5 Things We Learned from George R.R. Martin on 'Bullseye'
Listen To the Interview
You can hear the full interview using the SoundCloud player above. You can also jump to the parts we've highlighted using the time codes shown at the beginning of each snippet.
1. Martin Enjoyed Killing Off Characters Even in High School
John Hodgman: [In 1964,] I believe you would have been about 16 at this time. In this particular letter [printed in Avengers #12], you had suggested that Avengers number nine was slightly better than Fantastic Four number 32. My question is: Do you remember why?
Now, you can comment on the particular story, because I believe Avengers #9 was the introduction of Wonder Man.
George R. R. Martin: Oh, yes, I liked Wonder Man! You know why? Now it's coming back to me vividly. Wonder Man dies in that story. He's a brand new character, he's introduced, and he dies. It was very heart-wrenching. I liked the character; he was a tragic, doomed character. I guess I've responded to tragic doomed characters even since I was a high school kid.
John Hodgman: Especially those who might die at any minute.
George R. R. Martin: Of course, being comic books, Wonder Man didn't stay dead for long. He came back a year or two later and had a long run for many, many decades. But the fact that he was introduced and joined the Avengers and died all in that one issue had a great impact on me when I was a high school kid.
2. Stan Lee's Work at Marvel Was a Profound Influence on Martin, Because Characters in Lee's Comics Actually Changed
John Hodgman: I imagine it was pretty surprising in a comic book in that time to see a whole story arc resolve tragically in that way in one issue.
George R. R. Martin: Yes. It's hard to understand, I think, from the vantage point of 2011 exactly what was going on back in comics in the early 60s. It was the Marvel comics that I was writing letters to, who were really revolutionary for the time. Stan Lee was doing some amazing work. Up to then the dominant comic book had been the DC comics which, at that time, were always very circular. Superman or Batman would have an adventure, and at the end of the adventure they would wind up exactly where they were. Then the next issue would follow the same pattern, so nothing ever changed for the DC characters.
The Marvel characters were constantly changing. Important things were happening. The lineup for the Avengers was constantly changing. People would quit, then they would have fights and all of that. As opposed to DC where everybody got along and it was all very nice and all the heroes liked each other. None of this was happening. So really, Stan Lee introduced a whole concept of characterization to comic books and conflict; maybe even a touch of gray in some of the characters. Looking back on it now, I can see that probably was a bigger influence on my own work than I would have dreamed.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire Came from Martin's Desire to Blend Actual, Gritty, Dirty, Historic Fiction With Fantasy
John Hodgman: One of the things that first struck me when I first found the books was that this was a fantasy world which not a lot of people would fantasize about living in. There wasn't a lot of fantasy aspect to it in the sense that it is set in an alternate world, or a made-up world.
George R. R. Martin: Secondary universe, Tolkien called it.
John Hodgman: We'll call it a secondary universe, that's a term I came up with for it independently just now. Didn't steal from Tolkien at all there.
It's set in a secondary universe, and it has certain sword-and-sorcery trappings, although more swords than sorcery certainly in the first book. But it also is really rooted, grounded, if not sort of mired in the harsh realities of medieval life, and a harsh feudal caste system, where the only medicine around is a kind of poultice and people are routinely considered elderly at the age of 35 because they're dying all the time. It's not a place or a world or a time where most people would want to live. Why was it important to you to write in that setting?
George R. R. Martin: As I said, I read a lot of different things, not just science fiction/fantasy. One of the things I read a lot of is history and historical fiction. I'm a big fan of historical fiction. Of course, I did read fantasy as well. As I read that, I sort of had a problem with a lot of the fantasy I was reading, because it seemed to me that the Middle Ages or some version of the quasi-Middle Ages was the preferred setting of a vast majority of the fantasy novels that I was reading by Tolkien imitators and other fantasists, yet they were getting it all wrong. It was sort of a Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that. There are the trappings of a class system, but they didn't seem to understand what a class system actually meant.
John Hodgman: Or would mean to the people who are trapped within it, on both the high-status and low-status alike, it's a kind of a life sentence.
George R. R. Martin: It was like a Ren Fair Middle Ages. Even though you had castles and princesses and walled cities and all that, the sensibilities were those of 20th-century Americans. But you didn't see that in good historical fiction. There were people who were writing fine historical fiction that really grasp it. So in my kind of cross-genre/genre-bending kind of way was to go, you know, what I'd like to do is write an epic fantasy that had the imagination and the sense of wonder that you get in the best fantasy, but the gritty realism of the best historical fiction. If I could combine those two threads, I might have something fairly unique and well worth reading.
