Halfway through lunch at the Delaunay, a fashionable European-style brasserie in London, George RR Martin compares the giant slab of breaded chicken on my plate to a map of a fantasy kingdom. The fact that he is one of the world’s biggest-selling fantasy writers, and creator of the books on which the hit television series Game of Thrones is based, makes this a little less surprising than it might otherwise be. But not much. Pointing at my irregularly shaped food with his knife, he elaborates: “There are various little inlets where cities could be,” he says jovially, as if he were making the most obvious comparison in the world.
It’s an entertaining moment and Martin, 63, does seem to be enjoying life. As well he might - 9m copies of his books were sold last year. The five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, his dizzying saga of medieval kingdoms locked in internecine warfare, total more than 5,000 pages and there are two more (very long) books to come before the cycle is complete.
The first, called A Game of Thrones, took Martin five years to write, and was published in 1996. By 2005, when the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, came out, he was a successful genre author, nudging the mainstream bestseller lists. Then, in April 2011, things changed utterly for Martin. Overnight, he became globally famous when HBO, the American pay-TV channel renowned for making high-quality drama, put out the first episode of its new series Game of Thrones. This lavish, faithful, and very expensive (a reported $60m per series) adaptation of Martin’s tale of sorcery – and a lot of sex – became a huge hit. As the second series reaches its climax this week in the US and the UK, it has become HBO’s most successful series, shown in 29 countries and with average US viewing figures of more than 10m per episode. Fans include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who held a Game of Thrones-themed barbecue (featuring goat and “obscure animal parts”) for close friends last month.
I arrive early, only to find my guest is already waiting, settled on a green leather banquette. There’s a jug of water and two glasses on the crisp white tablecloth, along with some artisan-looking breadsticks and butter. It’s a simple, peaceful scene and Martin looks as though he might have been here for hours. In his richly-imagined world of the kingdoms of Westeros, fortune favours the quick and the well-prepared.
With his lavish beard and big glasses, Martin cuts a striking figure. He is wearing a dark purple embroidered waistcoat over a black shirt. Most eye-catching is his black fisherman’s cap, which has a small brooch in the shape of a turtle pinned to its front. It’s not a look much favoured at the Delaunay, where the other tables are starting to fill with men in suits. From snatches of conversation I overhear, deals are done here, and takeovers hatched – a modern take on the scheming courtiers of King’s Landing, the affluent, southern capital of Westeros.
Keen to find out more about his inspiration, I ask Martin about his childhood. His accent is pleasingly gravelly to a British ear. It comes from Bayonne, New Jersey (“a blue-collar town”), where he was born and brought up, the son of a longshoreman. Was he solitary? “Well, I had a couple of friends but I was mostly the kid with his nose in a book.” He was mad about comic books (he still has a valuable collection of comics) and read widely.
The Martin family – he has two younger sisters – lived near Bayonne’s harbour front in a federal housing project. Money was scarce – his war veteran father had periods of unemployment. George’s world was made up of just five blocks, bounded by the water. “There was this little grassy place where I would go and sit and just dream, and no one else knew about it. I could see not only the ferries but big ships going into Newark Bay, freighters from all around the world, with their flags.
“I had this desire to see the world. I couldn’t see any of it but I saw it in my imagination, and that’s why I always read books, and I could go to Mars or Middle Earth or the Hyborian age.” (The latter is Robert E Howard’s imagined world, home to Conan the Barbarian).
Back in present-day London, the menus have arrived. “The schnitzel was recommended to me,” he says, as we ponder an overwhelming number of menu choices. We order Wiener schnitzel for him, chicken for me. What does it come with? Nothing, says the waitress, shrugging helplessly and miming a big plate. I picture an empty space on the plate and we order sides. “Buttery mash sounds good,” says Martin. I choose sprouting broccoli with almonds. In anticipation of these heavy main courses we stick to salad starters – endive, pear and rocket for him; avocado, radish and butter leaf lettuce for me. He motions for me to order wine. “Go ahead! A rosé would be nice, you are having chicken, after all.”
Martin, who is closely involved in the Game of Thrones TV series and writes one episode of each series himself, believes its success lies in its universal appeal. “HBO have done some classic shows: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire – which many people consider the greatest TV show of all time. But most of their shows are very American. What does it mean to someone in Thailand to watch Tony Soprano in New Jersey struggling with his family? But Game of Thrones, being fantasy, and set in an imaginary kingdom, and about certain universal issues – of power and family, and love and duty, and all that – does hopefully speak to many different cultures.”
