EVANSTON, Ill. --- During his much anticipated return to campus, Northwestern University alumnus George R.R. Martin shared frank, warm and often humorous insights about his long journey to super celebrity status following the wild success of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
The internationally acclaimed best-selling author was on campus Wednesday, Nov. 4, to accept the Hall of Achievement alumni award from the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The award, the school’s highest honor, recognizes alumni whose careers have had a significant impact on their field.
“A Song of Ice and Fire,” Martin’s beloved, blunt and bawdy fantasy series for adults, was adapted into HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” one of most popular television series in the world. Martin is co-executive producer of the series and has scripted one episode for the first four seasons of the show.
“It means a lot for me to have this recognition,” he said during the morning ceremony at Medill. “I was very proud to graduate from Medill, getting my bachelor’s and master’s [degrees] from the finest school of journalism in the United States. But I always felt vaguely guilty, because I failed to do any actual, you know, journalism.”
During the panel discussion in the morning and one later in the day, Martin repeatedly lauded his training at Medill. He credits his journalism training with shaping his distinctive fiction-writing style “to a great extent.”
Martin had been writing since he was 7, and by the time he got to Medill, he said, his self-described “ornate” style of writing was well developed.
“I never used one adjective where four would fit,” he said, delighting aspiring journalists in the audience who are trained to be adjective adverse. “[Medill] made my writing more muscular and tighter.” But in subsequent years, he admitted, “the adjectives have been coming back in.”
The internship Martin did in Medill’s Washington, D.C., office during his last quarter “was an amazing couple of months,” he said. Often after Martin turned in his copy and returned to the newsroom, he said, an editor known for his rough, old-school style of journalism would bellow from his office “Martin, Martin, too cute.”
During the candid and wide-ranging panel discussions, Martin touched upon the highs and lows of a literary journey that took him from a short-lived position teaching college journalism to writing novels full time in Santa Fe and a move to Hollywood, where he worked as a writer and producer for television shows, including “The Twilight Zone Revisited" and "Beauty and the Beast." When he tried to develop his own show in 1992, the science-fiction pilot “Doorways,” ABC never fully green-lighted the project.
Making a living from a creative career, he said, is not for the faint-hearted. “This is not a profession for anyone who needs security," he said.
But that was then. Now he has to deal with the "strange world of celebrity." In 2011, the year “Game of Thrones” first appeared on HBO, he was named to the “Time 100,” the magazine’s list of the “most influential people in the world.” “Game of Thrones” has won numerous Emmy Awards, including Best Drama Series in 2015. Martin also has won Hugo, Bram Stoker, Nebula and World Fantasy awards.
More than 60 million copies of his books are in print, and the two most recent installments of the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” spent time at the No. 1 slot on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
To create the conflicted, complex characters that populate his novels, Martin said he turns inward for inspiration, in addition to reading popular history and drawing from his and friends’ experiences. He is interested in characters who reflect the complexity of the human experience, the ‘black’ and ‘white’ impulses that compete for attention in all of us.
“Exploring that is one of the great pleasures of writing fiction,” he said. “The battle between good and evil is fought within the individual human heart every day and every year. People who do noble and heroic things on Tuesday may do something vile and selfish on Wednesday. That’s what I try to get at.”
Both panel discussions were moderated by Darren Franich, an Entertainment Weekly writer, and Niala Boodhoo, formerly with "The Afternoon Shift" on WBEZ and now national vice president of the Asian American Journalists Association. The morning discussion also included Medill senior Orko Manna, and the afternoon panel included Medill sophomore Mariana Alfaro.
Though Cahn Auditorium, home to many Northwestern's theater productions, was filled to capacity, Martin's forthrightness, charm and humor in the discussion on stage created an immediate intimacy with the audience. He was in a sense back home, and his wit and the richness of the discussion was not lost on fellow Northwestern community members.
Martin was asked about whether his writing process was affected by his international success and celebrity. "Games of Thrones," he said, doesn’t affect his writing -- “except to turn up the stress” about the release of his forthcoming novel, “The Winds of Winter."
“The show, of course, has caught up to me, which I didn’t actually think would ever happen," he said. "I had such a huge lead, but the truth is, I’m a very slow writer."
Part of the reason his books have gained such extraordinary global readership -- even in far-flung countries such as Mongolia -- Martin said, is because of the universal appeal of the genre of fantasy fiction that he writes.
The legends about “swords, kings and dragons” are common in cultures throughout the world.
But before “Game of Thrones," Martin “washed up at least twice.” After his 1983 novel “Armageddon Rag" -- a critically acclaimed success but a commercial failure -- no publishers wanted his next story. This work in progress, a journalism novel about Jack the Ripper and the tabloid wars in 1890s New York City, remains one of Martin's favorites. He ruminated a bit about perhaps turning his attention to the novel once again.
Martin also touched upon the future of fantasy and science fiction writing in his discussions. The genre is in crisis, he said. Writers of his generation, he said, had a positive outlook about the future. Now pessimism dominates as issues such as pollution, global warming and nuclear proliferation play out in dystopian fiction.
“All of this I think has affected science fiction,” he said. “There’s no belief in this ‘wonderful world of tomorrow’ that awaits us all. We’re afraid of the world of tomorrow.”
Martin believes even tragic and dark stories need an element of hope.
“We all yearn for happy endings, in a sense," he said. "People have asked me how ‘Game of Thrones’ is going to end. I’m not going to tell the specifics, of course, but I’ve always said to expect something bittersweet.”
To say that Medill is proud of one its most famous alums is a great understatement.
“One of the things about a Medill degree is that people go on to do many interesting things," Medill Dean Brad Hamm said. "They have taken the training and skills, and really, the grand liberal arts education, and go on to many different things.”