"We could have gone for 13 seasons" - George R.R. Martin on Game of Thrones, writing, and the future
The author sat down with JOE for a rare, lengthy and in-depth interview...
George R.R Martin is at a very interesting stage in life.
As we sit down at Dublin's IFI, it has been just over three months since the finale of Game of Thrones aired, but for Martin, the story is far from over.
Having started work on his A Song of Ice and Fire saga back in 1991, the author is in the peculiar position of seeing the world's most popular TV show overtake the events in his novels.
However, the HBO drama has also been a massive part of his life - Martin wrote one script per season up until Season 4 and he was a co-executive producer on every single episode.
Before we meet, I’m told there are certain things that the author won’t discuss - the divisive ending of the television series and when his highly-anticipated sixth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter, will arrive being the main topics - but the genial and charming Martin touches on aspects of both.
He is in the capital to attend Dublin 2019: An Irish WorldCon. Ireland has played a role in his life, both personally and professionally.
He's quick to mention his Irish lineage - "The Brady’s from Oldcastle in County Meath. That’s on my mother’s side but I’ve got Irish on my father’s side too," - and the fact that he has visited these shores about half a dozen times before.
In a professional sense, Martin's work is heavily synonymous with this part of the world.
Various cast and crew members have openly referred to Northern Ireland as 'The home of Game of Thrones' with various scenes filmed in Belfast, Banbridge, Strangford and more.
Elsewhere, Martin's other series, Nightflyers, was filmed in Limerick's Troy Studios.
In a rare interview, JOE had the pleasure to chat to the beloved author about Game of Thrones, his writing process, the upcoming prequels, and what the future holds...
JOE: A Song of Ice and Fire draws upon so many different histories and mythologies. Has any Irish history influenced your writing?
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I don’t think so. The problem is I’d gladly steal from Irish history but I don’t know that much of it. What I’m particularly interested in is the medieval history and English history and Scottish history is so well documented.
If there’s a good book about Irish medieval history before the English conquest - before Strongbow - I haven’t come across it yet. I know there were a whole bunch of kings and they fought each other a lot.
You know, divide and conquer. Strongbow came in and conquered but I really don’t know the history.
What about the story that the map of Westeros is just Ireland inverted? Is that true?
Yeah, it is. I began that way. I turned Ireland upside down. You can tell with The Fingers, they’re like the Dingle Peninsula. The North I just sort of made up!
In the show, is there an actor, or performance that best encapsulates the character as you envisioned them on the page when you were writing?
Well, that's a hard question because you’re asking me who’s my favourite child!
They’re all great. You know, the one that was the easiest to cast - although it could have bene the hardest to cast - was Tyrion. We never really looked at anyone besides Peter Dinklage. We auditioned no one else for that role.
The minute we saw him, we just went out and made Peter Dinklage an offer. Now, Peter is not physically much like Tyrion because Peter is a handsome man and Tyrion is definitely not.
Peter is also a foot taller than Tyrion, as described in the books but he has been a marvellous Tyrion. For millions of people around the world, he will always be Tyrion Lannister. His acting and everything else that he brought to the role was perfect.
You've previously said that The Red Wedding was the hardest chapter for you to write in A Song of Ice and Fire. Is there any chapter or passage that you absolutely loved writing?
There are passages. I'm not sure if I loved writing them but if they came out well, I loved having written them! It's always when you're in the course of writing that for me, it's a struggle. I always go through phases where I hate what I've written and think to myself 'this is crap! Why does anyone like this?' but when I finally get it into a shape where I like it, then I swing to the opposite extreme.
Sometimes it's not the things that you would think leave a lasting impression. It's not the big moments. it could be something like a description of landscape and I spend a lot of time just trying to get that right - to put you in that mountain pass, or in that swamp. That's probably not something that critics or the public will notice.
Like, nobody has ever come up to me and said, 'I really love the way you described that swamp!' but if i do it well, then you can see and smell the swamp. You're there with the characters and for me, that's the art of writing.
