(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin recently attended the Guadalajara International Book Fair. While there, he was interviewed on stage about his work, talking for over an hour about his process, his characters, and what’s next for him. Watch it below, and then we’ll go over the big points.
Perhaps the hottest topic of the interview was The Winds of Winter, the as-yet-unfinished sixth book in Martin’s series. Obviously, Martin didn’t give away too much about it, but he dropped a few interesting bon mots. For example, after someone asked him about “The Forsaken,” a preview chapter from Winds, he gave us a little preview of its tone.
Yeah, that is a dark chapter. But there are a lot of dark chapters right now in the book that I’m writing. It is called The Winds of Winter, and I’ve been telling you for 20 years that winter was coming. Winter is the time when things die, and cold and ice and darkness fills the world, so this is not gonna be the happy feel-good that people may be hoping for. Some of the characters [are] in very dark places…In any story, the classic structure is, ‘Things get worse before they get better,’ so things are getting worse for a lot of people.
That’s interesting, because the most recent season of Game of Thrones, which purportedly contained events from Winds, was fairly upbeat by the show’s standards. Can we take this as evidence that the show is going further afield of the books?
Beyond Winds, Martin also talked about the elusive ending of the saga. Again, he didn’t tell the audience what’s going to happen, but he “suspect[s] the overall flavor is gonna be as bittersweet as it is happy.”
I don’t know that I, as a writer, really believe in the conventional, cliched happy ending, where everything is resolved and the good guy wins and the bad guy loses. We very seldom see that in real life or in history, and I don’t find it as emotionally satisfying myself as what I like to call the bittersweet ending.
He had a lot of praise for the ending of The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo completes his epic quest but returns home to the Shire to find it in chaos. And then, after he cleans that up, he finds it hard to enjoy life how he used to. “Its ending is, at best, bittersweet.”
Martin also gave us some insight into his feelings regarding the ending when someone asked him how he keeps the series’ many plot lines coherent and free of loose ends. “With increasing difficulty…Sometimes I look back and say, ‘Did it really have be seven kingdoms?’ The five kingdoms of Westeros, that would have been good.”
We’ll see by the end of the book if I’ve left any loose ends. I hope not. That’s not to say that everything is going to be tied up completely neatly in a bow. I think there’s a difference between a loose end and something that’s deliberately left by the author ambiguous, or something for the readers to think about and worry about and debate about. For me, that’s part of the fun of reading and writing is having stories that maybe have a little ambiguity to them, a little subtlety to them, and everything is not crystal clear and laid out. You have to think about some things and put clues together and see what it all adds up to. So some of that is gonna be left there deliberately. But first I have to finish the damn thing.
I think this is good news. Leaving some enduring mysteries will help the series last.
Finally, Martin talked about the overall themes of the series when someone asked him which character “deserved” to sit the Iron Throne:
I don’t know that ‘deserve’ is really an operative word. The Iron Throne doesn’t necessarily go to who deserves it, but to who has the power to take and to hold it. But there are things in the books where I indicate what a king should be, what separates a good king from a bad king…It should be a public service position. The king’s job is the land, the people of the land, to make them prosperous, to protect them, to defend them, to provide them with justice. And that’s what the ideal king should be. There have been previous few of them in human history, sad to say.
And later, he expounded on his “secret” to creating compelling female characters, which spun into a great treatise on how to write characters in general. “I start from the basic presumption that women are people, and that they have the same basic humanity as men,” he said. “We want the same thing. We want love. We want respect. We want to succeed in the world. We want to protect the people we love…Human motivations are basically the same.”
The key to creating any character, I think, is empathy…I don’t know what it is actually like to be a dwarf, but I can imagine what it would be like. I can try to think about it and say, ‘Alright, if I was a dwarf, what challenges would I face? What sort of things would I encounter? How would I deal with it?’…If I was an exiled princess…I can think about it. I can empathize. The gift of empathy is one of the greatest gifts a writer can have. And that’s certainly true for a man writing about women or a woman writing about men. You can’t think about them as an alien species. They’re just people and you try to empathize. Fortunately, I have a large cast of female characters, which allows me to reflect in my books the same variety I see in real life. All of us have good and evil in us, men or women. There are good ones, there are bad ones, there are selfish ones, there are noble ones, there are people who are selfish on Tuesday and noble on Wednesday. We’re all like that…I love the complexity of the human race, and the fact that we’re all such puzzles…The basic humanity unites us all and it’s the basic humanity I try to create in my stories.
What’s next on Martin’s agenda? Finished A Song of Ice and Fire, obviously. “I don’t think it’s time for me to quite be figuring out what I’m gonna write after Game of Thrones,” he said. He did say, however, that he needs to write “like, eight or nine more Dunk and Egg adventures,” and that he has “hundreds more pages” of material about the history of the Targaryen dynasty. “I’m gonna flesh that out and do it. And of course I’m talking with HBO about more television series.”
The Guadalajara International Book Fair is over, so Martin is likely back to work. We’ll be waiting.
- Martin has no problem just saying “Game of Thrones” as shorthand for “A Song of Ice and Fire.” With the show as popular as it is, it’s probably easier that way.
- Question: If Martin could change one thing about the series, what would it be? “I would have all the books done by now. I’m a slow writer. And as I get older I seem to be getting slower, not faster.” However, he has hope that, as happened with his earlier books, he’ll “see the finish line” and write the final parts of the story faster. “But so far it hasn’t done it.”
In retrospect, maybe I should have made Robb a viewpoint character in the early books. A lot of people kind of figured out that Robb was gonna die just because he didn’t have any chapters. And I don’t like to be predictable. But on the other hand, it would have made the books longer, too, so I dunno.
- Martin on the relationship between Littlefinger and Varys: “I think Littlefinger has a better idea of what Varys wants than Varys has an idea of what Littlefinger wants. Littlefinger is an agent of chaos who likes to be unpredictable, and succeeds in that.”
- Someone asked about the mysterious city of Asshai, and Martin weighed in. “I don’t plan to set any scenes in Asshai, at least not in the present book.” But he does point out that Melisandre is a viewpoint character, and she may “think back on some of her time in Asshai.”
- Martin reiterates that the first idea he got for A Song of Ice and Fire was the first Bran chapter in A Game of Thrones, where he sees Ned execute a Night’s Watch deserter and finds the direwolf pups in the summer snow. “I always knew that it was the summer snow, so the thing about the seasons was there right from the beginning.”
- Question: Who from the Seven Kingdoms would Martin pick to represent him in a trial by combat? His first pick was Ser Arthur Dayne…if he was alive. Then it was Jaime Lannister…if he had two hands. Final pick: Brienne of Tarth.
- Question: Which character would make a good leader in the real world right now? Martin picks Tyrion, although he thinks Daenerys could be interesting if she brought her dragons. “The recent American election might have turned out very different if Hillary Clinton had dragons.”
- Some of Martin’s favorite non-fantasy/sci-fi books are The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities. And while he loves The Lord of the Rings, he wasn’t entirely pleased with all of the decisions J.R.R. Tolkien made with it. “[Gandalf] should have stayed dead.”
- Question: Did King Robert Baratheon ever suspect that Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella weren’t his? “No, Robert was not a real intellectual giant.”
- Question: What did Podrick Payne do to the prostitutes in Season 3 of Game of Thrones that inspired them not to charge him? “That scene is not in the books. I know nothing.”
- Question: What kind of audience are you writing for? “I’m writing for me. The fact that you guys like the story is great, and I’m very pleased by that. But I think ultimately you have to write for yourself…You write the kind of stories that you wanna read.”