George RR Martin Talks Northwestern, Writing and ‘Game of Thrones’

A notable Northwestern alum is in town this week for some major recognition from his alma mater.

“Game of Thrones” author George RR Martin, a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, was awarded an honorary doctorate at Monday’s commencement ceremony.

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“It’s all been very gratifying,” Martin said in an interview with WTTW News. “It is particularly nice to get an honor like this from Northwestern, where I did go to school … it does startle me to realize it’s been half a century.”

That half a century has included a career as an author and screenwriter – and an HBO series based upon his novels that became a worldwide phenomenon. 

“It changed my life, in mostly good ways – although looking back, I wish I’d stayed ahead of the books,” Martin said. “When they began that series, I had four books already in print, and the fifth one came out just as the series was starting … I never thought they would catch up with me, but they did. They caught up with me and passed me! That made it a little strange, because now the show was ahead of me and the show was going in somewhat different directions. I’m still working on the book, but you’ll see my ending when that comes out.”

Video: Watch part two of our conversation with George RR Martin.

Martin’s been a storyteller for decades – writing, selling and even performing monster stories for the kids he grew up with in Bayonne, New Jersey.

“I would write these little two-, three-page stories, handwritten on paper ripped from my notebook,” Martin said. “I read them the story when they bought it … I did the werewolf howls, and all of that stuff. I sold it for a nickel.” 

His business was going well until one of his customers started seeing werewolves in his nightmares. “His mother came to my mother, and my mother said, ‘Stop scaring the other kids!’” Martin said.

As a freshman at Northwestern, Martin lived through Chicago’s infamous blizzard of 1967. The campus was covered in snow, and the blizzard was followed by a freeze. “They had to dig trenches from the door (of the dorm) to the doors of other buildings,” Martin recalled. “It was like the trench system in World War I, except instead of mud, it was made of snow. You would be in this trench with the walls higher than your head!”

Years later, that frigid experience helped influence the way Martin wrote about the forbidding winters and giant wall in the “Game of Thrones” world. “You file everything away if you’re a writer, if you’re a fiction writer. Everything that happens to you – good, bad, heartbreak, trauma, love, death,” Martin said.

While Martin can’t go into detail on future “Game of Thrones” shows from HBO (and won’t go into detail on when readers can expect his next book) he says he feels fortunate to be associated with such a well-known fictional world.

“It also made me famous, which I have mixed about feelings about,” he said with a laugh. “I think it was Bill Murray who said if you dream of fame and fortune, try just fortune first. There is something to say for that. Fame is definitely a double-edged sword. But I’ve been writing stories about Westeros and the people who live there, the Seven Kingdoms, since 1991 … I love telling stories about it, so there’s a lot more stories to tell.”

Video: Part two of our conversation with George RR Martin.

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