Saturday profile: George R R Martin

He'll be the first choice for many a beach-read this summer. But the power behind 'Game of Thrones' provides depth, as well as furious entertainment. By Ian Irvine
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The UK's latest sensational fiction besteller is A Dance with Dragons. In just over a week it has sold 30,000 copies in hardback. George R R Martin's novel, the fifth (of a planned seven) in his series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been garnering rave reviews as well as huge sales – just like its predecessors.

Altogether they have sold more than 15m copies worldwide. Roz Kaveney, in her admiring review in The Independent, noted that "it is hard to accept that something that enormous and that popular can be as good as people tell you it is".

But it is. Jace Lacob observed in The Daily Beast that it was "Martin's finest work yet, a taut and relentless masterpiece that reaffirms the reader's obsession with the panoply of unforgettable characters that Martin has created, and the brutal, glittering, terrible world in which these novels are set".

Time magazine included him in its 2011 list of the 100 most influential people in the world and has dubbed him "the American Tolkien", which is true in the sense that Martin is writing an epic in the fantasy genre, but also misleading. The Lord of the Rings, for all its virtues, is a simple story of goodies vs baddies. By contrast, Martin's fantasy world of Westeros is peopled by complex characters with complicated motivations.

"I've always agreed with William Faulkner when he said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. I've always taken that as my guiding principle and the rest is such set dressing. You can have dragons in it, or aliens and starships, or a gunslinger, or even literary fiction, and you're still writing about the human heart in conflict with itself."

He is a genius at page-turning plotting, capable of running dozen of storylines with hundreds of characters.

Martin worked in Hollwood and honed his skills there.

"One of the things you learn in television is the act break, because you need people coming back after the commercials. A one-hour script is divided into a number of acts, and you always want each to end, not necessarily with a cliffhanger, but with some kind of twist or resolution or moment of discovery. It's also a fine structure for fiction. 'What's going to happen next?' is a phrase I always want to hear my readers saying."

Though television was important to the construction of the novels, his initial urge to write them was born of frustration with the medium.

"When I quit working in television in 1994, it was with the idea of writing something that was entirely for me.

"I had spent my time writing a scene involving 1,000 people and by the time it made it to air it would be a duel between two people. After 10 years I was sick of that.

"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."

HBO bought the television rights and the first series, based on the first book, Game of Thrones, was broadcast earlier this year. Its producer described it as The Sopranos in Middle Earth.

The first series, starring a glowering Sean Bean in long hair and leather, cost an estimated £35m and gathered considerable audiences and critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. A second series has been commissioned, and last week it was announced that the first series had been nominated for 13 Emmys, including the award for outstanding drama.

George R R Martin was born in New Jersey in 1948, the son of a longshoreman. (The RR initials in his name are for Raymond Richard, not an oblique homage to J R R Tolkien.)

He grew up as an avid fan of superhero comics, and his first writing was for comic-book fanzines, where he invented his own superheroes. After studying journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois, he bebecame a professional writer, prolifically producing short stories and novels, initially in the genre of science fiction, but later branching into horror and fantasy.

He became part of the large science-fiction community in the United States and a regular attender of its many conventions. Earlier this year, he observed to The New Yorker that since college "virtually all the women in my life, including my wife, were people I met at science-fiction conventions."

Today, aged 62, he lives in Santa Fe with his wife Parris McBride and still attends around half a dozen sci-fi conventions a year.

Fandom has played a major part in Martin's life and now naturally he and his work are the centre of a huge internet-based fan following.

Martin has been a model author in this field, blogging regularly on the official website and often attending meetings of his unoffical fan club, The Brotherhood Without Banners.

The intense attachment of his fans to his work, however, has had some unfortunate consequences.

When the fourth volume of the series, A Feast of Crows, appeared in 2005, Martin assured his readers that the fifth volume would appear within a year. It didn't, and over the last six years its publication was constantly rescheduled.

Some fans became severely disenchanted and began posting abusive comments about Martin on the various fan forums. In time, an entire community formed online dedicated to taunting Martin about his supposed laziness in failing to deliver the next instalment, on websites with names like Finish The Book, George.

Now that A Dance of Dragons is here, they seem mollified – for the moment. Martin believes the next two books will come faster. Let's hope so for his sake.

Born George Raymond Richard Martin, 20 September 1948, Bayonne, New Jersey.

Family The son of a longshoreman and the eldest of three children. Earlier this year he married his partner of 30 years, Parris.

Education After Marist High School in New Jersey, he attended Northwestern University, Illinois.

Career He began as a science-fiction short story writer. The first of his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire came out in 1996. Called A Game of Thrones, it was adapted by HBO for television.

He says "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."

They say "This is a very edgy story. Everybody is having to watch their backs" – Sean Bean, star of Game of Thrones.