If you fancy yourself a writer, or even if you’re just a fan of the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series by George R.R. Martin, which of course launched the HBO series ‘Game of Thrones,’ you will find this interview of his process utterly intriguing. Journalists from io9 sat the brilliant Sea Captain down at Comic-Con and picked his brain, asking where the series was headed, what regrets he may have had as the series gained momentum and took on a life of its own, and how he plans to move forward with the characters he’s known intimately for over 20 years now that they’ve been given a physical embodiment in the TV series.
Take a peek at some of the interview highlights below, or if you have a comfy chair, read the full, unedited interview here. There are light spoilers for the book series, so if you don’t mind a bit of a wink to the upcoming book, read on!
Are there scenes in the Song of Ice and Fire series that you dreamed up 20 years ago, that you’re finally writing? Moments you were excited to get to at last?
Yeah. I didn’t know at first, in ’91 — I didn’t know quite what I had yet. I didn’t even know whether it was a novel or a novella, or something, at first. So I sort of found that out. But by the summer of ’91, you know, it just came to me out of nowhere, and I started writing it and following where it led. But by the end of that summer I knew I had a big series. Initially, I thought it was a trilogy, but it’s grown beyond that. But the size is different, and I’ve introduced some other elements to the books, but it’s still the same characters, the ’91 characters.
What was the thing that made you realize, in the middle of the first novel, that it had to be more than a trilogy?
It was quite at the end, it was by ’95 that I realized it had to be more than a trilogy, because I had 1,500 pages of manuscript [and] I wasn’t anywhere close to the end of the first book. So I said, “I know I can’t get all this into three books here. I’m gonna have to break this first book into two books to get it all done.” Which required a certain amount of restructuring, but I went back and I did that, I took out about 300 pages or so, and that became the beginning of the second book. And I moved things around.
You’ve had these characters and places for 22 years, and that’s a long time to live with a particular set of characters. So have you lost interest in any of those characters during that time?
You know, not really — because I haven’t finished the story I want to tell. The story I set out to tell in 1991 is still not done. I think if I finally finish these seven books, or however many it takes, I will be tired of them. I will not necessarily be open to returning to tell more stories about the ones who survived [after the end].
There you run into a Sherlock Holmes, Reichenbach Falls sort of thing, where [the writer says], “I’m sick of Sherlock Holmes, I never want to write any more stories about him.”
But I haven’t even [finished a single story.] As many books as it is, as many words as it is, it’s still one story. One story that’s not finished yet. I want to finish telling that story. And then I’ll worry about that.
You actually said once that you don’t enjoy writing, you enjoy having written.
Yeah. Which is not original again with me either. A lot of writers have said that. But writing is hard. I mean I sit there and work at it.
Boy, there are days where I get up and say “Where the hell did my talent go? Look at this crap that I’m producing here. This is terrible. Look, I wrote this yesterday. I hate this, I hate this.” And I can see a scene in my head, and when I try to get it down in words on paper, the words are clunky, the scene is not coming across right. So frustrating. And there are days where it keeps flowing. Open the floodgates, and there it is. Pages and pages coming. Where the hell does this all come from? I don’t know.
I had, very early in my career, even before I was a professional writer — I’m going back now to my fanzine days in the 60s and 70s — I was very prone to starting stories and never finishing. I’d have some great idea and I would start a story, and I’d write a few pages, five pages, ten pages, and it would never be as good as when it was in my head. It was this incredible thing, [and then] I put it on paper it and it was never as good as I imagined it to be. Then I’d think of some other idea, and I’d go, “Yeah, that one would be really magical.” And I’d put aside the half-finished one.
One of the big breakthroughs, I think for me, was reading Robert A. Heinlein’s four rules of writing, one of which was, “You must finish what you write.” I never had any problem with the first one, “You must write” — I was writing since I was a kid. But I never finished what writing. [I realized], “I gotta actually finish these stories. It does me no good to have this drawer full of fragments.” And always be chasing the next idea, which is so much better, so much more beautiful, so much more entrancing then the idea that you’re actually working on.
So, I started finishing things. And I’m bound and determined to finish Ice and Fire.
So people have this idea that back when Ice and Fire started as a trilogy, you had an outline where there was a single line that went, “And meanwhile, nobles squabble over power in Westeros.” And that single line turned into the middle three or four books of the series. Is there any truth to that?
It’s a grotesque exaggeration — but there’s at least a nugget of truth to it, yeah. You introduce characters, and sometimes they take on a life of their own.
Some major characters — yes, I always had plans, what Tyrion’s arc was gonna be through this, what Arya’s arc was gonna be through this, what Jon Snow’s arc is gonna be. I knew what the principal deaths were gonna be, and when they were coming. That would be the closest thing.
But there would be some secondary characters, like Bronn, Tyrion’s henchman, [who] became a such a popular character. He came out of nowhere. [I was thinking], “Okay, Tyrion has meets these two sellswords, Bronn and Chiggen. And one’s going to fight for him. Which one is it gonna be? Okay, we’ll go with Bronn.” But as I wrote about him, he developed a personality of his own. And his past is super-mysterious, you don’t know where he’s born from, where he comes from, but he’s fun to write about. He comes into a scene — once he’s been cast in the TV show, they have a wonderful actor playing him — and he becomes real.
