Interview with George R.R. Martin

The 18th Wild Cards volume, Inside Straight, is due out in January, 2008. That in itself is quite an achievement for you and everyone involved. You’ve dubbed it the “next generation” triad, what can we expect? All new characters? Any old generation cameos?

There will be some old generation characters making cameos, but the emphasis will very much be on a cast of new characters. One of the things that dawned on us when we revived Wild Cards was that, unlike the traditional comic book universes, they don’t operate on comic book time. I say this as an old comic book fan. I started reading Spiderman in the sixties when Spiderman started–at which time Peter Parker was in high school. And what was very cool is that he then graduated high school and went to college and met a whole new group of people. I thought that was very cool, you know, that time was passing for me because I was pretty much Peter’s age. I graduated high school and went to college pretty much the same time Peter graduated high school and went to college. Except I only spent four years for my bachelor and had one year in Grad school and then I was out of college. And Peter stayed in college for like twenty years. And then he got out and he got a job and he got married. Peter Parker used to be older than me, but now he’s much much younger than me. It’s comic book time. And Superman, you know, he originally came to earth in the twenties. If you start reading him in the thirties, he crashed in the twenties but now he came to earth in the 80′s. Traditional comics play fast and loose with real time. Wild Cards has never done that. We’re very solidly rooted in real time.

Things like the tumult of the sixties and the Iran rescue mission situation and the HUAC hearings are very much a part of the Wild Card past and we don’t change the dates on those or play fast and loose. The downside of that is that it means are characters are getting old. The Turtle, you know, is closely based on me but is several years older than me. He’s now in his sixties. Another character, Fortunato, the last time he appeared he was like in his late sixties. We got a bunch of geezer heroes here so we decided that the time had come to introduce a new generation. The young people, the kids that have been born in the Wild Card world. Who will have a different way of looking at it too. Aces and jokers are as much a part of their world as television and airplanes were to my generation. When my mother’s generation was born there were no airplanes, and when I was born airplanes were just part of the world. We got a whole new group of characters. Some of them are great characters and we think they’re going to be a lot of fun. And the old characters, those who haven’t died, yeah they’re still around and they may pop up from time to time, but when they will they’ll be their age. No one is going to be Peter Parker and perpetually 23. Well, except maybe for Golden Boy, who doesn’t age and looks perpetually about 23. He’s still a geezer inside, however.

The series has long been known for tweaking history, and it seems recently there are a lot of things, current events wise, that could be used as material. Can we expect to see Jokers and Aces shipped off to a Guantanamo Bay, or some Ace Axis of Evil?

There’s a certain amount of reflection, yeah. We’re certainly cognizant of what’s going on in the world. It’s not going to be as one for one, though. For one thing the Wild Card Universe has some historical differences from our universe, because of things that have changed in the past that have produced a different history line. Places like the Middle East and India Pakistan are different because of the interventions of the Wild Card characters. Like India and Pakistan are one country in the Wild Card universe. They never separated because Gandhi who was trying to prevent that when he was assassinated was not assassinated in the Wild Card universe. He was saved by Black Eagle. And the Middle East is different. There’s been a Palestinian state since 1948. This means that we can’t just see what’s going on in the news and put Aces in it because the history is very different. Certainly, there’s a level of reality that grounds Wild Cards, that informs the universe and that’s still very much present.

There are a lot of different authors involved in the Wild Card universe, and each one has brought their own characters and story threads to the mix. As the editor of the series, can you talk some about the process involved with each book, how you go about roping all these ideas together?

The process has evolved over the years. We’ve been doing these books since 1985, and after 17 of them I kind of know what I’m doing. I usually have some general idea about what the subject of the book is, or the triad, and we start with kicking ideas around. We frequently do a lot of these in triads, so there will be what we call an over-plot that connects each of the triads together. Some threats, some villains, some antagonists of some sort that goes through all three books, and is finally dealt with in the final book. But at the same time we want each book to have a certain sense of completion. For the ones that are individual stories the story has to have a sense that it’s not just a series of incidents. In some ways it’s some of the most challenging writing that you’ll ever have to do because you’re essentially trying to serve three plots at once, and have three resolutions: the story resolution, the book resolution and the triad resolution.