What's your ideal writing process like? I'm sure plenty of aspiring writers are curious about what it takes to reach your levels.
It’s different for every writer. I have friends who can write anywhere at anytime. If they’ve got half an hour free, they sit down and write half a page. I can’t do that. I need the entire day free - preferably a large chunk of time, at least two weeks free where I’m not going to be interrupted and distracted- where I need to be in my own place.
I’ve tried in the past to write in hotel rooms, trains, airplanes etc. It never worked for me. It’s too alien an environment. When I’m in my own place and office with my own computer, I can fall through the page. I can go to Westeros and be these characters. That’s what I need to write.
Anything that disrupts that isolation and takes me out of that process, I don’t like that. I do my best work in the morning. I get up early and have a coffee and start to work. Even if I’ve got an appointment at 4pm, that’s going to distract me at 11am. Just the knowledge that I’ve to break off at 3.30pm to make that 4pm appointment throws me off.
I know this sounds terrible because I see other writers and they're like, ‘I can write in the middle of a hurricane, when I’m half-drunk, or on a sinking ship!’- well, that’s not me.
When the show ended, you said you had ‘mixed feelings’ about it because in an ideal world, you wanted it to continue on for more seasons.
What’s your feeling now because at the time, it must have felt strange knowing that one chapter of your life - the TV shows - was ending but you've still got so much more amazing stories to tell in Westeros.
Yeah, I’ve got to finish my books. I said everything I had to say about that years ago. There’s enough material in the books that if they had included all of it, we could have gone for 13 seasons instead of eight. Really, we did seven-and-a-half seasons because the last two seasons were shortened.
The decision was made four/five years ago to eliminate characters like Lady Stoneheart, Quentyn Martell, the Young Griff arc. When you eliminate all those subplots, you simplify things and bring it to an end where it is.
Who knows? Maybe that was the right decision. You can’t quarrel with the most popular television show in the world, but I have my books in mind and I’m going ahead. I know I’m very slow, but I’ll get there eventually.
One of the main by-products of the successes of Game of Thrones must be that newer fans are discovering your older novels like Dying of the Light and The Thousand World series. That must feel gratifying?
We had Nightflyers that was shot here in Ireland, in Limerick. Unfortunately, they decided not to continue with that one, which was disappointing. However, that’s the nature of TV.
I’ve a lot of my stuff in various stages of development. Sandkings, The Ice Dragon, Wild Cards, and of course we’re developing a number of Game of Thrones prequels that are drawn in large part from Fire and Blood, the book of Targaryen history that I had out in November.
How are the prequels going? A few months ago you said that things are coming along nicely but since then, I believe Jane Goldman's pilot has wrapped filming. That must be good news?
Jane Goldman’s show has wrapped up in Belfast. I just saw her in London, she’s deep in the throes of post-production. I hope to see a cut of it (the pilot) probably by early September.
And you said that there are three other shows are in various stages too?
Well, we're counting her's as one of those shows, but there are two others that are still in the script stage.
When David and Dan approached you about adapting Game of Thrones all those years ago, there's a lovely story about you taking them to lunch and asking them about who they thought was Jon Snow's mother. Did you have a similar 'audition' for Jane?
Haha. No, I did not. Jane’s show takes place like 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones. In some way, Jane’s show is based on eight random sentences that are scattered through the books! She has really brought a lot to the table.
We met in Santa Fe on a couple of occasions and in LA, we’ve had long discussions about the show before she went off to make it, but she’s only had a few little signposts for this show along he way. She’s really bringing a lot to the table. It’s before the coming of the Andals, I guess.
I really can’t talk anymore about this because HBO will have kittens! They’re very secretive. They don't want anything given away that might be a spoiler.
Haha, fair enough. Just on that point, what's it like when you've to live with that level of fame and the knowledge of not being able to talk about aspects of your work openly? Is it hard when you have to constantly second-guess yourself for fear of spoilers?