There are characters on the TV show, I feel like, because of the actors playing them, they have an extra dimension. Does that come back to the novels? Do you think about the actors? Like Natalie Dormer is amazing as Margaery Tyrell.
She is, she’s incredible.
Do you now think about what she’s going to do with the material you’re writing now, as an actor?
To some extent. You know, the most extreme example of that is Natalia Tena as Osha. Who is a pretty minor character in the books, has a one-note personality, is really there to advance the plot, and fulfill certain plotpoints. And Natalia Tena made it such an interesting and vibrant, alive character, and much different. Natalia is much younger and much more attractive than my Osha, who was ten, fifteen years older, weathered, leathery…
I’m obsessed with the five-year gap you originally planned in the middle of the series. How would that have happened?
Originally, there was not supposed to be any gap. There was just supposed to be a passage of time as the book went forward. My original concept back in 1991 was, I would start with these characters as children, and they would get older. If you pick up Arya at eight, the second chapter would be a couple months later, and she would be eight and a half and [then] she’d be nine. [This would happen] all within the space of a book.
But when I actually got into writing them, the events have a certain momentum. So you write a chapter and then in your next chapter, it can’t be six months later, because something’s going to happen the next day. So you have to write what happens the next day, and then you have to write what happens the week after that. And the news gets to some other place.
And pretty soon, you’ve written hundreds of pages and a week has passed, instead of the six months, or the year that you wanted to pass. So you end a book, and you’ve had a tremendous amount of events — but they’ve taken place over a short time frame, and the eight-year-old kid is still eight years old.
So that really took hold of me for the first three books. When it became apparent that that had taken hold of me, I came up with the idea of the five year gap. “Time is not passing here as I want it to pass, so I will jump forward five years in time.” And I will come back to these characters when they’re a little more grown up. And that is what I tried to do when I started writing Feast for Crows. So [the gap] would have come after A Storm of Swords and before Feast for Crows.
But what I soon discovered — and I struggled with this for a year — [the gap] worked well with some characters like Arya — who at end the of Storm of Swords has taken off for Braavos. You can come back five years later, and she has had five years of training and all that. Or Bran, who was taken in by the Children of the Forest and the green ceremony, [so you could] come back to him five years later. That’s good. Works for him.
Other characters, it didn’t work at all. I’m writing the Cersei chapters in King’s Landing, and saying, “Well yeah, in five years, six different guys have served as Hand and there was this conspiracy four years ago, and this thing happened three years ago.” And I’m presenting all of this in flashbacks, and that wasn’t working. The other alternative was [that] nothing happened in those six years, which seemed anticlimactic. The Jon Snow stuff was even worse, because at the end of Storm he gets elected Lord Commander. I’m picking up there, and writing ‘Well five years ago, I was elected Lord Commander. Nothing much has happened since then, but now things are starting to happen again.” I finally, after a year, said, “I can’t make this work.”
So let’s talk about the Internet Controversy about Oberyn Martell. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I commented on my blog. You can find a more studied response there. I made a couple of comments as to what people said about that. I always pictured Oberyn Martell in my head as a — what I call a Mediterranean type. I know people attacked me for that by saying “He’s ignorant, he doesn’t know that Africa is on the Mediterranean.” No, I know Africa is on the Mediterranean. But in common parlance, when you say Mediterranean you are thinking Greek, Italian, Spanish. When you are thinking Moroccan or Tunisian that’s North African. That’s the way people talk about that.
I always pictured the Martells and the salty Dornishman as Mediterraneans, so the casting I think is perfectly appropriate with what I wrote in the books. I do sympathize. I mean, I understand.
Some people have written me some very heartfelt letters, and I’ve tried to respond to them about how they wanted to see someone who looked like them in the books, and how they were [disappointed]. They had pictures of the Martells looking like them, and they were disappointed.
I understand that, but it still wasn’t my intent to make… Even the terminology here is such a land mine. I don’t even know what words to use here “black” or “African.” I used African at one point, sort of like African American. [But] if you use “African” you are guilty for saying all Africans are the same.
I don’t know. I am drawing from history, even though its fantasy. I’ve read a lot of history, The War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War. The World back then was very diverse. Culturally it was perhaps more diverse then our world, but travel was very difficult back then. So even though there might have been many different races and ethnicities and peoples, they didn’t necessarily mix a great deal. I’m drawing largely on medieval England, medieval Scotland, to some extent medieval France. There was an occasional person of color, but certainly not in any great numbers.
Much of the Internet has been abuzz over the quote, “I always had plans, what Tyrion’s arc was gonna be through this, what Arya’s arc was gonna be through this, what Jon Snow’s arc is gonna be.” I actually haven’t finished ‘A Dance With Dragons’ myself, but if it ends on a cliffhanger regarding Jon Snow’s ultimate fate, this use of the present tense seems to be a wink that the one hanging off the cliff may be yet saved. To the relieved sighs of fangirls everywhere.
You can catch season four of ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO in spring 2014.