Does that become more difficult with the mosaic novels in each triad?

The mosaic is the hardest. When we invented that form way back with book three it was a huge hit. The fans loved it, and we were very pleased with the final result of book three too. Especially books six and seven, which were all part of the same mosaic initially. We had split it into two because it had gotten so long. But there’s so much work with the mosaics that we can’t do it that way every book. It would just kill us. We did consider it when we saw how popular the form is, and what a good result it added, but it’s too complicated. Instead we try to make the mosaic the concluding book of the triad. So we begin with two books of stories with an interlinking interstitial narrative, which we sometimes call the beads on a string. Where each story is a bead and the interstitial is the string that ties them all together. There are two volumes of that, with the third being the true mosaic novel. They usually involve fewer writers too. These days we tend to have 8 or 9 writers in the beads on a string book, but with the mosaics six is about the most that I can take. Every time you add another writer or another character it increases the order of complexity that much more.

And how long does it generally take to get a Wild Card novel ready for publication, once you all have decided on a direction and everyone has begun writing?

Basically our deadlines are a year apart, but we don’t work on every book for the entire year day and night. Many of us have other projects to do. There’s always a lot of rewriting involved in the Wild Cards books because you can’t just write a first draft or write a draft to your satisfaction. If it was a short story for yourself you’d do a first draft and a polish for yourself and then an editor would buy it or not buy it. It doesn’t work that with Wilds Cards because these stories have to fit together. They’re part of a greater whole. So inevitable, no matter how carefully we plan it ahead of time, and how many meetings we have, and telephone conference calls, and email exchanges, there will be cross signals. It’s like a relay race where somebody is supposed to hand off a baton to somebody and they don’t. Or they mishandle it in some way and the two stories don’t fit together. And sometimes it’s just the opposite; you wind up with two people who are doing the same thing. There was some misunderstanding, and gosh!, both people have solved this murder. They’ve come up with different solutions. But that’s why I get the big bucks as editor to straighten out these things and crack the whip.

Do the writers have a lot of free rein, or are there strict plot points each writer has to hit on?

It varies with the book. After we have a lot of discussions there’s a certain point where I throw the book open for proposals. We currently have thirty members of the Wild Cards consortium-thirty writers that are eligible to pitch-and they all get a solicitation for proposals. Many of the other writers have other projects, deadlines or other things that they’re doing, so not everybody has the time to be in every book. And that over-plot may not be one that concerns them or one they don’t think that their characters can fit in. But those who want to be in the book will send me story proposals, and I will sit down and look them over. I usually select about 8 or 9 that fit in that specific book, and give them the go-ahead to go write their stories. The rest will get passed on.

Which writers contributed to Inside Straight?

We have some new writers. We have Daniel Abraham who actually made his debut in deuces down and he’s back. He’s doing interstitial and there’s a sample of that on my website. We also have Carrie Vaughn, Caroline Spector, and Ian Tregillis. These are all new writers to the Wild Card series. A number of the older writers are there too: John Jos. Miller, Melinda Snodgrass, myself. Overall there will be nine contributors to the book.

With a series this long you’ve got to have some kind of encyclopedia or Wild Cards reference book handy. That’s a lot to keep up with, especially so many different writers involved.

We don’t. Many years ago when Wilds Cards had its first initial success back in the 80′s there was a game version done by Steve Jackson Games for his GURPS system and John Miller, one of our Wild Card writers, did the world book for that. They put together a lot of information about the first five books, which was all that was out at that time. And that was great, that was a wonderful resource where we could look up characters and find things about them; we could look up the timelines. It was very concise. It was a great resource for us, but unfortunately it only goes up to book five. So as the series has continued over the years and decades John’s book has gotten progressively more and more outdated and incomplete as new characters come in and the old characters have additional things happen to them and they change. It’s not as useful as it was back in the early nineties, say. A lot of it is just me. I seem to have a good mind for remembering this stuff. Admittedly, though, I think I had a better mind for remembering all this back in 1984 or so, when Wild Cards was still on it’s first go round and I was still doing it every year. Then we had that seven year layoff where we didn’t do the Wild Card books and I forgot a lot.

