[NOTE: This interview took place on July 8, 2011, 4 days before the release of A Dance with Dragons.]
Congratulations on finishing the book! It must have felt like the longest marathon ever.
It's nice to have it done, no doubt about that. This one has been on my back for a long, long time.
Is it a relief to say it's done, or was there a part of you that wanted to hold onto it longer and work on it a bit more?
You know, there's always the question of when you let the bird leave the nest. My editors finally pried it out of my hands, or otherwise it might have been another year or so as I wrote more and fiddled with it. But at a certain point it also gets so long that you can't fit it all in one book. I'm pretty happy with the book, but of course the fans and readers are the ultimate judges of it and they'll decide how good it is. But I'm pretty satisfied with it.
When I've read across the series, when you look at A Game of Thrones, it feels really tightly written, quite plot heavy as it sets up everything. And then from there, atmosphere and character seems to come to the fore more. Was that always intended or is this a by-product of the increasing complexity of the story?
My goal in all my writing is always to provide the reader with a vicarious experience, and I think atmosphere is part of that. While I think the advancement of the plot is certainly important, it's not the single most important thing. If the advancement of the plot were the most important thing, we'd be reading Cliffs Notes and not the novels themselves. The plot is one factor that makes a successful novel, but not the only thing. So things like atmosphere, setting, and particularly character are equally crucial, if not more crucial. I think character is really the heart of fiction.
When I compare to your earlier work, the series certainly seems like a departure from what you did before.
A Game of Thrones and "A Song of Ice and Fire" was a departure for me in many ways. Not only the first major work of epic fantasy or high fantasy that I had attempted -- although there were some short stories and such before, but nothing on this scale -- but also definitely the most complicated plot, the largest cast of characters, the most epic kind of thing. Many of my stories before that had been relatively small and contained in scale, with largely personal stakes for the protagonist or the viewpoint character. Even something like Fevre Dream, the whole world is not being affected by what was happening to Abner Marsh and his steamboat line.
It was a departure, but then again I like departures. I've always tried to do different things in my career, and I hope to continue to do different things.
I wanted to ask about your process in creating the series, through a specific example from A Dance with Dragons. To dance around it a bit, lets say that we learn more about the story of the three-eyed crow, a figure first glimpsed in a very early Bran chapter. Were these details something you knew all along? Or was it a situation where you knew you'd need more information to go with this mystical figure, but figured you'd just come across those details organically later on in the series?
I wouldn't say I knew right from the start, but I've certainly known the details for a long, long time. From the very start, I didn't even really know what this story was. As I've said before, when the first chapter came to me, I was in the midst of writing a science fiction novel, Avalon, when I started writing this story about wolf pups being found in the snow. So, you know, some point very early on, before A Game of Thrones was published, I had started filling in these details. We're talking 1994 or 1995.
There was a point early on, relatively early in the writing of the series, where I stopped writing and did a spate of world building. I didn't do it before I started, like Tolkien, but I was writing the book and I was getting in and starting to refer to history. So I stopped and started to formalize it, drawing the maps, working out the genealogies, the list of the Targaryen rulers and the dates of their reigns, and so on. But of course, as you know -- because you're one of the ones that pointed it out back then -- it didn't all necessarily jive with what I wrote in "The Hedge Knight". But in any case, I was starting to think about all of these things as I did it, and I had little hints about their stories through the nicknames I gave the kings. So Maegor the Cruel, Jaehaerys the Conciliator, and the Young Dragon, and so on. So the seeds of a lot of the history were planted when I drew up that list.
There's been an interesting discussion on our forum concerning "orientalism" as it's expressed in your work, and one question it's led to among readers is whether you've ever considered a foreign point of view characters in Essos, to give a different window into events there.
No, this story is about Westeros. Those other lands are important only as they reflect on Westeros.
Part of the difficulty of this particular novel was what you called the "Meereenese Knot", trying to get everything to happen in just the right order, pulling various plot strands together in one place, and part of the solution was the addition of another point of view character. Was this something where you tried writing it from a number of different point of views before settling on a new one? Did you actively resist adding a new character?
The Meerenese Knot related to everyone reaching Dany. There's a series of events that have to occur in Meereen, things that are significant. She has various problems to deal with at the start: dealing with the slavers, threats of war, the Sons of the Harpy, and so on. At the same time, there's all of these characters trying to get to her. So the problem was to figure out who should reach her and in what order, and what events should happen by the time they've reached her. I kept coming up with different answers and I kept having to rewrite different versions and then not being satisfied with the dynamics until I found something that was satisfactory. I thought that solution worked well, but it was not my first choice.
There's a Dany scene in the book which is actually one of the oldest chapters in the book that goes back almost ten years now. When I was contemplating the five year gap [Martin laughs here, with some chagrin], that chapter was supposed to be the first Daenerys chapter in the book. Then it became the second chapter, and then the third chapter, and it kept getting pushed back as I inserted more things into it. I've rewritten that chapter so much that it ended in many different ways.
There's a certain time frame of the chronology where you can compare to A Feast for Crows and even A Storm of Swords and figure out when they would reach Meereen and the relative time frames of each departure and each arrival. But that doesn't necessarily lead to the most dramatic story. So you look at it and try and figure out how to do it. I also wanted to get across how difficult and dangerous it was to travel like this. There are many storms that will wreck your ship, there are dangerous lands in between where there are pirates and corsairs, and all that stuff. It's not like hopping on a 747, where you get on and then step off the plane a few hours later. So all of these considerations went into the Meereenese Knot.
Then there's showing things after [an important event], which proved to be very difficult. I tried it with one point of view character, but this was an outsider who could only guess at what was going on, and then I tried it with a different character and it was also difficult. The big solution was when I hit on adding a new point of view character who could give the perspective this part of the story needed.
I know that you've said that somewhere in the course of writing A Clash of Kings you put everything on hold to -- maybe not outline, but just rough out the major events you wanted to do. How much of that is still in play or has it changed a lot?
I've talked in general about the chronological changes, so for example I had wanted the kids to get older in the course of the books originally, but that wasn't working out the way the story was going. When that became obvious, I came up with the five year gap, and then I abandoned the five year gap. All of this impacted the chronology. That's the biggest change, other than that things are more or less on course the way I did them. But as you said, I'm a gardener, I'm not an architect. So my road-map is in very broad strokes... We're starting to mix our metaphors, with gardeners and architects and road-maps.
Just to wrap up, I don't know if you've had a chance to remark on the final episode of HBO's Game of Thrones. How did you like it and the final scene?
I loved the episode. I thought the final scene of the episode was magnificent.