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The many flavours of


By Alex von Thorn


I had the pleasure of speaking with George R.R. Martin, an author with a vast range of talent, at the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Philadelphia. He won his first Hugo award in 1975, and has a total of seven Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, plus countless nominations. He also led the writing team for the television show Beauty and the Beast [1987–89], he edited the popular Wild Cards series of superhero anthologies, and now is the author of the bestselling fantasy series "Song of Ice and Fire." He will be the Author Guest of Honour at Torcon 3, the 61st Worldcon, to be held in Toronto in 2003. His middle initials stand for Raymond Richard.

Doing research, I found a lot about your accomplishments, but little about your life before you were a writer. Can you tell me about your background?

Before I was a writer, I was a child. I've always written. I wrote stories for other kids and sold them for a nickel. I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, lived there all through the early part of my life. Then I went away to college in Chicago and Northwestern University, where I was a journalism major, went for five years, got a Master's. But I sold my first story when I was still a graduate student, somewhere between my fifth year and my senior year. At first I couldn't make a living from it and I had to do other things. I ran chess tournaments, I worked for Vista for two years for a legal assistance foundation, I taught college, journalism, in the late 70s. But for the most part I was always oriented towards writing fiction. I did that while I did all those other jobs, and by about 1979, I had a couple novels under my belt, so I was doing well enough that I could write full-time and I didn't need the other jobs any more.

You've worked in science fiction, in television, the superhero genre, and fantasy now. What common elements or themes unite your diverse range of work?

It's all imaginative fiction. These distinctions between science fiction, horror, fantasy that people seem to put so much stock in these days are, to my mind, artificial distinctions. It's all a subset of romantic fiction, and it draws very heavily on the imagination. When I was a kid reading all this stuff, reading Tolkien, Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, Andre Norton, my father was watching Twilight Zone on TV, and he called it all "weird stuff." And I liked "weird stuff," where he liked westerns. I think there's an element of truth to that: you can lump it all together as "weird stuff." Since I read it all, I've always written it all. It just seems to me to be a continuous spectrum. I know some writers who have very sharp distinctions: science fiction is this, fantasy is that, and they're opposites. Well, they're not opposites; they're just different flavours. They're both ice cream: one of them is vanilla and one of them is chocolate.

I wanted to know what concepts or themes you use in your different pieces of work.

I think that's varied over the years. You write about the things that concern you, things that you value in life. I find that as you're writing it your concerns change from when you're a student in your late teens or early twenties and when you're an old fart like me. Suddenly, you're concerned with very different things. But I think you have to go to the stories themselves to figure out what they're about.

What would you have liked to do on Beauty and the Beast that you were never able to?

I would have liked the show to have lasted longer. We were thrown a real curveball at the end of the second season when Linda Hamilton left the show, and we had to deal with that one way or another. We had to write out the character and bring in a new character. That may have been a mistake; it opened up certain dramatic possibilities that we felt would make for a powerful show, but perhaps it was not the best thing in terms of the longevity of the show. The actress and the character were much beloved by the audience.

But I think by the end of the second season we were really hitting our stride. We had very strong continuity, we were doing some great things, we had a show that was a trilogy ending the season that was very powerful, I think. We had planned to come back in the third season with a lead out of it to another trilogy. That would have been a very powerful six-part episode about life and death, and the fine line between humanity and bestiality, what makes a human being, some important thematic stuff.

But then Linda left. We thought, "God, what do we open the season with now? We can't do the shows that we planned on, we have to bring in a new character, we have to write out Linda." She only gave us a certain amount of days to do it, and I think we did some good work in the third season, but the transition was certainly very rough. The trilogy was not resolved at all the way we wanted. In fact, that would be one thing I would work with if we could do it over again.

What were the themes of the show, other than the obvious romantic focus?

I'm not sure the theme of the show was romance. I mean, it was a romantic show, but I think in a drama, whether it's a book or a television show, each character really has their own story. Vincent was at the heart of that. His story was really a quest for identity: what was he, was he a human being, was he a beast? What is the difference between a human being and a beast? Where does humanity begin and end? What makes a man a beast? These were all issues that we considered in various episodes of the show. Vincent was always wrestling with his own identity and his own nature in a very basic way.

And I think the quest for romance, the quest for a soulmate, was always more Catherine's story. She knew her identity, her question was finding her other half, finding someone to keep her alive. Finding how much we give up to accept someone that we love. There are other things that we value in our lives, our family, our lifestyle, our job, our etcetera. All of these were issues. But each character had their own arc. Father, Elliot Burch, even secondary characters had their own demons and triumphs.

Did you have much opportunity to communicate your vision directly to the actors on B&B? How did you find working with the production team and, if you had any contact with them, with the actors?

Yes, we communicated with the actors. We weren't on the set all the time. The show was filmed in a different city on the other side of Los Angeles from where the writing offices were. But usually, when one of our episodes was actually being filmed, we would be down there taking part, first watching the dailies, so there was an amount of back-end work. It really varied very widely with every actor. It's a personal thing. Some actors are very talkative, some are not; some are charming, some are truculent. So you develop your own relationships with each member of the cast at greater or lesser levels of communication.

Roy Dotrice and Ron Perlman were always very easy to work with. Roy is a classically trained British actor, so he is very used to playing a wide variety of roles. You could always count on Roy to do a great job for you, and also, he was a very charming man. He was the most fascinating guy if you ever wanted to go out to have dinner with or have a drink; he'd tell stories, do accents, he'd be done for hours, so it was always good to work with Roy. We didn't see as much of Ron as Roy, but again he was fun to work with. Much different from Vincent, of course. Ron in person is a New Yorker, he smokes cigars, he's got a very wry sense of humour, he'd be joking around and puffing on a stogie. And of course his voice is completely different. Ron Perlman does not speak like Vincent, so the Vincent voice was a deliberate actor's choice. It was quite easy to keep the two of them apart. Ron was always a pleasure to work with.

