Friday, April 29, 2011

TIME Interview With GRRM

James Poniewozik, TIME's TV critic and the man behind the site's popular blog, "Tuned In," recently sat down with George R. R. Martin and asked him a bunch of questions about his novels, the new HBO show based on them (Game of Thrones), and where he stands on both. The interview was broken up into 4 parts, which are now over at TIME's website. I'll list each part below as a link, along with some poignant excerpts from each. Some of George's observations really hit home with me as: 1) a struggling writer; 2) a fellow fan of Tolkien; and 3) someone who grew up ridiculously poor.

So, remember to click on each link to read the parts in their entirety:

Part 1:

". . . [The 'Song of Ice and Fire' series] was simply too big. I mean, Lord of the Rings was done as three movies and it took them you know, 40 years or so to find a studio that was willing to do three movies. I mean, most of them wanted to do, ‘Well, we'll do one and we'll see how it does.' Which is a chancy proposition at best. And then you wind up with a story that's not finished.

"And I said, well, the entire book, Lord of the Rings--which Tolkien actually wrote as one novel, of course, not as a trilogy--is about the same size as A Storm of Swords. So, just with the three books I had out at that time, it would take like nine movies and I thought what studio is going to guarantee nine movies. Well, they're not. They're going to do one movie and we'll see how it goes. And in the one movie you're going to lose 90% of the characters and subplots. I mean, I've been a screenwriter myself. You have to go into a big book like this and you have to say, well, what's the arc? Who's the major character? Well focus on him and/or her and we'll follow that major character through and we'll pare away all these secondary characters and secondary stories and then we'll get a movie out of it. Not only didn't I want that done, but I didn't think it could be done because in the early books, I'm deliberately disguising who the major characters are.

"I thought, well, it might work better as a TV series, but we'd run up to huge problems with the network censors with all the sex and the violence and that is much more graphic than anything is on television."

My comments: You know, this is exactly what all the fans were thinking way back before the show was even a glimmer of hope in anyone's eyes. I don't think anyone wanted to see these books truncated into a movie. We knew that even a film trilogy, ala Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, would never be able to do it justice. Maybe for three movies, sure. But three movies would only have covered the first book. Each book after that would have given Hollywood execs collective heart attacks. I prefer it this way. Even if HBO has to cut corners here and there to get it all on the screen, 10 to 12 one-hour long episodes per season seems to be the way to go.

Part 2:

"My fantasy is quite low magic compared to the majority of it out there. And in that sense, I was following Tolkien's footsteps because if you actually look at Lord of the Rings as I did when I was writing this, [Middle Earth is] a very magical world in a sense, it's a world of wonders and marvels and so forth, but there's very little onstage magic. You know? You never see Gandalf doing a spell or, or creating throwing fireballs. You know, if there's a fight, he draws a sword. You know? He does fireworks… his staff will glow. Minor stuff. Even the magic rings, I mean, the big powerful one ring, all we ever see it do is make people invisible.

"You know, it's not you know, it's supposed to have these great powers for domination, but it's not like Frodo can put it on and tell the Nazgul what to do. You know it doesn't work that simply. It's unknowable, it's mysterious. And that kind of magic I think is good. One mistake I see over time in bad fantasy is they go for the high magic world. They have really powerful wizards and witches and warlocks who can destroy entire armies--and they still have entire armies! No, you got that A equals B here. If you've got one guy who can go, booga-booga, and your 10,000 men army is all dead, you're not going to get together 10,000 men!"

My comments: I was just discussing this with a friend of mine recently. I prefer my fantasy to have understated magic, if barely any magic use at all. I like stories where the magic in its universe is arcane and hard to come by. You know, where magic is more subtle and easy to overlook. I hate bombastic displays of magic, for pretty much exactly the same reasons George mentions above. It's simply too hard to work a logical premise behind such a thing. Personally, in my opinion, too often hugely powerful wizards in stories are just ciphers for the author's own God complex.

