Fantasy Author George R.R. Martin: Blood of Bayonne

We chat with Bayonne-bred author George R.R. Martin, whose seven-part book series A Song of Ice and Fire is the basis for the HBO fantasy hit Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones
From top to bottom: Cast members Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage, and Bayonne-bred author George R.R. Martin.
Illustration by Peter Horvath.

HBO’s medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones is based off Bayonne-bred author George R.R. Martin’s seven-part book series called A Song of Ice and Fire. New Jersey Monthly writers Joanna Buffum and Dylan Runco spoke with the Jersey native and media juggernaut about the upcoming third season, how he feels about the page-to-screen process, and some of his strongest memories of the Garden State.

In the lengthy interview, Martin reveals what Jersey food he misses the most while living in New Mexico, his brew suggestions for more Game of Thrones-inspired beer, and why he’s so hot for Diana Rigg.

Read the print-edition article King of Fantasy.

NOTE: There are some spoilers for those who haven’t read the books.

New Jersey Monthly: We know that you’re from Bayonne, but were you born there?

George R.R. Martin: Yes indeed. Bayonne Hospital.  November 20, 1948.

NJM: Can you describe for us what it was like growing up in Bayonne back in the 50s and 60s?

GRRM: Well, um, it was the only world I knew. We didn’t have much money, my father was a longshoremen and my mother, when I was older, worked in a factory in Bayonne, the maidenform factory. I had two younger sisters. We lived in federal housing projects down on First Street. I went to school on Fifth Street, and that was pretty much my world, from First Street to Fifth Street, except in my imagination, because I was a voracious reader of books and science fiction books and fantasy books, and all of that stuff. We didn’t even own a car, so we never went anywhere. Maybe once a year we would go into New York City to see at show at Radio City Music Hall or something like that. But, mostly Bayonne was the only world I knew, except for the world of imagination.

NJM: We read the introduction that you wrote for the Warriors anthology where you talk about the spinner racks in Bayonne and how it inspired you to write stories for your friends. What other ways did your childhood in New Jersey influence your work?

GRRM: Well, of course I’ve used my background for some of my characters, probably the most autobiographical character was my character in the Wild Cards series, the Turtle [or The Great and Powerful Turtle, real name Thomas Tudbury], lives where I lived [in Bayonne] and goes to school where I went to school, and he had my life except I didn’t develop superpowers… but I wanted to develop superpowers.

You know, I think in some way, since we had the life we did, it pushed me more towards imagination. There was part of me that wanted to see the world and travel to distant places, but I could only do it in my imagination, so I read ferociously, and imagined things. You know, the apartment where we lived on First Street, well we lived in two apartments in the projects, and we moved in when I was four years old. At first we lived in apartment 114, and a few years later when my second sister was born, we moved into the larger apartment, 116. And 116 faced directly to First Street, and across that was the Kill van Kull, and the lights of Staten Island would be beyond that, and I think that actually had an effect on me, because I would look off on the waters of the Kill van Kull. There were always big ships on the way to Port Newark, going up and down there, you know freighters and oil tankers and things like that with flags from all over the world. I had an encyclopedia with a list of flags in the back, so I would look at all these flags of China and Liberia and England and Denmark and whatever, and I learned all the different flags and I tried to imagine what it would be like to be voyaging on some of these ships. And across the way was Staten Island and the lights of Staten Island which were… the great beyond. And once again, occasionally we would cross the bridge and go over to the Staten Island Zoo or take the ferry across, since they had a ferry in those days, but again, that was only like once a year or something, and mostly Staten Island was Shangri-La to me. It was just lights shining on the water, lights of people that I would never see, people that I would never touch, but it really, I don’t know, kindled my imagination.

NJM: So if you had to equate one region of Westeros to New Jersey, what part do you think it would be?

GRRM: No, I don’t think so, Westeros is really nothing like New Jersey. New Jersey is New Jersey, Westeros is whole different kind of place. The interesting thing about growing up in Bayonne, if you know Bayonne, is that it’s very urban; of course, it was very industrial back in the 50s. A lot of oil refineries and stuff down on Hook Road, which was right near us, and then where Bayonne ends is 67th street where Jersey City begins, and where Jersey City ends Hoboken beings; it’s all one big city.

