LONDON — As a denizen of North London lo’ these past five and a half years, I’ve had my fair share of celebrity sightings. I’ve caught a glimpse of chef Boy Wonder Jamie Oliver as he entered a local bookstore. I’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with actress Helena Bonham Carter. I’ve even locked eyes with comedian Ricky Gervais at the hair dresser’s.
But by far the most exciting celebrity encounter to date was this week, when I attended a Q and A with author George R.R. Martin.
Martin — or GRRM as he’s known to fans — is the writer of the best-selling fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the hugely popular HBO television series, Game of Thrones, is based. If you haven’t read the books — and you really should — they are famous for their unbelievably graphic and realistic depiction of medieval life, replete with internecine power struggles between warring clans, routine war crimes of the most vicious sort and, yes, quite a bit of sex. The net effect, as many have observed, is a good deal closer to history than fantasy.
I myself am not normally a fantasy reader. I came to these books via my 11 year-old son who, like many fans, literally counted down the nights until last summer’s release of the fifth volume in the series — A Dance With Dragons . (Yeah, I know. Please don’t ask. He was 4,000 pages in before I realized that the books might not be appropriate.) But at my son’s insistence, I immersed myself in Martin’s Kingdom of Westeros and its more than 1,000 characters and have never looked back. So when I saw that Martin would be giving a talk at a local University theatre, I ran to get us some tickets.
He did not disappoint. Although with his large frame, billowing white beard and signature black engineer’s cap and suspendered trousers, GRRM looks at bit like Sir Topham Hatt’s long-lost Marxist cousin, the author proved to be remarkably thoughtful, lucid and entertaining.
He acknowledged that because of the curious way that his brain works, he’s far more likely to remember the name of the “maester” in some third-order castle within the books than someone he had a beer with just two days earlier. (I guess you’d need this skill if you’re going to create a fictional universe on the scale that Martin has achieved.)
He also revealed — to the surprise of many in the audience like me, who are less familiar with the man than with his works – that he is actually a pacifist. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and his hero, he said, was Woodrow Wilson who dreamed of launching a “war to end all wars.” This pacifism is only surprising given the particularly grisly nature of Martin’s writing about war and its often horrific and tragic consequences. Many of his characters seem almost to delight in the act of war. (It’s no secret that many of them also suffer early and gruesome deaths.)
Martin was quite upfront about the challenges of having to write from so many different points of view. (The first book takes the perspective of roughly a dozen central characters, which he then builds on and adds to with each subsequent novel.) Of the “imp” Tyrion Lannister, for example, who is known for his intelligence, cunning, and compassion in equal measure — Martin observed that Tyrion is “a lot wittier than I am. He comes up with all these clever things to say right in the moment,” while it takes Martin days to think them up.
He further noted that the reason he is able to write from the point of view of all sorts of characters – be they dwarfs, children born out of wedlock, or rapists — is that at the end of the day, they are all people, who have fears and desires and moments of joy just like the rest of us. (Though when asked why he is so good at writing teen-age girls, Martin did flash a naughty grin, saying: “I’m trying really hard not to respond to that question the way Tyrion Lannister would.”)
The last question came from an Internet fan who asked which part of the Kingdom of Westeros Martin would like to live in himself. He placed his head in his hands as if giving it some real thought, and then looked up at the audience and answered: “Dorne. It’s warm there. And they’ve got hot, spicy food. And hot, spicy women.” Pause. “Then again, you could always bring a hot tub to Winterfell.”
And just like that, we were all right there with him...