The Wit and Wisdom of George R.R. Martin

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty

For our recent Encounter piece, we spent the better part of three days with Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin. During that time, the author, who has just released The World of Ice and Fire, a faux-historical compendium, was in a particularly voluble mood. Martin touched on a vast range of subjects. His thoughts about Westeros and his eagerly awaited The Winds of Winter have already been well documented. Here, we’re collecting the man’s thoughts on a wider, more idiosyncratic range of subjects.

Boardwalk Empire vs. Downton Abbey
“Sometimes it fascinates me — watching Boardwalk Empire, it starts in the 1920s, and Downton Abbey is the same period. So these Downton Abbey people are worrying about how to get good help and all that; meanwhile, Nucky and Al Capone are fighting each other right over there, and Nucky even travels to Ireland. What if they met? I have all these thoughts about the world beyond the story, you know? You watch some of the screwball comedies of the ‘30s, the musicals, and this is around the same time Hitler was being elected in Germany. Were the showgirls cognizant of Hitler being elected in Germany? Each of these stories is its own universe, but there’s always a wider world.”

Historical Memory
“I wish we knew more history. There was that hilarious episode last year of Hard Boiled with Chris Matthews, when he had on a tea party guy [Kevin James] who pounded the table and talked about how Obama was doing appeasement. Chris Matthews broke in at one point and said, ‘What exactly did Neville Chamberlain do that is similar to what Obama is doing?’ ‘It’s appeasement!’ But he didn’t know the history or the sequence of events. Sometimes it seems [that] an awful lot of our leaders, and even journalists and commentators, have a very narrow, present-day view. We have a kind of certainty that borders on arrogance, in some ways, not unlike the British Victorians. They thought they had it figured out: ‘Well, yes, there have been all these other eras, and people have tried other things, but we have it all figured out, and this is the way it should be forever.’ Now we laugh at that, but we’re doing the same thing! I suspect people a hundred years from now will look back at us and think we were as deluded and screwed up as the Victorians.”

Sign Ineffiency
“Cities across America are in financial trouble. Everybody is talking about eliminating spending. Why don’t they look at the fact that every time they elect a new major, they have to replace all these goddamn signs? Mayor So-and-so welcomes you … Maybe we should stop naming the mayor or the governor on the sign into a city or state? Then we would save a lot of money when the mayor changes, because the Bronx will still be the Bronx! Maybe we ought to sell naming rights to the bridges and tunnels, like we do with the football stadiums. The Holland Tunnel could be the Coca-Cola Tunnel. The Lincoln Tunnel could be the Geico Tunnel, with iguanas or geckos or whatever the hell he is!”

Armed Forces and Immune Systems
“It was very common in armies throughout history for diseases to break out. They didn’t really know the germ theory of disease, but dysentery was common, and if they had camp followers carrying syphilis or other venereal diseases, the soldiers would get them. A lot of armies, disease killed more people than the battles did. And yet you don’t see that in most fantasy. We get together these giant armies, and they fight the Orcs, and nobody ever gets sick. So I wanted to add that as an additional point of realism, although my maesters are actually far ahead of the medieval barber surgeons, deliberately, because I didn’t want the whole book to be about people dying if they got a scratch.”

The Guillotine
“Sometimes I see people like ISIS and I want to mount on my dragon and burn them all to a crisp! But that aside, assuming you are going to have the death penalty, then the question becomes, do you want to torture them first? The medieval mindset was not to give someone a quick death. Joffrey actually says this when Sansa begs him for mercy for Ned, and he chopped his head off: ‘I gave him a quick, easy death!’ But we’ve sort of rejected torture, except at Guantánamo Bay. [Laughs.] So if you want to eliminate torture but you want to keep the death penalty, then we should go back to the guillotine. The guillotine is the most humane method of execution ever devised. If you got an unskilled or drunken headsman, it could be really ugly. The guillotine never missed. The electric chair? Your head will catch on fire! Sometimes you don’t die from the first shock. The gas chamber? You’re struggling, trying to breathe. The drug cocktails? Now there are all these horrible things that going wrong with that. But of course, no one says, ‘Use the guillotine!’ You can’t suggest that.”

Free the Nipple
We can go to the beach and I can take off my shirt, and a female can’t, except in New York, where a woman can walk topless down Broadway. Except for commercial gain. You can’t have a topless hot-dog seller. ‘Wieners! Get your wieners!’ [Laughs.] But elsewhere, if a woman decided to go shopping on a hot day and she wanted to take off her shirt? A man might run into some trouble with no shirt, no shoes, no service kinds of places, but he wouldn’t be arrested on the street. I remember I was in Barcelona a couple years ago, and I noticed there were a bunch of beaches. I asked, ‘So, are any of those topless beaches?’ ‘They’re all topless beaches.’ Like, Yeah, why would you have it otherwise? Which seems to me a much saner attitude than ours, you know? Why does America go hysterical when there’s a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl or they get a glimpse of a woman’s nipple on our show? It’s crazy, you know? Half of the population has them! Sure, men get excited when they see the female breast, but that’s partly because it’s hidden. It’s the concealing it that sexualizes it.”

Sex and Government
“There’s no way to turn back the clock, but I think it was better when journalists respected the privacy, the sexuality of public figures. Why should it matter? I want a mayor who does a good job of running the city. I want a president who keeps us out of war and brings about economic prosperity and passes good laws and has that gift of making different people work together. If he gets the occasional blow job, what do I care? Does that interfere with his ability to govern? It’s not like we have any proof in history that a faithful president is better than presidents who fuck around. If anything, it’s the opposite. Jimmy Carter had lust in his heart, but as far as we know, he didn’t act on it. [Laughs.] Thomas Jefferson had children with slaves. Does that make the Declaration of Independence any less impressive?”

Sex and Violence in Stories
“In some ways, what irritates me more than anything is this attitude about ‘sanitized action,’ like a car crash or a gun fight, but no blood. I was 16 years old before I realized you couldn’t actually put someone to sleep by hitting them on the back of the head with a gun butt!  Actually, you probably fracture their skull! Either that or they turn around and they’re really pissed: ‘Hey! Why the fuck did you do that?’ They want the action to be exciting, but not disturbing or upsetting or sickening. But it should be. People want violence, but they don’t want violence. They want sexuality, but people are afraid to admit that they want the sexuality. Every time there’s a new medium, whether it’s the videotape or the internet, porn is the thing that leads the way! There are obviously millions of people who want porn out there! When Kinsey did his studies, he found out some pretty revealing things that upset the America of the ‘40s and the ‘50s: ‘We don’t do that stuff!’ But we did. And we don’t want to face it.”

“The concept of the teenage years is a relatively modern invention. When you reached sexual maturity, then you could have sex and be an adult. We still have relics of that with coming-of-age ceremonies: “Today, you are a man.” You’re 13, but today, you are a man. No, you’re not! [Laughs] Don’t go out and try and buy liquor, get married, or vote! We should have bar mitzvahs at 21. Catholics should get confirmed at 21. In Westeros, I went with 16 — but there were actual cases of people in history younger than 16 who had significant roles. Charles the XII of Sweden was 15 years old when he was crowned and leading armies across Europe. He was partly the model for Robb Stark because he was a great general, a great tactical leader. Won all the battles, lost the war. Actually, Charles XII lost the last battle, the most important one. Maybe because he was injured!”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
“I was shocked when I first came to New York and learned you couldn’t actually get breakfast at Tiffany’s! [Laughs.] No eggs?”