All things considered, I’ve had a pretty successful career, even before Game of Thrones. I started selling stories in ’71. I won a Hugo Award in ’75 and lost one in ’74 and the Campbell Award before that.
From ’79, I started to make my living full time as a writer and I’ve also had a few crisis where it looked like I might be flushed down the toilet! But I rebounded from those and you always have the dream of fame and fortune in your head.
For one reason or another, I’ve seemed to have achieved both of those things. Fortune is great, but fame is a double-edged sword.
I mean, there are wonderful things about it. For example, I don’t think I’d be here at the Irish Film Institute if I didn’t have a certain amount of fame, or getting some of the interviews I'm getting and this level of publicity. Many people also go out of their way to take care of me at restaurants and movie theatres etc. Fame is great for all of that, but you can’t turn it off. It’s relentless and I’ve found that over the last decade.
We have the world sci-fi convention going on right now and I’ve been attending that since ’71. In that subculture of sci-fi fandom, I always had a certain amount of fame where I could put on my name badge, go on panels and people would ask my autograph. At the end of the panel, I could take off my name badge and just go out onto the floor and be an average guy.I can’t do that anymore.
That can be trying at times. I’m glad that fame came to me in my sixties. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be these young pop stars that become world famous and instantly recognisable all over the world at 17 years of age. I couldn’t have handled any of this at 17. There are enough challenges at handling this at 65, I can tell you!
On the fame thing, does it ever feel surreal to stop and think about the reach that your work has had? I mean, couples meet through Game of Thrones, there are Thrones-themed wedding ceremonies, and babies are named after your characters. Is that something you ever dwell on and think to yourself 'God, my work has had this massive effect on people?'
It's very gratifying when you get letters, emails, and hear stories like that. They definitely do name children after my characters and send me pictures of their babies.
People also name their dogs, cats, iguanas, after my characters. Sometimes, it’s a little surreal. I often wonder about all the young Daenerys’ out there because kindergarten teachers will hate me because they have to spell it!
I'm curious about another show that you pitched to HBO, Spear Carriers. You've got so much on your agenda right now but is that something that's still on the back burner?
I pitched it to HBO but they didn’t seem enthused about it. I always wondered when you write these scenes, there are other people in the background and I often wondered about them. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? They’re about to go into battle to. Are they enthused about it? What happened after the battle? How did it affect their lives?
It's a little Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That play is such a brilliant conceit as you follow these two guys with Hamlet going on in the background. Meanwhile, these two guys have their own problems and I thought Spear Carriers would be an interesting anthology show. We could actually use footage from Game of Thrones over again.
For example, show Tyrion giving his speech before battle but instead of follow him into the battle, follow one of the guys that’s hearing the speech. What happened to him? Did he lose a leg, or something like that.
What does his wife do afterwards? Follow one of the prostitutes in Littlefinger's brothels, how did she get to that brothel? Who’s she sleeping with and what secrets can she learn to pass onto Littlefinger? There’s a million stories there.
There's so much material in your back catalogue that's perfect for adapting. What would you love to dip into and adapt - not HBO now or another studio - but what would you love to see made?
Any of the material in Fire and Blood. When I was going through that, there’s 20 novels there and at least a dozen TV shows if they want to make them. There will be equally as many in Fire and Blood: Part Two.
I’m interested in all the things that I write about. I’ve been following Arya over in the city of Bravos and that’s a setting that I’ve become really interested in. It’s a different dynamic because it’s more like Venice, or Genoa in their height.
There’s a different aspect on history because it’s more interested in traders and merchants rather than kings and princes. Exploring the world on seas, that could be a great background for a novel.
There’s just not enough time in the day, there’s not enough days in the year, and I’m not as young as I used to be! Will I have time to tell all these stories? I hope I do.
George R.R. Martin was speaking at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in association with Dublin 2019: An Irish WorldCon.