The author of the 'Game of Thrones' series talks about his newest novel, and the joys and challenges of writing genre fiction
Many will be relieved to know that A Dance With Dragons, the long-awaited fifth entry in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, is infinitely more satisfying than its predecessor, 2005's bleak and plodding A Feast for Crows. The aspects of Martin's work that have endeared him to fans are abundant here—rich world building, narrative twists and turns, and gritty depictions of the human struggle for power. Characters who were sorely missed in Feast—Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and Jon Snow—make up more than a third of the novel, and Martin is wise enough to give us at least a chapter from (almost) everyone else.
Weaknesses that have plagued Martin's previous books are also present: too much repetition, unexceptional prose, and characters who use the same idioms (and have sex in exactly the same manner) no matter their ethnicity, social class, or continent. But while A Dance with Dragons cries out for better editing, it remains entirely engrossing. Martin has hidden so many clues and red herrings throughout his previous volumes that it is a thrill to see certain pieces fall into place.
Much of the action in Dance takes place away from Westeros, across the Narrow Sea and along Slaver's Bay, where the exiled Tyrion has fled and Daenerys is preparing for both war and an onslaught of suitors. In fact, we see little of King's Landing, and the political intrigue that occupied previous books. Winter has very nearly come, and with it increased desperation and treachery, especially at the Wall, where Jon Snow is attempting to negotiate a fragile peace between the Night's Watch, the surviving wilding clans, and Stannis Baratheon, one of the claimants to the Iron Throne. The magic that re-entered the world with Dany's dragons is also gaining strength, along with the religious fervor that it inspires.
Martin strives to keep his reader engaged, and often succeeds, although his penchant for unpredictability means that the reader is increasingly skeptical of cliff-hangers, especially deaths, which rarely seem to stick. Let me put it this way: If one central character who appears to be almost certainly dead at the end of Dance actually is, I'll be both devastated, and very impressed.
We spoke to Martin last week about the challenges of building a fictional universe, the sexual politics of his writing, and why science fiction and fantasy are conquering the world.
Do you consider your writing as falling within the fantasy genre? What are the advantages to working within a specific genre? How does it help you tell your story?
I don't want to deny that I write in fantasy, I think I obviously do. There's magic and there's dragons and swords, and all the traditional trappings of fantasy here. But I've also written in other genres in the past, a lot of science fiction, horror, and books that are strange hybrids of all of these things.
I've always agreed with William Faulkner—he said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. I've always taken that as my guiding principle, and the rest is just set dressing. I mean, you can have a dragon, you can have a science fiction story set on a distant planet with aliens and starships, you can have a western about a gunslinger, or a mystery novel about a private eye, or even literary fiction—and ultimately you're still writing about the human heart in conflict with itself. So that's the way I try to approach this thing. And while I may work within a genre, I've never liked to be bound by them. I have a lot of fun in frustrating genre expectations, using a bit of this or a bit of that, and doing something that hasn't been done before.
Do you think that being associated with fantasy limits the expectations or responses that people have to your work?
It does to an extent, certainly. But I think that's changing. I'm 62 years old, I sold my first story in 1971 and I started reading this stuff in the '50's and '60's, when I was still a kid. The prejudice against all genre literature, but particularly science fiction and fantasy, was very strong then. I had books taken away from me in school by teachers saying, "Oh you shouldn't read this stuff, it will rot your mind." A lot of markets didn't want to consider it either—you just had specialized magazines.
But science fiction and fantasy have really conquered the world, especially in popular culture. There are also wonderful writers out there like Michael Chabon, who are trying to break down these genre barriers, who are writing things that are demonstrably science fiction or fantasy, and yet are getting a lot of literary respect. You're seeing mainstream writers who are taking the tropes and themes of genre and writing so-called "literary fiction" out of it. So I think all the barriers are eroding and will continue to erode.
That's not to say there aren't still some places where the older attitudes prevail, but I don't think they will prevail for much longer. A hundred years from now they will be gone, and it will all be what it was to begin with—just stories, without marketing labels placed on them.
How do you view A Dance with Dragons's place within the larger narrative of A Song of Ice and Fire?
It's a bit unusual because of what happened with the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. When I was writing that book, it became so large that in 2003 or 2004 my editors and I realized that it would have to be split into two books. It wasn't finished at that point, but ultimately I made the decision to split the book geographically, since my characters were spread out across the world—to tell the story completely for some characters in A Feast for Crows, and to tell the story for some different characters, but within the same time frame, in A Dance with Dragons. In that sense, A Dance with Dragons is not the fifth book, but is more like four B. The two books run in parallel, and both begin five minutes after the end of A Storm of Swords.
You know, given the realities, I would. If the publishing world was different—if we could publish a physical book that was 3,000 pages long that wouldn't fall apart, and if my fans and editors and publishers had wanted to wait—then I might have made a different decision. If I hadn't split the books, it still might only be coming out this year, and people would have waited 10 years for the book instead of waiting five. It was a difficult decision, but I think given the realities of what I was faced with, it was the best decision.
Do you still think you'll be able to wrap everything up in the remaining two books?
I certainly hope so! That's my plan, that's my intent, that's what I'm going to try to do. But at this point I know better than to promise anything and write it out in blood.
I think some fans are hoping we'll end up with eight books.
Well, it's grown in the past—I'm not going to say those fans are wrong. When I started out, it was a trilogy. Back in 1994 when I sold this, it was going to be A Game of Thrones, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter—three books. But that scheme went out the window before I'd even finished the first book. I think it was Tolkien who said when he was writing The Lord of the Rings, "The tale grew in the telling."