And that’s what I grew up as a kid, and I actually had a hard time when I would read books that were like towns not surrounded by other towns, and it would be countryside in between. I had a hard time picturing that because I would say, well why doesn’t anybody live there? What do you mean, you cross the street and there’s nothing there? You cross the street and it’s the next town! I just really didn’t recognize as a little kid what it would be like to live in that kind of place. I thought the whole world was one giant city. There were aspects of Bayonne that I look back on, and I think they’re actually sort of great. Bayonne in the 50s was an old city and everything was all mixed together. So we lived in the projects and just a couple blocks away there were storefronts, and people lived in the apartments above the storefronts. And there was a lumber…a factory yard across the street from me, and I could walk there. I could walk two blocks in one direction and would be among single-family homes, and I could walk two blocks in the other direction and there would be a factory or a warehouse. Everything was mixed up. There was no zoning or anything like that. That was sort of adventurous, you know?

Sometimes me and the other kids would walk out on Hook Road, and we would head out towards where all the factories and warehouses were, and we would trespass and sneak around and it was all like adventurous, you know? I remember once climbing this big ladder that led up to the roof of this factory, and me and my friends dared each other, so we snuck in and climbed up to the roof on this ladder that went up like three stories. You know, I’m sure it’s all very dangerous stuff that kids shouldn’t be doing. Once, on a construction site I stepped on a nail. I look at some of the cities that I looked at subsequently in the Midwest, and they’re all so sterile. Like, all the factories and the industrial areas in this section, and here’s the stores and the shopping section and the malls, and here’s the suburbs where’s there’s nothing except for homes. Everything is separated from everything else. There was vitality to Bayonne; you saw all sides of life just within a few blocks of each other. That, I think, was a very healthy way to design a city.

NJM: You sound just like Bran climbing those rooftops. So we know from your writing that you love describing food. Do you have any favorite pubs or restaurants in New Jersey that you like to visit when you’re home?

GRRM: Oh, I miss the pizza in Bayonne. Out here in New Mexico, where I live presently, in Santa Fe, we have the best Mexican food in the world, and we have great steaks and Chinese food and things like that, but that pizza is not equal to the pizza you get in a Jersey pizza joint. And bar pies, I miss those things. I remember the restaurants, we didn’t go to many restaurants, but my father went to a lot of bars, and he would drag us along. In the 50s, women were not allowed in bars in New Jersey. They were allowed to drink, but they were not allowed in the actual bars, it was a state law, so all the bars had back rooms. So my father would take my mother and us kids out to his favorite local bar, and he would park us in the back room where we would eat bar pies and my mother would drink a beer, and us kids would drink coke, and then he would go to the bar, and sit with his friends and watch sports on TV and drink beers, but it was like a different world. And of course the bars in those days would make the bar pie pizzas, the really thin crust pizzas that were some the best pizza you could ever have, man.

NJM: When you started writing A Song of Ice and Fire how did you want it to stand out from other fantasy novels?

GRRM: You know, you always try to do your own thing. One of the things I wanted to do was to write a book that combines some of the best traits of contemporary fantasy with some of the traits of the historical novel. And I, of course, was a great fan of Tolkien, and Lord of the Rings and many other fantasy writers, Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, Robert E Howard, but I always loved historical fiction. Some of the writers of the 50s like Thomas B. Costain, and some of the contemporary writers, like the Scottish writer Nigel Tranter, Maurice Druon, the great French writer, Sharon Kay Penman, Bernard Cornwell; and it seemed to me that the historical fiction, particularly the historical fiction set during the middle ages, had an excitement to it and a grittiness and a realness to it that the fantasy novels lacked, even when they were supposedly set during a quasi-medieval period. I wanted to combine the best of both worlds, to almost write a historical novel about history that never happened.

NJM: Can you talk about any challenges you’ve faced while writing the series?

GRRM: A constant challenge is how do you keep all these plots straight? I feel like I’m juggling a bunch of balls, and sometimes it’s hard to keep all the balls separate from each other. The sheer size of the series is daunting. Back when I began this a long long time ago, I think I began working on Game of Thrones way back in 1991, although I didn’t work on it continuously, I was working on several other projects at the same time, and I was doing a lot of television and film work in the early 90s, but I started it in ’91, I finished it in ’95, and it came out in ’96. At that time I still thought I was writing a trilogy, and I thought I would be done with the whole thing in five, or maybe in three books, but in the course of writing it, as has happened with Tolkien, and some other writers, the tale grew in the telling. I’m five books in, and I still have two more to go.

