When did you first climb on the George RR Martin train? Perhaps you were among the prescient few who noticed his earlier novels, starting with the Hugo-nominated Dying Of
The Light in 1977. You may have been there in August 1996, when the first novel in his A Song Of Ice And Fire series was unleashed upon the world. Maybe you caught wind of his sprawling, sophisticated blend of historical fiction and fantasy around the time of the one-two punch of A Clash Of Kings and A Storm Of Swords, published in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Or was it A Feast For Crows, and the five long years Martin took to reach its conclusion, that finally piqued your interest?
The truth is that a significant proportion of his followers only joined the fold in the last 18 months – that’s what a critically and commercially successful HBO adaptation will do to a career – but fan debate over A Song Of Ice And Fire has been blazing in some corner of the internet ever since an Australian website called Dragonstone became the first venue dedicated to its vivid world and winding narrative in 1999. Since then, that debate has become uncomfortably intense.
Taken to its extremes, fandom can be troubling. As it became clear that the wait for the fifth novel, A Dance For Dragons, would be even longer than the five years required for its predecessor, a passionate cadre of Martin’s fans began to turn against him. With at least two more books to go and Martin in his early Sixties, many began to question whether he would live to finish the novels, and one, Gareth, decided to invite Neil Gaiman into the debate.
“When writing a series of books, like Martin is with A Song Of Ice And Fire, what responsibility does he have to finish the story?” Gareth asked in a letter to Gaiman’s blog. “Is it unrealistic to think that by not writing the next chapter Martin is letting me down, even though if and when the book gets written is completely up to him?”
The response was legendarily blunt: “Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective, is this: George RR Martin is not your bitch.”
Gaiman was more accurate than he realised. George RR Martin knew from bitter experience the dangers involved in being anybody’s bitch. It was the only reason A Game Of Thrones existed at all.
George Raymond Richard Martin was born in 1948 with stories in his blood. His father wasn’t an author, and there was no notable aptitude for language or imagination in his family line, but Martin was selling tall-tales for pennies when he was still in grade school. As his skills increased and demand for his stories grew, he put the price up to a nickel. Like we say, it was in his blood.
A close encounter with Robert A Heinlein’s classic juvenile Have Space
Suit, Will Travel was Martin’s entry into what his father disdainfully termed, “weird stuff”: Isaac Asimov, HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Jack Vance, Mervyn Peake, JRR Tolkien and so on. To his parents and teachers it was trash, but to Martin – who was slowly realising that actually becoming an astronaut or a barbarian was probably quite unlikely –
it was everything.
By the time Martin left high school, he had already decided on his career, and began the process of honing his craft through the early comic fanzines. In 1970, at the age of 21, Martin sold a story entitled ‘The Grey’ to Galaxy Magazine; in 1973, his short-story
‘With Morning Comes Mistfall’ was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. In 1975, his novella A Song For Lyra won the Hugo.
By the time The Armageddon Rag was published in 1983, Martin considered himself an old hand. Between 1977 and 1982 he published three novels, each one an award-nominee, in addition to three story collections. Writing prose fiction has been his sole source of income for years, but The Armageddon Rag proved that he still had much to learn. It was ambitious and experimental, it fused subtle fantasy with a meditation on the evolution of rock music, and was an abject failure. The public didn’t buy his current book, and so the publishers lost all interest in the next one.
But The Armageddon Rag had at least one fan: a writer, producer and passionate follower of The Grateful Dead called Philip De Guerre, who optioned the troubled novel for a film. As is so often the case in Hollywood, it was never made, but when De Guerre was asked to revive TV series The Twilight Zone, Martin was the first person he called. It was 1985, and Martin flew from his life as an author in Santa Fe, New Mexico to a new life as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, California. He wouldn’t publish another novel for more than a decade.
Martin had a knack for television. The Twilight Zone was ultimately doomed, but the quality of his work saw him rise to story editor, then executive story editor. When the show was cancelled in 1987, new job offers rolled in. Martin opted for a role as executive story consultant on Beauty And The Beast, before rising to producer a year later. In less than five years Martin had attained a position of esteem that other writers struggle for their entire careers without reaching. He was given the chance to leave the grind of staffing somebody else’s show to develop ideas of his own. This was it – the big time.