Did you kind of have to prep again, go back and re-read some of the earlier books?

I have all of the books here so I dip into them every once and a while. Unfortunately Wild Cards is so old, at least in the initial volumes, that a lot of it doesn’t exist in electronic form so you can’t do a search and replace as easily as you can on a modern manuscript. You just have to remember ‘Oh, okay. There was something about that in book three, I think.’ Then I take book three down from the shelf and I flip through until I find it.

I believe that at one time iBooks was reprinting the series. I think they got up to six or seven.

Yes, iBooks revived the series in 2000. At that time they purchased the rights to do reprints of the first 8 books of the original series. And they also purchased two new books which became volumes sixteen and seventeen-Deuces Down and John Miller’s novel Death Draws Five. But meanwhile they started the reprinting program and they got up to book six. Even though they had the rights to do books seven and eight they never actually issued any versions of seven and eight. And then of course iBooks went bankrupt.

Wild Cards has found a new home with Tor. Are there plans for Tor to pick up reprinting where iBooks left off?

Tor has contracted for a new triad. The one that’s been delivered, which will be out January 2008, is titled Inside Straight. That book is finished and delivered and we now are working on the second book of the triad which is Busted Flush. And there’ll be one more after that which will be the full mosaic. Whether it continues beyond that point is a question of how well the new books sell. There are various complexities with that. iBooks went bankrupt so those books are caught up in the bankruptcy. And the bankruptcy courts sold iBooks’ assets, including their existing contracts to a publisher called Brick Tower Press. So technically speaking those books belong to Brick Tower Press. Now we’re trying to get the rights to them back and if we get them back we could sell them to Tor for reprint. But at the moment we haven’t succeeded, and are going around and around in circles on that.

There have been so many great characters in the Wild Card universe, which ones are you primarily responsible for?

The Great and Powerful Turtle, Jube the Walrus, Xavier Desmond, and Popinjay.

I’m curious as to how Tom Tudbury came about. Is there a little, or a lot, of George Martin in the Great and Powerful Turtle?

Oh, there’s a great deal of George Martin. He’s probably the most autobiographical character I’ve ever done.

The Wild Cards characters are more human than hero, and certainly don’t fit the superhero archetype. I guess you would say they’re gray characters. Is there something that attracts you to gray characters as a writer?

For one thing I think they’re more real. I mean, we’re all gray. You look around your life there’s very few pure heroes or villains. The worst people have moments of tenderness and are capable of love and affection, and the best people are capable of selfish acts and moments of weakness and moments of cowardice. I find real human beings infinitely more interesting than cardboard cutouts. I prefer to paint in shades of gray.

A lot of sci-fi and fantasy works externalize the struggle of men or elves or what have you, but your books tend towards the internal struggle.

Yes, I certainly do. I often quote Faulkner with what he said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” There’s a great deal of truth in that.

A lot of writers believe there is an advantage to writing book series, that they just seem to resonate more with the reader. Why do you think that is?

Well they’re certainly popular. But they can become unpopular too. I mean Wild Cards in its original go-round was popular for a long time, but then we did begin to lose a little steam, and there’s no doubt our sales were going down by the time we hit books nine and ten. Then when we switched publishers from Bantam to Baen our sales went down precipitously. And that’s why the series went away for seven years. Like anything else it’s a question of the characters and the world. We’ve created, I think, a very interesting world. A world that I like a lot. And I like coming back and visiting it from time to time, and hopefully the readers do too.

You spent a bit of time in the 80′s and early 90′s writing for television. What are the differences between writing novels and writing for TV?

