On This Day

George R. R. Martin: The Rock Star of Genre Fiction


On this day 68 years ago, George Raymond Martin (the second R, for Richard, was added by him at his Confirmation) was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. As a child, between writing monster stories for the local kids (at a nickel a story), sending away “sticky quarters” for the earliest comic fanzines, and taking care of the turtles—which were the only pets he was allowed in the projects—George R.R. Martin dreamed of far-off places.

The Kill van Kull could be seen outside his window, ships constantly flowing up and down, and he would learn what countries the flags they flew represented and he would imagine what it was like to sail away to distant nations. That hunger for unseen vistas has served him well over the years as he went from fan to pro to… well, there’s nothing else for it but to say that he’s now at rockstar-like levels of fame.

Martin’s writing has always been genre work, but he has moved fluidly between science fiction, horror, and fantasy in a way few others writers have. Taking the view that genre is often just a kind of furniture, trappings you put around a story, his aim as a writer has instead been to write the kind of stories that he finds most important to tell, the stories that Faulkner famously described as being the sole hallmark of good writing: narratives of the human heart in conflict with itself. From his first sale to Galaxy Magazine in 1971, Martin quickly developed into one of the finest short fiction authors of the 70s and 80s. Tales such as “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” “A Song for Lya,” “Meathouse Man,” and “Portraits of His Children”—just a few of the dozens of stories to his credit—turned on desire and need, examined from different directions: the need for human warmth, the desire for love, the urge to create and to leave something behind. He has described some of his earliest, most romantic fiction as a byproduct of having been unhappy in love in those days, but it’s a thread that’s remained with his work ever since. It appears in all of his novels, including the award-winning Fevre Dream, to greater or lesser degree.

Eventually, Martin made the move to Hollywood to try his hand as a screenwriter, first with the new Twilight Zone—where he was responsible for, among other things, the adaptation of his good friend Roger Zelazny’s “The Last Defender of Camelot”—and then the cult-classic Beauty and the Beast. He soon branched into developing his own projects, pitching ideas and even producing a pilot for his science fiction adventure, Doorways. Had things gone a little differently, Martin might be known more as a television producer and showrunner. Fortunately for fans of genre literature, however, life led him in a different direction. Between Hollywood projects in 1993, he decided to take some time to revisit his Thousand Worlds setting, working on a novel titled Avalon, when an image sprang up that he couldn’t shake: a dead wolf discovered in the summer snow. That it was snowing in summer was important. He was driven to start writing the story that came with this image, worked feverishly for a time… and then set it aside to go back to work in Hollywood. But he never forgot it. And once he was done with Hollywood, tired of its limits, he turned back to that story.

The rest, as they say, is history. A Song of Ice and Fire started quietly enough, struggling at first to find its audience until the paperback of A Game of Thrones was released with an unabashedly-genre cover. It developed an early, intense following, as we can well attest; the earliest forums devoted to the series sprang up soon after that paperback release. It’s a testament to Martin’s skill as a storyteller that so many are enthralled by the saga, and by the characters who have sprung vividly to life on the page. It’s these qualities, and the ever-burgeoning popularity that they attracted, that led HBO to the fateful decision to develop and then air Game of Thrones.

For a kid from the projects of Bayonne, dreaming of freighters carrying him around the world, George has come a long, long way. Happy Birthday, George!

This article was originally published on September 20, 2013.


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