Gimme some sword – hold the sorcery

Interview: George R R Martin - The best-selling author brought grit to fantasy fiction – and he hopes the 'Game of Thrones' TV adaptation will keep it real

For George R R Martin, tomorrow night will be a moment of bittersweet vindication.

On the one hand, he's delighted to see the world of Westeros, a world he has been writing about for over 15 years and four (soon to be five) best-selling fantasy novels, faithfully recreated on the small screen, in Sky Atlantic's epic series Game of Thrones; on the other, he always believed his novels were unfilmable. In fact, that was partially the point.

"When I quit working in television in 1994 it was with the idea of writing something that was entirely for me," he says. "For the last decade I had spent my time turning in scripts where the networks would say, 'George, this is great but you have to cut characters', or I'd write a battle scene involving a thousand people and by the time it made it to air it would be a duel between two people."

Martin sighs. "After 10 years, I was sick of that," he adds. "What I wanted was to write a gigantic series of books, where I didn't have to worry about budgets or shooting schedules or how fantastical the setting was, something as big as my imagination could make it."

The result was Game of Thrones, a 700-page doorstep of a novel, featuring an enormous cast, a complicated mythology, several battle scenes and multiple points of view. Martin, a former journalist and scriptwriter who had always written fiction on the side, expected it to be a low-key success, appealing to those who had bought his critically acclaimed short stories or enjoyed Wild Cards, the genre-challenging superhero book series he edited. Instead, Game of Thrones became first a word-of-mouth hit and a multi-million-selling success story.

Fifteen years on, the 62-year-old still seems surprised. "I was really writing for myself," he says with a bemused air when we first meet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "It was a chance to throw everything into the mix and see what worked. I knew the story I wanted to tell, and for the first time I had the freedom to tell it."

Martin laughs. He is a barrel of a man, wide without being tall, with an unkempt grey beard and a ready smile – just before the interview I hear someone refer to him as looking like "a very friendly hobbit", and it's true that if you were to picture the average writer of fantasy fiction, the owlish Martin would come close to the ideal. (If you were wondering, the initials aren't a nod towards J R R Tolkien: his middle names are Raymond Richard and he needed to distinguish himself from the better known George Martins.)

Except that the reason for Martin's success is that he is anything but an average fantasy writer. In the mid-Nineties when the fantasy market was saturated with sub-Tolkienesque sagas featuring multiple magic swords, unending elves and seemingly circular quests, Martin chose instead to present readers with a brutal, bleak world where magic was in short supply and the consequences of one mistake could be fatal. "Heroes and villains are great when you're 12, but when you get older you see that all heroes are flawed," he says. "You also realise that too much magic overwhelms fantasy. I don't want to read books where magic saves the day at every moment, nor do I want to take the bullshit science approach where magic has a system. I like an element of the unknown."

Martin's more disgruntled fans would say that his love of the unknown has ultimately hijacked the series, ensuring that a tightly plotted saga is looking increasingly bloated. Certainly it's true that the gap between books is growing longer. While his first three novels were published two years apart, there was a five-year gap before the arrival of A Feast for Crows in 2005. Book number five, A Dance with Dragons, will be published this July.

During that time the growth of the internet has ensured that Martin has nowhere to hide. There are countless websites dedicated to the series, busy forums where fans debate the plot in minute detail and argue about everything from the parentage of major characters to the shields of minor houses. And, increasingly, there are blogs accusing the author of having (literally) lost the plot. It's a charge he angrily rebuts.

"There's nothing wrong with fans speculating about what's going to happen, but it's annoying when they suggest that I won't finish it, or say there's no chance of the new book coming out," he says. "I find it downright offensive when people say things like, 'I hope he doesn't pull a Jordan' [a reference to fantasy writer Robert Jordan, who died before finishing his World of Time series, now being completed by Brandon Sanderson]. I was friends with Jim [Jordan's real name] ... no one wants to die before finishing their work. Anyone who uses that phrase 'pull a Jordan' is an asshole."

Yet, for all his anger, Martin admits that he has found the last two books, the middle two in a projected seven-book series, the hardest to write. "I know where I'm going," he says. "But I guess there is a certain amount of pressure and I think the middle of a story is always the most difficult even in a standalone novel. I always find it like trying to get to the top of a mountain – the descent is the easiest part. I'm not quite at the top yet, but by the time The Winds of Winter [book six] is written then I'll be on the downward slope."

And what of the TV series? For months, ominous previews have declared "Winter is Coming" across shots of bleak landscapes, brooding men and buxom women. When we first speak, Martin has only seen a 15-minute preview, although he wrote the eighth episode and has spent time on set. "It looks amazing," he says. "I was a little concerned when I saw the first scenes over a year ago and they didn't have the special effects ... it was, Oh, is this going to work?, but it's come a long way. That said, once I met [the show's writers] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] I felt it was in good hands. They didn't just want the title while throwing out the characters or changing the feel."

But early US reviews have been mixed. The Hollywood Reporter hailed it a success: "It's clear that the hype was right and the wait was worth it." Entertainment Weekly lauded the writer's "bravery", imploring readers to "stick with it", while TV Squad said that while the series was "often handsome, even gorgeous at times", it "lacked the boldness of the books". Those who are not fans of the novels remain even less sure, with a particularly vitriolic Wall Street Journal review by Nancy deWolf Smith dismissing the opening episode as filled with "the familiar favourites of the infantile".

Certainly it remains to be seen whether Game of Thrones can really bring epic fantasy into the mainstream, as HBO believes, although Martin himself is upbeat. Three months after we first speak I catch up with him on the telephone. He's just watched the first two episodes and is ecstatic. "Seeing it all come to life was incredible," he says. "I was blown away, mainly by the acting, especially the kids. It's wonderful to see – they've got the feel and the tone just right."

'Game of Thrones', Sky Atlantic, Tomorrow 9pm

Let the game commence!

Welcome to Westeros, also known as the Seven Kingdoms, where a decades-long summer is coming to an end and an uneasy peace is about to be shattered by the death of King Robert Baratheon's chief adviser, Jon Arryn. Robert (Mark Addy), unhappily married to the ambitious Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), travels north to the castle of Winterfell to ask his oldest friend and former battle companion, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) to take up the vacant position.

Against the wishes of his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), Stark agrees. Undaunted by this threat to their power, Cersei and her headstrong twin Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) strengthen their own grip on the Iron Throne, while their dwarf younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), hearing rumours that the dead are walking in the frozen north, decides to travel with Stark's illegitimate son Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the black-clad Night's Watch to the Wall, the ancient barrier which protects Westeros from the mysterious "White Walkers". Meanwhile, across the narrow sea in the Free City of Pentos, Viserys (Harry Lloyd), the last Prince of the old ruling Targaryen dynasty, sells his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to a horse lord, the first step in a plot to reclaim his lost kingdom...

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