'A Dance With Dragons' Author George R.R. Martin 'Playing For Keeps' Author George R. R. Martin's latest epic fantasy, A Dance With Dragons, is finally in bookstores after a six-year delay. Now, fans of his work can finally find out whether their favorite characters will survive — not always a given in Martin's work.
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Author George R.R. Martin 'Playing For Keeps'

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Author George R.R. Martin 'Playing For Keeps'

Author George R.R. Martin 'Playing For Keeps'

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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Our book today is best described as a phenomenon. In the 1980s, George R.R. Martin was a Hollywood writer, churning out episodes for TV shows like "Beauty and the Beast." And then, he got bored.

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: Whenever I would turn in a script, the producers would always say to me: George, this is wonderful, but it would cost five times our budget to produce it.

RAZ: So Martin turned to the one medium that could support his oversized imagination: fiction. And the result was "A Game of Thrones," the first volume in an epic fantasy series based loosely on the English dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses with a few dragons and demons thrown in. Fifteen years later, George R.R. Martin's series, known as "A Song of Ice and Fire," has sold more than 15 million copies, and he's inspired the kind of cult loyalty known only to a handful of living writers.


RAZ: The latest installment in the series has just been released. It's called "A Dance with Dragons." And a few weeks ago, HBO wrapped up the first season of a show based on "Game of Thrones." Critics are calling it the finest HBO series in years. And it's just earned an Emmy nomination for Best Drama.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Winter is coming.

RAZ: Martin says that he knew his fantasy epic was going to be big, but it's actually grounded in real-life history.

MARTIN: Many years ago, when I'm visiting England by - I visited Hadrian's Wall...

RAZ: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...in the north of England. And I climbed up on top of Hadrian's Wall, and I stared off north towards Scotland. And it was autumn and a cold wind was blowing, and I just tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary from Southern Italy standing on this wall not knowing what was going to emerge from those hills or those trees. And it was sort of a profound feeling.

And I said, I've got to capture this in a fantasy book. But of course, fantasy being bigger and more colorful, I couldn't have a wall that was 10 feet tall like Hadrian's Wall, so I had a 700-foot-tall wall, and I made it out of ice, and I gave it this storied history. And then, of course, I wanted something to emerge from those hills and trees to the north that was a good bit scarier than Scotland.


RAZ: Yes.

MARTIN: So I came up with that too. So you start with the kernel of reality, and then you extrapolate and you build from there.

RAZ: George, for people who are not familiar with your work, and I - there are very few of them left these days, you create these characters that we root for, that we really become attached to very quickly. We want them - we want to see them win, and then you kill them.


MARTIN: Well, not all of them.

RAZ: Not all of them.

MARTIN: I have a lot of characters, so there are always more who hopefully you were also attached to.

RAZ: Why do you do that?

MARTIN: I think there's a certain moral obligation, almost, to give one reason. If you're going to write about war, which my books are about, wars are nasty things. People die in wars. People get maimed in wars, and many of them are good, likable people who you would like to not see die. And I think it's sort of a cheap, easy way out to write a war story in which all the heroes, you know, happily go killing the enemy and maybe they have a few close calls, but no one ultimately dies. So that's one reason.

But the other reason besides that is also my goal as a writer is to really make my readers experience the book, not just read the words but to feel afterwards almost as if they've lived it. I want to read it to be afraid. I want to read it enough to know, my God, is this character that I'm identifying with and reading going to survive this thing?

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: He's really in trouble here. He's really in a scary situation, to almost be afraid to turn the next page.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the way you do that, of course, is by establishing very early on, as I do in "Game of Thrones," that I'm playing for keeps here and that no one is safe in these books. The cavalry isn't necessarily going to come riding to the rescue.

RAZ: I'm speaking with author George R.R. Martin. His new book is called "A Dance with Dragons." It's the latest in a series that began with "Game of Thrones." The TV series based on that book just finished its first season on HBO.

George, you've been called the American Tolkien. You are a huge fan of his work. And...

MARTIN: I am, indeed.

RAZ: What do you make of that? Does it - I don't know. Does it make you feel uncomfortable?

MARTIN: Oh, it's - no, no. It's immensely flattering. It's one of the greatest compliments that could be made to my work, and so I'm glad to accept it. I do caution people, though, that, you know, fans of Tolkien who hear that and then pick up my books thinking that they're going to get the same thing, well, they're not. I mean, I am a significantly different person from Tolkien, although we're both writing in a genre that's come to be called epic fantasy or high fantasy. Of course, one of the big differences is that my work has sex.

One of the other things I try to do is create characters who are fully fleshed and hopefully three dimensional with realistic motivations on all sides of the struggle. I mean, there are no orcs in a "Game of Thrones" and its sequels. There are no equivalent. There are no, like, demonic creatures who just exist to be evil.

Most of the violence is done by human beings against other human beings and for the same old reasons that people have been doing violence against each other through all of human history, you know, lust for power, revenge, love, all of the things that have motivated some of these wars through the real middle ages.

RAZ: And, George Martin, it's hard to talk about your new book, "A Dance with Dragons" because, of course, many folks listening are your fans and they will not have read it yet. So we really can't give anything away.

MARTIN: That's right. No spoilers. No spoilers.

RAZ: But let me talk about the drama surrounding the book, because the last book in the series came out in 2005 and some of your readers were just downright vicious in their impatience waiting for this one.


MARTIN: Yes, there were a few of those. You know, I struggled with that for a while, and I finally came to terms with it. And talk about writers being two kinds of writers: the architect who plans everything out ahead of time and, you know, out in the lands. And he has his blue prints like an architect does, and he knows where all the pipes are going to run and how many rooms there are going to be and what the roof is going to be and the dimensions of every room before he drives the first nail or writes the first word. But there's also the gardener who digs a hole and plant something and waters it with his blood. And I'm much more of a gardener than I am an architect in literary terms.

And the architect is probably more efficient in terms of meeting deadlines and getting books out on schedule. But my method is my method, and I've been using it since I first began to write professionally in 1971. There's an old Rick Nelson song that I put an excerpt from on my blog about "Garden Party."

RAZ: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: You know, you can't please everyone, so you learn to please yourself.

RAZ: Right. Right.

MARTIN: I'm going to take as long as it takes to write these books to make them good.

RAZ: Let me ask you about the cult around your series. A lot of these fans know - sometimes know more about the details in your books than you might even remember, right?


MARTIN: Yes. Well, particularly, Elio Garcia and Linda Antosson who run the Westeros website. They are two fans who live in Sweden. And they really do have an encyclopedic knowledge of my books, more so than I do, actually. I call up Elio sometimes when I want to check a detail and say: This character, have I ever mentioned what color his eyes is? Elio will write me back right away. Yes. His eyes are blue-gray and you say that in the second book on page 314. And, OK. Good. Thanks.


RAZ: Just in case, George R.R. Martin, we have to wait another six years - and fine, by all means. Take your time.

MARTIN: I hope not. I hope not.

RAZ: If you have to take your time, take your time. But if we have to wait six years for the next book, can you give us a glimpse, a tiny glimpse, a tiny clue about what we can expect.

MARTIN: Well, the next book is called "Winds of Winter," and it will pick up directly from the end of both "Dance with Dragons" and "Feast of Crows," the previous book, which are two books that ran in parallel. But now, I have all the characters together again, so I'm going to follow all of them. And you'll see lots of trouble at the wall where the White Walkers and the others are finally stirring and about to move in a major way and continued civil war in the south. So I'll be juggling a lot of balls.

RAZ: All I can say - it's a brutal world. And all I can say is, thank God, I don't live in the Seven Kingdoms.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's probably true.

RAZ: That's author George R.R. Martin. His new book is called "A Dance with Dragons." The HBO series based on his book "Game of Thrones" returns next spring. George R.R. Martin, thank you so much.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

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