How George R.R. Martin made me love Direwolves, Giants, Dwarves and Dragons…
Hey, out there…
Since I returned home to Beaufort after my book tour was over, I brought part of the tour back to my house with me. I’ve never found myself attracted to the world of fantasy writing, with a few quite notable exceptions. When I lived in Italy, I came under the sway of Italo Cabrino and his books. The Baron in the Trees, the Cloven Viscount, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and especially Invisible Cities sparked deep ysteries in me. At the same time, I became familiar with the nearly unclassifiable work of Jonathan Carroll who has a narrative voice that can take me places I never knew I needed to go. Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury have brought me many great pleasures and I’ve tried to read as many of the Fairy Tales of world literature as I can. The Arthurian legends have always found a captive audience with me and I read The Once and Future King and few books have ever struck me with the powers of its wondrous imagination. I read it recently and failed to cherish it as I once did and I asked myself if something squirrelly and unappreciative had entered my reading life as I’ve grown older.
I’ve never relished the company of the dystopian novel much, but then I remember Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and that was good enough to shut my mouth for a while. Though I revere much of the writing of Cormac McCarthy, he did not seduce me with The Road. Literary taste is a defining thing in all of us. It is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. I’m as astonished by the work of Jonathan Franzen as I am incapable of reading five pages of Thomas Pynchon. I treasure the works of John Fowles and Ian McEwan and I want to like Martin Amis, but just can’t or don’t. Metafiction sends me running to the hills and always makes me think that I’m not smart enough to understand it. I’m confident enough in myself as a reader to think, “If I can’t understand it, then who the hell can?” The pleasure principle kicks into high gear whenever I pick up a book. Toni Morrison’s prose style is a joy inducing mastery of the language and no one deserves a Nobel Prize more than Alice Munro. Philip Roth is a gift to American letters, but the most celebrated book of the eighties, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, left me feeling like a beast of burden as I slogged my way toward that infinite finish line. A.S. Byatt’s book Possession grabbed me by the throat and held me in its immense thrall until the very end. I hated everything about J.M. Coatzee’s book Disgrace, but could not deny its power and greatness when I completed it. Ann Rivers Siddons’ Colony made me fall in love with Maine and she’s the most southern woman I’ve ever met. Ron Rash’s Serena made me think about the North Carolina mountains in a way that Thomas Wolfe never did.
I believe I could write like this forever and not remember half the books that made my time on earth a wonderful place to be. The reading of great books has been a life altering activity to me and, for better or worse, it brought me singing and language-obsessed to that country where I make my living. Except for teaching, I’ve had no other ambition in life than to write books that mattered.
All of this is preamble to the fact that I met the most extraordinary American writer while I was in the middle of my tour. His name is George R.R. Martin and I think he is a writer for the ages. Over the past several years, I’ve kept hearing about George R.R. Martin from his readers, who often verge on the edge of possession. But my own form of literary snobbism has kept me from reading him because George writes in a field I encounter with much resistance – he writes in the genre of fantasy, part of the lower pastures of world fiction. Despite my love of Tolkien, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll and Ursula Le Guin, I like to spend my reading time among other writers. I had also known personally one of the great fantasy writers of our time, Robert Jordan, which was the pen name for Jim Irvin, a Citadel graduate who got his degree seven years after I did. Jim and I were taught by the same distinguished English teachers at the Citadel and he blazed an amazing trail with his Wheel of Time series that led some to refer to him as the new Tolkien. I read several books in the series, enjoyed them, but never found myself captured by Jim’s world of fantasy. Yet Jim’s books became number one bestsellers on the New York Times bestseller list every time he came out with a new volume. He died of a very extreme form of cancer in the middle of his prime. But his fantasy required a leap of the imagination I was not prepared to give at that time of my life and I’ve regretted it. The last time I met him I asked him if he knew any other college that had produced two writers who had occupied the number one slot on the NYT list. It seemed a rare distinction. A week later he called me and said he’d researched my question and only Harvard had produced more than two. Naturally, it was Harvard, but for novels like Love Story and Jurassic Park – none of the Harvard heavyweights like Norman Mailer. I thought John Updike had probably made it, but Jim was too happy with his findings and I let it go.
