George R. R. Martin gives candid look at what informs his craft during Chicago Humanities Festival


Courtesy of David T. Kindler

George R.R. Martin (left), the author of the books which inspired HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ is interviewed by Eve L. Ewing (right), a University of Chicago professor.

The stage was dark and quiet as both dry ice fog and the iconic “Game of Thrones” opening credits song slowly worked themselves up from a slow churn to powerful waves of nostalgia. The music coming from this Chicago Humanities Festival event at Symphony Center on Friday night was produced by special guests Spektral Quartet, the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago. As the iconic score continued, famed “Game of Thrones” writer George R.R. Martin and U of C professor Eve L. Ewing ascended from below the stage and took their seats at a well-adorned table worthy of a royal feast. The night of conversation and interviewing had only just begun.

It was immediately apparent that the fact that Martin writes the ”Song of Ice and Fire” series is the least interesting part of him. The magic of Martin lies before his relatively new celebrity status, as his writing did not hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list until the series’ fourth book, ”A Feast for Crows,” in 2005. But before the “Game of Thrones” TV show, before the books, before his other writing for television and the collection of other fabulous series he authored, and before his education at Northwestern, there were comics.

Martin’s first published piece was a letter he sent to Marvel comics commenting on ”Fantastic 4” #17 and published in ”Fantastic 4” #20 in 1961.

“Move over Shakespeare, Stan Lee has arrived,” read a portion of the letter.

The comic that solidified Stan Lee as Martin’s most influential writer was “Avengers” #9, published in 1963. As the author recalled, Wonder Man, a spy “playing a hero” sent to end the Avengers joined the team. In the comic, Wonder Man “became friendly [with the team], wouldn’t destroy the Avengers and was killed.”

“All my writing is ‘Avengers’ #9,” Martin said.

From Marvel Comics and Stan Lee, he learned to “[introduce] great characters that aren’t what they seem and then kill them.” All readers and watchers of his works know this plot technique all too well, from the untimely deaths of Eddard and Rob Stark, to Robert and Joffrey Baratheon. Martin declared his goal as a writer: that readers “not just read the book but live the book . . . be scared to turn the page.”

This is where his love for Marvel over D.C. comics begins. A D.C. comic, to Martin, was “circular, [ending] right where it began.” Furthermore, you could “read in any order” because whatever chaos happened throughout the comic, all would be back to normal by the last page.

“Nothing ever happened in D.C.,” Martin said.

Conversely, due to Marvel’s style of long, multiple-issue story arcs that permanently changed aspects of the story, Martin saw characters’ lives changing just as he did.

“I went to high school with Peter Parker,” he said. “I went to college with Peter Parker.”

Martin delved deeper into the philosophy of seemingly spontaneous murder, citing another favorite of the fantasy genre, J. R. R. Tolkien’s famed ”Lord of the Rings” series. Recalling the demise of a powerful wizard, the author expressed his confounded disbelief.

“What the hell,” he said.” Gandalf dies? The others seem like kids compared to him.”

Martin enjoyed the use of Gandalf’s death in the story because it was “raising the stakes.” If Gandalf can die, no one is safe.

“Who are we going to kill next? We have several extra hobbits. . . they can go,” he teased.

Continuing on ”Lord of the Rings,” Ewing asked Martin to elaborate, saying, “You have become famous for writing renditions of the ’Scouring of the Shire,’” referring to the final chapter of the series when, instead of celebrations of their bravery and victory, our heroes find their villages ransacked.

Martin replied that he strives for the same type of realism and unhappy endings. The days of anxiousness, grieving, and preparation before an army goes into battle, the multi-dimensional characters and the complex storylines each told from different characters’ perspectives are all ways Martin strives toward realism.

By the time Martin and Ewing descended into the stage and the ominous opening credits score began to play once more, everyone present truly understood one thing: Martin deeply cares about his writing and his readers. There is nothing disingenuous about the author because, if he was anything less than the methodical writer dedicated to crafting an amazing story, readers would have the last two books of the “Song of Ice and Fire” series already. Nevertheless, audiences will continue to wait for ”The Winds of Winter,” await which has now surpassed more than eight years.

Readers can check out the Chicago Humanities Festival website to learn more about the other speeches, interviews, conversations and performances taking place over the next couple weeks, such as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and legendary comedian Julia Louis Dreyfuss.