George R R Martin: Tolkien for the 21st century

With his fantasy books selling by the million, he'll be first choice for many a beach-read this summer. But the power behind 'Game of Thrones' provides depth as well as furious entertainment

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 15 million 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," Martin has said. "I've always taken that as my guiding principle and the rest is just set dressing. You can have dragons in it, or aliens and starships, or a western about a gunslinger, or even literary fiction, and ultimately you're still writing about the human heart in conflict with itself."

Instead of magic swords and faery quests, Martin's world is brutally political, with a great deal of sex and violence, and there is minimal magic. "You realise that too much magic overwhelms fantasy. I don't want to read books where magic saves the day at every moment."

He is a genius at page-turning plotting, capable of running dozen of storylines with hundreds of characters. Martin worked in Hollywood 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 turning in scripts where the network would say, 'George, this is great but you have to cut characters' or I'd write 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."

Martin quotes Tolkien's remark about The Lord of the Rings when asked about how his project has expanded: "The tale grew in the telling." When he began, it was going to be a trilogy. "But that scheme went through the window before I'd finished the first book." Now the plan is for seven.

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. They felt that if Martin's epic could bring fantasy into the mainstream for readers, it could do the same for viewers and threw considerable resources at it. 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 and 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 became 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. He observed to The New Yorker earlier this year that, since college, "virtually all the women in my life, including my wife, were people I met at science-fiction conventions". In the 1980s he moved to Hollywood and wrote scripts for television, including the revival of The Twilight Zone. Today, aged 62, he lives in Santa Fe with his wife Parris McBride and still attends about 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 huge internet-based fan following. His editor at Random House told him: "Outreach and building community with readers is the single most important thing you can do for your book these days. You need to make them feel invested in your career." Martin has been a model author in this field, blogging regularly on the official website, www.westeros.org, and often attending meetings of his unofficial fan club, the Brotherhood without Banners. "It behoves a writer to be good to his fans," he says.

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 past 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 such as 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 much faster. Let's hope he's right.

A life in brief

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

Family: The son of a longshoreman and the eldest of three children. In 1975 he married his first wife, Gail; they divorced four years later. Earlier this year he married his partner of 30 years, Parris.

Education: After Marist High School in New Jersey, he attended Northwestern University, Illinois, where he received a BSc and then an MSc in journalism.

Career: He began as a short story sci-fi writer, before moving into television in the 1980s. The first of his epic, seven-book fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire came out in 1996. Called A Game of Thrones, it was adapted by HBO for television this year. Named as one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2011.

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. I think George has created his own world, as did Tolkien." Sean Bean, star of Game of Thrones

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