Spring 2016

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George R.R. Martin in Santa Fe, N.M. Photo by Steven St. John.

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GRRM at Northwestern

GRRM's Early Years

GRRM little boy
Check out George R.R. Martin in his early years.

Watch Martin's Q&A with Niala Boodhoo '99 MS, Northwestern senior Orko Manna and Entertainment Weekly writer Darren Franich.

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell ’90 is a freelance writer in Glenview, Ill.

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Game of Thrones has made author George R.R. Martin an international celebrity. He says lessons learned at Northwestern helped make him the writer he is today.

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

The first time George R.R. Martin came to Northwestern, he was lost — literally and figuratively. It was the fall of 1966, and he was an incoming freshman from Bayonne, N.J., who’d never left the New York area. Out-of-town students who arrived via plane were met by greeters at the airport, but there was no one waiting for Martin ’70, ’71 MS when he stepped off a Greyhound bus in downtown Chicago.

“I had two huge suitcases and an electric typewriter, and this was before suitcases had wheels!” Martin says, the moment still fresh in his memory. “I was really struggling. I figured out how to get to the ‘L,’ but when I got off in Evanston, I realized I didn’t know whether to turn left or right. I had no idea where the campus was. Luckily, I guessed the right direction.”

Martin’s most recent visit to Northwestern went a little differently. Martin, now 67, was no longer a nervous student, but a best-selling author whose books inspired the hit TV show Game of Thrones and produced a rabidly devoted fan base. When he received Medill’s Hall of Achievement alumni award last fall, Martin was welcomed back to campus like a conquering hero, drawing crowds to standing room-only Q&A sessions and getting constant requests for selfies.

Returning to campus prompted Martin to look back at the influence of those college years. “Northwestern changed me,” he says. “I was a very introverted, shy kid who spent a lot of time reading. Studying journalism at Medill forced me to talk to strangers and helped shape my views on the world. It got me out of my shell.”

Martin’s multibook fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which has sold more than 60 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages, is set in a medieval-inspired kingdom that teems with strong-willed characters and life-or-death action. The books are filled with knights and castles and battles, and though magic and dragons make occasional appearances, for the most part these fantasies have a real-world grittiness. In Martin’s work, the stakes are always high: Heroes die, and villains aren’t always punished, just like real life.

Daenerys Targaryen
Game of Thrones character Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke. Courtesy of HBO.

Martin himself is considerably more cheerful than the world he created. He’s friendly and quick to laugh, most often at himself. Were Martin to be transported into Game of Thrones, he’d most likely be a traveling bard, spinning tales by a castle fireplace. In person and on the page, Martin is at heart a storyteller.

The son of a longshoreman, Martin has been writing almost as far back as he can remember. (His first published work was a letter to the editor of Marvel Comics.) “As a child, I lived a very constricted life,” Martin says. “My family didn’t have any money or a car. My world was limited to where I could walk or take a bus.”

In high school he researched the career prospects of a fiction writer for a school assignment. “I discovered the average writer in America made $1,200 a year, and even in 1964 that wasn’t a lot of money,” he says. Journalism, he decided, was a more practical option, and Northwestern offered a chance to escape his hometown. “Chicago might as well have been Shanghai for all I cared,” he says. “For me, it was a wild, exotic place.”

Like other freshmen before and since, Martin spent his first year at Bobb Hall (which had not yet been connected to neighboring McCulloch). “I could never get the name clear to my mother,” he remembers. “She’d ask, ‘How’s Bob?’ and I’d say, ‘No, Bobb is the building. My roommate is Jeff!’ ” Due to a housing shortage on campus, he lived the following three years at the North Shore Hotel in downtown Evanston, where the University had booked blocks of rooms for students. “At first, I didn’t want to go, but once I got in, I discovered it was the best dorm possible,” Martin says. “We had private bathrooms, a phone in our room, a newsstand downstairs where we could buy candy bars — it was great.” (See a map of "GRRM's Northwestern Lands.")

Illustration by Don Morris

Martin found his first year of college an adjustment. “I’d always been one of the smartest kids in my class, and suddenly I was surrounded by other people who were really smart and teachers who didn’t necessarily think I was God’s gift,” he remembers. Ultimately, though, he found his place. Journalism assignments brought him into the heart of the era’s social unrest. (“It was the ’60s,” he says. “There was always a demonstration to cover.”) He minored in history, studying the kind of power struggles that would later influence his fiction. On weekends he played chess at the grill in the basement of Scott Hall and later formed Northwestern’s first chess club.

