On July 27, 2011 at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, California, Tad Williams hosted a celebration of George R. R. Martin’s new fantasy novel, A Dance With Dragons, presented by Kepler’s Books, Fox Theatre, and Cargill. Deborah Beale recorded the event and shares it with us here.
It’s Tad Williams hosting George R. R. Martin, and we, being Tad’s family, are sitting in the front row of the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, eating peanut butter cups and waiting for the action to begin.
In the Green Room, George is tired but cheery of mood. Tad sits next to him, full of on-stage-soon energy and enjoying hanging with George.
Seven p.m. exactly, it begins. Tad comes on to applause.
Tad: I want to thank the folks responsible for tonight – whoah, slow down, what an enthusiastic bunch! First, let me thank the very kind people from one of the world’s finest indie booksellers, and that’s Kepler’s Books. And also let me thank the management at the beautiful Fox Theatre.
I’m acting as your agent, taking questions for our esteemed guest. He and I have known each other for some time, laboring in the same fields. A few years ago we were talking at a convention, and I was telling George how not-thrilled I was about my comic-book company experiences – I was being treated like a brand-new writer – OK I was whining. And when I told this to George he looked up, and in that Jacobean way of his he said, “That’s outrageous. They should treat you like a visiting prince.” But I know YOU folks know how to treat visiting royalty, right? Ladies and gentlemen, applause please for our very own visiting royalty: Mr. George R. R. Martin!
[house goes crazy]
GRRM: Thank you. It’s great to be here. It’s quite a year for me – it’s quite a week for me. This bookstore has been terrific for me, and I take special pleasure in returning to Redwood City and Kepler’s. In 1996 when they sent me on my first tour for A Game of Thrones, I had been a prince in exile for a number of decades. I had been working in Hollywood, and I wasn’t well known any more in the SF field, and I did a number of signings where the turn-out was minimal, and in some cases hypothetical. But there were a few exceptions to that – Kentucky, and Kepler’s. Kepler’s sold more copies of A Game of Thrones than any bookstore in the USA. It is great to return to the scene of the crime!
The format here is I’m going to say a few remarks and answer a few of the Frequently Asked Questions then turn it over to you before I begin debasing your books.
Tad’s fantasy series, The Dragonbone Chair and the rest of his famous four-book trilogy, was one of the things that inspired me to write my own seven-book trilogy. I read Tad and was impressed by him, but the imitators that followed – well, fantasy got a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, My god, they can do something with this form, and it’s Tad doing it. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.
The FAQ: Like, what the hell took me so damn long? That’s a heavy one and you know it’s complicated – strange things going around the internet, like I had the book finished but was hiding it.
But in an excess of optimism I’d hit 1,500 pages for A Feast for Crows, and my publisher was saying, when is this going to end? How many thousand more pages? [I said ] I don’t know – maybe five, maybe six, maybe 800. I pulled out of it 500 pages for A Dance with Dragons, leaving about 1,000 pages. So Feast came out, and then I had those pages left over. I thought, I’ll write another 500 pages, it’ll take a year, and then I’ll have another book of comparable size. And I made my infamous mistake. It goes down with famous last words like “that civil war cannon ball can’t possibly hit us.” But when it was finally complete, the book was another 1,500 pages, and in addition, as I got into it, I didn’t like those 500 pages that I had pulled. I wound up rewriting a lot of them, so really only a couple of hundred got pulled from Feast and made it into Dance. That’s what took so long, and I know some of you were a gleam in your father’s eye when I was starting, but eventually it will all be done, and eventually it will all be good.
