‘I bought a train’: George R.R. Martin talks ‘Game of Thrones’ and time at Northwestern during Medill event


Jonah Elkowitz/Daily Senior Staffer

University President Michael Schill introduces George R.R. Martin. The Medill alum wrote “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Nicole Markus, Social Media Editor

Author George R.R. Martin (Medill ’70, ’71) spoke about his time at Northwestern, “Game of Thrones” and his life in between at a Wednesday Medill event.

Martin is the author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, which was later adapted into the acclaimed television shows “Game of Thrones” and “House of the Dragon.”

“Few people in the last generation have had the cultural impact that (Martin) has had in books and in television,” University President Michael Schill said at the event. “In an age of fragmented audiences, George has been able to bend the popular imagination in his direction with timeless themes of human hope and struggle, told with unmatched vividness and power.”

The Medill alum recently donated $5 million to create an intensive summer writing workshop and an endowed storytelling professorship at NU.

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, who moderated the conversation, expressed his appreciation for Martin’s contributions to his alma mater. 

“I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you’ve made this tremendous investment in storytelling in Medill and Northwestern,” Whitaker said.

Martin said he started writing science fiction and fantasy during his childhood. His motivation for coming to NU stemmed from a desire to experience the world beyond the confines of his neighborhood, he said.

At NU, Martin experienced a tumultuous time, including the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968. 

Throughout his collegiate career, Martin continued to practice storytelling. During a class on Scandinavian history, he asked the professor to write a fiction paper instead of the traditional research paper. His professor loved it so much that he submitted it to the American-Scandinavian Review, which Martin said is when he lost his rejection “virginity.”

Getting denied by the magazine took away some of his fear of future rejection, Martin said.

“I sent (the paper) to Playboy and discovered there wasn’t a lot of interest in Playboy in the Russo-Finnish War of 1808,” Martin said. “I started sending out those stories to professional magazines, and one of them sold. That became the first professional sale I ever got.”

After graduating from NU, Martin continued to write short stories and eventually began working in Hollywood on various projects. 

Martin said he started writing “A Song of Ice and Fire” after several of his television pilot and feature film scripts were not picked up. Despite enjoying writing for television, Martin said it was “not emotionally satisfying” to see the stories go nowhere.

“A Song of Ice and Fire” is especially known for its intricately designed characters and storylines, and Martin said he believes characters are the heart of fiction. According to Martin, he never followed popular advice from famous writers who said to “write what you know.”

“I lived in the projects, I didn’t know anything beyond Fifth Street. How could I write about spacemen and aliens and knights?” Martin said. “But the lesson is, it doesn’t matter, that’s just the furniture. Write what you think it would feel like to be a knight. Try to imagine that and put your own feelings into it — that makes the characters come alive.”

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Twitter: @nicolejmarkus

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