Game of Thrones has also become famous for its use of “sexposition” – keeping viewers hooked by combining complex plot exposition with explicit sexual goings-on. “That is something that is not in the books, of course,” he says. “There is lots of sex in the books but no sexposition. I have lots of ways of doing exposition that are not available to David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, Game of Thrones’ writer-producers].” Warming to the theme, he goes on riffing on the possible wider uses for sexposition. “It should be adopted by industry. Think how much more interesting staff meetings would be if, while they were briefing you ... ” He tails off but the mental picture makes me snort with laughter.
Martin is not new to TV. He sold his first science fiction story in 1970, while he was in college, and his first novel was published in 1977. By 1983 he was expecting to hit the big time with his fourth book, Armageddon Rag, about a rock band. However, he recalls, “it was the worst-selling of all my novels and essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time. Oddly enough, the same book that essentially crippled my career as a novelist started my career in Hollywood.” The book was optioned for a feature film by a writer and, though the film was never made, the writer drafted Martin into working on a remake of cult TV series The Twilight Zone. In the following years, he worked on pilots and reworked scripts for others. “I made a lot of money but got very little [TV] made,” he says.
Our starters arrive. Mine looks like an upturned iceberg lettuce. Martin’s, on the other hand, is an edible work of art, its pile of endive leaves beautifully arranged. We munch in companionable near-silence, until I ask how Martin’s fame has affected his writing: millions are depending on him to keep ahead of the TV series, and to tell us how the saga ends. “I have an assistant and I recently hired a second assistant,” he explains. “I am kind of dealing with the fact that I have become a small industry – ‘Westeros Incorporated’ – so to speak.”
The extra help, he says, frees him up to retreat into writing. “When I am writing best, I really am lost in my world. I lose track of the outside world. I have a difficult time balancing between my real world and the artificial world. When the writing is going really well, whole days and weeks go by and I suddenly realise I have all these unpaid bills and, my God, I haven’t unpacked, and the suitcase has been sitting there for three weeks.” (Martin lives in Santa Fe with his wife Parris, whom he met at a science fiction fan convention.)
Martin’s fictional world is not a sunny one. Lead characters tend to die. Horribly. There was, for example, an internet outcry after Sean Bean, who played noble Ned Stark in series one of Game of Thrones, was – spoiler alert – beheaded. “I was startled to the reaction to that scene in the show,” Martin says, brightly. “Sean Bean has died a lot, this is not his first death. In fact there is a YouTube video where you can see him die 21 times in 21 different films, so it’s not as if the idea of him dying is entirely original to us.”
He is methodically working through his endive. Having given up on my lettuce, I suggest that Westeros is, perhaps, the most richly imagined “other” civilisation since JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and has, similarly, broken into the mainstream literary consciousness. Martin, who has long acknowledged a huge debt to Tolkien, says: “There were thousands of years of fantasy before Tolkien but the way it is shaped as a modern commercial publishing genre and the fantasy books that have been written in the past half century have all been influenced by Tolkien. So it still sort of defines the playing field.”
Have his own books redefined fantasy fiction for the 21st century? “Maybe. They have certainly added some elements that were missing.” I ask if that includes really good parts for women – and dwarves. Women in Martin’s saga are just as morally compromised and sexually pragmatic as the men. And the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (played in the series by Peter Dinklage, in an Emmy-winning performance) is the closest the books have to a hero.
Martin is roused to take me on. “But I think Tolkien had at least one great part for a woman. I love Eowyn, she is really the only woman in it. Arwen was created for the movie.
“Tolkien was a 19th-century guy, a world war one veteran, and the fact that his books still speak to the modern reader, and are enjoyed by millions of people today, is a sign of his brilliance. I think he will continue to be read for centuries to come.”
He is preaching to the fantasy-converted. I tell him that in my teens I had a map of Middle Earth pinned to the wall, with the route of Frodo’s journey picked out with drawing pins. Maps are very important in fantasy, Martin says (there is a book of detailed maps of his imagined worlds coming out soon). “When you are reading historical fiction and the character says, ‘I must go to Cornwall,’ you know where Cornwall is, you don’t need a map. But when a character in Westeros says, ‘I must go to Dorne’ – you don’t know where that is. So we had to include a map in the opening credits [of the TV series].”