The FAQ: What do you think of the HBO series? Well, I think the HBO series is great. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in the people I’ve been partnered with. The New York Times bestseller list, the books have been climbing since the first one just made the extended list at number thirteen. And now we’re number one for the second week in a row. Initially, Hollywood contact was screenwriters and studios, and I thought about that, and there are temptations to say yes to something like that dump truck of money. But fortunately I had no need, and I could exercise a little thought. I couldn’t see that my book would make a two and a half hour movie… What it needs is the sort of treatment Tolkien got, and nobody’s going to commit to how big it would be. I had the luxury of saying what is always the sexiest word in Hollywood: No. But if you say it enough eventually you get an offer you can’t say no to, and the offer is right. I sat down with the show-runners and producers in the Palm restaurant in LA, and we thought out the film. I said, “It can’t be Network, they will take out all the sex and violence and put it in an eight o’clock time slot, god help me.” All around us, little by little, people are leaving, and we’re still drinking coffee, and then people started coming in for dinner, and we were still talking. We got great stuff right there. Sean Bean for Ned Stark and Peter Dinklage for Tyrion came right there at that meeting.
I had a little TV experience so I didn’t frighten them so much, since I knew the realities of budgets, shooting, the costs of sheds for the actors and their care and feeding. I write one script per season, but I can’t write more unless you want the books even later than they are. I’m consulted, and we talk frequently, and I see all the audition tapes. Sometimes they listen to me, sometimes not so much. It’s been a great process with Dan Weiss and David Benioff. We’ve had a fabulous casting director – great actors – some straight out of drama school, and the kids are incredible, kids who had only done school plays before they were cast, and now they’re on HBO movies. That’s very exciting. So I am thrilled to be doing the HBO series, and we started filming three days ago on the second season. Hopefully there’ll be a third and a fourth too.
Tad: A question from the audience: What will happen if HBO catches up to you?
GRRM: I’m doing the best I can. I hope they won’t catch up with me!
Tad: Another question from the audience: Would you allow someone else to finish for you, and who do you think could do the job well? [jokes] Suggestion from K. J. Anderson – thanks, Kevin, for the question!!!
GRRM: No one is going to finish for me. But if I’ll be dead…. No. I intend to finish this for myself.
Tad: There would be so many people out there following you around in case you tripped…
GRRM: One of the many good things about fans is, if I ever need a kidney – hey!
Tad: Question: Do you purposely start a character as bad so you can later kill them?
GRRM: No. What is bad? Bad is a label. We are human beings with heroism and self-interest and avarice in us, and any human is capable of great good or great wrong. In Poland a couple of weeks ago I was reading about the history of Auschwitz. There were startling interviews with the people there. The guards had done unthinkable atrocities, but these were ordinary people. What allowed them to do this kind of evil? Then you read accounts of acts of outrageous heroism, yet the people are criminals or swindlers, one crime or another, but when forced to make a choice they make a heroic choice. This is what fascinated me about the human animal. A lot of fantasy turns on good and evil, but my take on it is that it’s fought within the human heart every day, and that’s the more interesting take. I don’t think life is that simple.
Tad: All of us work with multiple viewpoints – I hear this next question a lot: With story-driven plots, how do you decide which character viewpoint to write from? Do you write several characters, taste them, then decide?
GRRM: No, not several, at least not intentionally. I had more choice early in the series. I frequently had situations where two or three were present at the same time. But as it’s progressed they have dispersed, so I need to be in the viewpoint of whoever’s there. There are some cases when I have a choice, and in that case, I weigh which one. Without talking exactly about “The Meereenese Knot” – I’m not going to talk exactly about it, but [there was a time when] a number of viewpoints were coming together in Meereen for a number of events, and I was wrestling with order and viewpoint. The different points-of-view had different sources of knowledge, and I never could quite solve it. I was rewriting the same chapter over and over again – this, that, viewpoint? – spinning my wheels. It was one of the more troublesome thickets I encountered. There’s a resolution not to introduce new viewpoint characters, but the way I finally dealt with things was with Barristan. I introduced him as a viewpoint character as though he’d been there all along. That enabled me to clear away some of the brush.
Tad: Question: Do you choose characters because they will provide you with a viewpoint or something characterful ?
