‘Game of Thrones’ Author Talks Creating Westerns, Complex Characters

George R. R. Martin speaking at his alma mater Northwestern University. (Photo: Jenna Braunstein )

I’ve had the pleasure of mingling with some pretty cool people over the years. I had lunch with Maya Angelou at her bright yellow home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina 18 months before she died. In 2009, I visited 10 Downing Street in London and received a peck on the cheek from then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And I spent several days over the course of a year interviewing India.Arie about her last album and living a healthy life.

All of that was very cool, but there are a couple of people I hope to add to the list. Among them, George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Fire and Ice” fantasy book series for which HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is based (“Game of Thrones” is my favorite TV show).

Well, I have to hope no more. I recently had the opportunity to hang out with him for a couple of days.

Northwestern University, where Martin received his bachelors and master’s degrees in journalism, celebrated this alum with several days of activities.

When I received the email that he was coming to campus and that some events were exclusively for Medill students and alumni (I’m a Medillian), I jumped all over it, RSVPing for everything.

I attended a luncheon celebrating Martin's induction into the Medill Hall of Achievement and a "Game of Thrones"-themed dinner where attendees feasted on delectables such as Red Wedding Cake, Unsullied (macaroni & cheese balls) and Moon of My Life (toasted bread with honey butter). Martin obliged several of our (his fans) questions during the events. An avid chess player, he reminisced about participating in chess tournaments when he was in undergrad and how much Evanston has changed over the past 45 years. He also elaborated on his writing process, character development and his new-found celebrity.

“A year ago, I was at a hotel and Paul McCartney came up and introduced himself to me. That was cool,” Martin said.

George R. R. Martin with a group of Northwestern University students and alumni, including CelebrateBlackTV.com editor Aisha I. Jefferson, during his visit. (Photo: Jenna Braunstein)

Martin, 67, is developing three additional TV series for HBO and is trying to finish his sixth book in the "A Song of Fire and Ice" series. "Game of Thrones" debuted in 2011 and wrapped up its fifth season in June. Fans are waiting for season six-and Martin's sixth book. Martin said he hasn't written for the show for the last two seasons because he's trying to finish this novel. He even admitted that the series is catching up to where he last left off, another reason he feels pressured to complete this book.

I’m not mad at G.R.R.M (pronounced grim). His books are nearly a thousand pages long and are very detailed and filled with very interesting and complex characters. I admit, I’m very impressed with the way writers like Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien allow their imaginations to take over as they create these very elaborated worlds where their readers are sucked in like specks of dirt in a Hoover. During Friday’s dinner, I sat across from Martin, thinking that maybe some of the discipline that exhibits when he’s typing away would somehow seep across the table to me. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. However, he did share some great suggestions for writers like myself.

Check out those tips and a few more things for which Martin shared his opinion. Also, check out a few episodes that have some of the books and series' most prolific battle scenes below. "Game of Thrones" will debut its sixth season in spring 2016.

WATCH: “Game of Thrones”- “The Rains of Castamere”

On dealing with success…

"It's hard. I was a slow writer to begin with but I've become even slower because of the amount of success that I've had. I mean, success can eat you alive that way. For 20 or 30 years here, I would do science fiction conventions, lectures, teaching assignments and I would travel and get an invitation to England and get an award. Or come here and talk at a convention, and it would be all expenses paid. And I would say yes to most of these because I think some of it came from the fact that we had no money growing up, we never went anywhere. I lived the first 18 years of my life -until I came out to Northwestern- never leaving Bayonne, New Jersey. So the idea to go to all of these fabulous, exotic countries to see some of the world was cool. Even traveling to different parts of the United States was cool. But then as the success started to mount with first the books and then the TV show, I started getting more and more invitations. And, I still think there was a period maybe five or six years ago, looking back on it now, where I said yes way too often. If I had been a high school girl, I would've been the school slut here, saying yes to everybody. I can't say yes to everybody so I hired some assistants. Their job is to say no because I seem to be incapable of saying no. So, it's really cool that they want to fly me to South Africa or to Brazil, or wherever, but I have to really pick and choose. I can't just say yes and yes and yes. All of the travel is wonderful, it's exciting, I enjoy it. But it's also very disruptive. I'm finally getting to the point where I'm getting it more manageable. But it's tough."

