“I sold my first story in '71,” says George R.R. Martin. “I didn't go full-time until '79.”
We're in a room called a “pod” in the middle of a Petco Park parking lot in San Diego on the final day of Comic-Con. It's part of an exhibition from Courtyard Marriott, who is reaching out to travelers by showcasing their “innovation rooms” during days of cosplay contests and special guest appearances. Today is the grand finale with the reveal of the contest winners, who are crowned by Martin. The author of the series A Song of Ice and Fire, which became the television series Game of Thrones, answers questions from the event's MC, Noah Cappe, and fans in the crowd. After that, he meets with press. That's how we ended up in the pod, where I asked him about the times he felt like a struggling writer.
Martin says that he was a “rising writer” for years. “I was publishing more and more, but I still wasn't making enough money to live on,” he says. Martin recalls wondering if he would spend his life working as a teacher (which he did for a while) or a journalist (his college major) and writing on the side. “In the history of science fiction, some of the giants of the Golden Age never were full-time writers,” he says. He mentions Clifford Simak, the famed sci-fi writer who was a journalist by day.
“The other thing,” Martin adds,” is that in this business, you're only as hot as your latest book.” After finally transitioning to full-time writer, Martin wrote a novel called Armageddon Rag. It wasn't a big seller. “Suddenly, my career as a novelist was over. I couldn't get a publisher to buy my next novel. Nobody wanted to know my name.”
Martin repeats the advice he says he often tells writers: “This is not an occupation for someone who values security.” Right now, though, Martin is pretty secure. His novels spawned a massively popular HBO series. Game of Thrones is so big that parts of the exhibit hall would come to a dead stop when the stars of the show turned up on the top level of HBO's booth. Martin is essentially god of that universe and no character is safe from the wrath he can inflict with a strikes against a keyboard.
I have a lot of admiration for Martin. It's more than just an addiction to Game of Thrones or the massive tomes upon which they're based. While I've spent much time discussing the parentage of Jon Snow with my friends, I'm more interested in Martin as a person. In a pop culture landscape that is riddled with so-called geeks name-checking their interests as a means of gaining fans, Martin is the real deal.
Earlier in the day, during the fan event, he talks about how he started going to San Diego Comic-Con back in 1987, when he was writing for the cult TV series Beauty and the Beast. Beyond that, he claims to be “the first comic book convention fan,” having been attendee number one at a small, New York event in 1964 organized by a teenage Len Wein, who later co-created Wolverine. Now, conventions are massive events and Martin's popularity has soared to the point where he laments no longer being able to walk the show floor and look for comics.
Martin is the writer that I want to be, not in terms of style, but in attitude. He does his thing whether or not you like it. That next Ice and Fire book will come out when he thinks it's ready, no matter how many times fans ask about it. It doesn't matter how much you love a character. He or she will probably get killed and Martin will joke about it. He does the thing that so many in entertainment seem to fear: He doesn't give into fan fantasy.
Moreover, in an environment where everyone is trying to get the attention of the fans, Martin doesn't pander. That goes beyond his books. Ask him whether he prefers Star Wars or Star Trek, which happened during the fan event, and he'll answer Forbidden Planet. Then, he'll crush Trekkie hearts by adding, “Star Trek was a lot of fun, Roddenberry stole everything from Forbidden Planet.” But, he doesn't stop there. “Long before the Enterprise, there was the C-57D and Commander Adams before Captain Kirk and his doctor and his first officer forming a triad investigating the ancient demise of the race of the Krell and there was Robby the Robot there who was the best robot in science fiction history. You can keep R2-D2. Give me Robby the Robot every time.”
Martin doesn't have to stick to the geek platform at Comic-Con. Some might say that's only because he's super famous. I would argue that this is why he's super famous. After a while, listening to people gush about the hot properties of the moment gets old. Hearing the author of the hottest property of the moment talk about the War of the Roses or The Great Gatsby or how writing has enabled him to travel and reading lets his imagination do the same is much more interesting.
The best part, though, is how encouraging he is to the members of the audience. “I know that in an audience like this, there are aspiring writers. There are aspiring artists,” he says. “Twenty, thirty years from now, someone standing out there right now will be up here.”
Martin gets the crowd because, years ago, he was part of the crowd. It took decades, but, now, he's the most in-demand novelist at the convention.
Liz Ohanesian on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: