George R.R. Martin reflects on his literary career and Hollywood, and shares stories of writers’ journey mishaps and “morons” in Hollywood, in conversation with “The Sandman” author Neil Gaiman at the New York City Symphony Space Thursday night.
Martin was promoting his book The Rise of the Dragon: An Illustrated History of the Targaryen Dynasty, Volume One, a massive “luxury reference book” about the most powerful family in Westeros. Attendees were given signed copies of “Rise of the Dragon” or Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood,” which serves as source material for HBO’s House of the Dragon.
As the contents of “Fire & Blood” extend far beyond what the audience has seen thus far in “House of the Dragon,” Martin warned the audience with a smile: “If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the whole book. Buy it, but don’t even read it.” Offer ends.
Below is a selection of highlights from the event, which concluded with a Q&A with pre-set questions from audience members.
About achieving success later in life
Martin reflected on the ups and downs of his long career as a writer and producer, saying he is grateful that it took him several decades to reach the success he currently enjoys.
“In a strange way, I think it’s good that the level of success and popularity of these books came to me when I was in my sixties, because I think it came to me when I was 22 – or even younger, God help me… I don’t know how to deal 18-year-old pop stars who are suddenly global phenomena. A lot of the time, they don’t handle it well. They go crazy.”
To please the fans
After working on CBS’ first revivals of “The Twilight Zone” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Martin had “climbed the Hollywood ladder far enough” that he had gone into “development hell.” In those five years writing pilots and movies, he was making more money than he had before, but all of his projects were stuck in limbo. “I’m like an actor: I want to clap,” Martin said. “Maybe you will throw the rotten fruit at me. Maybe you will clap. But I want to know your opinion of the story and the characters.”
About being dazzled by a spell Early in the book signing
Martin spoke on early book tours where only a few fans came to meet him, and described one event in Denton, Texas, where his autograph parking lot was surprisingly full of cars. I said, ‘Oh boy, this book is great. “Look at all those people coming in,” Martin said. “Well, there were two autographs in the shop that day. I was autographing in the front of the shop, and I had the usual 10. In the back of the shop: the big red dog Clifford.”
He shared another story about 600 people signing at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, where Martin’s assistant told a fan he could hug the author. “After 598 people, I’m finally free to sign,” Martin joked before addressing the audience: “I’m sorry, none of you would hug me. I’ll run away after this thing.”
On honoring the source material
As someone who has been on both sides of screen adaptations of literature, Martin discussed “the obligation to honor written material,” which he said was a “controversial” issue in Hollywood. The author explained his stance: “How loyal are you? Some people don’t feel they have to be loyal at all. There’s this phrase that goes around: ‘I’m going to make it my own’. I hate that phrase. And I think Neil probably hates that phrase too.”
Gaiman replied, “I do.” “I’ve spent 30 years watching people make their own ‘Sandmanner’. Some of these people haven’t even read Sandman to make it their own, they just flipped through some comics or something.” Gaiman added that getting the first season of “The Sandman” on Netflix was a “joy,” and Martin energized the audience by saying, “We want season two!”
Martin continued, “There are changes you have to make – or have been called to make – that I think are legitimate. And there are other things that are illegal.” He noted Roger Zelazny’s adaptation of “The Last Defender of Camelot” in an episode of “Twilight Zone” and, due to budget constraints, had to choose between owning horses or an elaborate Stonehenge set for the battle scene. (He didn’t want to make the decision, so he called Zelazny, who chose to get rid of the horses.) “That, in my opinion, is the kind of thing you’re asked to do in Hollywood and it’s legitimate.” Martin said one example of an “illegal” change had CBS include a “regular person” who only “tagged along” in the episode in order to attract a “high concept”.
“I was new to Hollywood,” Martin said. “I did not say, ‘You fools.’”
Martin linked the topic to the Iron Throne in the HBO adaptation of his A Song of Ice and Fire novels. “Why is the Iron Throne in ‘Game of Thrones’ and not the Iron Throne as described in the books? Why isn’t it 15 feet high and made of 10,000 swords? Because the ceiling in our sound system wasn’t 15 feet high! We couldn’t fit in there, and they weren’t willing to give us St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey to film our little show.”
On creating “gray” characters
In response to a question about the multiple perspectives that make up Targaryen’s history in “Fire & Blood,” Martin said there is no single “real” account – something that reflects our real history.
“The fun of history books and history books is that we use the word ‘maybe’ a lot,” Gaiman said.
Martin replied, “A lot of people don’t want gray characters — they want heroes, they want villains. And we see that in real history. Especially here in America, we’ve grown up hearing about the Founding Fathers and different people in the past, who are our heroes. It’s fantastic and flawless. Then we found out. Later they may not have been flawless. Maybe they had a flaw here and there. Maybe they did some bad things once in a while. But they did good things too.”
He continued, “It seems that there are a lot of people out there who just can’t accept that. If they find a flaw, they immediately transfer the illustrious hero to the absolute dirtbag, and now we have to despise that person. Really, most humans are somewhere in the middle. And we just have to accept that “.
Asked if the Targaryen breed “deserves” the fall, Martin said it’s up to the reader. “There were Targaryens who did something well on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday they did something reprehensible. Also, of course, are our standards for what constitutes ‘reprehensible’ change.”
About “Winter Wind”
For those hoping for an update on the often-delayed sixth “Ice and Fire” book, Martin didn’t provide any specific timeline. “I pretend to live 1,000 years,” he said. “Because I have to finish ‘The Winds of Winter’.”