On how often he writes…

"You know…not long enough. As I was saying to the last g roup that was here, my life has become so busy now. There's constant demands of my time. I have five assistants and I still can't keep up. I'm trying to deal with that, carve out more time. Because I'm not a guy who can write in hotel rooms and on airplanes and when traveling. I really need a long undisturbed block of time. I need the world to go away. I need to get myself in Westeros and that's getting harder and harder to come by. So I'm trying to recreate that thing.

But on a good day, when I am writing, I get up in the morning and I start to write. And, if it's going well, I'll still be writing when it gets dark. I'll lose all track of time. My morning coffee will still be next to me and it'll be ice cold. The day has gone by. And when I really get in the groove, like, weeks will go by, months will go by and I'll just be living in Westeros. But then the rest of my life falls apart. That's why I need the assistants. You know, bills don't get paid and correspondence piles up and now there's so much of that stuff that it's very hard to keep track."

WATCH : “Game of Thrones” – “Hardhome”

On developing complex characters…

“Ultimately, the only character that we really know deeply is ourselves. So you have to turn inward for that kind of spark of life that makes a character come alive. And the hardest part of that is when you are writing about a character who is not like you. The closer a character is to you, like in my ‘Wild Card’ books there is a character called Thomas Sudbury, The Great and Powerful Turtle, who’s pretty much me except with super powers. He’s easy to write. ‘Unsound Variations’ the protagonist again… there’s an awful lot of me in it. That was easy to write. But when I’m writing about a dwarf or an 8-year-old girl or an exiled princess, that’s not close to me in obvious ways. So you have to kind of rely on empathy and trying to get in the head of someone very different and give them their own voice, you still have to deal with yourself. And I think one of the first crucial tests for a writer is the ability to mine your own self. Mine your pains and your fears, insecurities and doubts because these are the things that make the character come alive. I don’t think even I was doing that in my first two published stories.”

On dealing with the dreaded writer’s block…

"The only way to deal with writer's block is to face it head on. A lot of people suffering from writer's block stay away from the computer. You can't do that. You have to sit your ass on the seat and turn on the computer and just make yourself write. If you don't allow yourself to do anything else, I think sooner or later you'll write. You can't sit at the computer and say, 'Oh, it's not coming, let me check my email.'or 'Let me browse the internet for a while and then I'll get back to it.' Because then you'll never get back to it."

WATCH: “Game of Thrones” – “Blackwater”

On why he uses a 30-year-old computer …

"I actually have two computers. I write all of my fiction on a DOS machine with a completely outmoted word processing system called WordStar 4.0. It does exactly what I want it to do and it doesn't do anything else. My fiction computer operating on DOS is not connected to the Internet. It can't get a virus. It can't get a worm. It can't get a Trojan horse. It can't be hacked because it's not connected to online. I have another computer I switch over to when I want to answer my emails or browse the Internet or anything like that. Even my wife knows if she comes in and sees the black screen up with the white print, then I'm working. If she comes in and sees all types of colorful s- on my screen, then I'm farting off.

Viruses are dangerous too. I have a friend who lost three-quarters of a novel to some virus. He had it all backed up on a floppy disk and he got this virus and it just somehow ate his drives. And he said, "Oh, don't worry I have it on a floppy disk," and he put his floppy disk in and it ate that. So, that wasn't good."

On why other writers may want to consider a DOS machine or something like it … 

"Even if you don't get a DOS machine, it does make sense to have a computer that is not connected to the Internet so you can't get any viruses on that. It's physically separate. Yes, they can build firewalls and programmable software barriers to protect your computer, but anything that one person an program, another person can hack sooner or later.

WATCH: “Game of Thrones” – “The Watchers on the Wall”

Enjoyed this? Be sure to check out previous “Can’t Stop Watching” posts. Have a comment for the Black Entertainment site, CelebrateBlackTV.com? Tweet @AishaIman with your question. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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