My friend Katherine Clark was the first full-fledged fanatic of George R.R. Martin that I found and she was relentless on the subject. Katherine had published an Oral Biography of my friend Eugene Walter called Milking the Moon. It’s a one of a kind book that celebrates the life of a quirky unknown writer who lived a fascinating and joy-giving life. I did not meet Katherine until she introduced me before I gave a signing at
Page & Palette bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama. We’ve been fast friends since. She is one of the few friends in my life who reads more than I do and her eye is cunning and so far infallible. She went to Harvard then wrote her dissertation on William Faulkner at Emory University. Our friendship is based on the books we’ve read and those we are now writing. Two years ago she started reading George R.R. Martin and I listened as a fanatic was born on the telephone. By then, her good taste was a proven commodity, but I listened to her rapture with growing discomfort. She read his Ice and Fire series of five doorstopping books, then re-read them again to see if they were as good as she originally thought. She found them much better. She started throwing out comparisons to Dante and Shakespeare and I thought that the seafood she was eating from the BP oil spill was starting to affect her brain in Pensacola. One of the things I’ve admired about Katherine is that she can read books by people she hates, and if the writing is good, she will surrender her sword and admit to the book’s excellence. I can do that sometimes, but not often.
“Shakespeare?” I once asked Katherine, mockery in my voice.
“Yes, Shakespeare, Pat. We read the same guy and I think this guy might be better.”
“Do you tell your Harvard friends that? Or just us Citadel boys?”
“I tell all my Harvard friends that they’re just like you – they haven’t read him, either.”
“Magic, direwolves, mammoths, giants, dwarves and dragons. I can’t believe I don’t want to read these books.”
“Read them. Then tell me I’m wrong,” she said.
“That’s a deal. If you quit talking about them,” I said.
As if often does, fate crept into this conversation without either Katherine or me noticing its intrusion. When I first saw my tour schedule, I thought it had been designed by Dante Alighieri. From last October 15 to December 20, I was on the road to push my new book The Death of Santini. It is part of the covenant I sign with Doubleday that I’ll do everything possible to help them sell the book, including not getting drunk on tour or embarrassing my publishing company with my cutting up on the road. I go out to sell books and it has become one of the greatest things about being a writer during my lifetime. No writer should turn down the chance of meeting the readers of his work. I went as far north as Minnesota, as far east as Philadelphia and New York, as far south as Miami and as far west as the Missouri River. But there was one stopover that made no sense to me. In what I thought was a mistake of planning, I saw a two day trip to Santa Fe shoehorned into the dead
middle of my tour and this seemed a couple of states too far for me. I know how daily travel wears me down after a couple of days on the road, and I had no idea why a side trip to Santa Fe was on the list. But when I called my redoubtable publicist Todd Doughty, he explained that it was the home of George R.R. Martin and that George had recently restored an old theater in Santa Fe where he showed classic movies and interviewed authors on stage himself.
“Have you ever heard of George R.R. Martin, Pat?” Todd asked me.
“Is he a good guy, Todd?” I asked.
“He’s a wonderful guy and everyone
who knows him says it’s true,” Todd answered. “Also, he happens to love your books.”
“Ah, my idea of a splendid man, myself.”
Immediately, I called Katherine Clark at her home in Pensacola and said, “I’m going to meet Shakespeare.”
“You’re meeting George R.R. Martin in Santa Fe,” she said into the phone. “I’m coming, too.”
“You were not invited,” I said.
“I’m coming anyway,” she said.
So we did. I bought a copy of A Game of Thrones from Park Road Books in Charlotte and was almost finished with it when I made the first stop of my life in Santa Fe. I woke to the birdsong of an enchanted hill town that looked more European than American. It had a modest but ancient feel to it. I was staying at the Inn of the Six Graces and it was as splendid a small hotel as it could possibly be. My bathroom was a work of art, flashing in colorful shapes of Mexican tile. There were tapestries and weavings hanging from the walls. The adobe walls make the city a muted ode to the color of brown. Because I’m not a great lover of Mexican food, the cuisine of Santa Fe will never find justice with me. I do not like the meals of my city to be cilantro based. But the fault lies in me and not in Santa Fe. It is a city of a thousand art galleries. The paintings seemed both world class and fearfully overpriced to me, and my heart does not sing when confronted by cowboy and Indian art. I passed by a lot of cowboys cast in bronze and a lot of Indians eyeing them with motionless disdain.
