After six years, George R.R. Martin’s eagerly anticipated A Dance With Dragons has arrived to glowing reviews. EW met with the author at his Santa Fe office for an in-depth conversation about his wildly popular Song of Ice and Fire series. Below he discusses why Book 5 took so long, his feelings about HBO’s Game of Thrones and his thoughts on killing beloved characters, among other topics. For more, see next week’s EW print edition featuring a profile of Martin that answers some burning fan questions. [Note: There are no Dance spoilers below, but there are spoilers from the previous four books].
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said before that the first book, Game of Thrones, was partly a reaction to the sort of storytelling you couldn’t do as a TV writer in the 1980s. What was the actual moment that inspired Thrones?
Martin: I just wanted to make it big. For so long [in TV], I heard, “It’s too big, it’s too expensive, lose characters and lose the settings.” Going back to prose, I could make it as big as I wanted, as big as my imagination. It really came out of nowhere. I knew in a general sense I wanted to write an epic fantasy since I loved [J.R.R.] Tolkien since I was a kid. But I didn’t have any specific ideas for it. In the summer of 1991 I was in Hollywood but I had no TV deal. Suddenly I just got the first chapter where they found the direwolf pups — it was just there. I knew I had to write it.
This may be a silly question, but: When you think of the world you’ve created, where seasons last for years, where is it? It is another planet?
It’s what Tolkien wrote was “the secondary world.” It’s not another planet. It’s Earth. But it’s not our Earth. If you wanted to do a science fiction approach, you could call it an alternate world, but that sounds too science fictional. Tolkien really pioneered that with Middle Earth. He put in some vague things about tying it to our past, but that doesn’t really hold up. I have people constantly writing me with science fiction theories about the seasons — “It’s a double star system with a black dwarf and that would explain–” It’s fantasy, man, it’s magic.
Do you find it fun to write?
I do. Yeah. To the extent that anything is fun to write. I’m one of those writers who say “I’ve enjoy having written.” There are days I really enjoy writing and there are days I f–king hate it. I can see it in my head and the words won’t come. I try to put it on the page and it feels stiff and wooden and it’s stupid. Writing is hard work.
On your blog you say you throw a lot away.
I do. Maybe more than I should, especially with these books, especially as we go deeper. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, or the series is getting more complicated. I think I’ve been influenced by my own good reviews. I’ve had so many people say this is the greatest fantasy since Tolkien or even greater. It’s awoken in me a desire not to blow it.
Is there anything you regret in the series?
The biggest thing I’m wresting with is the chronology. When I set out with the young characters it was my intention that the kids grow up during the series. And I thought I’d have a chapter. And the the next chapter would be a month later. Then the next would be two months after that. And by the end of the book a year will have passed. But it doesn’t make sense that a character will take two months to respond to something that happens. So you wind up writing the whole book and very little time has passed. After the third book I thought I would jump forward five years, then the kids would be older. That was part of the delay. I tried to write it with a gap but it just didn’t work, so I wound up scrapping all that.
Do you know the ending?
I know the ending in broad strokes. I don’t know every little twist and turn that will get me there, and I don’t know the ending of every secondary character. But the ending and the main characters, yeah. And [Game of Thrones producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss know some of that too, which the fans are very worried about in case I get hit by a truck.
There’s a point in the series where you feel like you’re reading a bunch of separate stories. Toward the end of Dance, you feel the threads starting to come back together. Is that accurate?
That’s certainly the intent, and always was the intent. Tolkien was my great model for much of this. Although I differ from Tolkien in important ways, I’m second to no one in my respect for him. If you look at Lord of the Rings, it begins with a tight focus and all the characters are together. Then by end of the first book the Fellowship splits up and they have different adventures. I did the same thing. Everybody is at Winterfell in the beginning except for Dany, then they split up into groups, and ultimately those split up too. The intent was to fan out, then curve and come back together. Finding the point where that turn begins has been one of the issues I’ve wrestled with.
If you wrote Rings, Gandalf would have stayed dead after Mines of Moria.
Yes, he would have. I get a lot of credit for killing my characters, but Tolkien really did it first and in some ways that was the inspiration for me. And then Tolkien did it again at end of the second book where he seemingly kills Frodo, though that turns out to be feint.
There’s a line in book 5 where character says, “The gods are good.” Jaime thinks, “You go on believing that.” You talk about religion a lot in the stories, but what are your views?
I suppose I’m a lapsed Catholic. You would consider me an atheist or agnostic. I find religion and spirituality fascinating. I would like to believe this isn’t the end and there’s something more, but I can’t convince the rational part of me that that makes any sense whatsoever. That’s what Tolkien left out — there’s no priesthood, there’s no temples; nobody is worshiping anything in Rings.
There’s few acts of kindness in your novels. If somebody is on their own, or weakened, they can pretty much expect everybody to take advantage of them or treat them terribly. Obviously Aslan is not going to save the day, but are your books cynical about human nature?
