[Note: The following interview is no longer available on the Ottakars website, so they have kindly given us permission to repost the whole of it here. It remains © Ottakars. The precise date, beyond September 2000, is unknown.]
In the early part of your career you were chiefly known as a writer of short stories, winning I think it was 3 Hugo and 2 Nebula awards (please correct me if I'm wrong).
At present it's four Hugos and two Nebulas -- I picked up another Hugo a few years ago at the San Antonio worldcon, for the novella Blood of the Dragon, an excerpt from A Game of Thrones. Also a Bram Stoker and a World Fantasy Award, if it matters.
As time has passed, you seem to have gradually moved to longer and longer formats - first novels, then a series of long novels in A Song of Ice and Fire. I was wondering what you felt were the strengths of each form, and whether you were planning on staying in longer forms or revisiting the short story again.
I do want to do more short fiction in the future, definitely, though it is not likely I'll be doing true short stories. Even back in the '70s, I found I was more comfortable at novelette and novella length. I want to more more tales of Dunk and Egg, who were featured in my Hedge Knight story in Legends. Those will likely be novellas. It's a question of finding the time. The Ice and Fire books are huge undertakings, and don't leave me much time for other projects.
Many of your early stories were set in the same universe, last visited in the stories collected in Tuf Voyaging. Do you have any plans to write anything else set in the same universe?
Well, I would like to do more Tuf stories one day, and I also have a chunk of an SF novel called Avalon that I put aside to write A Game of Thrones. I have a lingering fondness for that old future history of mine, I must admit... even though certain aspects seem very outdated today. I expect I'll visit it again one day.
You have often been described as a Romantic writer in the widest sense, and as having the sensibility of a poet allied to an awareness of the brutal realities of existence. Your characters frequently live with loss and regret, and the failure to reach their goals or to live up to their ideals, a theme that runs from your earliest work through to A Song of Ice and Fire. Is there an autobiographical element in such flawed crusaders as Laren Dorr, the Great and Powerful Turtle and Ser Jorah amongst many others, or do they perhaps reflect more of a general view of life?
Hmmm... well, I mined my own life shamelessly when creating the Great and Powerful Turtle, I admit. Tom's childhood was my own, complete with pet turtles. Unfortunately, I never developed telekinesis... otherwise I might be out fighting crime from an armored Volkswagen, rather than writing novels. My other characters are less autobiographical on the surface, but down deep there's a lot of me in all of them. A writer observes other people and draws on all that he sees and hears and experiences, certainly, but observation can only take you so far. To make a character really come alive, you have to become that character, and that means delving down into your own psyche, using your own dreams and desires... and even your fears.
In many ways you were one of the precursors of the recent boom in vampire novels with Fevre Dream. What do you think is the appeal of vampire stories, and why is it that they seem to have become so popular now?
Vampires have always been popular. I have written stories about werewolves, ghosts, and zombies as well, but none of them have the sex appeal of the vampire. I think eroticism has a lot to do with it. There is a dark romanticism to the vampire that none of the other traditional monsters can match. In Fevre Dream, Joshua York quotes Byron at one point. "She walks in beauty, like the night..." He's speaking about the steamboat, but the words apply to vampires as well.
In the 1980s, you moved into television, working on series such as the new Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. How did you find the experience differed from working in the medium of print? Did it teach you anything?
Ultimately it taught me that I wanted to go back to books. Oh, it was an exciting time, to be sure. I worked with some good people and did a lot of work that I remain proud of, but TV and film are collaborative mediums, and in the end I just got tired of collaborating. A book allows me to be the writer, director, producer, special effects artist, set designer, stunt man, and all the actors, rolled in one. I don't have to compromise my story to meet the demands of studio or network, or water it down because Standards and Practices thinks it's too violent or too sexy or too opinionated. And I don't have to worry about the budgets either! My scripts were always budget-busters out in Hollywood.
In the late 1980s you were the guiding light behind the excellent Wild Cards series of "mosaic novels", working with writers such as Roger Zelazny, Mellinda Snodgrass, Ed Bryant and Walter Jon Williams amongst many others. What was it like to collaborate so closely with so many very different writers?
It was frustrating and exhilarating by turns. We had a tremendous group of very talented writers, and a great world to play in, and some of our brainstorming sessions were as much fun as any I've ever been a part of. Of course, there were arguments as well. But since I was the editor, I always won them... unlike the arguments I had in Hollywood. We told some great stories, and I think we also took the "shared world" concept to a new level. No other shared world series ever attempted anything as ambitious as our mosaic novels.
Actually, it looks as though Wild Cards will soon be coming back. We are negotiating a deal that will bring many of the old books back into print and allow us to add a few new ones. I can't say more than that until the contracts are signed, but I'm looking forward to revisiting some of those characters.
Although you have always written both Fantasy and SF, A Song of Ice and Fire is, I believe, your first foray into the traditional epic Fantasy genre. Commercial considerations aside, what attracted you to the genre?
Actually, I had made several forays into high fantasy years and even decades before I began work on A Song of Ice and Fire -- The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr, The Ice Dragon, In the Lost Lands, etc. Even in my rock 'n' roll mystery horror fantasy, The Armageddon Rag, I named my fictional 60s rock band the Nazgul, and called their first album "Hot Wind Out of Mordor."
A Game of Thrones was my first attempt at epic Fantasy at novel length, but I'd loved the genre all my life. Growing up, I never made any distinctions between SF, Fantasy, and Horror. I would read Jack Vance's Dying Earth one week, and Asimov's Foundation the next, and enjoy them both. And The Lord of the Rings had as much impact on me as any book I ever read.