NJM: Since you have experience in television, when you were writing the series were you imagining it cinematically?

GRRM: It’s just the reverse, actually, I was convinced that it never ever could be made into a film. I had spent ten years in television, roughly, from the mid 80’s to the mid-90s, and I did television, and I did feature films, I was on staff for a couple shows, I did pilots of my own, I created television shows. Through all that time, perhaps because I came from the world of prose, my stories were always too big and too expensive. I would turn in these scripts or screenplays and the network or producers would roll their eyes and say, ‘Well this is great George, but it would take five times our budget for the entire series to do it.’ So I would go back and cut, and trim, and combine characters and turn a battle into a duel, or eliminate some special effects, and create a more producible series, but after ten years of that I was sick of it. I wanted to write something big, something that was as large as my imagination, something that did not have all these artificial budgetary limits.

So, I started writing A Song of ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, the first book, and you know if you would have asked me back then, I would say, this is never going to be made. They didn’t make most of the things I made that were producible, and this thing is absolutely unproducible. It has a cast of thousands, it has an extremely complex plot, it has dragons and direwolves and castles, and it’s a period piece, so we need all these period settings and costumes, and it’s everything that makes a television show unproducible.

David Benihoff and David Weiss came along, two very talented but insane guys who thought that it could be done, and I was certainly willing to give them a chance, especially when I discovered that they wanted to go to HBO with it. Because to the extent that I thought about it, if there’s anyway to do this at all, it’s not as a feature film, and I turned down several feature offers. You can’t get it all, it’s too much story to fit into two movies. It has to be a television series, and it can’t be a network television series where they put it on and cancel it after three episodes, it has to be like a HBO series, a series of series, each book as a years worth of shows. And no censors, no problems with the sex and the violence, because the book has a lot of both of those, and that’s what we wound up with.

NJM: So when Dave and Dan first suggested it to you, did they come up with the idea of having a book roughly correspond with a season, or was that your suggestion?

GRRM: I think we both agreed on that it should be a book a season. That’s a logical way to do it, instead of trying to get the whole thing into two and a half hours, as for a feature film, you’re left with ten or twelve hours for each novel. Given the number of characters, and plots and subplots, that’s what you want.

NJM: Since the books are written from the perspective of limited third person narrators, we get a lot interactions in the television series that would be impossible in the books. Which one was your favorite?

GRRM: They’ve done a whole bunch of great ones. I love the scene between Robert and Cersei in the first season where they talk about their marriage, and their history together, and I of course love the scene in my own episode, Blackwater – but I didn’t actually write it, David and Dan added it – the brothel scene where the Hound and Bronn almost go at it. And a couple of the scenes between Varys and Little Finger, that are of course not in the book, were wonderful, too.

NJM: Can you talk about translating the Battle of Blackwater for television?

GRRM: I’m very happy with Blackwater, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for television. I did part of it but David and Dan did a lot of writing in that episode as well, and of course our director, we had Neil Marshal on it, and he was fantastic and did a great job with the battle. Nonetheless, you would always like to have more, more budget, more time. If you read the battle as it’s described in the books, it would have cost, like, three times what we spent on it. It was the most expensive episode we’ve done all season, or indeed in the second season. So it was a very expensive already, but it would’ve cost three times that amount to have done, you know, the giant trebuchets I had in that, or the whole army crossing over the bridge of boats, the chain [in the river], the second fleet of ships, all of these things had to be cut or changed just to make it producible. And, you know, they did a great job with that. There’s still part of me that misses what used to be there. If someone had given us an extra ten million dollars, we could’ve had every bit of it, and you always want it to be better than what it is. But I’m very satisfied with what we saw.

NJM: Describe the page to screen process.

GRRM: I’ve been very happy with everything. I think you can divide the show into three types of scenes, there’s the scenes in the books that they’ve translated to the screen, and I think they’ve done a wonderful job with those, those are rendered very, very well. The actors are great, the writing is great, the directing is great. There are the original scenes, scenes that are not in the books that David and Dan have added.  Those are great too, I’ve been very pleased with the majority of those. The one thing I miss is the third category, the scenes in the books that never make it to the screen. Scenes that were cut, because some of those were good scenes. Good dialogue, good bits of business, and important in some cases, and I miss them, knowing the books as well as I do, and I watch the show, and I’m like, ‘Oh, this scene is going come! Oh, they cut that scene.”

NJM: Can you give an example of one of those scenes?