I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain? I was taught pain is to let us know when our body is breaking down. Well, why couldn’t we have a light? Like a dashboard light? If Chevrolet could come up with that, why couldn’t God? Why is agony a good way to handle things?
When fans complain about a character killed off, what do you say to them?
In some cases I sympathize. It’s hard to kill characters, they’re my children. Obviously some were marked for death in the beginning like Ned. There are plenty of books out there for fans who want comfort reading, who want to enjoy an exciting story with nothing to upset or disturb them. It’s fun to go to an Indiana Jones movie and watch him kill 40 Nazis, but there’s a place for Schindler’s List too. Schindler’s heroism resonates more with me than Indy’s — one is fun, but the other is profound and says something about human nature. I don’t know if I’m achieving it, but that’s what I’m striving for. I think fantasy after Tolkien had become Indiana Jones. They were imitating a lot of Tolkien’s tropes without capturing the spirit of Tolkien. His books are not all happy fun books.
Do you feel like you owe your fans anything? At end of the day, is there a responsibility?
I think owe is the wrong word. I try to give them a good story. And I like my fans — the vast majority are great. I probably have more interaction with fans than any author I know. By and large, I’m very nice to my fans. But I don’t owe it to them to be nice. And if I wanted to withdraw, that would be my right. I certainly believe it’s my right to take off Sundays and watch NFL football and go to conventions and work on other projects — the more hardcore trolls, that’s what they object to. You met [his assistant] Ty, he think it’s generational. That people who are angry [about Book 5 taking six years] are younger people from what he calls The Entitlement Generation. They want instant gratification — something that they’re used to from the Internet. I’m from the Baby Boomer generation, and we had to wait for s–t, man. If I heard about a book, it might never come to the spinner rack at the local drugstore. If I wanted to see a movie, we’d have to hope they’d show it on television at some time. It’s Ty’s theory, not mine, but maybe it’s true.
You intended the story in Book 5 to go further, I hear?
It’s always difficult to know where to break each book. You’re walking a fine line. Like Lord of the Rings, you’re writing one story. At the same time, I want each book to represent a phase of the journey. I try to end each character with a cliffhanger or some kind of resolution. And I try to make the cliffhangers the smaller portion — I don’t want eight cliffhangers. [Dance] had more cliffhangers than I ideally would have liked.
So with the next book, have you now gotten to the point where you no longer need to have the characters in separate books?
That is certainly my hope, yes. Three years from now when I’m sitting on 1,800 pages of manuscript with no end in sight, who the hell knows.
Which episode of Game of Thrones are you writing next season?
The Battle of the Blackwater, God help me. David and Dan must hate me.
That’s the one where you have to be most conscious of budgetary decisions.
It’s very tough because we don’t have the budget to do the battle in the book. We just don’t.
Well, they have to be able to show the ships and what happens to them, right?
I hope so. We’ll see. I’m writing it. I’m cutting certain things. We’ll see once I turn it in if we can do it. When you look HBO’s Rome–
I loved it too, but what about the battles?
We see Caesar leave the tent to go to war, then he comes back and falls asleep.
Caesar leaves the tent. Pompey leaves the tent. Then we see Pompey’s banner in the mud. And Caesar comes back to the tent. The next episode, Pompey describes the battle to Pullo and Vorenus drawing it in the dirt with a stick to explain what happened. For the Battle of Actium, they open with Mark Anthony floating on a piece of wood — and Rome had a bigger budget than we do. I’ve been trying to tell the fans that. On some level they’re expecting the Battle of Pelennor Fields [from Peter Jackson's The Return of the King].
Fans don’t distinguish as much between mediums now.
They don’t. And television has set that up by being increasingly good. Back in the 1960s or ’70s, you could tell TV show from a movie in three frames just way it was shot and lit. But you can’t these days.
There’s a lot of debates about whether Thrones is feminist or anti-feminist. Were you surprised by those reactions?
Not really. I think it’s good people were debating those points. Obviously I don’t think I’m misogynistic or racist as some of those critics say, I think they’re reading it too simplistic. Certainly, I’m a 62 year old white male and none of us entirely escape the values that we’re inoculated with at an early age, even if we reject them — like me leaving Catholicism. I don’t hold myself up as a paragon of feminism. But I’m very gratified — that idiot critic at the New York Times notwithstanding — on the fact I have so many female fans who love my women characters and I tried to provide a variety of female characters. With all my characters, I try to show that we’re all human.
There was a fair amount of explicit sex in the series and some fans of the books were taken aback.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this with HBO is that I wanted to keep the sex. We had some real problems because Dany is only 13 in the books, and that’s based on medieval history. They didn’t have this concept of adolescence or the teenage years. You were a child or you were an adult. And the onset of sexual maturity meant you were an adult. So I reflected that in the books. But then when you go to film it you run into people going crazy about child pornography and there’s actual laws about how you can’t depict a 13 year old having sex even if you have an 18 year old acting the part — it’s illegal in the United Kingdom. So we ended up with a 22 year old portraying an 18 year old, instead of an 18 year old portraying a 13 year old. If we decided to lose the sex we could have kept the original ages. And once you change the age of one character you have to change the ages of all the characters, and change the date of the war [that dethroned the Mad King]. The fact we made all these changes indicates how important we thought sex was.