Our main courses have arrived. We stare at the plates, each filled with a single giant slab of breaded, apparently fantasy-kingdom-shaped meat. I am grateful for the side order of broccoli, while Martin scoops up his mash. Between mouthfuls, he tells me about how he wrote his first fantasy saga in childhood. “In America at the time, in places like Woolworths, you could buy ‘dime store turtles’ – they came in a little plastic bowl, it had water down one side and a divider down the middle, gravel on the other side and a little fake palm tree.” He demonstrates the layout with his hands. “Those were the only pets we could have. I had a toy castle set up near my bed, made of tin, and the courtyard was just big enough for two turtle tanks, and I had five or six turtles who lived in the castle. I decided they were knights, lords and kings, so I started writing this whole fantasy series about the turtle kingdom and the king of the turtles.
“And these particular turtles seemed to die very easily. I don’t think it was really a very good environment for them. Sometimes they would escape and you would find them under the refrigerator a month later, all dead. So my turtles kept dying, which was very distressing but it also made me think, ‘Why are they dying? Well, they are killing each other in sinister plots.’ I started writing this fantasy about who was killing who, and the wars for succession. So Game of Thrones originally began with turtles, I think.”
And that’s the meaning of the turtle badge on the cap, I realise. He nods and laughs.
I have abandoned the schnitzel. Martin eventually gives up, too, and the plates are taken away. He is looking forward to going home. “These trips are fun but they do interfere with my writing. I always had trouble with deadlines and still do, as you know,” he tells me, a wry reference to the late arrival last summer of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the saga, which prompted some impatient fans to vent their anger online. He says book six, The Winds of Winter, is “well under way” but still a couple of years from completion.
There are more than 1,000 characters in the books, and deeply complex plots that span years. Has he, I ask, got the timelines on a spreadsheet?
He taps his head and laughs. It’s all in there, he signals.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts
Feasting on fiction
Make a medieval meal of it: beef and bacon pie
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and the HBO series Game of Thrones based on his epic medieval fantasy both feature copious amounts of food and drink. At castles, campfires and inns along the road, the inhabitants of Westeros eat, drink and attempt to enjoy life before it is cut short by battle, disease or dark magic.
Inspired by the saga, two fans created The Inn at the Crossroads, a blog devoted to celebrating and re-creating this foodie world in recipes as well as tips on how to throw a Game of Thrones-style party (“depriving your guests of forks can go a long way towards a more adventurous meal”).
This week sees the publication of the book of the blog, from which comes the following recipe, perfect for eating in front of the Game of Thrones season two finale on Monday night (Sky Atlantic).
Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne minced & seasoned with pepper and salte and a lytel saffron to colour it, suet or marrow a good quantitie, a lytell vynegre, pruynes, great reasons, and dates, take the fattest of the broath of powdred beefe –A Propre New Booke of Cokery
“We followed a recipe from A Propre New Booke of Cokery (1545), simply swapping some thick-cut bacon for the original marrow and letting the rest of the recipe be. The sweetness comes from the fruit, which dissolves as it cooks, providing a satisfying counterpoint to the tart vinegar and salty bacon. Then the fruit flavour fades into the background, and what remains is a rich meat pie with an easy medley of flavours.
Ingredients (serves eight)
75g thick-cut bacon, diced
700g stew beef, cut into small pieces
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp salt
60ml red wine vinegar
50g prunes, sliced
50g dates, chopped
240ml beef broth
2 to 3 tbsp flour
Enough pastry for a 9” double-crust pie, rolled into two rounds
1 egg, beaten
● Pre-heat oven to 190C/Gas Mark 5. Cook the diced bacon over medium heat until the fat starts to run. Then drain off the fat. To the bacon pan add the beef, spices, vinegar and fruits. Add enough broth to thoroughly wet the mixture; the final consistency should be runny. Then throw in the flour and cook on low heat until the juices form a gravy.
● Let the meat mixture cool. Line a 9” pie pan with one pastry round and fill with the meat mixture. Add a pastry lid, turn the edges under, pinch them closed and brush with beaten egg. Bake until the filling is bubbling and the pastry is cooked, about 40 minutes.”
Adapted from ‘A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook’ (HarperVoyager, US $35), by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer