George R.R. Martin reflected on his literary and Hollywood career, and shared stories about book tour mishaps and Hollywood “morons,” in a conversation with “The Sandman” author Neil Gaiman at New York City’s 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 “deluxe reference book” about Westeros’ most powerful family. Attendees were given signed copies of either “Rise of the Dragon” or Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood,” which serves as the source material for HBO’s “House of the Dragon.”
Since the contents of “Fire & Blood” extend far beyond what audiences have seen so 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 read it until the show is over.”
Below are a selection of highlights from the event, which concluded with a Q&A with preselected questions from audience members.
On 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 it took several decades for him to reach the success he currently enjoys.
“In a strange way, I think it was good that the level of success and popularity these books have achieved came to me when I was already in my 60s, because I think if it had come to me when I was 22 — or even younger, God help me… I don’t know how these 18-year-old pop stars who are suddenly global phenomena handle it. And frequently, they don’t handle it well. They go crazy.”
On the gratification from fans
After working on the first revival of “The Twilight Zone” and CBS’ “Beauty and the Beast,” Martin had “climbed the Hollywood ladder enough” that he went into “development hell.” In those five years writing pilots and movies, he was making more money than he’d ever previously made, but all of his projects were stuck in limbo. “I’m like an actor: I want the applause,” Martin said. “Maybe you’re gonna throw rotten fruit at me. Maybe you’re going to applaud. But I want to know what you thought of the story and the characters.”
On being outshined by a mascot at an early book signing
Speaking on his early book tours where only a handful of fans would show up to meet him, Martin described one event in Denton, Texas, where the parking lot of his signing was surprisingly packed with cars. “I said, ‘Boy, this book is big. Look at all these people coming in,’” Martin said. “Well, there were two signings going on in the store that day. I was signing in the front of the store, and I had my usual 10 people. In the back of the store: Clifford the Big Red Dog.”
He shared another story about a 600-person signing at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, where an assistant of Martin’s told a fan he could hug the author. “So 598 folks later, I was finally free of the signing,” Martin joked before addressing the audience: “I’m sorry, none of you may hug me. I’m going to run away after this thing.”
On honoring source material
As someone who has been on both sides of screen adaptations of literature, Martin discussed the “obligation to be faithful to the written material,” which he said is a “controversial” issue in Hollywood. The author made it clear where he stands: “How faithful do you have to be? Some people don’t feel that they have to be faithful 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.”
“I do,” Gaiman responded. “I spent 30 years watching people make ‘Sandman’ their own. And some of those people hadn’t even read ‘Sandman’ to make it their own, they’d just flipped through a few comics or something.” Gaiman added that it was a “joy” getting to make Season 1 of “The Sandman” on Netflix, and Martin energized the crowd by saying, “We want Season 2!”
Martin continued, “There are changes that you have to make — or that you’re called upon to make — that I think are legitimate. And there are other ones that are not legitimate.” He recalled adapting Roger Zelazny’s “The Last Defender of Camelot” for an episode of “The Twilight Zone” and, due to budget constraints, being forced to choose between having horses or an elaborate Stonehenge-esque set for a battle scene. (He didn’t want to make the decision, so he called up Zelazny, who chose to scrap the horses.) “That, to my mind, is the kind of stuff you are called upon to do in Hollywood that is legitimate.” An example of an “illegitimate” change, Martin said, was CBS making him include an “ordinary person” who just “tags along” in the episode in order to appeal to a “high concept.”
“I was new to Hollywood,” Martin said. “I didn’t say, ‘You’re fucking morons.’”
Martin related the topic to the Iron Throne in HBO’s adaptation of his “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels. “Why is the Iron Throne in ‘Game of Thrones’ not the Iron Throne as described in the books? Why is it not 15 feet high and made of 10,000 swords? Because the ceiling in our soundstage was not 15 feet high! We couldn’t fit in in there, and they weren’t willing to give us St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey to shoot our little show in.”
On creating “grey” characters
Answering a question about the multiple perspectives that make up the Targaryen history in “Fire & Blood,” Martin said there is no one “true” account — something that reflects our real history.
“The joy of history and history books is we use the word ‘probably’ a lot,” Gaiman said.
Martin responded, “A lot of people don’t want grey characters — they want heroes, they want villains. And we see that in real history. Especially here in America, we grow up and we hear about the Founding Fathers and various people in the past, and they’re our heroes. They’re wonderful, they’re flawless. And then we find out later that maybe they weren’t flawless. Maybe they had a flaw here and there. Maybe they did some pretty bad things occasionally. But they also did good things.”
He continued, “There seems to be a lot of people who cannot accept that. If they find a flaw, they immediately move shining hero to absolute dirtbag, and now we have to despise this person. Really, most human beings are somewhere in the middle. And we should just accept that.”
Asked if the Targaryen dynasty “deserved” to fall, Martin said it’s up to the reader. “There were Targaryens who did something good on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday did something reprehensible. Also, of course, our standards of what constitutes ‘reprehensible’ change.”
On “Winds of Winter”
For those hoping for an update on the oft-delayed sixth “Ice and Fire” book, Martin offered no definitive timeline. “I claim to live for 1,000 years,” he said. “Because I gotta finish ‘Winds of Winter.’”