Part 3:

"Well first of all, there are different kinds of writers. I've given this lecture in many of my talks. I like to say that there are two kinds of writers, there are the architects and the gardeners. And the architects plan everything ahead of time before they write the first word of a novel. They do all the world building, they know how many rooms the house is going to have and they know how they will flow to each other and how high each floor is going to be and where the electricity and the plumbing is going to go and everything. Before they even nail up the first board.

"And then there are the gardeners who just sort of dig a hole and they put a seed in it and they water it with their blood and then something starts to grow. Now, they usually know that they plant a peach tree or did they plant a cactus. But the precise shape its going to take they don't know. I think all most writers are somewhere in the middle, you know. I'm much more of a gardener than an architect and so was Tolkien."

My comments: Oh man, I totally get this. He hit the nail right on the head! It's true, writers are never just one or the other, but somewhere in between. What's funny is that I started off closer toward the gardening end of things. I think partially out of laziness, and partially out of not exactly understanding the real mechanics behind writing. But now, after writing quite a bit over the past 4 years, these days I find myself leaning more toward the architect side of things. Especially with novel writing. The outline and characters studies I write up first are hugely important tools for me before I ever sit down to write chapter 1.

Part 4:

". . . Some [of my themes] comes from my early family history when I was growing up [in Bayonne, N.J.]. We had no money and we lived in the projects, but my mother came from a family that had had money. An Irish family, Irish American family, the Bradys. They'd been very prosperous in the construction business. Building materials and all of that in the teens and ‘20's, when she was young. They had a house, a big house, and they built their own dock because they were bringing in so much construction material. So they built this dock, Brady's Dock it was called, where their ships would come and unload material to their truck. And they lost all that money in the Depression. The business went out of business with financial shenanigans, some of the men died and the wives were cheated by other people. There's a lot of family mythology about that. But the point of it was, we had no money at all by the time I came along in 1948.

"Well, my mother would tell me these stories and the project that I lived in was built right across from Brady's Dock. Of course, there was no more Brady's Dock, it was the Municipal Dock, it had been taken over by the city. And I would look out the window of my housing project and say, my family used to own that dock. That used to be our dock.

"And then I would walk to school; we lived in First Street, my school was on Fifth Street, I would walk to school and I would pass the house that the Bradys had owned. I would pass it twice a day going and coming from school. This big house my mother had been born in and her family had grown up in, but had lost. And other people lived in what had been our house. And I think it always gave me this, this sense of a lost golden age of, you know, now we were poor and we lived in the projects and we lived in an apartment. We didn't even have a car, but God we were… once we were royalty! It gave me a certain attraction to those kinds of stories of I don't know, fallen civilizations and lost empires and all of that."

My comments: Growing up in the ghetto myself, and my family living off of public assistance, left me with this huge urge to want to escape and explore the other parts of the world where people lived enriched lives and did not always fear where their next meal would come from, or if they were going to have to fight for their lives on this day or that. This dynamic fueled my imagination and instilled within me a sense of the world being this multi-layered complex of diversity--something which your average well-fed rich kid never has to face in the mirror. I knew real life was terrible and scary, and so I turned to controlled fictional universes to make up for the fact that everything around me was shit at the time. I've become more sophisticated in my reading tastes over time, but at the core I'm still that little boy who wants to fly a spaceship to Alpha Centauri and meet the aliens.

What's your own take on any or all of these points? Sound off in the comments below.


Watchtower said...

"I prefer my fantasy to have understated magic, if barely any magic use at all. I like stories where the magic in its universe is arcane and hard to come by."

I couldn't agree more, not that I'm a writer or anything of the nature, but I've always been a proponent of "less is more".

David Batista said...

It's ironic for me to say that, though, seeing as how the novel I'm writing now contains a character that does use GRRM's definition of "high magic." But, see, the video game this work is based on made it this way, so I have no choice.

But, yeah, normally I like it when magic is 90% internal, and only 10% external in the fiction I read and write.

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