Some who follow your work have voiced the idea that you've written yourself into a corner—that you've started so many narrative threads, and created so many hundreds of characters that it's become overwhelming to reconcile. You've even hinted as much on your blog . If that's the case, will you let certain story lines ebb, or do you feel obligated to see them all through?
There's no doubt that I've wrestled with this book and the complexity and size of the series, and that may be one reason why my writing has slowed down. But my intent right from the beginning was to do something huge and epic, with a cast of thousands and many different settings.
With the general construction of the books, in some ways I took the Lord of the Rings as my model. Tolkien begins very small, in the Shire with Bilbo's birthday party, and from there, the characters all accumulate. First there's Frodo and Sam, and they pick up Merry and Pippin, and then they pick up Aragorn in Bree, and they pick up the rest of the fellowship in Rivendell, but they're still altogether. But then at a certain point, they begin to go separate ways—Frodo and Sam cross the river, Merry and Pippin are captured by orcs, and Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are chasing them, and they continue to separate. You get this sense of everyone being together, and then the world gets bigger and bigger.
My scheme is very similar to that. We begin in Winterfell, and everyone except Daenerys is in Winterfell, even characters that don't belong there, like Tyrion. And they set off together and then they begin to split. In that sense my books are bigger than the Lord of the Rings because there are more characters and they split further apart. It has always been my intent, as with the Lord of the Rings, that eventually it would curve around and they would start moving back together. I think I'm reaching the turning point, that's starting to happen now.
Maybe I did make it too big two books ago. But I've thrown the balls in the air and I feel obligated to keep on juggling them as best I can. You can't just forget about some of the balls, you have to deal with the plot threads that you've introduced. If I can pull it all off the way I want hopefully it will be great. And if I don't, I'm sure the world will let me know.
How has your background in writing for film and television influenced the telling of the story, and your approach to ending the series?
Well it certainly did influence my approach to the structure of this book. One of things that you learn working in television is the act break, because you're trying to keep people coming back after the commercials. A one-hour script is divided into a number of acts, and you always want each to end, not necessarily with a cliff-hanger, but with some kind of twist or resolution or moment of discovery. It's also a fine structure for fiction. And after working in Hollywood I think I got to be pretty good at that and it's certainly a structure I've adopted with the chapters in Ice and Fire. I think it makes the fiction more page-turning. "What's going to happen next?" is a phase that I always want to hear my readers saying.
You've mentioned feeling disappointed and betrayed by the finale of the television series Lost, which is another example of a series with a devoted fan community. How do you hope to avoid similar feelings toward your own resolution, when expectations are so high?
That's the challenge, isn't it? You're probably never going to please everyone, especially when you have as many readers as I do now. And they have theories and desires about how they want it to end, so there will always be a few dissenters who say, oh I didn't want it to end that way, I wanted it to end another way.
I was very satisfied with the end of the Lord of the Rings, let us say. Talking about predictability here—I had a sense, even as a kid, that the ring was going to go in the volcano. They weren't going to let Sauron take over the world. But he surprised me in that Frodo couldn't do it. Bringing in Gollum the way he did was an amazing part of the ending, and then came the scouring of the Shire. And when I was 13 years old, reading this, I didn't understand the scouring of the Shire. They won—why are there all these other pages? But I reread these books every few years, and every time my appreciation for what Tolkien did there grows. It was this kind of sad elegy on the price of victory. I think the scouring of the Shire is one of the essential parts of Tolkien's narrative now, and gives it depth and resonance, and I hope that I will be able to provide an ending that's similar to all of that.
When Game of Thrones aired on HBO this past spring, there was a lot of conversation and debate about the depiction of sex, rape, and female agency on the show and in the books. How do you feel about the way the show handled those things in comparison with what you tried to do in your novels?
My novels have quite a bit of sex in them. ... I have read some people saying that they added sex scenes, and they did. They also didn't put in some sex scenes that are in the book, so on balance, I think they're the same. A few things were handled differently. Obviously the way I wrote it in the book is the way I would have handled it.
How do you make decisions about the depictions of sexual violence that you include in your writing?
Well, I'm not writing about contemporary sex—it's medieval.
There's a more general question here that doesn't just affect sex or rape, and that's this whole issue of what is gratuitous? What should be depicted? I have gotten letters over the years from readers who don't like the sex, they say it's "gratuitous." I think that word gets thrown around and what it seems to mean is "I didn't like it." This person didn't want to read it, so it's gratuitous to that person. And if I'm guilty of having gratuitous sex, then I'm also guilty of having gratuitous violence, and gratuitous feasting, and gratuitous description of clothes, and gratuitous heraldry, because very little of this is necessary to advance the plot. But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes.
A novel for me is an immersive experience where I feel as if I have lived it and that I've tasted the food and experienced the sex and experienced the terror of battle. So I want all of the detail, all of the sensory things—whether it's a good experience, or a bad experience, I want to put the reader through it. To that mind, detail is necessary, showing not telling is necessary, and nothing is gratuitous.
What is the most valid criticism that you've received?
I don't really have an answer to that one. There's certainly valid criticism of details. I have a horse that changes sex between the first and second book, for example. I do make mistakes, and I regret that because it confuses the issue. There are other so-called "mistakes" in the book that are not mistakes—they're very intentional because I'm trying to get at something having to do with the point of view structure and the unreliable narrator. Two different characters may remember an event in two different ways—well that's not a mistake, that's deliberate. When you have horses changing sex, it blurs the distinction and throws the reader off. So I guess that's a valid mistake.
When can we expect The Winds of Winter, the next book in the series? Or have you learned never to answer questions like that?
I have learned! I've been burned too much by that, so I'll just say... it will be done when it's done.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.