It was my ex who first suggested I read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. “I think you’ll like it,” he said, pulling his copy from the wooden bookcase in the corner of his bedroom. The shelves sagged under the weight of the epic fantasies that stood staunchly like a row of guardians. “Feuding families and magic. It’s like the Wars of the Roses but with dragons.”
This last reference was a call out to my most recent reading binge: just a few months before, I had picked up Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and fallen down the rabbit hole of Tudor history. Real Tudor history, not the creative license version Gregory took (although, despite any and all inaccuracies, I still tend to revisit both Boleyn girls on an annual basis). The palace intrigues and century long feuds captivated my imagination, as did the courtly love and drama of Henry VIII and his six wives.
Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, died…and dragons?
I had read fantasy novels before, although they were certainly more lighter fare: like others, I was desperately waiting for the seventh and final book of the Harry Potter series, due out the following year. I had only recently moved down to Kentucky from my home state of Ohio in order to live with my boyfriend and found a job working the coffee shop counter at a Barnes & Noble, proudly proclaiming my Slytherin status. During the day I would swap Snape theories with co-workers, then during the evenings dive deep into the online discussions scattered across Internet forums.
But then I started reading A Game of Thrones and this was something completely different. This wasn’t just a fantasy series, it was a fantasy series. The books were behemoth; dense volumes of carefully constructed lineages and battlefields ravaged by war. The paper reminded me of onionskin, the font small and precise. A lifetime of emotions swept through me as I devoured the series: I wept when Ned lost his head and fell in love with Tyrion and Brienne in equal measure. To this day, I still cheer when Viserys gets his gold crown and the absence of Lady Stoneheart from the television adaptation broke my own heart.
This was in the fall of 2006, almost two years after the publication of A Feast for Crows. Its follow-up, A Dance with Dragons, was still four years away, although at the time readers had no word on when, if ever, it would appear. In the meantime, as I did with Harry Potter, I flocked to online forums to participate in discussions and text analysis.
One night, when my then-boyfriend came home from work, I greeted him at the door, bursting to tell him about this incredible theory I read about.
“It’s about Jon Snow,” I explained. The words tumbled out quickly, my mouth no longer able to contain them from sheer adrenaline. “His parents are really Rhaegar and Lyanna. Not only that, but he didn’t kidnap her, they ran away together. They were in love.” I stopped there and waited, my eyes wide with excitement.
He looked at me as though I had suddenly sprouted a second head. “Jon’s parents are Ned and Wylla.” He gave a little frustrated shake of his head, as if he couldn’t believe I had missed such an obvious plot point. “It says so in the book.”
My smile wilted. “No, I know, but there’s all these clues—”
“The. Book. Says,” he repeated, enunciating each word through clenched teeth.
I nodded, mute. I continued to read the forums and began to read between the lines, clues scattered like blue rose petals throughout the text. While I ached to have someone to discuss theories with, he was the only one I knew in real life who read the books and so I stayed silent.
Within six months I had broken up with him after realizing his refusal to even entertain a theory was merely one single banner in a field of red flags. After moving out of his place and into my own, one of the first things I did was go to the local Half-Price Books and buy my own set of George R. R. Martin’s books.
Then the waiting began.
Twelve years later and I’ve officially stopped waiting, my levels of patience waxing and waning with each rotation around the sun. The only difference is that this time I’m (not) waiting for The Winds of Winter, the anticipated sequel to his 2011 A Dance with Dragons.
As each year passes without a release date and the trickle of information has slowed down to infrequent solitary droplets, I have become more and more convinced that Martin has no intention of ever finishing his grand opus. Back in 1991, when he first put pen to paper, I’m sure he had all the intention in the world. Of course, back in 1991, he also envisioned it as a trilogy. But as new characters were introduced, new plot lines explored, I imagine that the series just grew too unwieldy; an oversized dragon impossible to tame.
So, I decided to stop waiting and I firmly believe it’s okay if George R. R. Martin never, ever finishes his series. After all, he doesn’t owe me anything. He doesn’t owe any of us anything.
Neil Gaiman said it first:
George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.
Make no mistake, I sympathize with the frustration some readers feel. I’ve lost hours of my life to this series, first in the form of reading the books, then rereading them, then watching the television show. I’ve stalked his social media pages, including his blog, in the hopes of gleaning new information, a gust of hope regarding a release date. I’ve purchased the books, the DVD sets, and licensed merchandise.
But this is not a transactional relationship. There is no quid pro quo here. My giving George R.R. Martin money, my helping him achieve superstar status, does not earn me the right to dictate and demand when and how his next book should appear.
Would I like GRRM to finish his series? Of course. But I am also a writer and I know that writing is hard work. It’s a job, and we all have days and weeks and months where we hate our job. We all wish we had the option to just quit and here is a man who has that luxury. Or maybe he grew bored, grew tired of attempting to train the dragons. Maybe he’s letting the television show do the work for him.
Or maybe, as my fiancé suggested to me the other night, he’s not announcing anything until both books are done: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Maybe he’s tired of the pressure, tired of readers antagonizing him because he’s not a monkey capable of performing on command. Maybe he doesn’t want to deal with this all again and so he’s waiting until both manuscripts, the final volumes of his series, are safely in the hands of his publishers.
