Friday, 16 August 2019

An Evening with George RR Martin – Waterstones event

Since George RR Martin hasn't done a UK event for five years, I was excited to attend this event to promote Fire and Blood, the Targaryen history that leads up to A Game of Thrones. Unsurprisingly, George RR Martin is a fascinating speaker and historian Dan Jones asked insightful questions about the books, Martin's screenwriting career and his writing process. 

These are some of the main parts of the discussion that stayed with me, particularly his reflections on writing. Any mistakes are my own.

I was really interested to hear the journey that George RR Martin took to write A Game of Thrones. He explained that a chapter came to him almost fully formed, where Bran finds dire wolves in the summer snow. He didn't know what it was part of but knew where the story would go next. Around that time, he sold a script for a TV pilot and put A Game of Thrones aside. He returned to it three years later and it was like he put the pages down yesterday, as if he'd been thinking about the characters subconsciously for all those years. The phrase 'in the summer snow' from that original chapter put him on the line of the unsteadiness of the seasons. 

George RR Martin sees writers as being 'architects' or 'gardeners', and generally a combination of the two. An architect writes with everything planned out in advance. A gardener digs a hole, throws in a seed and hopes something comes up.

Martin sees himself as 97% gardener. He quoted Tolkien, who said that a tale grew in the telling. Martin knew none of the history of his world when he began. For example, at some point he thought he'd better have a map to keep track of things. He took a map of Ireland as a starting point and turned it upside down, filling in the details as he went. The same applied for kings. He started with a list of names, adding dates and facts later.

When writing, Martin keeps the Lands of Ice and Fire maps around him as a reference. Most information for the series is in his head, in computer files and on timelines. Sometimes it's a daunting task, especially now the world has become bigger and more complex.

His writing follows the template of Tolkien, where everything begins in one place, the characters pick others up on their journey and then the group splits. The viewpoint characters begin at Winterfell and then split off to different locations. Every time a character goes off, they need their own cast of supporting characters with antagonists and friends.

Martin uses find and replace to track details about characters and said he does make mistakes. He has trouble with things like eye colours and once had a horse that changes gender between stories!

The disadvantages of being a gardener are when you realise you took a wrong turn a few chapters ago. He keeps chapters that he removes in case they're useful later.

Scenes he really remembers tend to be the ones that were painful to write, not fun. He'd been building up to writing the 'red wedding' since the first book. When he came to that scene, it was too painful. Martin finished writing the whole book and then went back to that scene.

Sometimes he's really proud of the quieter scenes where it feels like he's got the sights and sounds of the scene right to put a reader right there.

He likes taking influences from history but changing direction and making it bigger, preferring popular history to academic accounts. Hadrien's wall was definitely an influence. He got there at sunset when it was quiet, imagining being a Roman fearing what would come out of those woods. He just imagined a bigger wall and a scarier thing.

Martin also took influences from the War of the Roses, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War and Scottish history. The red wedding was loosely based on the 'Black dinner'. He was also inspired by Eleanor of Aquitane and powerful, bloody women who controlled city states in Italy.

In Fire and Blood, Martin felt affection for Mushroom, a jester of lowly birth. It is written from the point of view of a historian delving into this fake history and trying to figure out what happened.  

This was such a memorable event and I was thrilled to buy a signed book as a memento. Thank you to Waterstones for hosting!

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