A Storm Coming

An interview with George R R Martin.

George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most impressive, and certainly the best written, of the current crop of large-scale on-going fantasy epics. With the publication of the third volume A Storm of Swords , he talks to Roz Kaveney about realism in fantasy, sympathetic villains and finding the right length for your work.

Amazon.co.uk: A Song of Ice and Fire was originally going to be a trilogy but you are, with this third volume, nowhere near the end yet.

George R R Martin: The sequence is going to take six volumes, but I will manage to hold it there; my American publisher wanted to split A Storm of Swords into two volumes but I persuaded them otherwise. With this volume, I have at least reached the end of my opening, even if it is not yet the start of the end game. The fourth volume, in a year or two, will take place five or six years later than this one--which means it will have to start with a lot of material that establishes what has happened in the meantime.

Amazon.co.uk: This is one of the more realistic mediaeval fantasies going.

Martin: I think it is possible to capture the flavour of the middle ages properly in fantasy. When you are researching and trying to capture the feel of things, there are times when the actual history is a distraction; I try to immerse myself in the period to the point where you already know the details of underwear, or the names of pieces of armour , or the rules of a tournament, when you need them. And then you are unfaithful to the facts when you need to be; part of the usefulness of writing fantasy is that you are not bound by history. I needed to write tournaments in which the melee was a free for all in which the winner was the last man left standing--whereas usually they were an event between clearly allocated teams.

Amazon.co.uk: Even looking at the facts of history, your world is particularly full of treachery.

Martin: From the beginning, I knew that treachery was an important part of what I was writing about, and I had some of the broad strokes in mind. There was a similar dichotomy in the real world between a belief in chivalry and the savage things people actually did to each other most of the time. Look at Richard the First, or the Black Prince; the Black Prince lavishly entertained the captured Frenck King after Poitiers but put towns to sack on other occasions. I like to paint in shades of grey.

Amazon.co.uk: And that is why in the new book some unlikely characters turn out to have consciences.

Martin: That is partly also because as I proceed, I like to expand the number of the central cast who get used as viewpoint characters--we have not seen Jaime Kingslayer from the inside before...

Amazon.co.uk: And you use the factual Middle Ages to set up some nasty surprises for people who like to guess the plot in advance.

Martin: I like to surprise; but I also like to foreshadow. I use my historical sources in a mix and match way. Obviously I have drawn on the Wars of the Roses, but Tywin Lannister is not Warwick the Kingmaker and Tyrion is not Richard of Gloucester. I am also drawing on the Hundred Years War, and the Albigensian Crusade and stuff from outside Europe. It is always a mistake for my readers to assume any one for one correspondences. The joy of fantasy is that you can more easily take your plot off in different directions--in historical fiction, you know most of what is going to happen.

Amazon.co.uk: And this is proper fantasy ... with dragons in it.

Martin: I never wanted to do talking dragons--perhaps I am still too much of an sf writer to be happy with creatures that are too like humans. If dragons were intelligent, they would be so in ways that we could not recognize as such. I gave some serious thought to avoiding any overt fantasy elements and doing something that would only be a fantasy in that it took place in imaginary places and avoided known historical facts. As it is, I have carefully rationed magic. I went back to The Lord of the Rings and looked at how Tolkien does it. The Lord of the Rings is set in a magical world but there is not that much magic actually on stage. For Tolkien, wizardry is knowledge, not constant spells and incantations. I wanted to keep the magic in my book subtle and keep our sense of it growing, and it stops being magical if you see too much of it. In Tolkien, Aragorn's sword is magical because it just is; not because we regularly see it helping him win fights. In these books, magic is always dangerous and difficult, and has a price and risks.

The whole point of the scene in A Game of Thrones where Daenerys hatches the dragons is that she makes the magic up as she goes along; she is someone who really might do anything. I wanted magic to be something barely under control and half instinctive--not the John W. Campbell version with magic as the science and technology of other sorts of world, that works by simple and understandable rules. Nor precise words and series of passes that you forget when you have done them and have to learn again, as in Vance's Dying Earth. When Vance did it, it was original--I just picked the Liane the Wayfarer section for the Fantasy Hall of Fame anthology--but I wanted to do something else. And it is important that the individual books refer to the civil wars, but the series title reminds us constantly that the real issue lies in the North beyond the Wall. Stannis becomes one of the few characters fully to understand that, which is why in spite of everything he is a righteous man, and not just a version of Henry VII, Tiberius or Louis XI.

Amazon.co.uk: You write children well.

Martin: I don't have any but I was one once. When the series was originally conceived, it was only three volumes long and I did not know that several of the main characters were going to be stuck with being children for so much of it. The hardest chapters for me to write are the ones about Bran, just because he is the character most involved in magic, the youngest child and he is so seriously crippled--I have to write in that sense of powerlessness and it has always to convince. Sansa was the least sympathetic of the Starks in the first book; she has become more sympathetic, partly because she comes to accept responsibility for her part in her father's death. Jon Snow is the truest character--I like his sense of realism and the way he copes with his bastardy.

Amazon.co.uk: And the most popular character seems to be Tyrion.

Martin: He is probably my own favourite--he is certainly the easiest to write. He is the person who is not fooled, and has a cynical sense of humour. I found myself playing a lot this time with the fact that he really is not Richard of Gloucester--yet it becomes clear that he will have a reputation at least that dark from now on.

Amazon.co.uk: Let's talk briefly about my personal favourite of your earlier works--Fevre Dream, your novel about vampires and Mississippi riverboats.

Martin: I am working on a screenplay of it, so it is still a new project for me. It is my own favourite as well, partly because I love the central character Abner Marsh.

Amazon.co.uk: There is a possibility that your early space operas--The Dying of the Light, Windhaven--will be reissued. I always found the universe of those books interestingly melancholic and poetic.

Martin: I haven't done any space opera for a long time, but sometimes I remember how it felt to write it. People saw Fevre Dream as me deserting sf for horror, but it's just that I like to try different things. I might still go back to space opera one day--this is the sort of thing that drives editors crazy, because in the present climate of sf and fantasy publishing, genre switching is not always looked on with favour.

Amazon.co.uk: After a distinguished and award-winning history of short fiction--Sandkings, for example--you don't seem to write short stories any more.

Martin: I just don't have time--the only short fiction I have written in recent years was a spin off from the Seven Kingdoms stuff. Even when I was in Hollywood, I had time to edit the Wild Cards anthologies and write short fiction, because I had to keep my hand in and remind people that I existed. I took on too many projects back then and always had deadline problems.

I don't take on projects I can't do any more. When I am between books I might do more short fiction - but the other problem is that I find it harder to write short any more - short fiction for me is probably novellas now, because I breathe long. I'm conscious of this as an aesthetic choice - there is a cult of lean books, but the opposite of them is not fat books. The Hemingwayesque is not an option for me--I hope the fantasy novels have a lot of muscle to go with their heft. Some of the fantasy fans have been offended by the sexual content, but if you are going to give the reader vicarious input from an imaginary world sex has to be as real as the feasting or the tournaments. Things have to be put clearly into the mind's eye, and that takes wordage.

by George R R Martin

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3)

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