GRRM: Ned’s dream, after his leg is injured, the Tower of Joy scene. That was an important scene, an atmospheric scene, which would’ve translated [to the screen] really well. It would’ve had to be done in a very stylized manner, but I miss that. You know, in the first book, the scene where Arya and Sansa are discussing Rheagar’s rubies and the Trident, and Arya wants to go riding with her friend Micah, and Sansa wants them to go visit the Queen’s wheelhouse and eat lemon cakes, and they have an argument about it. Oddly enough, that scene was the basis of the auditions for those two roles, so Maisie William and Sophie Turner won their roles for doing their respective dialogue for Arya and Sansa in that scene, and they both did it wonderfully. I was looking forward to seeing that scene on screen, but then, you know, they cut it. I mean, it isn’t really necessary, it’s a character scene, and mostly that’s what has been cut, not the stuff that advances the plot, but the little character parts.

Again, I’m very happy with the show, it’s a very ambitious show, and it’s very demanding and I know why they only do ten episodes a season. They work all year to do those ten episodes. Even when they’re not filming, they’re writing, or preparing or in post-production, doing anymore on such a demanding show would be hard. But, nonetheless, there is part of me that wishes we had, like, 12 episodes per season. Like other HBO shows do, instead of just 10. Or maybe even if we had like, 14 episodes per season, and then we could get in a lot more of these small character scenes.

NJM: We read that season three will be the longest season, because each episode will be a few minutes longer.

GRRM: These are one-hour shows. With HBO an hour is actually an hour, and on a network show that’s called a one hour show, it’s actually a 46 minute show because the other minutes are taken up with commercials and you have to come in at exactly 46 minutes; they don’t let you come in at 47 minutes because your show was too long. You have to come in at 46 minutes, because they aren’t going to cut a commercial. But we don’t have any commercials on HBO, so we can run a 46-minute show, or we can run a 56-minute show, or a 50 minutes show and each show is a different length. They just fill up the time between the shows with promos and all that. Although on this season our shows will be slightly longer, I have heard that too. They’ll be 64 minutes, or 62 minutes or something like that.

NJM: Have you written any of the episodes for the upcoming season?

GRRM: Yes, I wrote episode seven, which is called “Chains.”  That’s my deal, I’m mostly busy with the books, but I write one episode per season.

NJM: How does working on Game of Thrones differ from your experience working on Beauty and the Beast and the Twilight Zone?

GRRM: With Beauty and the Beast and Twilight Zone I was actually on staff for those. So [right now] my present lot is still the books. I work on the books far more than the show. I do one episode per year, but it’s not a full time job. With Beauty and the Beast and Twilight Zone, I was on staff, I was working on it seven days a week, I was going into the office five days a week and being a part of everything. And I was moving up the ladder, I originally started as a staff writer on the Twilight Zone and moved my way up to a story editor, then executive story editor, then co-producer, and supervising producer on Beauty and the Beast. Each one with more and more responsibility, and it was a great experience. I’m glad I did it, but I’m glad I went back to prose. I love television I love film, but prose was my first love. Prose was what I started writing, back in the projects in Bayonne, and back in the 1960s when I first started making up stories for the other kids in the projects. That’s why I want to continue to write.

NJM: What characters are you the most excited about in season 3?

GRRM: Well, that’s like saying who’s your favorite child! In the new characters, I’m very excited to see Diana Rigg playing the Queen of Thorns. I grew up, back in those Bayonne days, watching the Avengers on TV, and like every red-blooded American and British boy, I was madly in love with Emma Peel. So, it’s very cool to have her in one of my projects.

NJM: At the end of season two, Tyrion has been seriously injured and demoted from Hand of the King. We know that Tyrion is your favorite character, so do you like him best when everything goes his way or when everything goes wrong?

GRRM: Things seldom go Tyrion’s way. You know, in some way all these characters are my children since I don’t have any children. I once wrote a short story called “Portraits of His Children” that won a couple of awards, about how writers write these character and they become like their surrogate children. And that’s certainly true for me. I love Tyrion but I also love Arya and Sansa and Jon Snow and Dany, even some of the characters that are not tremendously likeable like Theon Greyjoy and some of the prologue characters.

NJM: What new narrators and storylines are you most excited about that you’ve introduced since a Feast for Crows?