Writing for television and film is a collaborative process. You have to please a lot more masters. There’s a studio involved, a network involved, directors and actors. There are other writers sometimes if you’re on the staff of a television show, and they all have their opinions of what you’re doing. Collaboration by nature is a series of compromises, either you compromise or you have some sort of power struggle. You can get some great work if you have a good partnership there and people kind of feeding off each other, but a lot of times you don’t have that. You have people who are kind of fighting with each other about the creative direction or something or you wind up with a compromise watering something down. It can be frustrating. Prose was my first love and I’m glad that I’m back to it. There’s an excitement working in television or film, and I may get back into it someday, but I don’t miss it all that much I must say. I like being able to do my stuff without having to worry about what the network or the studio is going to think about it

HBO has optioned Song of Fire and Ice for a mini-series, have you ever been approached about doing something similar with Wild Cards? Superheroes are kind of the ‘in’ thing now in Hollywood.

Wild Cards has been optioned. Melinda Snodgrass and I wrote several drafts of a screen play together for Disney back in the 80′s, but ultimately as they often do in Hollywood they decided not to continue.

You worked with Disney on a couple of projects one of them being that Wild Cards screenplay that never came to light, what were some of the others?

I had deals with the Hollywood pictures division of Disney so it wasn’t the cartoon stuff it was live action. I worked on Princess of Mars and I worked on Fevre Dream, but ultimately nothing came to pass.

It’s too bad the Fevre Dream screenplay never got picked up-it’s an excellent novel. What inspired you to write that novel? Was it something where you said ‘I want to write a book about vampires?’ Or were you researching steamboats or that particular point in history?

It was actually while I lived in Dubuque, Iowa . It’s is an historic steamboat manufacturing town on the Mississippi and I got interested living there with that era. I wanted to write a steamboat book, but because I was a science fiction writer I never really considered writing a straight historical the way John Brunner did. Instead I said ‘how can I use the steamboats for a background of a fantasy or science fiction story.’ The vampire thing just seemed to go with steamboats. There’s something very nineteenth century about both of them. Sort of the dark romanticism.

You began flirting with an idea during your television days that would become your popular Song of Fire and Ice series. Has that success lead new readers to you other works, like the Wild Card series?

I hope so. I do a lot of different things and one thing I’ve found over the course of my career is that people who like one thing that I do don’t necessarily like everything that I do. They may just be fans of the Tuf Series or Fire and Ice or Wild Cards. But I hope some people who enjoy the Fire and Ice Series come over and give Wild Cards a chance. If they’re open to other types of fiction then I think they might like it. I think we’ve got some good stories some good characters.

Does that ever frustrate you? Do you ever ask yourself why certain works of yours garner more attention?

Every writer does, but my career has been pretty good. Those are all older works and for the most part my newer projects have been the most popular. I’ve got more readers today than I’ve ever had before. The question is will that continue when I finish Fire and Ice and do something completely different. How many Fire and Ice fans will follow me? I don’t know. I’ll find out, but not for a few years because I’ve still got three gigantic Fire and Ice books to write.

Do you think the genre thing traps you sometimes as a writer?

I think it can only trap you if you want to be trapped. I’ve written many different things. I see writers who are just writing one thing over and over again, be it science fiction or fantasy, and maybe that’s all that they’re interested in. I could see how they would feel trapped but I certainly don’t because I have been able to move from one to the other.

Is there an ultimate ending to the Wild Card series? Have you envisioned a kind of conclusion to the series? Not that any Wild Card fans want one!

(Laughs) I think the only one who’s really envisioned that is Howard Waldrop. Howard of course wrote the Jetboy story that opened this series, and Howard has often said to me he wrote the first Wild Card series and he’s ready to write the last one. And when we’re finished with the series Howard will step in a write the last Wild Card book. We had to swear, in blood, that once he writes the story it will be the last one. That we’ll then never write another one again. But that will be a long way coming.

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Interview by Andrew Brooks

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