The unwavering success of Game of Thrones continues to be a surreal and stressful ride for George R. R. Martin. The author admitted as much, and more, during a candid, sold-out discussion with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on Wednesday. Martin was present to receive the school’s Hall of Achievement alumni award, which honors graduates whose careers have had positive impacts on their respective fields, and to give two separate talks to the Northwestern community.
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1. No, he didn’t think the show would catch up to him — but he’s not fazed:
“I’ve been hearing them come up behind me for years, and the question is,How can I make myself write faster? I think, by now, the answer is, I can’t. I write at the pace I write, and what the show is doing is not going to change what the books are,” he said, noting that the only way the TV series influences his writing is in the sense that it ratchets up his stress. “I started writing about these characters and this world in 1991, and we didn’t have the first meetings to create the show until 2008, so I got like a 17-year head start!” (To be fair, the workflow timeline is kind of incomparable when you consider the difference between a 1,500-page manuscript and a rapid-fire set of 60-page teleplays.)
2. Martin’s career has not been all sunshine and rainbows:
One of the recurring themes Martin discussed Wednesday was the instability of a career in writing, how success or a hot streak can fizzle as quickly, or quicker, than it develops. The author admitted that long before the current success of GoT, he had to rework his career a few times — one instance, in particular, was thanks to a show called Doorways, for which a pilot was shot in 1992:
Doorways is interesting. That was one of the greatest crossroads of my career. After I had done The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, I had moved up the ranks in Hollywood, I had gone from a staff writer to a story editor to an executive story editor to a producer to a co-producer to a supervising producer, and the next step for me was to develop my own show. I wrote pilots for half a dozen shows, none of which ever got picked up, even as a pilot, exceptDoorways. And Doorways became a pilot for ABC, and at the time, it looked like we were going to get a slot on the schedule. They went so far as to order six backup scripts, and I hired six writers, and we spent half a year developing and polishing and getting ready to shoot the first six episodes when we got the green light.
But we never did.
And then of course, like a year later, a show called Sliders came along, and had basically the same premise, but just done stupid. And that ran for a number of years. And at the time, it was one of the great disappointments of my life. I really thought, and I had good reason to think, that Doorways was going to go, that I was going to be a showrunner with my own series on the air, and had it been a hit, I would have been encouraged to do another show, and another show, and I might have been Dick Wolf or Steven Bochco or something at some point. When Doorways failed to go, and all the other shows I had been developing didn’t get to the pilot stage, people suddenly stopped returning my calls. You get a certain amount of strikes out there in Hollywood. You’re as successful as your last project, so that was kind of a bitter disappointment for me.
Don’t worry, though — he looks back on the show now and realizes that its spiking was a blessing. It was essentially going to be a wannabe-serialized mess of a show, with no dearth of alternate worlds, budget woes, and special-effects shortcomings. “I would have produced an ambitious but severely crippled television show that might not have been the show I really wanted it to be,” he said. “And, failing that, I wrote this Game of Thrones thing, and that worked out pretty well.”
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5. He pointed out that sci-fi is a lot more depressing now:
When asked about the future of his favorite genres — sci-fi, in particular — Martin noted one astute observation about the contemporary stories crowding bookshelves now. It seems we’re afraid of the world of tomorrow, he said, referencing the fact that sci-fi books in the ’50s and ’60s typically marveled at the possibility of future advancements that would make life easier; whereas, now, such stories like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and The Giver spin much more pessimistic, dystopian yarns. “Where does science fiction go from now? Does it go into dystopias? Or is there a new way to constitute this stuff?” he asked, pointing out that writers have seemingly abandoned the older sensibilities of the Robert A. Heinleins of the genre. “I don’t know.”