George R.R. Martin has come a long way since he published his first story, in Galaxy magazine, while he was still a graduate student at Medill. Martin (BSJ70, MSJ71), whose most recent books have all spent time on The New York Times Best Sellers List, is co-executive producer of the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” a close adaptation of his epic seven-part series of novels, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He took some time to talk with Peter Sachs (MSJ06) about his journey from Evanston to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
Your first few novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s won awards and started to gain a following of readers. What happened after that?
A big turning point was my fourth novel, “The Armageddon Rag.” ... It was supposed to be the big breakthrough novel for me, the big bestseller ... but it was a total flop. I suddenly felt my career had crashed and burned. My fifth novel, I couldn’t get any publishers to pick it up.
In the mid-1980s, you moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles, wrote for the revival of “The Twilight Zone” and the CBS drama “Beauty and the Beast,” then went into story development. How did that compare?
It was very lucrative, but it was very unsatisfactory because I didn’t like writing things that no one got to see, so in the mid-90s, I returned to books. I always had my hand in the books, but I returned to it in a big way with the novels with “A Game of Thrones,” the first of the series, that came out in 1996.
How hard was it to get established in the book-writing scene again?
It wasn’t too hard. I mean, I had the idea for “Ice and Fire.” I’d written about 100 pages of it and my agent took that out and a lot of people liked what they saw. I still had a name in the genre. I mean, I was out of it for 10 years, but I wasn’t forgotten.
The novels that “A Song of Ice and Fire” comprises have a huge cast of characters, not to mention a vast geographical realm and very intricate plotlines. How do you keep track of it all?
Most of it is in my head. Of course I have notes and computer files and charts and maps ... but probably less than you would think. I think if I had it to do over again, I would work that stuff out before I started the book. It’s grown increasingly hard to keep track of all the things as the series has grown larger.
Where do you draw your inspiration for “A Song of Ice and Fire?”
I get a lot of it from history. I read history, I read historical fiction. That was partly the impulse that led me to write this series. I spent most of my career in science fiction and fantasy. ... Many of the people who followed [J.R.R.] Tolkien, although their stories are set in the Middle Ages, it’s sort of a Disneyland Middle Ages: It’s cleaned up and prettified, and that irritated me. It seemed to me that there was room for someone to combine the wonder and the imagination of the fantasy novel with the kind of hard-edge realism that characterizes the best historical fiction.
What have you read lately that stands out to you?
“Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan,” by Jeff Greenfield. Other standout books for me are by Michael Chabon: “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” also “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and “Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure.”
What about television shows?
I do like the HBO shows — “Rome,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos.” ... There was a time when television was like superficial entertainment and movies were where you went for the heavy drama, and I think that’s reversed in the last decade.
What’s your level of involvement in HBO’s “Game of Thrones?”
My title is co-executive producer. But in a sense, I’m really more of a consultant. I do write one script per season. I wrote the eighth episode in the first season, “The Pointy End,” and the ninth episode, “Blackwater,” in the new season. I’d like to write more. ... But I have to write the novels. That’s my job. ... I see all the auditions and weigh in. When issues arise, I’m frequently part of the discussions. But with that said, I’m still on the other side of the world. They’re filming in Belfast, and I’m in Santa Fe.
You turned down a number of offers to turn your books into a movie. What made you go with HBO for the series?
They don’t just make two episodes and then see how it does in the Nielsen ratings. They’ll do them all and then they’ll show the whole season. ... Each season being one of the books was the approach they wanted to take — and that was exactly the approach I wanted to take. They wanted to do a faithful adaptation to take my story and bring it to the screen, not to substitute an entirely different story.
Given the detail, complexity and intricacy of the novels, how do you translate that to the TV series?
The challenges were immense. I don’t envy [the writers]. I’m glad they had to do it and not me, because I thought these books were un-filmable. These books were never intended to be filmed. When you’re writing, you can have as many characters as you want, you can have as many space battles or feudal battles. I kind of operated that way, and then when I got involved in “The Twilight Zone” and “Beauty and the Beast,” I found that inevitably when I turned in my first draft, they were too big and too expensive. ... I would go back and I would revise and I would cut things and cut characters. I would combine scenes so it only took place on two or three sets, but I never enjoyed the process.