An Evening with George R.R. Martin

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In celebration of the inaugural Harris Collection Literary Award this past Thursday, the Brown University Library organization awarded and interviewed author George R.R. Martin and publisher Tom Doherty. While Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, is renowned in the world of fantasy novel publishing, it was Martin who attracted crowds of students and Providence residents alike.

Martin, a plump man with a friendly face, talked about his upbringing in Bayonne, New Jersey and his childhood love of comic books nearly as often as he mentioned the famous book series that has launched him to international fame. Yet his reputation and popularity were clear; the Salomon auditorium was approaching full capacity thirty minutes before the event and the following reception was crowded with fans.

That famous book series, A Song of Ice and Firewhich began in 1991 and has gained a resurgence in popularity since the arrival of its HBO television adaption, Game of Thrones, was the hot topic of the night. Not unlike the comic books he loved so much as a child, Martin’s book series has become a franchise in its own right, producing not only a television series, but action figures, pop-up museums and board games.

Yet Martin does not consider this franchising to be a slight on his product, even going as far to say “Fitzgerald would’ve sold it in a minute.” He spoke on his conditions of approvals and notes before the releasing of a franchise product, even mentioning early disputes with HBO over such rights that could have endangered the television show.

The book series, along with Game of Thrones, has become famous for its unexpected deaths and atypical storytelling techniques. Martin has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien, though he expressed his resistance to reusing the Lord of the Rings author’s images and tropes unlike many other fantasy writers.

Instead, he utilized techniques picked up from his screenwriting days during which he worked on shows such as Beauty and the Beast and Twilight Zone. “Each chapter leaves you wanting more,” Martin said of his novels, which are lauded for their usage of numerous point-of-view characters and usage of suspense.

While the majority of the interview was comprised of praise for the novels, moderator and professor of Modern Culture & Media Lynne Joyrich did not shy away from more controversial topics ranging from fan fiction to questions of race and sexual violence.

On the topic of race, a particular scene from the novels and show was cited, in which a main protagonist Daenerys Tagaryen could be seen as a “white savior” due to her freeing of numerous slaves played by actors of color. However, Martin was quick to call attention to the separation between the show and the book. He argued that his portrayal of slavery was modeled more after slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome, where slavery was predicated on national identity and not race. Still, he defended the show by remarking on a casting call for extras that “when you’re in Morocco, Moroccans show up.”

This instance was not the first time Martin referred to historical events. He mentioned historical episodes including the “War of Roses” and the “Black Dinner” as inspiration, and said that Scotland provided lots of inspiration with its “bloody history.” Yet, he never got too specific, claiming his books involve universal concerns such as power, government, and war. Still, he said he looks to combine the “wonders of fantasy” with the gritty realism of history through his writing.

Some of this grittiness has garnered a lot of criticism, especially in relation to how it is handled on television. For example, moderator Joyrich mentioned “sexposition,” a phrase coined by reviewers of the show when referring to a scene in which significant backstory is given while a sexual act is happening. Martin was clear that he defined sexposition and sexuality quite differently while, again, defending the showrunners for their choices. He was less direct in his defense of tougher subjects such as sexual violence, though he did not deny its place in his fantasy world.

The night ended on a more promising note, with Martin philosophizing on the future of television and other forms of storytelling. He concluded that whether it be books, television, or film, all of these were at their root about stories.  He wished that, if people took anything away from his novels, it was the fundamental narrative of the “human heart in conflict with itself.”

Martin articulated his belief that we are living in the Golden Age of storytelling; genres and categories are being broken down and the complexities of the nature of heroism and humanity are taking precedence.

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