GRRM: Hopefully I’m excited about all of them. I’ll let the critics and the fans decide which they like best. They all play a role in the story. I view this as a very large mosaic that I’m weaving here. It’s like the story of World War II, and when you’re writing the story of World War II, you’re writing it from many sides. It’s not just a story about FDR or Hitler, it’s a story about the sergeant leading the charge on D Day beach, it’s the story of the guy at Pearl Harbor seeing the Japanese planes come out of the sunset, it’s the whole world at war. And I’ve created a whole world here and a cast of characters who are showing many different aspects about what is going on with the world.

NJM: We know that the seasons are eventually going to stop corresponding neatly with the books since Feast for Crows lacks many of the main protagonists. How do you hope the producers and the writers will integrate the stories from books four and book five to make a cohesive season?

GRRM: You know, that’s a ways off. The current season, season three, is only the first half of Storm of Swords. Season four, that we haven’t even begun to write yet – if we get a season four because nothing is ever certain – but if we get a season four, that will be the second half of Storm of Swords. So by season five, which is at least a year and a half away, we will start worrying about the integration of A Feast For Crows and Dance with Dragons.

NJM: Knowing what you know now, in an ideal world how would you have published a Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons?

GRRM: That’s a tough question. I don’t know, the storylines do take place simultaneously. So there’s part of me that would have loved to do them as one big book. One really enormous book, because they’re both big books themselves. You know, they were each like 1500-page manuscripts. When you combine them and you get a 3000-page manuscript, and you know, it would be unpublishable. And it would also be a book that had a global spread among it’s many different characters. And in some ones, breaking them into two books focused the stories a little more.

So, you come back to a character like Tyrion in Dance more often because you didn’t have quite so many characters to service, and in Feast for Crows you could really focus on Cersei and Jamie and stuff that was going on in King’s Landing and so forth. So there were things that we gained by publishing them in that way, but there were also things that we lost. But in any case it’s a hypothetical question, because we had to do it the way we did it; the story grew too big, it would have been unpublishable in its full-blown form and it would have been ten years in between books for me then. People would have forgotten the entire series if I had not come out with Feast in 2005, it would have been a decade between books and that probably would have been too long.

NJM: People would have been rioting in the aisles of Barnes and Noble.

GRRM: I would hope people would be rioting! Rioting is a good sign! You want people to be eager for your book; the downside is when the people forget the series even exists.  And far from rioting, if they just don’t care anymore. So, that’s what you really don’t want, when interest in the series has fallen off.

NJM: When will the Dangerous Women anthology be published?

GRRM: We don’t have publishing date on that yet. They might get it out for the end of the year. Or it might be early in 2014. We also will have The World of Ice and Fire, which will be out in November, and it’s a big book we’ve been doing with Bantam. It’s kind of a lot of material about the history of the Targaryens and the history of Westeros and the different houses. And it’s also going to be gorgeously illustrated; it’ll be like a big coffee table book.

NJM: How many more short story prequels about Dunk and Egg are you planning to write?

GRRM: A number more. I’m just going to write them one at a time, and as long as I keep having ideas I’ll continue to write them. I want to follow them through their entire lives. The first story takes place when Dunk is like 17 or 18, and Egg is 8, and I’m going to follow them to their maturity, and tell the story of their lives.

NJM: Anything new on the horizon unrelated to the books or the show you want to talk about?

GRRM: You might want to mention my Wild Cards series of anthologies that are still going on. I was just editing one when you called, Lowball, which we hope to deliver within a month or so. We also have a movie coming out on Wild Cards to be produced by Universal Pictures and the SyFy network, SyFy Films. My friend Melinda Snodgrass has written the screenplay for that. It’s based on all of the Wild Card characters and the world that we created.

NJM: Lastly, we know New York brewery Ommegang has made a limited edition beer called Iron Throne. Have you tasted it yet?

GRRM: No, not yet, but I’m looking forward to it. They promised to send me a case as soon as it’s ready to ship. But it’s not due to debut for another month or so. I know they’re working on at least two others, different kinds of brew, stouts porters ales, and things like that. A whole line of beers.

NJM: Assuming Iron Throne is meant to be a Lannister beer, what other brews would you suggest?

GRRM: You could have the Dornishmen have a Mexican beer that you could squeeze a lime into. The Northmen would have to have a big heavy stout or something dark.

NJM: Or maybe even a Dornish wine.

[Ommegang’s Iron Throne debuted mid-March at a SXSW launch party.]

Click here to read our April feature story on George R.R. Martin.

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