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Event Review: George R.R. Martin & Robin Hobb in conversation

Martin-HobbLets face it, in the UK, how many chances are we going to have the opportunity to see two of Fantasy’s greatest authors, George R.R. Martin and Robin, under one roof?

The answer is ‘very few’.

We, British Fantasy fans, have been spoilt over the last few years. We’ve had two ‘world’ fantasy / science-fiction conventions over consecutive years and that has brought some really huge names over here. However, we shouldn’t forget that this is a novelty. In its 73 year history, WorldCon had only been here 7 times and last year’s World Fantasy Convention has been here even less, with just 3 of 40 conventions being in the UK.

Despite this, when this event was first conceived, there must have been a couple of nerves over at Harper Voyager towers. Yes, George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb are huge names in Fantasy, bound to draw a crowd, but they’d be putting their event in London; the week after one of the capital’s busiest ever weeks as a host of genre activities. Not to mention, many fans would have seen Robin and George at various other events. Would those same fans have the energy to do another event after Nine Worlds, Fantasy in the Court, Fantasy-Faction’s Grim Gathering, Gollancz’s Digital Festival, WorldCon, Angry Robot’s party at Forbidden Planet and so, so many more? Could they even afford it?

Marc-MartinWell, any nerves the guys at Harper must have been feeling in the run up to the event were surely quashed by 5pm on the day of the event. As my sister and I turned up to check out the venue, we were shocked to see a sizeable queue already formed two and a half hours before the authors were set to arrive. We also got word from the security staff: the event is totally sold out. Thankfully we had press passes to cover the event, so we were able to sneak away, grab a Nandos and return just before 7:30pm… Keep reading and I’ll tell you how it went!

Arriving to the Freemasons building, which has stood in some form since the mid-1700’s, you can’t help but stare in awe at the grandiose Greek-inspired architecture. This open-mouthed staring continues as we are led inside, because there is something beautiful to admire everywhere you look. Paintings, carvings, bronze doors are all being appreciated by guests as we are taken to our ‘temple’. This particular temple, one of over twenty in the building, is laid out in a style that Harry Potter fans will appreciate: long rows of seating facing each other with a long walkway in the middle and a stage at the head of the room (currently occupied by three empty thrones). We had about a twenty minute wait, so we, like everyone else, took some time to admire the room’s sheer magnificence and beauty; the ornate mosaics on the ceiling were especially wonderful. This was a special place and I think everyone there quickly understood why Harper had needed to place a £45.00 price tag on the tickets. Those who aren’t into art were kept entertained too: Ice & Fire cosplayers paced the hall posing for pictures.

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When George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Jane Johnson were announced the crowd gave them a solid welcome. Robin looked elegant and beautiful, perfectly dressed for the event, and George, as he always does, made his style work – loose waistcoat, baggy trousers, beard and glasses. It was Robin and George. The excellent Jane Johnson, an editor and author who I have admired for a long time, set the tone for the evening very early. Her questions were the kind that only someone who has known these authors as people and as friends for a decade or two could ask: intimate, personal questions about their writing lives.

The first question from Jane was about whether the authors choose to wear ‘a uniform’. George took this one, explaining that he had come to, although he never intended to. He later added that there is even a George R.R. Martin Halloween costume. Jane asked Martin about his missing hat, to which he said he’d recently auctioned it off to benefit a charity for wolf protection (bidding closing at $10,000) and Jane smiled, saying that people seem not to recognise him without it. George spoke about how he does sometimes wish he could wear a disguise; this uncertainty about ‘fame’ was a recurrent theme that I felt really humanised Martin.

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Robin picked up the question after Jane remarked that her ‘costume’ was more her name: Robin, Meg, Maggy or Megan. Robin said that the two are very different writers and George chimed in, saying that he had once asked ‘Robin’ for a story and Robin politely replied that Robin didn’t have any stories for that particular anthology, but that ‘Megan’ did. For Robin, when she gets a story idea she senses which voice would work better for that tale – Megan is more sentimental, Robin is more cynical.

Talk turns to the days before Robin was Robin. Both spoke about their first homes and growing up with a desire to write stories. Megan’s first was written when she was very young, in first grade. It was on halloween and it was about a black cat. She said it had a fairly typical fairytale kind of ending and she remembers that it wasn’t satisfying to her – even then. George says his early stories were based on figurines that he used to play with as a child, but that it was around the age of 13 that a tutor picked up one of his stories and enjoyed it so much that he sent it off to a magazine on George’s behalf. Both Robin and George note the importance of this revelation, that they could ‘send off a stories’. George says his first sale of a story was ‘The Hero’, which sold for $94 in the early 1970’s: the room laughs. George playfully tells us off, ‘$94.00 was a lot of money in those days!’. Robin says writing became real to her when she received a $5.00 payment for a story. It wasn’t the money, it was that she’d ‘cracked’ the process of submission.

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Although both of these authors have made successful careers out of their love for writing and attracted almost a thousand people into the centre of London on a Tuesday night, both are quick to warn people that writing isn’t for everyone. ‘[Writing] is a career for gamblers’, says George, ‘not for people who like stability’. Robin is less direct, but says that those who ‘want to be a writer’ generally don’t go as far as ‘those who want to write’.

This leads into a wonderful discussion about how writing a good story is like reading a good book. Both Robin and George discuss the mutual feelings they’ve experienced once they’ve got into the flow of writing – they don’t want to put the story down. Robin goes as far to say she would miss the characters when she was away from her desk and George says he relates to that feeling too. Both add that often this kind of writing leads them down paths they didn’t expect – Robin even feeling along the way that ‘no Fitz, you should not do that – it’ll cost me three more chapters’ but being unable to stop them.