Was the viewer reaction to killing off Ned Stark bigger than you anticipated?
It was. It was fascinating to see the intensity of the reaction. You have to remember I wrote that scene in 1994 and it came out in 1996. So people were reacting with extreme shock in 2011 to something that’s been a hallmark of the books. On one level it was good, you don’t want to kill an important character and nobody gives a damn. You should grieve when a character dies. I will say your column after the death of Ned, and then a week later about the ratings, was news I was pleased to see. Because there were people saying they were giving up on the show.
The big question is what’s going to happen in the ratings between seasons. But I suspect, if anything, it’s going to come back bigger.
Well, Natalie Dormer [cast as Margaery Tyrell] is a great choice to start with. She was best thing about The Tudors and the best Anne Boleyn I’ve ever seen.
Are there any changes the TV show made that you particularly liked?
I loved some of the new scenes they added. As a novelist, I have certain tools like internal monologue and the device of the unreliable narrator. I can have flashbacks and dreams, which are pretty hokey in a TV series. So they had to insert some new scenes. I loved the interplay between Varys and Littlefinger, which never occurred in the books since neither is a viewpoint character. I loved the scene of Drogo ripping out Mago’s throat, which was entirely new. But that’s going to have ramifications if we go the full length down the pike. I’ve talked to Dan and Dave about the butterfly effect — you’re familiar with the classic Ray Bradbury short story?
A Sound of Thunder. One of my favorites.
Step on a butterfly in the Pleistocene Era and it changes everything in year 2000. [MILD BOOK 6 SPOILER WARNING] So Mago is not dead in the books. And, in fact, he’s going to be a recurring character in Winds of Winter. He’s a particularly nasty bloodrider to one of the other Khals that’s broken away after Drogo dies. This is the challenge the shows face as we go forward. There will be divergences, they’re trying to be faithful and Dan and David are doing a wonderful job. But the books are plotted so intricately that you do step on a butterfly in season one and in season four you’re going to have to deal with that. There’s also another character, [the singer] Marillion, who also got his tongue ripped out in season one, and that doesn’t happen with the books. Joffrey makes that decision, but it’s an unnamed bard. Marillion [has more to do]. We ought to call it The Tongue Effect instead of The Butterfly Effect.
Was there anything you missed from the book?
I wish the tournament was much bigger. They originally scripted in the first draft a parade of knights and a dozen jousts that they had to cut for budgetary reasons. And I would have liked the crowd to have been much bigger. This is like the Super Bowl in the books and draws people from all over the Seven Kingdoms.
Sansa no longer telling Cersei about her father’s plans to leave — were you OK with that change?
It didn’t bother me.
TV viewers might have never forgiven her.
A lot of book readers haven’t forgiven her. The other thing was lost was Catelyn to Jon Snow saying, “It should have been you” [after Bran was crippled].
For me, seeing her in the show, the way she acted toward him, the visual added a lot of harshness without that line.
Yes, just her face, which you can’t do in the books. It got the same thing across.
Is there any performance in the TV show that’s caused you to think differently about a character?
The performances have been great, but they’ve been great at capturing the characters as I saw them. The one exception is Natalia Tena as Osha. Cause she’s very different than in the book, but I think she’s more interesting. When I bring Osha back in Winds of Winter, I’ll have Natalia in mind and perhaps give the character more interesting things to do.
One big concern has been what if the TV series surpasses where you are in the books. For awhile, that seemed premature. Now that season one has done well, it’s worth asking.
There’s two questions here. The first is: How long will it take me to write the next book. Will Winds of Winter go smoothly or is it going to be Feast and Dance all over again? I certainly hope it’s not the latter. The other issue is: What is what is HBO going to do if we get a third season and beyond? Storm of Swords is a gigantic book. I was hoping they’d give us 12 episodes for Clash. So I don’t know how they’ll get everything in. But there’s no way they can get Storm into 10 or even 12. My hope is they’ll split that into two seasons. There’s nothing in the law that says each season must cover one book. The only danger of catching up is if we have to do all of Storm, and then Feast and Dance have to be re-combined. Then there’s a danger they would catch up with me. I think I’ll have Winds out by then, but they could catch up with me before [Book 7] A Dream of Spring.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to see more fantasy on TV. There’s been resistance to it, the powers that be often don’t think it can succeed. Most of it’s action-adventure for kids. I enjoyed Xena Warrior Princess, but fantasy can be much more than that. I’d love to see somebody do Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber. What a fantastic HBO series that would be.
I don’t read much fantasy, but the the Chronicles of Amber is the one I would pick too. It’s been kicked around in development forever; Syfy had the rights to it for awhile. So how firm are you that Ice and Fire will be seven books?
And that’s it. We saved some of the best bits for next week’s print edition of EW which features a profile of Martin. Check that out on newsstands.