George R.R. Martin, Gardener of Fantasy Fiction

With the eagerly anticipated premiere of 'GoT' season 7 on July 16, we're diving into the fantasy world and real-life inspirations of author George R.R. Martin.
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George R.R. Martin

Author George R.R. Martin in 2013.

Winter has been long in coming on HBO’s Game of Thrones series, but it’s been even longer for fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books on which the TV show is based. Even as the Emmy-winning Game of Thrones returns on July 16 for its seventh and penultimate season, readers are still waiting for the The Winds of Winter, Martin’s long-promised sixth novel in the saga of the mythical Westeros and the battle for its Iron Throne. The last book, A Dance with Dragons, was published in 2011, soon after Game of Thrones premiered, and events on the TV show have now overtaken it.

That doesn’t mean Martin has been out of the public eye—far from it. He is a co-executive producer on Game of Thrones, and has written four episodes of the series. He maintains an active blog, spills copious digital ink about the New York Jets and Giants, and consents to a number of interviews and personal appearances. But fans of the books, some of whom are obsessive enough to create wikis and even act as consultants to Martin when he’s forgotten details from earlier installments of A Song of Ice and Fire, have grown restive. The author is 69, and he’s got another book in the series, A Dream of Spring, to go after The Winds of Winter is finally completed. When will the saga reach an end, and when it does, will it be rendered anti-climactic by the conclusion of Game of Thrones?

Others, including many fans of the TV series, may have only the dimmest notion of this back story. They may not know much about Martin or about the books. Here are a few facts to help catch them up:

1)     No, the author is not English. Though the landscape of Westeros, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, may resemble the British Isles and other European parts, and though the central conflict is inspired by England’s Wars of the Roses, Martin is a New Jersey boy, born and raised in Bayonne. (He now resides in New Mexico.) He began writing monster stories as a child and comic fanzine fiction as a teenager. His first professional sale came at 21, when his story “The Hero” was published in Galaxy magazine.

2)     Journalism School knocked the purple out of Martin’s prose. The author completed bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in journalism at Northwestern University, training that he credited with making him a better writer when he received an alumni award from the school in 2015. "I never used one adjective where four would fit," he said, adding that at Northwestern his writing became “more muscular and tighter.” But he went on to say that in recent years “the adjectives have been coming back in.”

3)    Though his work is known for large-scale battle scenes and overall violence, Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He did alternative service with VISTA, the anti-poverty program, for two years in the 1970s. The author’s interest in and knowledge of military history have only increased his awareness that “wars are nasty things,” as he told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2011. It also explains his famed ruthlessness with his characters. “I think it's sort of a cheap, easy way out to write a war story in which all the heroes . . . happily go killing the enemy and maybe they have a few close calls, but no one ultimately dies.” As for the graphic sexual violence that has turned some viewers off Game of Thrones, Martin told Entertainment Weekly that ignoring the reality that rape results from war would be “fundamentally dishonest.”

4)     Game of Thrones is not Martin’s first foray into television. After making ends meet teaching journalism and directing chess tournaments, the author published the science fiction novel Dying of the Light in 1977, followed by several other books, including the vampire story Fevre Dream and the mystery-fantasy Armageddon Rag. When the latter failed commercially, Martin decided to take a different tack, and hired on as staff writer for CBS’ 1985 Twilight Zone reboot. He also worked on ABC’s Max Headroom and was a writer-producer on CBS’ Beauty and the Beast.

George R.R. Martin and the Game of Thrones cast

George R.R. Martin and the 'Game of Thrones' cast at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences "An Evening with HBO's 'Game Of Thrones'" in Hollywood in 2013. 

5)     Hadrian’s Wall in northern England lit the creative spark for A Song of Ice and Fire. In the NPR interview, Martin recalled that when he climbed the ancient Roman wall (a mere 10 feet to the 700-foot-high wall of ice in northern Westeros), “I stared off north towards Scotland . . . and I just tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary from southern Italy standing on this wall not knowing what was going to emerge from those hills or those trees . . . And I said, I’ve got to capture this in a fantasy book.” The first volume, titled A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996.

6)     Martin’s reputation as a slow writer is well earned. While the next two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, respectively came out in 1998 and 2000, it was then five years before the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, finally appeared. Then it was another six years before A Dance with Dragons, which runs on a parallel temporal track with A Feast for Crows, emerged. He told NPR that there are two kinds of writers: the kind who “has his blueprints like an architect does and he know where all the pipes are going to run and how many rooms there are going to be . . . before he drives the first nail or writes the first word. But there’s also the gardener who digs a hole and plants something and waters it with his blood. And I’m much more of a gardener than I am an architect . . .”

7)     Rumors of the author’s death were greatly exaggerated. Martin has understandably bridled at the suggestion that at this rate, he could be dead before A Song of Ice and Fire is finished. When Beatles record producer Sir George Martin died in 2016, fans panicked, thinking their worst nightmare had come to pass. George R. R. Martin had to take to social media to reassure the world he still lived. Fans can perhaps take solace in the fact that Sir George lived to be 90. There’s still plenty of time to place a victor on the Iron Throne.

Game of Thrones returns on July 16 at 9pm on HBO. 

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