George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb appeared earlier this week at an event hosted by HarperVoyager UK, discussing how they build their fictional universes, create their characters and balance fantasy and reality; about their influences and inspirations, their struggles and successes. Jane Johnson, the editor for both Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin, hosted the conversation.
From a trio of gilded thrones at the front of Freemason’s Hall in London, Martin, Hobb, and Johnson imparted wisdom to a packed crowd. Johnson started the event with some thrilling news: Game of Thrones had recently won a Hugo Award for the “Rains of Castamere” episode, and Hobb’s latest novel Fool’s Assassin will debut on the bestseller list at #4!
Johnson commented on Martin showing up without his trademark cap, but he has a good reason: Martin sold it for $10,000 as part of his fundraiser for the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary and the Santa Fe Food Depot. He wants to replace it, and has set his sights on the Pope’s hat. Johnson further asks Martin about his “uniform,” to which he jovially responded: “It’s surreal that I have a uniform. I’m sold as a Halloween costume! You could be Jon Snow, or Daenerys… or me.”
Johnson asked if they could each remember the first story you ever wrote.
GRRM: “They were all beginnings…I never finished any of the stories I ever started. An endless number of beginnings.”
Johnson: “That’s not a good sign, George.”
Robin Hobb: “Editors…”
Martin collected 5-cent plastic toys, and made up stories about all of them. One yellow alien came with a drill, so George, being George, decided “he was the torturer.” Those were the first stories he wrote—“I printed them out in Big Chief tablets.”
Hobb: “On Halloween, I wanted to write a story before I started trick-or-treating.” She also wrote in a Big Chief tablet, and wrote a story about a black cat on Halloween. She started giving it a happy ending, but didn’t think it was that satisfying. Then she copied a Disney story out onto paper, so she could see what it was like to write enough words to make a story.
Johnson asked what the authors could see from their childhood bedroom windows:
Hobb: My bedroom was in the basement, in Fairbanks, Alaska. There was a lot of snow.
GRRM: From when I was one to four, I lived in great-grandmother’s house, with a backyard. When moved to the projects, the rooms looked out onto the courtyard, with a playground, women’s laundry hanging…but the living room looked out onto the Bay, and Staten Island. I would look at lights of Staten Island, and they were incredibly romantic to me. Shangri-La, Middle-earth, the magical lights of Staten Island.” He would watch the ships come in with their country’s flags, which sparked his interest in heraldry, and the idea that there was a wider world beyond the Bay itself.
Johnson asked: “when did you sell your first professional story?”
GRRM: “I sold a story called “Hero” to Galaxy Magazine in February 1971 for $94. You could go to town with $94 in those days.” He continued, saying that he started out as a journalism major at Northwestern, writing short stories on the side, and occasionally convincing his professors to let him write fiction for their classes. His first rejection came from a piece of Russo-Finnish historical fiction that a professor sent in for him. Once he decided that rejection didn’t hurt that much, he began submitting his fiction himself.
Hobb started trying to sell stories when she was 18 and living on Kodiak Island. She wrote stories for children “under the mistaken notion that writing for children was easier.” She sold her first story to a Sunday School magazine, and also remembered the payment: $5.
Johnson commented that writers’ career trajectories can be odd.
GRRM: “It’s not a career for anyone who needs or values security. It’s a career for gamblers. A career of ups and downs. But even when I wasn’t sure if I’d ever sell another book, I never doubted that I’d write another book. That’s the thing that distinguishes a real writer from the false ones.”
Hobb: “Some people say, ‘I want to be a writer’ and others say ‘I want to write,’—the ones that make it are the ones that want to write.”
GRRM: “You have to be ready to take a fair amount of criticism and rejection. For most writers, you can work for years, and then even if you sell it it’s like you threw it down a well. The main thing is the stories, though. It’s exactly as Robin said. You want to get back to that room, and the people.”
Hobb: “You know when you’re reading and you have to stop to make dinner or something, and you get that feeling of ‘I’m going to go back to that and I’m going to jump back into that story!’ Well, when you realize that ‘that was the story I was writing,’ that’s the moment it shifts gears, when you realize someone else might feel that.”
Hobb describes writing as ‘chasing butterflies, and trying not to crush them.’ She likens it the to The Crushed Fairy Book: “sometimes you have to rearrange the body to try to make it look right. First drafts are very hard for me.”
GRRM: One of the key bits of writing advice I got was Robert Heinlein’s Four Rules of Writing. That second one, “You must finish what you write,” that one was hard for me. Ideas existed in my head in this sort of Platonic perfection, and then I’d look at my story, and it wasn’t a beautiful dream city, it was a slum of words! The new idea would be so much more attractive than this mess I’d just put on paper…then I started making myself finish the stories, no matter how much I hated them. There’s part of me that loves words, but sometimes…the words are like trying to drive a nail in with a shoe.”
Hobb: “For me the worst doubts come in the 5 minutes after I hit send.”
Johnson talked about being in discussions when people were bidding on ASOIAF, and recalled saying, “Just offer more! Whatever it takes! Because that first piece ended with Bran’s fall, and how could we not want more?” Then she turned to Martin and asked, “Now, originally that was conceived of as a trilogy. Did you have any idea how vast it was going to be?”
GRRM: Even when I was up to the fifth book I didn’t get everything into it…the tale grew in the telling. Suddenly the stew is much richer, but it also takes more bowls to fill it up. But it doesn’t matter how many books it is, because it’s one story! Lord of the Rings wasn’t a trilogy—Tolkien didn’t divide it into three books, he divided it into six books. Olwin and Unwin divided it into three.”
The two authors are also invested in each other’s worlds. Asked what animal he would bond with if he was ‘old blood’ in Hobbs’ world, Martin replied: “We’re both wolf people here!” he said. “My wolves are bigger…” And who would Hobbs prefer to win the Iron Throne? “Right now I’m tending towards Jon Snow.”
Martin isn’t the only one who has fans guessing future plot points: when Johnson asked Hobbs why she went back to Fitz for her latest book, she mentioned the readers that were predicting this move:
“I had always intended to go back to Fitz,” she said. “A number of astute readers have written me letters at some point saying ‘I see this, and I see this, and I see this…’ So some readers knew eventually that yes, this would come… In the end I decided to write this story as I had originally conceived it: there’s a huge foundation there with all kinds of hooks and hints and seeds that will suddenly become trees, and I didn’t want to abandon that.”
Finally, asked what advice they would give to their younger selves, Hobb replied: ”Start writing sooner! Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission.” And Martin’s advice was clearly aimed at a just-pre-GoT version of himself: “I would have done all my promotions for Game of Thrones in disguise. The being a celebrity is something that I have mixed feelings about: the loss of privacy and the headlines…they drive me a little nuts. It never ceases to be surreal… That’s what I’d do differently, I’d be anonymous. I’d be J.D. Salinger. No I wouldn’t be J.D. Salinger, I’d want the books to be published.”
Martin is also suspiciously gleeful about his characters meeting up again, because soon he’ll have more flexibility in his murder-schedule.So…guess we’ll all have fun with that, in the coming books?
blinkbox Books has put selections from the talk online! The video below features a discussion of Martin’s naming techniques, and blinkbox’s Youtube channel has more highlights!