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George R.R. Martin GRRM Rolling Stone Interview

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GRRM says:

There's only a few wars that are really worth what they cost. I was born three years after the end of World War II. You want to be the hero. You want to stand up, whether you're Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin, or the American saving the world from the Nazis. It's sad to say, but I do think there are things worth fighting for. Men are still capable of great heroism. But I don't necessarily think there are heroes.

Redditor adds:

That's a great line but I look at it differently. I think most if not all men (and women) want to be heroes. But there are vastly fewer opportunities for heroism than people hoping to be heroes... which leads people to artificially create and distort situations for which they can envision themselves becoming one.

Reddit comments:

Another Redditor adds:

Very intriguing comments about the idea of redemption. Martin's comments on The Queen of Thorns are particularly interesting. Despite being an avid reader of the books and a fan of the show, something I never considered was the significance of using Sansa's hairnet as the holder of the poison so that blame could be cast on her instead of the Tyrells if the poison was discoverd. I once thought that the Tyrells were sympathetic to Sansa and her sorrows, yet realizing that Olenna Tyrell was sweet-talking Sansa for information and then potentially letting her take the fall for Joffrey's death really just indicates that they don't give a fuck.

Where does your imagination come from? 

Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own. But I don't know where it comes from, yet it comes – it's always come. If I was a religious guy, I'd say it's a gift from God, but I'm not, so I can't say that.

Wow, he was a late bloomer:

Your earliest novels, Dying of the Light and Fevre Dream, did well. But The Armageddon Rag temporarily stopped your literary career. Then you spent years in Hollywood, writing for TV series. Do you think your subsequent writing – which, of course, would be A Song of Ice and Fire – benefited from mastering screenplays?

I do. The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it's much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose. William Goldman said everything that needed to be said about it in Adventures in the Screen Trade: It's all structure, structure and dialogue. Being there improved my sense of structure and dialogue. I'd spent so many years sitting alone in a room, facing a computer or typewriter before that. It was almost exhilarating to go into an office where there were other people – and to have a cup of coffee, and to talk about stories or developments in writers' meetings. But there were constant limitations. It wore me down. There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too "politically charged," how violent things could be. Don't want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn't want blood, or for the beast to kill people. They wanted us to show him picking up someone and throwing them across the room, and then they would get up and run away. Oh, my God, horrible monster! [Laughs] It was ludicrous. The character had to remain likable.

You've talked before about the original glimpse of the story you had for what became A Song of Ice and Fire: a spontaneous vision in your mind of a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. That's an interesting genesis. 

It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn't have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It's from Bran's viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you've read.

How long did it take to do the world-building work? 

Basically, I wrote about a hundred pages that summer. It all occurs at the same time with me. I don't build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don't know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive. In the meantime, I still pitched shows in Hollywood, but this Ice and Fire thing wouldn't leave my head. I kept thinking about it and scenes for these characters. It was just never far from me. I realized I really want to tell that story. By then I knew it was going to be a trilogy. Everybody was doing trilogies back then – J.R.R. Tolkien had sort of set the mold with The Lord of the Rings. Around 1994, I gave the hundred pages to my agent with a little two-page summary of where I saw the book series going. My agent got interest all over town – about four publishers bid on it. Suddenly I had an advance and I had a deadline, so I was able to say to my Hollywood agents: no more screenplays until I finish this novel.

The show has given you millions of new fans, who, judging from online debate, are extremely passionate about your work. . . . 

It's a terrific feeling, knowing you have not only a lot of readers or viewers, but that they're so intense, and bringing so much thought and interest to bear. But maybe that's part of what's slowed me down – the knowledge that so many people are looking at every line, and waiting on every turn and scene. We have the untold-history book coming out later this year, where I've written a fake history. I find it amusing, and secretly pleasing, that I have so many fans who are interested in the history. I'm not sure if they would so eagerly study real history, you know? In school perhaps they're bored with all the Henrys in English history, but they'll gladly follow the Targaryen dynasty.

History was my minor in college. I don't pretend to be a historian. Modern historians are interested in sociopolitical trends. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the stories. History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It's better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.

These are not stories that have been told a million times before. 

It's a shockingly brutal story that you tell. The first major jolt comes when the knight Jaime Lannister pushes a child, Bran Stark, through a window because the child witnessed Jaime and Jaime's sister, Cersei – the wife of Westeros' King Robert – having sex. That moment grabs you by the throat. 

I've had a million people tell me that was the moment that hooked them, where they said, "Well, this is just not the same story I read a million times before." Bran is the first viewpoint character. In the back of their heads, people are thinking Bran is the hero of the story. He's young King Arthur. We're going to follow this young boy – and then, boom: You don't expect something like that to happen to him. So that was successful [laughs].

Both Jaime and Cersei are clearly despicable in those moments. Later, though, we see a more humane side of Jaime when he rescues a woman, who had been an enemy, from rape. All of a sudden we don't know what to feel about Jaime. 

One of the things I wanted to explore with Jaime, and with so many of the characters, is the whole issue of redemption. When can we be redeemed? Is redemption even possible? I don't have an answer. But when do we forgive people? You see it all around in our society, in constant debates. Should we forgive Michael Vick? I have friends who are dog-lovers who will never forgive Michael Vick. Michael Vick has served years in prison; he's apologized. Has he apologized sufficiently? Woody Allen: Is Woody Allen someone that we should laud, or someone that we should despise? Or Roman Polanski, Paula Deen. Our society is full of people who have fallen in one way or another, and what do we do with these people? How many good acts make up for a bad act? If you're a Nazi war criminal and then spend the next 40 years doing good deeds and feeding the hungry, does that make up for being a concentration-camp guard? I don't know the answer, but these are questions worth thinking about. I want there to be a possibility of redemption for us, because we all do terrible things. We should be able to be forgiven. Because if there is no possibility of redemption, what's the answer then? [Martin pauses for a moment.] You've read the books?

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly. 

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.

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