Game Of Thrones creator George RR Martin talks violence and presidential approval with Jimi Famurewa
“I miss being able to actually walk around,” says George RR Martin with a heavy sigh. “Now I can’t get down the street, sit in a restaurant or drink in a bar without essentially being on duty and signing autographs.” Without wishing to sound uncharitable, the sexagenarian novelist with the Uncle Albert beard and thick bifocals sitting opposite ShortList does not seem an obvious target for this sort of Beatlemania.
But, as even the planet’s final Westeros refuseniks would have to concede, Game Of Thrones (the cultural juggernaut based on Martin’s ever-expanding fantasy book saga A Song Of Ice & Fire) is not any old TV show. It has broken HBO ratings records. It has launched countless memes. It has inspired at least 146 Americans to call their daughter ‘Khaleesi’. Essentially, when even heads of state and sitting monarchs give the product of your imagination the seal of approval, a quiet pint is out of the question. We caught up with the affable 65-year-old author in Edinburgh to discuss fans asking him to kill them off, his axed appearance in the show and the baying Smallfolk demanding his long-delayed next novel.
You’re midway through a European book tour. What are some of the strangest gifts fans have given you at appearances?
I was in Switzerland and France last month and every time I turned around someone was giving me a bottle of wine. I was thinking, “How do I get all this inside my luggage?” One guy gave me an amazing handcrafted dagger, which, again, was like, “OK, how the hell do I get this back?” In the end I gave it to my publisher to ship home.
Did someone really pay $20,000 to be killed off in the upcoming book The Winds Of Winter?
Oh yes. It was a fundraising thing and those two deaths sold within an instant of being offered. And we got offers of, like, 10 more. So I really had to debate it. There were other people saying, “I want to die too!” It would have been great to have the money for the charities, but to work in 12 or 20 deaths gets hard, so I had to draw the line.
You’ve said the Iron Throne in Game Of Thrones is different to how you imagined it. Any other discrepancies?
The Iron Throne is the most dramatic example. The show is a big show and it has a very large budget but it’s still small compared to what’s in my mind. The throne set is in the largest soundstage in Europe. But in my mind, it’s St Paul’s Cathedral. You could fit 20 of our version in the one I imagine and still not fill it up. It’s this huge, cavernous space with a gigantic throne at the end of it, and thousands of people attending like at a royal wedding. Fantasy is always bigger.
There’s been a huge focus on the violence in the show and the books. Are you attracted to gore?
Violence exists in our world and it’s an important issue for a writer to confront. Especially if you’re writing something that is, at heart, a war story. If you’re going to talk about war and murder and things like that, it behooves you to describe it the way it actually is. I grew up in the Fifties, in the era of sanitised violence. I must have seen hundreds of people die in gunfights in westerns on TV but I never saw a drop of blood. If you’re gonna show violence or write about people in wars, you’ve got to describe the blood and the guts and the entrails falling and people screaming for their mother. Portray it the way it actually is.
You had a cameo in Game Of Thrones that was cut. Fancy another go?
Sure, I’d like another shot at it. Maybe sitting at a feast in a nice comfortable seat. The cameo I did that was scrapped was during Dany’s wedding. I was standing there for hours, and I really wanted to sit down, my lower back was killing me. You’ve got to be careful when you’re an extra in one of these things because whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be doing it for hours. I was an extra in an episode of Beauty And The Beast [the Eighties TV series Martin wrote for] where I was a customer in a diner where two of the stars were having a conversation. I was just this guy at the counter who was eating a cheeseburger and they made me eat 20 of those things that day. The prop guy had this big bag of frozen cheeseburgers that he kept microwaving. They were like hockey pucks.
How much attention do you pay to fan theories about the story?
Very little. When the books first started getting popular and websites started showing up in the late Nineties, I followed the first few. But I soon realised that I should stop following them. Some of the theories were wrong, some of them were right. And I didn’t want to start reacting to them like, “Oh my God, they figured out who did it, I’d better change that.”
Have there been any notably weird ones?
The weirdest theories are about why the books are not coming out. There are these crazy people out there who think I’ve finished all the books but I’m just keeping them for some reason to drive the price up.
How do you deal with the pressure on you to finish?
I try to keep it all in proportion. If you get famous, this is what comes with it. This is the other side of success. This is my 15 minutes of fame, right? Sooner or later it will be over. Game Of Thrones, at this moment, is probably the hottest TV show in the world. But last year Breaking Bad was. Three years ago, Mad Men was. Three years from now, there’ll be some new show and Game Of Thrones will hopefully still be popular and still be going, but everyone will be focused somewhere else.
Do you still like the idea of ending it all with a film?
I love that idea. Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know. HBO is obviously a TV network so may not like the idea. We have gigantic battles that are coming and all sorts of things that are going to require special effects and so forth, which is why a movie would help.
Finally, who are the most famous fans of the books and show that you’ve encountered?
The most famous fan – he hasn’t come to me – is President Obama. He approached the HBO people at a party and said he loved Game Of Thrones so we sent him the episodes before they went on air and the White House tweeted a picture of him with the Iron Throne in his office. That was cool.
So were you as annoyed as the rest of us when the Queen didn’t sit on the Iron Throne while visiting the set?
[Laughs] Well, she has one of her own. And her one probably has cushions.
The World Of Ice & Fire: The Untold History Of Westeros And The Game Of Thrones is published by HarperVoyager in October, £30