That night we met in a basement of a restaurant. I met George R.R. Martin and he was an easy going, gregarious man who wore a Greek fisherman’s cap, smiled a lot, and seemed to be taking all his success with a becoming graciousness. By this time, I had finished A Game of Thrones and had found it magnificent.
At dinner in Santa Fe, I sat next to George R.R. Martin and found him charming, gregarious, unpretentious and a complete pleasure to be around. He was so disarmingly nice that I would have expected him to never have published a haiku in his life. He dressed with unstudied simplicity and he wears a Greek fisherman’s hat with all the panache of a Greek fisherman. The restaurant he chose was first rate and I knew it would be from the startling feasts he describes in such luscious detail in his Song of Ice and Fire. He wears his success well, lightly threaded but perfectly made, and he’s proud of this world he has created out his own eclectic imagination. His long apprentice work in Hollywood taught him how to write great and convincing dialogue. His story telling powers are intoxicating and pitch perfect in their execution. We told each other some stories of our lives and we talked to the people at the table with us. George had no need to dominate, which I found wondrous to behold. His curiosity extended around the table, to the three publicists from Doubleday, Todd Doughty, Alison Rich and Suzanne Herz, to the hero worshipping Katherine Clark (who could barely utter a word in her literary George R.R. thrall). He was that rare kind of celebrity – his success had not seemed to rout the best parts of his nature. His fame had not ruined the boy in him who’d once fallen in love with the fantastic worlds of comic books and science fiction. But the sentence I just wrote limits his achievement and hides it away in a bottle of lesser literary elixirs. I judge him much greater than that.
The next night, he interviewed me on the stage of the old, intimate theater he paid good money to restore. It was small and held about 200 people at most, and he and I took up much of the stage that was barely large enough to behead the enemy of the state. George R.R. started the evening off the most surprising way – he began to praise my own novels, especially The Lords of Discipline and the The Prince of Tides. Several times he talked about my writing about the Citadel and how it influenced him when he wrote about the Northern Wall which protected the Seven Kingdoms from the barbarity of the wildings of the North. The brothers of the Wall, the men of the black, reminded me of the Citadel with my college’s strict codes and military purity. He remembered the black cadet at the Citadel who was helped along by my narrator Will McLean in The Lords of Discipline and it helped shape his portrait of Samwell Tarly, the weakling and keeper of the Crows who is protected by the bastard of Winterfell, Jon Snow. Yes, I could see it and I could also catch the scent of Lord of the Flies. All through his work I catch the echoes of an extremely well-read man and a man whose capacity for learning from other writers seems limitless.
Then George R.R. Martin delivered one of the great valentines of my writing life. He talked about visiting Hawaii for the first time and his wife chastising him for not looking at the spectacular coastline of Hawaii as they drove to their hotel some distance from Honolulu. He told the audience he couldn’t look at that coastline because he was in the middle of reading The Prince of Tides.
You, out there. Listen up.
Generosity is the rarest of qualities in American writers. Before George R.R. Martin told me that in front of eyewitnesses in Santa Fe, no other writer I recall had ever told me something I’d written had influenced them. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me before. I’ve always felt a vague sense of guilt that I search for plunder and inspiration in every book or poem or story I pick up. Other people’s books are treasures when stories emerge in molten ingots that a writer can shape to fit his or her own talents. Magical theft has always played an important part of my own writer’s imagination.
When I first read David Copperfield in Joseph Monte’s English class, the book took full command of my imagination and I longed to write novels in the Dickensian manner; until I was stopped in my tracks that same year by Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov’?) Down the road, I got Faulknered and Steinbecked, Hemingwayed and Fitzgeralded. In college I was Virginia Woolfed and dazzled by Willa Cather and became a devotee of George Eliot. I don’t know when reading books became the most essential thing about me, but it happened over the years and I found myself the most willing servant of what I considered a rich habit.
A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life. I was raised in a tyrant’s home and my mother had thirteen pregnancies while sleeping in her oppressor’s bed. Let me marry Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady and put on my track shoes when I encountered the rise of a Lady Macbeth in my life. But literature is vast and subtle enough to make me fool enough to fall in love with its villains and scoundrels. I’ve a soft spot for Becky Sharpe in my heart and the dry-ice evil of Iago still manages to raise my blood pressure when I dip again into the pages of Othello.