Do you like working in television better, or in print? What are some of the most interesting differences between these media in your work, and in your life?

Books are my first love. I began writing short stories and books, and that's what I'm back to doing now. Television and film were an interesting few years, I learned a lot from it, but it would never replace books as far as I'm concerned. Certainly, for a writer, books are the ultimate art form. You're everything when you write a book; you're the writer, you're also the director, you're all the actors, the set director, the costume designer, the special effects guy.

Film and television are much more collaborative media. Other people come in and do their parts. You begin with this vision and you're trying to get it true, but they have their visions too, so there's always, even in the best of teams, a certain amount of friction. You're thinking red and they're thinking pink, and you gotta hassle out what exactly should be done. Sometimes that becomes very maddening and acrimonious, and sometimes it's very pleasant, sort of brainstorming, people sparking ideas at each other. But you never know what it's going to be until you actually get into it. Ultimately I think all writers worth their salt are egotists—I mean people who dream up worlds and casts of characters for a living. We don't compromise easily; we don't play well with others. So books are always going to be my first love.

Could you tell me one or two things that you learned from television that you use in your writing now?

The two things that are most critical in television and screenwriting are a strong sense of structure. A screenplay has to have a very strong story skeleton, and you need the ear for dialogue, because dialogue is really what carries it, along with the images provided by the director. I think I was pretty good at these things before I got into it, but certainly focusing on that for 10 years sharpened me in both these regards. You can definitely see it in my dialogue. I think it's much sharper, funnier, stronger than before I did my 10 years in Hollywood.

Your series "Song of Ice and Fire" had a really wonderful depth of setting and character. But now in the year of the first Lord of the Rings movie, do you feel that epic fantasy has peaked as a subgenre?

I can't speak for other writers. I definitely don't think it's peaked. If it peaked artistically, it was in the 1940s with Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings still remains the great exemplar of the form. I don't think anything has been done since that's close to it. But that's plenty of motivation for the rest of us to climb that Mount Everest and see what we can do. Hopefully with different flavours and different textures and a different feel. There's been a lot of epic fantasy written, a lot of it is really bad. Some of it is good. There are some wonderful writers writing epic fantasy: Jack Vance has done some great work over the years, Robin Hobb is doing some nice stuff presently, Guy Gavriel Kay has done some marvellous things, and I could name a lot more writers.

But even so, very few of these people have ever approached Tolkien. So I think the best of epic fantasy is yet to come. There is a tendency, unfortunately, in many artistic fields to judge a form or a genre by its worst examples. People who don't like science fiction do that, so they think all science fiction is Star Trek, when it's not. People who don't read a lot of fantasy judge all fantasy by the first of David Eddings or Terry Brooks. It's more than that, it can be a lot more, and it's really up to the writers to make it [more than] that. You can write a great book in any genre or subgenre—mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, historical, what have you. It all depends on the writer, on the story he chooses to tell and how well he tells it.

The interpretation of "Sandkings" on The Outer Limits was very different from the story that you wrote. What do you think worked better or worse on television as opposed to the printed page?

I liked my version, but I know the reasons why they changed it. There are budgetary constraints in Hollywood. My version of "Sandkings" takes place on another planet, with a high level of technology, people flying around in flying cars and things like that, all of which would have made it prohibitively expensive to do on a television budget. Might have been able to do it as a feature film like Star Wars, but not on a TV budget. So I know why they changed it, moved it to Earth, made it present-day, made it lot easier to film. My friend Melinda Snodgrass did the script. I think she did a nice adaptation; it works well enough on its own terms. But like anyone else, I prefer my version. I think the original story was stronger than the TV version, but the TV version was good enough. A lot of people liked it and watched that series quite successfully, because that's what they wanted it to do: get the new series rolling.

Your stories such as "Nightflyers" and "Tuf Voyaging" are some of the best stories to appear in Analog and other magazines in the 1980s. How do you think the print magazines are doing today, and which ones are your favourites?

Magazines are in trouble, there's no doubt about that. Their circulation is in decline every year. More of them die every year. In recent years, we've lost Amazing—that was the oldest magazine; we've lost Science Fiction Age, which was a new magazine that seemed to be doing very well. So like most writers, I'm afraid for that. In terms of quality I think the magazines are fine. I guess my favourite is Asimov's, but F&SF is also doing some great stuff; Gordon Van Gelder is a strong editor there. But that doesn't necessarily translate to sales. And that's unfortunate, because the magazines are the entry level, where the best new writers come from.

I think too many writers are rushing into novels. Even if you can sell your first novel, I think it's a mistake to do so before you build up your reputation and learn your craft from the magazines. Publish short stories for five or six years and then attempt your first novel. Not only will you know what you're doing and produce a better first novel, but you'll have established a certain rep, so your first novel will have an audience for it. There could just be a first novel by somebody you've never heard of thrown out on the stands, it sells badly, and the new writer's career is over before it's properly launched, because he's been dropped in the middle of the ocean and told to swim. That's very hard. We need the magazines, they've traditionally been the heart of the field, and the fact that they're in so much danger is very worrisome.

Since we're here at the Worldcon, let me ask: What kinds of topics or ideas do you like to talk about at panels when you come to a con?

I like to talk about all sorts of things. I like to sit in a bar with my friends and shoot the bull. On the panels, I like talking about the state of the field, about writing, about some of the issues we've been talking about here: books versus television, magazines, how a new writer breaks in, all of this stuff.


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