Never let it be said that the man who wrote the Red Wedding is past surprise himself. Take it from me: Show George R.R. Martin the deep-cut quote from his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy saga you’ve got tattooed on your forearm and he’ll geek out. “Wow,” he told me in his distinctively crackly variant on the accent of working-class Bayonne, New Jersey. “You’re hardcore!”
Martin’s work breeds that kind of intensity. It’s part of what’s made Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on his books, such a zeitgeist-piercing megahit. It’s also what brought him to town this past weekend: The Staten Island Yankees minor-league baseball team staged a special “Meet George R.R. Martin Night,” with one-night-only uniforms based on the show’s Starks and Lannisters and slated to be auctioned off for charity. In a pregame interview conducted before he signed autographs for hundreds of fans, Martin discussed the pros and cons of the New Golden Age of Television, the pressures of his newfound celebrity, and what the ending of his often bleak epic won’t be. Sorry, anybody hoping for the end of all life in Westeros, but for once, GRRM is less bloodthirsty than you are.
I’m so glad to meet you, because writing about your show is how I started out as a TV critic in the first place.
What will you do when the show ends? [Laughs]
Well, there’s other shows, fortunately. Every year, when the season ends, they’re like “Well, we gotta give him something to do…”
Any good ones?
Yeah, plenty! Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire…
It’s the Golden Age of Television right now. It’s just amazing.
How is that to be a part of?
It’s great! And I’m very glad that we’re such a prominent part of it. It’s strange because I’m old enough to remember other days. There were only three networks, and you’d get a review for an entire series in TV Guide. They’d run a review: “Here’s our review of Car 54, Where Are You?” Then nobody would ever mention it again. You’d watch it, or you wouldn’t watch it. Or it’d be [listed] in the ratings or something like that. But this kind of thing, where there are so many reviewers who review every episode as it comes on, and there are 20 different reviewers, probably more than that, who are reviewing us episode by episode by episode—and not only us but Mad Men and Breaking Bad in their day, and a handful of other shows that are getting a tremendous amount of attention—is very gratifying.
At the same time, I’m aware that, you know, there are dozens of other great shows out there that nobody is doing that for. I think if I was on the flipside of that, if mine was one of the shows being overlooked instead of one of the shows being favored, it would drive me crazy. [Laughs] I mean, I look at something like the Emmy nominations. I’m very glad we’re on the list, but I look at all the other fine shows that aren’t on the list, things like The Knick. I think that’s an amazing show. How did that not make it? I know a lot of people like The Americans, I’ve been watching that one. The Wire never made it all the years that they were on, and many people now say that was one of the best shows in the entire history of television, so it’s strange. But it is a Golden Age. It’s great to have this wealth of choices. There’s more good television than one can keep up with.
When you wrote these books you were a name people knew in the book world, but now there’s a legion of people like me, who write about everything you say, everything you write, everything the show does based on the things you write. How does that level of scrutiny change how you do what you do?
It’s made me more cautious. I don’t know if I’ve really changed enough. I mean, some of my minions and survivors are constantly on me to be more careful about things I say and do, and to be more aware that I’m a more public figure than I’m perhaps accustomed to being. As you say, I’ve been at this since the early ’70s. I went full-time in 1979. I’ve never had another job besides writing since then, so I’ve always been able to make my living and pay my bills. And I’ve won awards and I’ve gotten recognition, so I’ve always considered myself pretty successful. But the levels of success…you know, you break through to bigger things. Now you’re a bestseller, and then suddenly you’re a #1 bestseller, and then there’s a show, and at some point here I became a celebrity, which I’m still not used to and is still weird. My life does get a little surreal at times. Having my head get bitten off in Sharknado 3 was pretty weird! But fun.
Yeah, I do have to parse my words. Some of it, frankly, is—and I don’t necessarily mean this as criticism of you, but maybe some of your colleagues—that this age of internet journalism is crazy. These clickbait sites take things that I say, and I read headlines that seem to bear no relation to what I actually say. I mean, just a couple weeks ago…I didn’t go to Comic-Con this year, and I did a blog post about “Gosh, Comic-Con is going on, I’m not there, and it feels strange that I’m not there. I miss being there, but it was probably the right decision not to go there because I have all this work to do.” You know, I explored it over several paragraphs on my feelings about missing Comic-Con, but the whole thrust of it was the fact that I miss being there. There was part of me that said, “Well, I always go to Comic-Con and I’m not there!” I was missing it. Then I read a headline: “George R.R. Martin Doesn’t Miss Comic-Con.” What? How did they get that out of that? They’re parsing the words, some of these sites, I guess for clicks. It’s clickbait journalism, and it irritates me.
“George R.R. Martin Decries Clickbait Journalism.”
Damn, I did it again. [Laughs]
The number one question people ask me about the series is whether I think everyone will lose—whether it will end in some horrible apocalypse. I know you can’t speak to that specifically, but as a revisionist of epic fantasy—
I haven’t written the ending yet, so I don’t know, but no. That’s certainly not my intent. I’ve said before that the tone of the ending that I’m going for is bittersweet. I mean, it’s no secret that Tolkien has been a huge influence on me, and I love the way he ended Lord of the Rings. It ends with victory, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Frodo is never whole again, and he goes away to the Undying Lands, and the other people live their lives. And the scouring of the Shire—brilliant piece of work, which I didn’t understand when I was 13 years old: “Why is this here? The story’s over?” But every time I read it I understand the brilliance of that segment more and more. All I can say is that’s the kind of tone I will be aiming for. Whether I achieve it or not, that will be up to people like you and my readers to judge.