I’ve admired the work of Don DeLillo, but never gave my heart to it, where John Irving found his voice and made me his devotee forever after The World According to Garp. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez is good, there is no one better. I could read Richard Russo forever.
But there I go again. Even as I record this, I’m aware of a hundred writers who filled me with happiness over the years and provided countless pleasures as I read through their books and started to expand with fresh knowledge of the family of man. Some books I took on as self-improvement projects. In sixth grade, under the tutelage of Sister Nathaniel, I decided to read the entire Bible. I thought it would bring me closer to God. It took me three years to complete the project and then my mother was upset that I had read the King James version of the Bible that Grandpa Peek had given me, instead of the Douay Rheims version that was approved by the Catholic Church. By accident, I had read the beautiful Bible and the magisterial rhythms of the King James version are the ones that still move through my bloodstream. In my twenties I read the four volumes of the journals of Andre Gide and everything that Camus ever wrote. I read ten volumes of Balzac, ten by Zola, all by Collette, and I found I preferred the work of Simone de Beauvoir far more than that of her strange lover, Sartre. For some reason, I’d gotten it into my head that the French held the mystery of where all knowledge lay.
So a lifetime passes and I manage to live a life quite badly. I marry three times, help raise four children, have one of them stolen from me, inherit five stepchildren and write the books that have described both the pains and the joys I encountered living that life. Then I arrive on a stage with George R.R. Martin in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in my sixty-eighth year, and encounter a writer whose body of work is completely alien to me. I’ve avoided science fiction most of my life – for the simple reason I didn’t care much about it. Up to now, I’d cared little for the march of imaginary kings in made up lands of yesteryear. Though I’d been one of those “comic book boys” whose heart once sang with the heroics of action heroes, I’d grown up surrounded by Marine Corps fighter pilots whom I thought would make out just fine in battles with Superman and Batman and Spiderman and all the rest. They never quite took me prisoner in my imagination. It might have been my Biblical reading that made me unprepared for the comic book pantheon of heroes. I was not as afraid of Batman beating me up when Lot’s wife was being turned into a pillar of salt for the lightweight crime of looking back at a burning city. So I entered the world of George R.R. Martin tentative and doubtful. But I needed to hush Katherine Clark up and reading the work was the only way to do it.
So, I agreed to a compact to read A Game of Thrones and nothing else if I thus desired. I had not prepared myself for the pure genius of George R.R. Martin. His writing is lush and beautiful and is a perfect fit for his life’s work. His entrance into this exotic and created world of his is confident and shows no sign of hesitation or doubt. He inhabits his world with an ease of creation that seems impossible to imagine. His achievement brings me to a halt – to study the many limitations of my own imagination. The dialogue between his characters is as real and distinct as are those to be found in John Le Carre or Elmore Leonard. His descriptions are first rate and his fiery tale of the birth of dragons is fully equal, if not far more spectacular, than the resurrection of Christ in the New Testament. He writes about religion, wars and gods, men and women, mothers and children, with a pure shiningness that surpasses mere talent. Mr. Martin has to be dealt with in some serious way by the gatekeepers of American fiction. What do The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and the Atlantic do about this guy? I’m now finished with A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and am 300 pages into A Dance with Dragons. This much reading at least allows me to pour wine for the guests of the great number of his tribe of devotees he’s attracted. I am 4300 pages into the world George R.R. Martin has created and long for 5000 more.
Do I consider it grand entertainment? I certainly do, but I also consider it literature standing on the high ground of our language. His characters spring to life on every page and I’ll take Tyrion, the Imp, over Falstaff any day… take Cersei over Lady Macbeth… take Jon Snow over Hamlet… take Sansa over Cordelia.
Martin has created his own world and it shines with its own set of special constellations, its own comet, its unforgettable citizens, its cold immensity, its bloodthirsty battles, its score settling by the Gods and their rapacious servants among the hideous and beautiful men and women created in their passage… It’s all extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read. A Song of Ice and Fire is not like anything I’ve ever read before. It is American literature thrown at our feet – and for those of us in a love affair with the language, it’s up to us to stretch and broaden our horizons, to bend and welcome it into the Pantheon.