So this panel immediately preceded Martin's reading, and a lot of time was actually spent on discussing how much GRRM likes to hurt his characters. Other sadists included Ginjer Buchanan - who doubled as moderator - Esther Friesner - who tried to keep the tone light - Paul Park and Melissa Scott.
Ginjer noted up front that the panel was "created so George can explain why he continues to do horrible things to his characters." Martin responded, saying "I'm sorry," which was immediately shouted down by "No, you're not!" and he had to admit, indeed, he was not sorry. He does, however, sometimes envision his characters coming out to contfront him Jerry Springer-style, with Ned leading the pack, carrying his head under his arm.
Prompted, he noted that he doesn't think he's particularly depressed. Rather, the things that shape you as an artist happen when you're younger. He always saw the past as being somehow better than the present - a state caused much more by the financial circumstances of his family than the kind of past found in Westeros. In fact, he derives a great deal of creativity depicting the age that comes after the Golden Age of a place. That statement is particularly telling when one considers how many of the elder characters in A Song of Ice and Fire regard the Tournament at Harrenhal in the year of false spring.
The focus of the panel then shifted to Esther, who described her inner darkness as "the dark tupperware in the refrigerator of my soul." She said that she learned a lot about not letting the sorrow overwhelm you but to struggle to make the sorrow and pain worthwhile from her parents - her mother is a breast cancer survivor and her father a Holocaust survivor who lost his first wife and child in the camps. That is perhaps a longer sentence than one should have, but I am tired and too lazy to break it up.
Melissa then reminded everyone to never write a love song when actually in love as it always turns out badly. From there, through levels of conversation I don't have preserved in notes, we progress to George stating his policy of killing off a significant character early on so that the reader understands that the danger is real and you're playing for keeps.
He also disagrees with the vast majority of genre books that have happy endings. He finds that inherently untrue. The moment he said that I flashed to Sansa and her "songs" that never quite come out the way she dreams them. George then related the story that when he was in little league he always knew he would hit a bottom of the ninth homer and win a game despite never having hit a ball during the game. It happened in the movies, why not to him?
The panel then agreed wholeheartedly with his statement that the Scouring of the Shire is evokative, costly, and profound. That ending, and not the one of the fields of Cormallen or the white tower of Minas Tirith is what sets the LotR trilogy apart in its greatness. Esther also pointed out that there are three typical endings - happy, tragic, and bittersweet, with the last being the best kind.
Sunday morning I was running late, but I still managed to make it to the GRRM kaffeklatch which was bizarrely empty. Those there theorized it had more than a little to do with the relatively early hour - 11AM, and George himself had been up until 4 the night before - and it being the last day of the con. Kaffeklatches are relatively informal, so part of it was spent discussing football and baseball. Then we moved on to actual books.
George mentioned that he felt really silly about that planned 5 year jump. He imagined it originally going something like Jon sitting on the Wall going "Well, it's been 5 fairly quiet years since I've been Lord Commander. But I'm starting to think that'll pick up now..." and realised that the adults wouldn't wait in their plot lines for Arya to hit puberty.
Likewise, he mentioned that the titles of the chapters in AFfC were a nod to how the characters think of themselves - most especially Sansa. He wants to get back to writing ADwD, but so far touring has severely curtailed his productivity.
queenofthorns, you will be happy to know that I did in fact ask him to wait on killing Jaime until book 7, to which the entire table laughed. But hey, I did try.
At the reading, George mentioned several things while taking questions - Tyrion is his favorite character, but extremely difficult to write a the moment. His chapters, though technically "done" in the early part of the novel are still getting revisions. The Red Wedding was probably the most difficult thing he's written - in fact he finished writing the manuscript of ASoS before he went back and wrote those chapters in. I now feel justified for not being able to read them yet.