Yet the second half of Martin’s ten years in Hollywood marked a change in the way Martin looked at writing. On The Twilight Zone and Beauty And The Beast, Martin was used to having his first drafts returned with extensive notes. His work was always too big and too expensive right out of the gate, but subsequent revisions allowed Martin to refine, polish and rein in his epic tendencies. Importantly, there was always an end product, and an audience waiting to receive it.
His time in ‘development’ left him with six failed pilots and a pixel-sharp view of what Hollywood meant for a writer. The work was just as demanding, but the value of that work was decided by the whims of businessmen.
“It’s very lucrative in Hollywood,” Martin said on his podcast. “Television, film; they’ll give you dump trucks full of money, and a lot of writers are content with that. They’ll sit out there, around their kidney-shaped swimming pools, sipping their drinks with their trophy wives. They’ve never had anything produced, but they make a lot of money from writing and rewriting and rewriting.”
“It took me five years, but I finally figured out that this wasn’t for me. I really need an audience… I’m not gonna write for four guys in a room, no matter how much money you give me.”
George RR Martin was not their bitch. He honoured his remaining contracts and flew back to Santa Fe.
“When I returned to prose – which had been my first love – in the Nineties, I said ‘I’m going to do something that is just as big as I want to do,’” Martin said in an interview with The New York Times.
“I can have all the special effects I want. I can have a cast of characters that numbers in the hundreds. I can have giant battle scenes. Everything you can’t do in television and film, of course, you can do in prose because you’re everything there. You’re the director, you’re the special effects coordinator, you’re the costume department, and you don’t have to worry about a budget.”
Indeed, the idea that would allow him to realise the vision that had been swimming around in his imagination since summer 1991. During an idle period between Hollywood assignments, while simultaneously trying to develop a science fiction novel called Avalon, the opening scene of a new story emerged from the ether: of a young boy travelling through the snows with his father to see his first execution; a rite of passage in whatever society this would turn out to be. As the party makes its long journey home, they discover a brood of huge wolf-like creatures, which are divided between his brothers.
“It was a medieval setting – I knew that. I knew it had a large cast of characters. It seized hold of me,” Martin said on his podcast. “I don’t know where it came from, but it came to me so vividly: I could see the scene; I could see the snow; I could feel the cold. I could see the blood when the sword took off the man’s head, and I could feel the boy’s feelings about this… He was excited, and a little scared at the same time.”
And so Martin chased his muse for the remaining summer months before his next doomed television project began. The words of that first chapter seemed to “flow out of my fingers and onto the page.” The next chapter came to him, this time from the point-of-view of an entirely different character, from a distinct part of the new world he was creating. The next chapter shifted perspective again.
But Hollywood was calling once more, and so A Game Of Thrones went into the same drawer as Avalon. He wouldn’t take it out again until his return to Santa Fe, but the story lived on in his head; the characters talked to him on his long journeys through the choking traffic of the Los Angeles freeways. It was a world where magic was a subtle and mysterious force, and politics, corruption and blood were the driving forces behind the narrative.
It would be as debauched and uncompromising as our own history, only without the consolation of knowing how it ends. Was it a single novel? A trilogy, perhaps? Martin wasn’t sure, but he knew one thing: it was going to be big.
“I always wanted to do something in epic fantasy, but not just to rehash Tolkien,” he recalled to The New York Times. “I wanted to do something to make it my own.”
More than 15 years later, it’s safe to say that Martin has achieved his goal. A Game Of Thrones and the other A Song of Ice And Fire novels feel like little else in fantasy, and nothing at all like Tolkien. The world and its myriad characters and cultures are the product of a creative mind seeking an outlet that didn’t require it to pander to the lowest common denominator or rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.
That’s both the lie and the compliment of the anguish of Martin’s fans. A Song Of Ice And Fire is the sort of work that inspires devotion; the sort of work that most authors aspire to but never realise. Martin is open about his gratitude for that affirmation – there is praise wrapped up in their selfish fears about his untimely death – but those indignant fans fail to realise that were he to comply with their demands, the spirit that gave rise to these remarkable novels would disappear. They would be no better than the Hollywood producers who stifled Martin’s creativity to make him their bitch.
“Ten years from now, no one is going to care how quickly the books came out,” Martin wrote on his blog in July 2007. “The only thing that will matter, the only thing anyone will remember, is how good they were. That’s my main concern, and always will be.”