“Northwestern had one of the first computer programs that could play chess,” Martin says. “It was on a big mainframe at Vogelback, and one of the programmers was a member of the chess club.” In 1970 Northwestern hosted the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships, and the Northwestern computer played on one of the University’s six teams. “It was hugely controversial,” Martin remembers. “One of the first articles I ever sold was about the chess-playing computer, and my point was that the computer wasn’t very good, but still, some people were freaked out by the idea of playing against it.”

Martin’s other Northwestern memories include going to the Varsity and Valencia movie theaters and out to dinner with friends. “I lived for the Spot!” he laughs. “A pizza cost $1.75, and if you bought 10, you’d get one free. I saved the cards to get that free pizza!” Another favorite hangout was Talbott’s on Howard Street, back in the days when you had to leave Evanston to order alcohol. “We’d go there after chess club meetings for ribs and beer,” says Martin.

Susan Kelley ’71, a retired lawyer living in Austin, Texas, was part of Martin’s tight-knit group of chess-club friends. She remembers gathering with Martin and a few others on Saturdays to watch the low-budget “creature feature” on late-night TV. “We’d order a pizza and make popcorn, then spend the whole time making fun of the movie,” she says. “We were more interested in making funny quips than the actual content. We were all nerds, and we all blossomed at Northwestern together.”

Studying journalism, Martin says, forced him to become a more disciplined writer. Before then, “I never used one adjective when four would do,” he quips. One particularly influential professor was Neil McNeil ’65 MA, who ran the Medill internship in Washington, D.C. “He was an old-time newspaper guy,” says Martin. “He’d hold up my stories and say, ‘Too cute! Too cute!’ I had to turn all my amusing witticisms and metaphors into facts.”

Outside of class, Martin kept working on fiction. “George started reading his stories to us, and there wasn’t much we could say to improve them,” Kelley says. “He was already such a good writer. His stories weren’t just about robots and ray guns — they were about emotions. The stories gave him a way to express those kinds of thoughts.”

It was a Northwestern history professor, Franklin Scott, who nudged Martin to get his work out into the world. “I took a course in Scandinavian history, and he agreed I could write one of my papers as historical fiction,” Martin says. Martin’s story centered on the surrender of the Swedish fortress of Sveaborg during the Finnish War of 1808, and Scott liked it so much he not only gave Martin an A, he submitted the story to the Scandinavian Review, the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s magazine. “That was the first rejection slip I got from a professional publication,” Martin says. “Before that, I’d been too timid to submit anything. I thought the editor would say, ‘How dare you send us this, you worthless, talentless child!’ Instead, they sent a nice, encouraging letter.”

That first rejection slip was followed by many others, but Martin didn’t give up. “George was always persistent and optimistic,” says Kelley. “He believed in himself, and he wouldn’t let a rejection derail him.”

Martin’s resolve was tested when he graduated with a master of science in journalism in 1971. While he’d seen fellow classmates receive multiple job offers the year before, Martin applied for dozens of jobs and got no offers. Eligible for the draft but opposed to the Vietnam War, he obtained conscientious-objector status, joined Volunteers in Service to America and was assigned alternative service with the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago, where he served as director of communication and education. Even before his two-year term ended, he supplemented his meager $50 weekly VISTA stipend by selling the occasional short story to science-fiction magazines and running chess tournaments. He taught journalism at Clarke College (now Clarke University) in Dubuque, Iowa, from 1976 to 1979, during which time he sold his first novel, Dying of the Light (Pocket Books, 1977). Deciding to give full-time writing a shot, he escaped the Midwest winters and settled in Santa Fe, N.M., where he still lives with his wife, Parris McBride.

Martin sold more books and saw his reputation rise in the sci-fi world. But when his fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag (Poseidon Press, 1983), didn’t sell as well as expected, “I hit the wall,” he says. There were no more book contracts, and “suddenly I was making nothing. At one point, I had two mortgage payments and was living off credit cards.” He was so disheartened about his career prospects that he even started taking classes to get his real estate license.

Ultimately, however, a door opened: A writer who was a fan of Martin’s offered him work on a revival of the The Twilight Zone TV series. Martin reinvented himself as a Hollywood scriptwriter, working on several series and ultimately becoming a producer of Beauty and the Beast, a television series that ran from 1987 to 1990. He was even given the chance to develop his own show, but after almost two years of meetings and rewrites and uncertainty, the series never got off the ground.

In Hollywood’s eyes, Martin was washed up. Again.

In the meantime, though, he’d started working on a book about knights and castles that combined gritty realism with elements of fantasy — “the kind of book I wanted to read,” he says. It was a rejection of the limitations he’d been forced to accept in Hollywood: a world with hundreds of characters and dozens of elaborate locations, the kind of project he considered “unfilmable.”

Tyrion Lannister
Game of Thrones character Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. Photo by Macall B. Polay/ HBO.