Fantasy novels are often set in a kind of idealised version of how we wish the Middle Ages had actually been. One of the unique features of A Song of Ice and Fire for me was the way in which it combines the brutal realism of the actual Middle Ages with elements derived from its own idealised versions of itself - the elaborate armour and heraldry evokes obvious echoes of Chaucer, Mallory and Spenser. Was this a conscious decision to illuminate the way a mediaeval society might view itself, or was it perhaps just too much fun to play with all that bizarre symbolism?
Well, I have to admit I enjoy the heraldry just for its own sake, although I have played fast and loose with some of the real world heraldic conventions. A lot of bad Fantasy takes place in a sort of Disney Middle Ages, and that had no appeal to me, but I did not want to write thousands of pages about mud and lice and plague either. That would be just as false, in the other direction. The real Middle Ages had room for both plagues and pageantry, and I wanted both sides in my books as well -- heightened somewhat, since this is Fantasy.
In the same vein, the society of the Seven Kingdoms seems to be caught in the dichotomy between its lofty ideals, as expressed by its codes of chivalry and heraldry, and its inability to live up to those ideals, as revealed by the appalling atrocities you describe as the civil war erodes away the masks that society wears. What are your thoughts on this?
Every society has tensions between its ideals and its reality, but in some the gulf is especially dramatic. The medieval period was one of those.
A Song of Ice and Fire is obviously an epic in almost every sense of the word. There are elements here from just about every Fantasy convention, such as war, magic and dragons. There's truly Machiavellian realpolitik, and even popular culture favourites such as mammoths, giants and what sounds suspiciously like velociraptors! The whole story has an epic feel to it, not least as a result of its sheer length. To take on a project like this must take tremendous commitment, but you obviously feel it's worth it (and so do I!). How have you found the whole experience and what are your thoughts on the epic genre?
This was the first major project I tackled after ten years of working in Hollywood, of keeping one eye always on the budget, of writing teleplays that had to fit into 46 minutes, and screenplays that dared not be longer than 120 pages. After a decade of that, I desperately wanted to do something that gave me more breathing room, something that was big and rich and grand in scale.
When I began, I was planning for a trilogy; three books of about 800 manuscript pages each, I estimated. Had I kept to that, I'd be done by now, with the final book about to come out -- but a story makes its own demands, and this one was simply too big to be contained in three books. Nor have any of the volumes completed to date been as short as 800 pages. Instead they have come in at approximately 1100, 1200, and 1500, respectively. And I still have three more books to go...
Had I known as I set out how huge these books would be and how long it would take me to write them, I would probably have been too intimidated to write the first sentence. But now that I am well into it, I am glad things worked out this way. I might have told a version of this story in three 800-page books, yes, but it could never have had the complexity of plot, the depth of characterization, or the richness of detail that I have been able to achieve with those added pages. Sometimes bigger is better.
Another element I liked about the series was the moral relativism of many of the characters. Too many Fantasies rely on the shorthand of truly evil villains in the absolute moral sense, but your characters, while they might commit terrible acts, generally do so either from short-sighted self-interest or because they truly believe they are acting for the best. Was this a deliberate decision, or is it just more interesting to write this way?
Both. I have always found grey characters more interesting than those who are pure black and white. I have no qualms with the way that Tolkien handled Sauron, but in some ways The Lord of the Rings set an unfortunate example for the writers who were to follow. I did not want to write another version of the War Between Good and Evil, where the antagonist is called the Foul King or the Demon Lord or Prince Rotten, and his minions are slavering subhumans dressed all in black (I dressed my Night's Watch, who are basically good guys, all in black in part to undermine that annoying convention). Before you can fight the war between good and evil, you need to determine which is which, and that's not always as easy as some Fantasists would have you believe.
Likewise, you show a willingness to kill off characters who are built up as if they will be pivotal elements who will see the whole thing through to the end. This sudden dispatching of characters who are often on the brink of achieving their goal seems to me to be of a whole with the often painfully realistic and unglamorous depiction of war and the random obscenities it often generates. Is it difficult to plan something which feels as if it reflects the arbitrary nature of life like this?
Difficult? No, not especially. Actually, I think there is something vaguely obscene about epic Fantasies that portray huge, world-rending wars and yet somehow never let any serious harm come to the main characters. Fiction is the art of lying convincingly, but I believe Mark Twain once said there were lies and damn lies (and statistics, but we won't get into that). During my years in television, I often ran up against the hypocrisy of the networks, who wanted shows full of "action" but not too much "violence". I'd had enough of that. There was a glory in war, at least before the gun made its appearance -- all our ancient and medieval sources agree on that -- but there was horror and pain and fear as well, and once battle was joined, anyone could die.
Would you say that this appearance of random fate is an integral part of what you're trying to say about the epic Fantasy genre, given that it is so often underpinned by a deterministic theme, even a prophecy?
Prophecy is one of those tropes of Fantasy that is fun to play with, but it can easily turn into a straightjacket if you're not careful. One of the themes of my fiction, since the very beginning, is that the characters must make their choices, for good or ill. And making choices is hard. There are prophecies in my Seven Kingdoms, but their meanings are often murky and misleading, and they seldom offer the characters much in the way of useful guidance.
Finally, one review I read praised the "sheer bloody-mindedness" of A Song of Ice and Fire. What's your reaction to this?
I took it as a compliment! Even so, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn't hold a candle to the stuff that went on in the real Middle Ages...