GEORGE RR Martin (pictured) was in the Scottish capital, where he was a guest speaker at the book festival which is part of the Edinburgh Festival, and they queued right around the square to get in and again formed a winding line for book signings following the talk.
“It took 40 years of hard work to become an overnight success,” says the affable author of the Song of Ice and Fire series which won him the legions of devout fans who currently worship Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation.
He is a star on stage as he answers a series of questions from author and critic Peter Guttridge.
He started telling stories as a kid, he imparts, and these were often so horrific, the mothers would forbid him to scare their sons. But in this way he made the odd dime to buy the comic books he was so addicted to.
“I did the storytelling with sound effects, it was good value,” he says.
His reading also came about because of the appalling literature called “readers” they were expected to read at school.
“I recall the family with Dick and Jane and a dog named Spot. I couldn’t see the point of reading if I had to hang with this boring family,” he recounts entertainingly.
A child of the projects in New Jersey, a blue collar industrial environment, his home was on 1st Street and the school on 5th.
“That was my whole world,” he says. But there were freighters passing by with the names of foreign countries emblazoned on their hulls and he allowed his imagination to take him to Middle Earth and Gotham City. “I thought I would be a spaceman growing up, superheroes being harder to achieve.”
He did wish for a magic ring because he knew that would be the only way. Batman’s way asked for lots of exercise, so he knew the ring would be his only salvation. Once he started writing, he was readily accepted and didn’t have to go through years of humiliation as many authors do. When he was handed his first six figure advance, the book tanked and he couldn’t get anyone to take his stories.
“Don’t go into this field if you value security,” he warned. “It’s a weird ride. You can only emerge if you have perseverance.”
Fortunately Hollywood came knocking at the right time and he became a writer for Twilight Zone – the revival, he underlines. “I’m old, but not that old.”
There was much he loved about that first TV stint. Writing is a lonely pursuit and he loved working with a team of people. “But it’s a different world as they pay you loads of money to write a good story which you then have to defend.”
What he realised even with the accumulation of money was that he also needed an audience. He didn’t like all these scripts that gathered dust. “Nobody sees anything.” It might have been lucrative but he was emotionally deprived.
He was always a writer who wrote large and expansive stories with 17 rather than three settings and a cast of thousands rather than a containable number. Anyone who has watched Game of Thrones will know nothing has changed. But his luck changed when the Lord of the Rings trilogy was so huge worldwide.
The movie business turned to all the successful fantasy writers. Martin had learnt his lessons well. He had sharpened his dialogue and had developed a strong sense of structure. But with his Song of Ice and Fire series well on its way, he knew it couldn’t be turned into a movie – not even a trilogy. “I turned them down,” he says smugly.
He didn’t need the money, and television was a different animal. Something else had happened with cable emerging. “The networks don’t do sex or violence, but cable does,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in a tepid version of my books.”
From the start he was involved. He wrote one of the scripts for the first series and was very involved with the casting.
“But my work is to write the books,” he says, knowing that the world is waiting anxiously for him to come up with the next one in the series. In fact, he acknowledges that the TV series has caught up.
“I can only write one word and one book at a time. We’ll see what happens. I can’t worry about that, I simply have to tell my story.”
He says writing is only rewarding as a finished work. “It’s much too hard while you’re doing it,” he says. “Hemingway spoke about wrestling with Tolstoy – and Tolstoy is a motherf***er!”
What thrills him about the series is that it is one of the most faithful to the books currently on television. “They had to cut some of the scenes and characters,” he says. “People are already complaining about too many characters and places to remember. If they had to use them all, their heads would explode!” The way he writes, even 10 hours for each season isn’t enough. “We have one of the largest permanent casts in television history,” he says proudly.
He doesn’t like to single out any of the actors, but he’s excited about Peter Dinklage’s success and he loves the child actors.
“I think they’re the best around. There aren’t many good child actors around. There are lots of children who can learn the lines or emote painfully but few who can make these complex characters live. They have to show an entire range, which they do brilliantly.”
He obviously has a delicious sense of humour which he displays with delight but he says while his characters seem to let it roll easily off the tongue, he takes a long time to come up with those lines and only after many rewrites. And does he feel differently about his characters when he sees them in the flesh? “I have been living with these people for 16 years. I am very comfortable with who they are,” he explains.
When asked about what seems to be more sex on the screen than in the book, he’s quick to say he finds it fascinating that society is more vexed about the sex than the violence. “It says something about our society.”
But he also believes reading something and seeing something are very different. “It just feels that way because it’s much more in your face.”
And in conclusion, the stories are based on history but then he makes it his own.
“The characters embody my point of view – it’s the only one I know. I always tell writing students that you have to bleed on the page.”
For those wanting to cross swords, he knows there have been some mistakes.
“I’m good at changing the colour of my characters’ eyes and I have changed the sex of a horse!”
He rereads Lord of the Rings every few years (“It’s like revisiting old friends”) and Forbidden Planet is the best science-fiction movie by far in his book.
The surprise, though, was the genuine warmth of the man. Many who are this feted by fans are reluctant to share so easily and so freely. He obviously loves talking and as a storyteller, even when it is the story of his own life, he excels.