeccably. More importantly though he has crafted a cast of characters so compelling and three dimensional even non-genre fans have taken to his work.
Earlier this year, SKY Atlantic aired the first television series of ‘Game of Thrones’ an adaptation of the first novel in Martin’s ‘Song of Fire and Ice’ series. Fans loved it, as did the critics. The same went for Martin’s latest instalment of the book series. Released in July, the massive ‘Dance With Dragons’ took the cast of characters into even darker territory. So with a New York Times bestseller and a hit HBO produced series under his belt, the tail-end of 2011 seemed like the perfect time to catch up with our favourite author of the last decade.
First things first, how’s the second season of Game of Thrones coming along?
“We’re excited about it; they’re just wrapping the second season now. They’re shooting in Belfast and Croatia and I think they’ve got another ten days in Iceland and then we’ll be done.”
You must be pretty pleased with the production though? Everything seems to be in pretty safe hands and true to the source material.
“David Benioff and Dan Weiss the show runners have done an incredible job, we have great writers and directors plus a wonderful cast so it’s been a real thrill for me and I couldn’t be in better hands. I wanted a faithful adaptation. Years ago when I first met David and Dan at a meeting in Los Angeles they made it very clear that they wanted to adapt my books for television and not simply take the title and shoot elements of the story which is what happens in a lot of cases. I was very impressed with everything they said and we started our great relationship there and it’s still a very good one I think. “
You’ve written the episode which features the Battle of Blackwater, a pretty major event in the second book. How has that been?
“It was fun writing it, though in some ways it was a little painful. We have a good budget for a television series, an excellent budget for a television series, but it’s still not the budget you’d have for a feature film. Of course when you write a book you can have as big a budget as you like, you can have these gigantic battle and set pieces and throw everything into them. They’re as big as your imagination.
Translating that to screen is really difficult so when I sat down to write the battle scene I knew some elements of the battle would just be impossible to film as we don’t have the money or the time to do it. It would have taken about a month just to shoot that battle with everything that was in the books and it would have taken the budget for the entire season so I had to eliminate certain elements of the battle and simplify it somehow. Even then when I turned it in I knew it was very expensive. They’ve done a terrific job with it I think, they’ve probably had to make some further cuts, I haven’t been quite on top of that but I know they hired Neil Marshall (‘Dog Soldiers’, ‘The Descent’) so I’m very excited about that. He’s never done television before. And he’s particularly good at action. Many of his movies have been small budget but he’s got some great action sequences for them so he was the perfect director for my episode and I can’t wait to see what he’s done.”
Ok let’s get back to the books, because that’s what we’re really keen to talk to you about. Did you ever envisage them being so successful when you first finished ‘Game of Thrones’?
“No I had no idea. I had none. I had no idea and no expectations. We’re talking 20 years ago now, I had been a writer for 20 years before that, I sold my first story in 1971. Before Ice and Fire I’d already published five novels and numerous short story collections as well as doing work on television and film so one of the lessons I learned early on was that it’s a fool’s game to think anything is going to be successful or to count on it. Every book, every movie is a crapshoot. You try to do your best work and make it as good as you can possibly can but it’s up to the fans and the readers out there how well it does.
My readers have made the series as successful as it’s been it’s not as if we came out of the gate in 1996 and had this giant series. Every book has built on that. Primarily it’s been spread by word of mouth with friends recommending it to other friends. So it’s been a long strange trip as they say.”
I think one of the reasons your books are so popular is that you have so many rich and interesting characters involved in the plotline. Even thinking back to the last book the addition of someone like Wyman Manderly springs to mind . . .
“Well it can be a challenge, this is one of the reasons the series takes so long to write. I’m sure you’ll know that the last book took over five years to write which was a lot longer than I thought. But then I’ve thrown a lot of balls into the air and I’m juggling them madly. There are days when I wish I’d not thrown so many into the air as it’s a complicated process and there were a lot of traps and missteps. That said, once I’d done it I was committed to service those characters and do the best I can with them. Hopefully the results bear out the effort which goes into it. I’m happy with the series as a whole so far and of course I have two more books to do. But uh, the characters are the heart of it. I love the characters, even the bad guys. I’ve spent so many years with them now, decades of my life, they’re like the children I never had.”
Dance with Dragons seemed to push together a lot of the stray plotlines though.
“Yes, hopefully the storylines have begun to converge. One of the things that have happened with the books is that the storyline has spread out further and further which is deliberately the structure I intended from the beginning. But perhaps I’ve spread a little further than I initially intended. Now comes the tricky part where I tie everything together as I move towards the ending, which I hope the majority of readers would like. But I realise how difficult endings are and in any work like this where people are reading it for years they have visions in their head of what the endings should be. Inevitably I’ll disappoint some of them because whatever you deliver won’t be what they wanted. I’m hopeful though that most will enjoy it, but hey that’s still about 3000 pages away! I’ve got a lot of writing to do before I get there.”
So I take it it’ll be some point next year before you start working on the next book?
“I’m working on some other things right now but I have already started the next book and I hope to return to it mid-way through January.”
Is one of the other projects another Hedge Knight story (a series of tales set in the same world as the Ice and Fire books)?
“I’m editing an anthology with my friend Gardner Dozois. We’ve worked on a number of these anthologies and I sometimes contribute a short story to them. We’ve got one coming out called ‘Dangerous Women’ which we’re working on right now and yes I’m writing the fourth Hedge Knight novella which will be for that volume. I’ll have that finished for Christmas hopefully.”
Looking at the books there still seem to be a few characters such as Howland Reed who we’ve heard about but not yet met. Do you think readers are likely to see these characters and will you be revisiting say Ned Stark’s past?
“Well there’ll be a few characters you’ve not seen who’ll show up in these final volumes yes, and certainly Ned despite being gone has a very large presence in this series. He still casts a long shadow as indeed do other dead people, some of whom have never appeared in the books like Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. The shadows of their past very much impinge on the present and the future in Westeros.”
George R R Martin