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His never-ending story

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Childhood experiences shape the way human psyche develops. For fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, it was an early interest in H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien that set the tone for his career.

“I read all kinds of imaginative fiction,” says Martin, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “Weird stuff, as my dad used to call it.”

Fantasy fiction is one of the literary world’s youngest genres. It gelled in the 1960s as a subgenre of science fiction, around the same time Martin’s writing skills were also maturing. In the following decades, Martin found success as a sci-fi writer and screenwriter, when he worked on such television shows as Beauty and the Beast. He didn’t turn to fantasy fiction until the ’90s, when the story of A Song of Ice and Fire took shape in his mind.

Initially projected as a trilogy, the story is growing into a seven-volume series, counting thousands of pages of treachery, incest and gruesome bloodshed uncharacteristic of the genre in its realism. Martin released the first part of the series in 1996, and has been writing since, adding to the in-genre trend of multi-volume epics. In 2001, the third part, A Storm of Swords, was considered for a Hugo Award, one of the sci-fi industry’s most prestigious accolades.

“The idea was to get a lot of sense of history and some of the feel of historical fiction in the books,” Martin says. “Ever since Tolkien, most epic fantasies have a medieval setting. But I want to capture the flavor of the Middle Ages properly.”

His world centers on the quasi-European realm of Westeros, a cruel place with little distinction between good and evil. Martin prides himself on keeping readers uncertain about their sympathies for characters and the fates that might befall them.

“Although fantasy is imaginative, it needs to reflect the truth about the world we live in,” Martin says. “There’s lots of light fantasy in which the heroes never are in serious danger, where there’s no disease or hunger.”

Martin concedes that this is one reason this genre — within the book business — is perceived as second-rate. Also, the stereotype of the average “fantasy” fan is still that of the pasty, pimple-faced teenage boy, the genre’s appeal merely a mark of adolescent escapism. But Martin disagrees with that view.

“There is some escapism involved, but it’s the same with any literature. You escape into the jungles in Africa when you read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So that’s a false distinction; it’s all literature.”

Martin’s fourth volume, A Feast for Crows, has been five years in the making. After the first year, he scrapped what he had in order to begin again with a new sense of direction. But the story has still developed into a monster, forcing its creator to make tough decisions before its American release this week. He says it’s a relief to finally have the book finished, but he had to compromise by cutting several storylines from the original 1,500-page manuscript. He moved them into the next book, which he hopes to have out by the end of 2006.

A Song of Ice and Fire has gathered a loyal international fan base, translated into Korean, Mandarin, Hebrew and practically every European language, including French, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, the Scandinavian languages, Czech, Dutch and Bulgarian. Fans have also created Web sites for analyzing plot twists and character development, which helps to keep the story alive between releases.

Martin’s success is only one example of fantasy fiction’s popularity in the mass market. What developed in the imagination of Tolkien, an English language professor, has grown into a global industry, with both dedicated writers and fans investing in stories that could take decades to finish. There’s such a strong demand for the “weird” stuff that, soon enough, weird may rule the literary world.

 

George R.R. Martin signs and reads from A Feast for Crows at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11, Borders Books and Music, 612 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-7652.

Andreas Supanich is an editorial intern who enjoys reading imaginative literature. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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