If George R.R. Martin thought he had a rabid fan base before, when each book in his best-selling fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire" was devoured by impatient readers, the success of the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones has raised the stakes considerably. We talked with Martin as he settled in after a long PR tour and got back to work on the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter.
What's your involvement with season two of Game of Thrones?
I wrote episode nine, "Blackwater." The show is currently filming in Northern Ireland. I'd love to be there watching it, but I'm so far behind on other things.
Which actors have taken the characters and brought something new and surprising to the mix, adding layers that weren't necessarily there when you created them?
I think we have in general a spectacular cast; our casting directors did an amazing job. Certainly Peter Dinklage did an amazing job with Tyrion, who is one of my favorite character in the books. We didn't even audition Peter. We always talked about him for the role. The same was true for Sean Bean — although we did audition a few people for the role — but we always wanted Sean and he was incredible in that role.
Another group that deserves special mention was the kids — it's very difficult to cast a kid. Our kids had to carry a very serious dramatic weight — we needed really good young actors. We got three terrific ones.
What's your biggest worry about the TV show as it gets deeper into the story?
There are certainly challenges that lie ahead, and as the show goes on, the challenges will get greater. I wanted to write a book as big as my imagination. Now David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are faced with the very real challenge of how do you translate this complex thing with a cast of thousands and giant castles and dragons and walls of ice — serious production challenges that get bigger with every book. I think one of biggest challenges is budgets and shooting time. We had ten hours for the first season, and the same for the second. Boardwalk Empire has twelve, Treme has twelve — if we'd had two more hours we could have told a lot more of the story. Storm of Swords [the third book] is enormous and it will have to be broken up into two seasons, I think. But David and Dan are great people and they've assembled a great team, so if anyone can do it, they will.
The other thing that concerns me is what I call the butterfly effect. If you're familiar with the Ray Bradbury short story, you'll know what I mean. On TV, we saw the death of Mago, but we will see him in the books — he's still alive. It will have to be different in the book than in the show, because they killed him on TV. These are the kind of ripple effects that can happen.
How do you keep all of these details straight? Is there a huge encyclopedia or computer file that you use when you write?
It's mostly in my head. Elio Garcia [who runs Westeros.org] does seem to know Westeros better than I do. I'm beginning to wish I had never bothered with the color of people's eyes. [Editor's note: This is the subject of many convoluted fan conspiracy theories.] And that was one of the first things to go in the TV series — the purple contact lenses didn't look good on camera.
[If you've only watched the show but haven't read all the way through A Dance With Dragons, you might want to stop here. Spoilers ahead.]
I'll speak up for all of your impatient readers and ask: What are you working on these days, aside from the eagerly awaited The Winds of Winter?
The book tour took up a lot of time. I know some writers can write on the road, but I'm not one of them. I have about 100 pages done for the next book, which was mostly pages I had finished [for A Dance With Dragons] and decided to push back. I'll return to that in January.
Before that, I need to finish various other things. I have a new Dunk and Egg novella that will appear in an anthology called Dangerous Women. I also have the concordance to do, The World of Ice and Fire, which will be a big glossy coffee-table book about the history and genealogy of Westeros. I'm working on that with Elio Garcia.
Will that have new material, or just put everything together in one place?
It will have some stories that I wasn't able to fit in elsewhere.
As the books move forward, it seems like we're getting more and more information about what happened in the past, before the first book began. It's almost like the story is moving in two directions, backwards and forwards in time.
I've revealed more and more about Robert's Rebellion, the youth of Robert and Ned, and what happened to them. People have asked, but I'm not going to write a prequel, because with each book you find out more and more, which might cast the [present] events in a different light.
Some of the developments in A Dance With Dragons open the possibility that some characters may be able to influence events that have already happened. Are you leaving open the possibility that the past might be malleable?
[Long pause.] It's not something I care to give away. I will say that the past and the present and the future are all kind of one continuum, and there are different ways of looking at it. The past is always with us.
A Dance With Dragons spends quite a lot of time in Essos, which is kind of the analog to Asia and the Middle East in the world the story takes place in, as opposed to Westeros, which seems to owe a lot to Western Europe. When I was reading about Dany, who has become a light-skinned, foreign ruler of an exotic land, it reminded me of The Man Who Would Be King, the Sean Connery and Michael Caine movie that is based on a Rudyard Kipling story. Do you think about these parallels — colonialism, the "white man's burden" — when you're writing?
I've said many times I don't like thinly disguised allegory, but certain scenes do resonate over time. Other people have made the argument, which is more more contemporary, that it might have resonances with our current misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm aware of the parallels, but I'm not trying to slap a coat of paint on the Iraq War and call it fantasy.
When civilizations clash in your books, instead of Guns, Germs, and Steel, maybe it's more like Dragons, Magic, and Steel (and also Germs).
There is magic in my universe, but it's pretty low magic compared to other fantasies.
Dragons are the nuclear deterrent, and only Dany has them, which in some ways makes her the most powerful person in the world. But is that sufficient? These are the kind of issues I'm trying to explore. The United States right now has the ability to destroy the world with our nuclear arsenal, but that doesn't mean we can achieve specific geopolitical goals.
Power is more subtle than that. You can have the power to destroy, but it doesn't give you the power to reform, or improve, or build.
Some of your hard-core readers, myself included, have spent a lot of time speculating about how many different kinds of magic there are in your world. Or is it all the manifestation of the same mysterious supernatural forces?
That's something I like to reveal little by little.
I can tell you generally that when treating with magic in fantasy, you have to keep it magical. Many fantasy writers work out these detailed systems, and rules, and I think that's a mistake.
For magic to be effective in a literary sense, it has to be unknowable and strange and dangerous, with forces that can't be predicted or controlled. That makes it, I think, much more interesting and evocative. It functions as a symbol or metaphor of all the forces in the universe we don't understand and maybe never will.
So, you don't want to be explaining midi-chlorian levels?
If I wanted to write science fiction, I would write science fiction.