A Game of Thrones (Bantam Books), published in 1996, was the start of Martin’s third career reinvention. Critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth built with each subsequent volume in the series, and the HBO television show’s debut in 2011 brought a whole new level of success and exposure. (The series, the most popular in HBO’s history, was last year’s winner of the Emmy Award for outstanding drama series.) Martin is a co-executive producer of the show, which he admits, “doesn’t actually mean much of anything. I have a voice in decisions like casting, but no one’s obliged to listen to me.”

Martin still seems taken aback by the level of fame he’s achieved. “I’m recognized everywhere,” he says. “I’ve lost all control of it.” Even his initials are well known; online, he’s often simply referred to as GRRM. (When he wants to go incognito, Martin swaps his trademark sailor's cap for another hat. See "What's with the Cap?")

Illustration by Don Morris

Though Martin misses his past anonymity, he’s grateful to be able to support causes he cares about. He uses the power of his fan base to raise money for the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico and turned a shuttered theater in Santa Fe into a vibrant venue for movie screenings and author appearances. Most recently, Martin paid to refurbish an old bowling alley where a local artists’ collective is creating a massive interactive exhibit. “It’s great to give a check to charity, but I like the idea of giving back to Santa Fe in a really tangible way,” Martin says.

Martin is also known for being accessible and open with his fans. He’s a regular at science fiction and comic book conventions and gracious when answering questions he’s been asked hundreds of times before. His longtime friend Melinda Snodgrass, also a writer in Santa Fe, says Martin is equally generous with fellow writers; by encouraging her to write a script and showing it to his agent, he helped get her hired on the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. “He’s always so happy to hear that a friend has made a sale or won an award,” she says. Snodgrass and Martin have been active for years in fantasy role-playing games (one of which they developed into a series of more than 20 books, Wild Cards, written by a rotating group of authors), and Snodgrass says Martin loves being the bad guy. “He always plays rogues and rascals,” she says. “Never turn your back on a George character!”

It’s clear Martin has a soft spot for characters who don’t fit neatly into “good” or “bad” stereotypes; studying history taught him that real people can be both. “I’ve always intended my characters to be gray,” he says. “We all have the capacity for heroism or villainy.” When he’s asked who his favorite character is (a question he’s asked a lot), he always says, “All of them.” During a Northwestern Q&A, Martin even stood up for the ruthless boy-king Joffrey, one of his most memorably vicious creations. “You don’t want to give a 13-year-old absolute power,” Martin said. “I could easily see myself making some school bullies fight to the death if I’d been king at that age. It would have been amazing!”   

GRRM on sci-fi and fantasyThough A Song of Ice and Fire has positioned Martin as a fantasy writer, he’s still an enthusiastic science fiction fan who laments that the genre he grew up with has taken such a negative turn. “When I was a kid, I would stay home from school whenever there was a Mercury [spacecraft] launch and watch on our old black-and-white TV,” he says. “I hoped I’d live long enough to see a man walk on the moon — and it happened!” Speaking at Cahn Auditorium, he looked out and realized none of the students in the audience had ever seen a man go to the moon. “For 50 years, science fiction predicted that we would go into space,” says Martin. “Almost no one predicted that we would retreat from it. I’m sometimes still astonished by that.” In a pop culture landscape filled with dystopian visions, “We’re looking at the future with trepidation and fear. There’s been a general loss of faith in the world of tomorrow.”

One country where science fiction is having a resurgence, Martin notes, is China. The Three-Body Problem, a novel by Cixin Liu set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, won the Hugo Award for best novel last year, the top honor for science fiction and fantasy books. “It represents a real opening-up of Chinese sci-fi to American readers,” Martin says. “Science fiction is very popular there, because China is still looking to the future.”  

Martin’s own future may look rosy, but it comes with its own burdens. The fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series came out in 2011, and he’s been working on the next one ever since. (A seventh and final book is also in the works.) “I’m a slow writer,” he admits, and it’s clear he feels the pressure from fans, his publisher and everyone associated with the Game of Thrones juggernaut. The HBO series “caught up” to the books last year, and producers are currently filming episodes based on storylines that haven’t been published yet. “The show doesn’t influence what I write,” Martin says, “other than adding to my stress.”

Devoted readers can take heart that Martin does have a plan for what comes next. “I know the broad strokes of the story,” he says. “I know the end of most of my characters, but the devil is in the details.” To Northwestern students who asked for some hint of how he’d wrap up such an elaborate story, he promised only that the ending would be “bittersweet.”

No doubt Martin will have the same bittersweet feelings when he finishes the saga that has dominated the last two decades of his life. “I always remember that this too will pass,” he says. “I imagine that one day I’ll go on the Internet and see the headline ‘Where Are They Now? Do you remember George R.R. Martin? He was famous once upon a time.’ ”