Monday, December 2, 2019

George R.R. Martin On His Development As A Writer

George R.R. Martin is without question among the most well-known writers of this generation. Even before the adaptation of his books into an uber popular television series by HBO, Martin occupied a special spot in the hearts of millions of bibliophiles. I am among those who look up to the man not just in the context of a reader but as an aspiring writer as well.

As with any aspiring writer who looks up to a writing giant, I’ve always been curious as to how Martin developed as a writer. What books did he read as a child? What made him decide to write stories under the banners of science fiction, fantasy, and horror? Why didn’t he take the routes of spy thrillers or historical fiction?

I found bits of answers to these questions in his Introduction for the anthology book Warriors 3. Published in 2010, Warriors 3 is a collection of stories by seven bestselling authors (Diana Gabaldon, Robin Hobb, Lawrence Block, Carrie Vaughn, David Morrell, James Rollins, and Joe R. Lansdale). Martin co-edited the book with Gardner Dozois.

In his Introduction which he aptly subtitled Stories from the Spinner Rack, Martin takes us back to when he was growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey. A kid who loved books, Martin agonized on how to budget his dollar-a-week allowance.

My allowance was a dollar a week, and figuring out how I was going to split that up between ten-cent comic books (when the price went up to twelve cents, it really blew the hell out of my budget), thirty-five-cent paperbacks, a candy bar or two, the infrequent quarter malt or ice cream soda, and an occasional game of Skee-Ball at Uncle Milty’s down the block was always one of the more agonizing decisions of the week, and honed my math skills to the utmost.” – George R.R. Martin

Martin recalls the joy and mystery of going through the paperbacks in a spinner rack at a corner store. In those days, the books weren’t arranged or shelved based on genres. The books were mixed together. You might find The Brothers Karamazov sandwiched between a Barbara Cartland heart-stopper and a Robert Heinlein space saga.

Martin remembers his days going through the spinner rack:

Looking back now, almost half a century later, I can see that that wire spinner rack had a profound impact on my later development as a writer. All writers are readers first, and all of us write the sort of books we want to read. I started out loving science fiction…but inevitably, digging through those paperbacks, I found myself intrigued by other sorts of books as well. I started reading horror when a book with Boris Karloff on the cover caught my attention. Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp hooked me on fantasy, just in time for J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. The historical epics of Dumas and Thomas B. Costain featured sword fights too, so I soon started reading those as well, and that led me to other epochs of history and other authors. When I came upon Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling on the spinner rack, I grabbed them up too, to read the original versions of some of my favorite stories, and to see how they differed from the Classics Illustrated versions. Some of the mysteries I found on the rack had cover art so salacious that I had to smuggle them into the apartment and read them when my mother wasn’t watching, but I sampled those as well, and have been reading mysteries ever since. Ian Fleming and James Bond led me into the world of thrillers and espionage novels, and Jack Schaefer’s Shane into westerns.” – George R.R. Martin

Martin now laments today’s bookstores where “genre is king”. You walk into a store and you know exactly where the fantasy or the self-help books are. The mystery and surprise that the spinner rack afforded is now gone. Martin admits it’s good for selling more books but he adds that it’s not good for readers.

It’s good for selling books, I guess. It’s convenient. Easy to find the sort of books you like. No one has to get down on their knees in hopes of finding jack Vance’s Big Planet behind that copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But it’s not good for readers, I suspect, and it’s definitely not good for writers. Books should broaden us, take us to places we have never been and show us things we’ve never seen, expand our horizons and our way of looking at the world. Limiting your reading to a single genre defeats that. It limits us, makes us smaller.” – George R.R. Martin