Popular science fiction and fantasy author George R.R. Martin, writer of the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” that is the inspiration for the HBO drama “Game of Thrones,” has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico since 1979. Earlier this year, he bought and renovated the city’s long closed Jean Cocteau Cinema. He reopened the theater this past summer devoting it to indies, classics and cult films. Earlier this week, Martin and “John Adams” writer Kirk Ellis hosted a master discussion at the Cocteau as a part of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Here are ten highlights from the event.
Martin scared the other kids in his neighborhood.“I lived in the projects of Bayonne, NJ so we didn’t have much money. I started selling my monster stories to the other kids in the neighborhood for a nickel. And then I could buy a candy bar. If I sold two stories I could get a comic book. So that was my early career as a credible writer. Then some of my monster stories started giving nightmares to the kids that I’d sell them to. Their mother came to my mother and that was the end of my first career as a professional writer.”
“Game of Thrones” was inspired by Martin’s turtles.
“In the projects you’re not allowed to have dogs or cats. So the only pets I was allowed were the smaller pets. We could have parakeets or canaries. We could have fish of course, which were interesting for about the first day after you got them and then they became very boring pets. And you could have turtles. So we had these dime store turtles, and you got them at Woolworth’s and they come in a little plastic bowl that was half water and half gravel and a little fake plastic palm tree. As it happened I had a toy castle, and two of those bowls fit perfectly inside the courtyard of the toy castle. So that’s where I kept my turtles and I decided that they were kings and knights and I gave them suitable names. But the other thing about these turtles is that they died very easily and very quickly. You would never have them as pets for very long. And you would find it in its little bowl and its eyes would be all sunken in and it would be dead. Or it would escape. It would escape the little plastic thing or it would escape the castle and you would find it under the refrigerator. For some reason they liked to go under the refrigerator. I never figured that out. It was like Mordor for turtles. And so my imagination was overheated by that. Why did all my turtles die? Well they were competing for the throne of the turtle kingdom! And they’re killing and murdering each other poisoning each other and stabbing each other in the heart. So ‘Game of Thrones’ began as Game of Shells.”
Journalism school helped Martin get over his shyness.
“In journalism school they sent me out to cover stories. I had to approach complete strangers and ask them questions sometimes that they didn’t want to be asked. It took some doing for me to steel up into doing that. But it did get me past some of my early shyness and timidity. I was in journalism school in the late 60s; there was a lot of stuff going on there with the anti-war movement and the DNC, and women’s liberation and civil rights. There were always things and demonstrations and people marching and it was an exciting time to cover that, even as a student journalist.”
Journalism also inspired Martin’s use of multiple points of view in his books.
As a young journalism student, Martin found it interesting that the same incident could be viewed in a multitude of ways. This inspired his used of first person chapters in his novels.”Seeing several different pieces through several different eyes. A lot of that comes out of those stories that I covered when I was a journalist. That happens in real life.”
Martin remembers his own characters better than real people.
“I seem to have a trick memory for all of my characters and dates and things like that. Yeah, I might forget some of them but then I go back and re-read the stuff. I think I’m using the brain cells for the imaginary history of Westeros that other people are using to get through real life. Because I forget real people instantly. I’ll go to a party in Hollywood and I’ll meet 20 people and by the time I walk out, if I meet the same person at the party and then they’re out by the cab stand, I met them a half hour ago and I don’t remember them already. But I remember someone I mentioned in the second book, which came out in 1998, and they had three lines. But it enables me to do what I do.”
Martin loves historical fiction, but would never write it.
“[For ‘Game of Thrones’] I wanted to combine the imagination and sense of wonder that you find in the best fantasy with some of the gritty realism that you find in the best historical fiction. I read a lot of historical fiction as well as a lot of science fiction and fantasy.The one thing that keeps me from actually writing historical fiction is I don’t like the idea of being straightjacketed by the actual history. [To Ellis] Didn’t you ever, writing about John Adams, just want to have a scene where he just slaps Thomas Jefferson across the face? You’re straightjacketed by what actually happened.”
Perhaps ironically, Martin liked the deadline aspect of TV, and not the open ended nature of film.
Martin wrote for a number of series in the 80s and 90s including “The Twilight Zone” and “Beauty and the Beast” which lead to writing some un-produced pilots and features. Yet while his novels are notoriously late, he said that the demands of television were actually more fulfilling than film. “You know there was a certain crisis element to a television show. You have to rewrite and you have to rewrite some more but ultimately like Tuesday comes along and you have to film the episodes that’s going to be on in three weeks. What I discovered with pilots and feature films is you do the same thing and you write and you rewrite, but there’s never a Tuesday, you never have to film it. They could just make you rewrite forever. And then they could say, well we’ve decided not to do it after all. And you’re like wait a minute I just spent a year and a half of my life working on this. I don’t like that life. So I left that life and came back to books. And that worked out pretty well for me.”
Martin is worried about movies.
“I’m someone who likes to go to movies, but not someone who necessarily likes to work in movies. But I’m concerned about what movies are at the present time. I think it’s no coincidence that ‘Game of Thrones’ is on television and that you did ‘John Adams’ for television. It seems to me that we’re living in the real Golden Age of Television much more than the early era that is often called the Golden Age of Television. There’s more good television being done right now than has ever been done before by more people on a bewildering number of channels. Television is where drama has gone. Television is even where comedy has gone. I’m not a comedy guy but I like some of the sitcoms that are on right now. Things like ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Parks and Recreation,’ better than any of the movie comedies I’ve seem. And movies seem to be a spectacle. You go to the same films to see things blow up and to see giant robots, and I like a nice giant robot fighting. I loved ‘Pacific Rim’ and giant robots fighting Cthulhu monsters. But I also like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ and those kinds of shows and they can only be done on television these days because studios have turned their backs on it.”
He has mixed feelings on self-publishing.
“There are probably some really great writers out there who for one reason or another couldn’t find a commercial publisher, so they’re self-publishing their books. But for every one like that there are 10,000 that are just horrible. Their books could never have been published and people are just circumventing the gate keepers, as they used to be called, and putting them out. And it’s very hard for the reader. In one sense it’s good, the reader has more choice. Instead of the six major New York publishers and one of the few small presses are putting out, they can select from 10,000 copies. But how do you know what’s good about these 10,000 copies of self-published books?”
“Game of Bones” the porn version of “Game of Thrones” is tamer than the original.
“There is an incestuous relationship at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’ and you find out about it pretty early in the first book. But in the porn version that they’re doing they’ve omitted the incest because that would just be too shocking. So my books are actually dirtier than the porn version!”