4. He Thinks Gandalf Should've Stayed Dead
John Hodgman: Without giving much away, I can say that there are characters in the book who you do not expect to die, and who do. Your characters are extremely fragile. It is one of the things that was most exciting to me as a reader, to realize that these characters who you're following very closely could be maimed, and that those scars would stay. They could be psychologically maimed and transformed by those scars, and that would stick to the book. And they could die. However, as magic seeps into this world, which is of course part of this unfolding story, not even death is really permanent anymore. What do you think about that?
George R. R. Martin: I do think that if you're bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that's a transformative experience. Even back in those days of Wonder Man and all that, I loved the fact that he died, and although I liked the character in later years, I wasn't so thrilled when he came back because that sort of undid the power of it. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”
What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he's sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.
My characters who come back from death are the worse for wear. In some ways, they're not even the same characters anymore. The body may be moving, but some aspect of the spirit is changed or transformed, and they've lost something. One of the characters who has come back repeatedly from death is a minor character called Beric Dondarrion, The Lightning Lord. Each time he's revived he loses a little more of himself. He was sent on a mission before his first death. He was sent on a mission to do something, and it's like, that's what he's clinging to. He's forgetting other things, he's forgetting who he is, or where he lived. He's forgotten the woman who he was once supposed to marry. Bits of his humanity are lost every time he comes back from death, but he remembers that mission. His flesh is falling away from him, but this one thing, this purpose that he had is part of what's animating him and bringing him back to death. I think you see echoes of that with some of the other characters who have come back from death.
5. Martin Avoids Fan Theories...Because They Might Be Right
John Hodgman: I read the books for the first time starting last year, I was late coming to them. I was very excited by it, and they sort of took over my life for a year, as I plowed through them. I do remember the first moment on Twitter when I mentioned that I was reading them. First of all, I suddenly got so much more response on Twitter than almost anything I say about my own life or work or anything that I do. Second of all, a lot of it was weirdly angry. It was only later that I began to appreciate that there was this weird community of people out there who were feeling impatient to get the next book.
Fandom, particularly science fiction and fantasy fandom, has this sense of proprietorship over its treasured authors, and also the sense that somehow they're in collaboration with them. How does that help your process and how does it complicate it?
George R. R. Martin: In one sense it's great; it's exhilarating to know that you have so many readers and so many people are anxious for the next book, and so many people are saying nice things about the book. There are dangers there as well. Way back in the 90s, the late 1990s I think was when the first website devoted to the series started. It was a website called Dragonstone, started by a guy in Australia. When I first discovered that, I thought, look, it's a fan site! All these fans are discussing my books and they're analyzing them. It was very exciting. Oh, look, they're actually paying attention. You're working hard on these books and you're putting in little things, foreshadowings or symbolisms or things that have double meanings. You're trying to hide things and these people are analyzing it and they're finding the things, and that's all great.
But it wasn't very long after that site started and I was reading it and enjoying it that I began to say, you know, I probably really shouldn't be reading this stuff. For one thing, they're generating so many theories, that some of those theories are bound to be right. What do I do if I'm setting up a mystery that I'm going to solve in book six, and people have already guessed this mystery as of book two and they're discussing—do I change it? Do I say, oh my god, they've already guessed it, they're four books ahead of me, I better change what I'm planning. I think it's a mistake to do that, because that's what you've planned. All the clues and the foreshadowing and the super structure that you build is in place for that reveal, you can't change it just because someone's got it. So I've sort of distanced myself from the sites.
A lot has happened since 1999. There've been several explosions, the books have gotten progressively more and more popular. Dragonstone is long gone, but many other sites have taken its place like Westeros and Tower of the Hand, Winter is Coming, gigantic sites with many thousands of members where these discussions go on. When the TV show came along, that increased it by orders of magnitude again. It's exciting that it's happening, and I'm glad the fans are enjoying it. But I can't be a part of it. It'd be too much involvement.
And then there's the dark side of it, that you've referred to in the sense of proprietary feeling that some of the fans have in that. There is also that 1%, the trolls or the detractors, I think as they were termed in the New Yorker article a few months ago that Laura Miller did about me, who for whatever reason feel some sense of betrayal because I took too long to write the last book, or they were looking forward to the fourth book or something, and it came out and it wasn't the book they expected. Some of those really, have gone over to the dark side, as one might say. So that's part of the experience too, I guess, of this level of popularity.