Perhaps my favourite quote came from Jane Johnson’s recalling of an earlier conversation with Robin where she described writing as ‘like chasing butterflies and trying not to crush them’. Robin says that is right, but expanded upon this metaphor, adding that the editing process – which she enjoys far more than writing – is like ‘rearranging their little bodies’ [once you’ve inevitably crushed a few].

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Writing isn’t the worst thing for Robin though, more so ‘The worst moments come after I have hit send’. Robin tell us that she has a really hard time waiting for those notes from her editors and that she often has feelings of doubt over a certain scene or direction. George says his problems do, indeed, come during the composure. However, if he is writing a scene about Tyrion and gets stuck he has the advantage that he can switch to another character, like Arya. Then, out of the blue a solution will hit him and he will think ‘where did that come from?’, before getting on with writing Tyrion again.

Jane told the audience about her work on the editing team when George’s first manuscript for A Song of Ice & Fire landed on her desk. Apparently a rather drunken editing team were pushing the people with the purse strings to BUY THE BOOK. This was not only because it was brilliant and they believed it could sell, but because the piece they’d been given only took them up to the point of Bran’s fall and they all wanted to know what happened next!

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But, why is Game of Thrones so popular? Why was it such a hit? In George’s mind, ‘Conflict and danger are the strong spices’ and ‘we crave them in our fiction’. He explains that if Daenerys had met a loving husband and moved away from Westeros to settle down, perhaps having nothing more than a financial problem or two during her role as queen of a new land, the story would be less enjoyable. Erm… yes, actually, we agree (LET THERE BE BLOOD!).

In terms of why there is so much blood and death in A Song of Ice & Fire, George said that it is just how this story – based very much on old English / Scottish history – is. To the amusement of the audience, he said that he has actually been limited by how much blood he can spill and how many people he can kill recently, because of the viewpoints getting scattered during the middle books (3, 4 and 5), but now that characters are hooking up and merging together it is going to be easier to kill some more in books 6 and 7. Worth noting is that George is still saying ‘the last two books’, despite hints that there would perhaps be 8 by his editors earlier this year.

Robin is asked about her writing and inspirations and she says that for her, the revelation as a reader and as a writer came with The Lord of the Rings. Before that much of her reading had been quite literary or, at least, devoid of the fantastical. She goes as far to say that reading as a child was more a sensory experience – because books often had picture plates and boarders that were as enjoyable as the words on the page. Finding Tolkien’s masterpiece changed this completely.

The crowd then had a chance to ask questions and, I have to say, the questions were excellent. They conjured up such gems as Martin reflecting that ‘My characters all want to be loved and respected by their society and that makes for good stories’ and Robin conceding that Nighteyes would probably lose in a fight to Ghost because he is about a third of the size – although would probably be quicker. George suggests that they’d not like to see that fight anyway,’we are both wolf people’, before grinning and agreeing that ‘Mine are bigger though’.

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The highlight came with the more conventional ‘how do you come up with your names’ question. George explained that English history is all James and Henrys, so Westeros can all be Daenerys and Aegons. He added that he wasn’t keen on typical fantasy names – and has a dislike of the fantasy name generator – because they are too complicated. He asked Robin to answer the question too (as it was initially directed at him). Robin said that her names ‘mean something’ in our English, but that isn’t such a far step from how many cultures name their children, especially in years gone by. Most names mean something when you trace them back – David meaning beloved, for example, or more obvious names like Hope, Grace, Chastity, Charity, Liberty still have literal meaning today.

And with that it was announced that the 90 minutes of allotted time for questions had ended. George and Robin were to be whisked away, but not before an applause that extended a good few minutes. Slightly overwhelmed, it seemed, George and Robin thanked the audience before turning to Jane and thanking her for her presence not only tonight, but as their editor and the audience clap again.

Sitting on the coach home at 2:00am, writing this on my phone, I can’t help but think I know George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb a little bit as people. When I look back, I knew about their stories and their characters and even their writing, but I never really knew ‘them’. Authors are quite secretive people, many remain faceless and even the famous ones aren’t often asked to talk about themselves, as people. Tonight I felt I was part of an intimate conversation between three long-time friends. This was a brave decision by Jane Johnson and Harper Voyager – not to ask the obvious questions, the ones that would have sufficed, but that have all been asked before. The gamble paid off, because this was a remarkable event that I, and those in attendance, will not soon forget. Well done and thank you to all involved.

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5 Comments

  1. I wish I’d made time to watch the live stream now as it sounds like a very interesting evening. I also think I’m going to have to go back to the start of the Farseers books and finally read some Robin Hobb.

  2. Matteo Bortolotti says:

    Well, if there are too many of these events for you, you could always sent some here in Rome (ok, maybe it’s better not, we wouldn’t be well organised, and not as much involved, or polite, but it would be nice to have something like it here).

  3. I hope events like these come to Asia. Even at that price point you’d have a place packed (well, depends on the place, still…)

  4. […] week or so ago I posted a report of the ‘George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb In Discussion’ event held in London on August […]

  5. […] This was a one-off night billed by Harper Voyager as world-exclusive. Despite the price tag, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch (arguably) the two greatest living fantasy authors in conversation. The Freemasons Hall in Holborn played grand host to George RR Martin and Robin Hobb, who attracted an impressive crowd of 1200. Editor extraordinaire Jane Johnson’s interview questions were well-chosen and it was fascinating to hear both authors speak about their roots and the origins of their writing careers. For superb and detailed coverage of the event, see Fantasy-Faction’s own article right here. […]

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