GRRM: Actually, no. I try to give each viewpoint character an arc of his own, and ideally I would like to think that you could pull the material out. In the early books I was able to pull out the Daenerys chapters and publish them separately as a novella, and I won a Hugo Award for that. It would be great if I could pull out each [character-arc] and it would resemble a story. In some cases a character died, and that was a very short story. [Remarks, ‘In Feast.’] My prologue and epilogue characters always die, but even then I try to give them a story.
Tad: You say that like they’re the only ones. We know better, George! Tapping a vein of reader interest here: Do present-day events factor into your writing, and how much do you have real-life political events in mind?
GRRM: I think there’s some of that going on, yeah, you know. I’m not setting out to write a political allegory. Tolkien was often accused of that with Rings, WW2 or WW1, I don’t feel quite sure of the point but there’s probably some influences, some critic could study it. But I hate it when they say stuff like Stannis is actually [some real-life source.]
Tad: Question: Do you mourn any of the characters you killed? (P.S. You’re a genius.)
GRRM: Actually I do mourn the characters I kill. You have to live with that, become that, crawl inside its skin. Some of my characters are like me, and some are very unlike me, but the emotional core is still me reaching inside, which all writers do I think. All inspiration becomes grist for the mill. The only person we really know down deep is ourselves – the demons in the dark. I am all these people in some sense, so I kill an aspect of myself, and it’s difficult but I do it anyway.
Tad: I can see the bumper-sticker: Authors don’t kill characters – Characters kill characters. You’ve been living with some of these characters for quite a long stretch now. How much of the idea of the story did you have when you started?
GRRM: Nothing. I had nothing, I was writing another novel that I’d started in ‘91, but I had a few months off before pitch season started, so I began Avalon, an SF novel, and it was going reasonably well, 30 to 40 pages. Suddenly a first chapter came to me so vividly, and it could not possibly be part of Avalon. It was so vivid I had to write it. I started, and 50, 60 pages were there suddenly. Then I drew a map. Then I put it aside for three years because I sold a pilot and did some screenplays. But the characters were in my head, and when I returned to it in ‘94 it was like three days had passed. Which was unusual for me. It hadn’t been like that. I have trouble switching from one character to another, and if I’m away from something for too long, it pulled away from me. I have a famous unfinished novel, Black and White and Red All Over, but these characters wouldn’t leave me alone. And they’re insisting I still have a long way to go.
Tad: Will we ever see Asshai or the Shadow?
GRRM: You may hear about it, and you may get flashback scenes from characters who have been there, and you can puzzle it out on the internet. But I don’t know. I may return to write other stories set in this world. I want you to return to Osten Ard, by the way.
Tad: Do you have any moment to share from all this where it was, “Wow oh wow…”?
GRRM: There’s been a half dozen this past year. It was incredible last week at ComiCon on the Game of Thrones panel. ComiCon is a madhouse, there’s nothing like it on earth, 150,000 in one room. We were 4,200 people [at that panel.] I was moderator, and all these people were screaming and making that sound strange squealing sound when they see famous people…
GRRM: It was startling. I could see the cast come out, but that one was about me. Ok! That was pretty cool. And a couple of months before that, being named one of the Time 100. Well, I’m now trying to use my immense influence for good. I’m going to settle this debt thing, and reform the Hugo rules and their ridiculous categories, and I’m going to solve the NFL, I told them so. It’ll be another great year for the Jets, and we’re gonna kick the Raiders’ asses.
[risible, mixed audience reaction re. local team]
GRRM: I want to apologize for not personalizing people’s books. In Slovenia there were a thousand people in line waiting, and four of them fainted. We can’t do posed photos, same reasons; we have to move the line along. I’m signing for four hours. Please don’t look at me all big puppy dogs – I can’t do that!!! I do want to meet all of you briefly, and if you have a question, well, say it quick. Don’t ask me if you can ask a question because then you’ve just asked the question.
Tad: Thanks everyone, and now the signing can commence.
George R. R. Martin and Tad Williams at the Fox Theatre, Redwood City, CA; 7/27/11