I didn’t want to talk to George R.R. Martin about Game of Thrones. That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what any editor wants to hear from a writer, but it’s true. Of course, as a fan of the novels and HBO series, I want to know who lives, dies and how it all ends ... but I know Martin is not dishing, so why waste the questions on it?
Besides, other than the fact that he's a blockbuster author, there’s another aspect of the man to discuss: George R.R. Martin the nerd. Martin grew up a fan of sci-fi, wrote letters to comics publishers and was published in Stan Lee’s “Soapbox” column. He has definite ideas about Star Trek and owns the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, N.M., where he has a full-size replica of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.
At the Courtyard Marriott stage in Petco Park during this past San Diego Comic-Con, Martin was in a geek-out mood after crowning a king and queen of cosplay. In front of a crowd of fans, he unleashed gems such as “Star Trek was a lot of fun, Roddenberry stole everything from Forbidden Planet,” and told Star Wars fans they can keep R2-D2 but he’ll take Robby anytime.
When it comes to super powers, he said getting struck by a lightning bolt to become the Flash -- or risking blood poisoning for wall-crawling abilities after getting bit by a radioactive arachnid -- wasn’t that appealing to him as a child.
“When I was a kid, the power I really wanted was Green Lantern’s,” he said. “I wanted to find this ring that I would be able to put on and have the power to do anything I imagined, as long as it was green ... finding a ring seemed less painful than the Flash.”
Though he added that the Human Torch’s powers struck a chord with him, he said his narrative impulse for realism was with him even when he was 12 or 13 years old.
“Reading Fantastic Four, I would think Human Torch is really cool, but how come he never burns anyone? I knew some bullies in school; I would have just fried their asses.”
So, with a little insight into his nerdy side, when given the opportunity to sit down with him (after he tried on this Robot Chicken head), I wanted to talk to George R.R. Martin fanboy to fanboy.
What is a book you’ve kept around for years that’s beaten up, tattered and yellowed?
I have every book I’ve ever read, and every comic book. I have a library, so they’re all tattered and beat up. I have Scribner’s hardback of Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, the first science fiction book I’ve ever read. It was given to me by a friend of my mother. Until then I was only reading comic books, and I read that one. The cover is so tattered it’s falling off, the dust jacket. The book itself is still in pretty good shape, and I think it’s the best of Heinlein’s juveniles and one of his best novels. Terrific book.
One of mine is an Asimov book from the Robot novels; it's a reprinting I've kept with me over the years.
The Robot series? Oh yeah, Caves of Steel. That was the best one.
You’ve mentioned you had a letter to Stan Lee printed in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column when you were a kid. Can you talk about the first time you met him, and did you share that story?
You know, it’s ironic, actually. I read Marvel a lot, and I read DC and all the comics. Especially the superhero comics, and there were a lot of other companies in those days, but the two big ones were Marvel and DC, and I wrote letters to them both. Stan on Fantastic Four, X-Men and The Avengers, and a couple other titles, printed my letters. I probably had six, seven or eight letters in those various issues. DC never printed my letters. They were all to [Julius] Julie Schwartz, who was the editor then of Justice League, The Flash and Green Lantern -- which were my favorite titles -- and later he took over Batman. Julie was an old science fiction guy before he was known in comic-book fandom.
Later in life, when I start going to conventions and become a writer and become famous, I met Julie and we became good friends. I love Julie. We’d often go off and have dinner together, and I’ll always complain: “Julie, you never published my letters,” and he’ll go, “Well, you should have wrote better letters!” It was great. He passed away a few years ago and I still miss him. Julius Schwartz, one of the great comic-book editors.
Stan I’ve met a half dozen times at San Diego. We have been introduced by people like Len Wein, or on receiving lines, and he doesn’t have the vaguest idea who the hell I am. Whenever I meet him, he doesn’t remember meeting me before, he doesn’t remember publishing my letters, so it’s weird. The guy who published all my letters I can’t break through to him, but the guy who rejected all my letters I became friends with.
Life is full of these little ironies. But Stan was an amazing creator, and I think he and Julie made the Silver Age. There were a lot of great creators in those days, certainly many on the artist side, but I’m a writer and the writers and editors are the ones I kind of look at and appreciate what they did. Stan revolutionized superhero comic books in ways we’re still feeling. It’s become a multibillion-dollar industry largely because of Stan Lee.
I have met him a bunch of times, interviewed him a bunch of times and hosted Q&As with him …
Does he know who you are?
No! He has no idea.
You are still writing the novels as the series runs concurrently. When you write, are you still seeing the original character you created in your head, or are you seeing actors from the show? For instance, do you see Peter Dinklage in your head?
I don’t. I began writing these things in 1991; we had the first meeting about the TV series in 2007. I’d lived and worked with these characters 12 months a year for 16 years before the series was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. They are too deeply rooted to be displaced by the actors. I understand, recognize and acknowledge for viewers, Tyrion will always look like Peter Dinklage, Arya will always look like Maisie Williams. That’s the picture for them, but it doesn’t apply to me. I have the characters who I’ve been living with for so long. Those roots are too deep and strong to be displaced.
Regarding interviews, you have taught journalism, and I’ve taught journalism as an adjunct …
Cool! What the hell are you teaching them? [Laughs]
Honestly it’s that they don’t necessarily have to go to school for journalism.
I’ll tell you, that was my major …
Me too …
And I taught journalism at [Clarke University in Iowa] for two years. You’re not guilty of this, but sometimes I’m shocked by some of these interviews I do. Interviewers ask the same [expletive] questions over and over and over again. When I was learning and teaching this, when you’re assigned to an interview, the first thing you did was read all the existing interviews so you wouldn’t just ask the same questions. Since, that decision has gone out; either that or journalism has become notably lazier. Forgive the diatribe!
Forbidden Planet was a big sci-fi movie for you, so what changed it all for you within the fantasy genre? And is all fantasy destined to be in the shadow of Tolkien?
For fantasy, it was Lord of the Rings, beyond a doubt. Modern fantasy is all in the shadow of Tolkien. There was fantasy before Tolkien, but he defined the genre and changed it in fundamental ways. Everyone since has either been influenced to imitate Tolkien or is writing a reaction to Tolkien to try and change that. There’s no doubt Tolkien has affected them. That’s the one that’s so huge no one can escape his shadow.