Or maybe…maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe he’s writing, maybe he’s not. Either way, I’ve stopped waiting. Not that I’ve stopped caring: on the contrary, these books continue to occupy space on my bookshelf. Like old friends, they have witnessed heartache and celebrations and have been shuttled from one apartment to another to another, across state lines as I made my way from Kentucky back to Ohio.
I am content with the series as it stands, the television show filling in gaps when it can. For me, it was never about the end. I started reading because a man I thought I loved recommended it to me. But I kept reading, and continue to read, because the magic of Martin’s world is breathtaking to behold.
And that magic exists regardless of whether or not he ever produces another book.
At the end of July, I went to North Carolina for my family reunion. Every other year, we rent houses on the beach in Ocean Isle, and for one week we swim in the ocean, drink, play boardgames, and eat boiled peanuts. It’s divine. As with all of my vacations, I take time to log the books I spot.
I’m happy to report that, for 2009, literacy is alive and well on the east coast! I saw people reading! The woman next to me on the eastbound flight chuckled at an Onion article on her Kindle, and then turned (clicked?) to Finn by John Clinch, and kept murmuring with admiration. (I made a mental note to check this title out.) A businessman across the aisle read a hardcover about smart management. I think another woman nearby was reading The Bible, though part of me wanted it to be a tattered first-edition of some Henry James novel. Mass market mysteries abounded, as did self-help books like The Power of Now. A mysterious man in the Charlotte airport perused a collection of T.S. Eliot poems.
My grandmother–whom we call Grammie Kids because she is a mother of six–was reading an issue of Reader’s Digest and an old mass market edition of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. She said Granddaddy wouldn’t let her pack anything else, and that he had only allowed her to bring light and thin books. (Her revenge? She “forgot” to pack his underwear.)
My eighteen-year-old sister flew through a few books while we were there, namely American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Frenemies by Megan Crane. She reads about a book every two days over the summer, and when I ask for a review she always says, “Good.” As is the case with nearly every family vacation, people passed around Philippa Gregory’s books like they were crack; I haven’t tried them yet, namely because my mother describing the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl (“And then…!”) is about all I can handle. My poor sixteen-year-old brother–who will probably be valedictorian–insisted on bringing his school assignments, and spent two weeks not-reading a brief history of FDR’s first 100 days. (I remember in Hawaii he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the spine fell apart after the first couple of days and so he started bringing individual chapters to the pool.) In Ocean Isle, he spoke longingly of the Sookie Stackhouse series–those “True Blood” books–that he wanted to start.
Someone in my extended family was reading Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (she’s from South River, New Jersey, where my dad’s from, although this isn’t his family we were visiting). Everyone was passing around a memoir about fishing; the title escapes me, but I do remember that the author grew up in Spotswood, New Jersey, just like my mom and her siblings. At the end of the trip, my mom started The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. She bought it because, except for a single letter, the author’s name is identical to my aunt’s. The marketing department couldn’t have predicted that, could they? My mother had also recently finished The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and kept referring to my Aunt Jennifer as her “sister wife.”
And me? I read three books on the trip. The first was Woodsburner by John Pipkin, recommended to me by my friend Steve. This wise debut novel is inspired by a little-known event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a fire he accidentally started in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond. Not only do we get a fictionalized Thoreau who, “hugs his knees tightly, watches the half-mile-wide fire, and considers the many individual acts that led to this moment,” but we get a cast of other characters also affected by the conflagration. My favorite is Oddsmund, a Norwegian immigrant with a “dead infant tooth wedged alongside his adult incisors like a misplaced apostrophe.” He’s so in love with his employer’s wife that his lust leads to a night-time liason with a pumpkin. Predictably, this was the point in the book where I decided I loved it. (On Goodreads, someone suggested that if the novel were called Pumpkinfucker, sales might improve.)
My next book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The hype on this Swedish thriller is well deserved. After a boring opening chapter about finance scandals (really, it was awful), the story picked up, and, man oh man, it didn’t let me go. The plot is terrifically constructed–I’m certain I learned something about the beauty of story–and I loved the cold weather, the aquavit, the endless cups of coffee. I’m not sure I can wait for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to come out in paperback. (Although, and I must say it: I did wonder if the cliches in the book, like “pretty as postcard,” were exact translations. I’ve heard Sweden is boring, but, really? In the prose department, I wasn’t wowed. But, and maybe for the first time in my life as a reader, I didn’t really care! )
There was also a real pleasure in reading a popular book. Usually, I’m reading something no one has ever heard of, and I’m occasionally ignorant of huge bestsellers. When Grammie Kids described to me the runaway hit The Shack by William P. Young (“And God is a black woman. She looks like Maya Angelou!”), I had never heard of it; cut to a week later, I’m at the airport, and I count two copies in my gate alone. Sometimes I feel like everyone’s eating this thing called scrambled eggs (What are those, I wonder. They look good.), while I’m enjoying a delicious chantarelle and pecorino frittata. What a snob I am.
My last book was Bonsai by Alejando Zambra, from the Contemporary Art of the Novella Series published by Melville House. This is a beautiful-looking gem-of-a-book, which I read–tired, sunburned on my kneecaps, and terrifyingly freckled–during my flight home. Actually, it was so short, I read it as I enjoyed my $8.00 in-flight meal. I was smitten by Bonsai, with its story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and confounded (in the best way) by its end. I need to re-read it, if only for sentences like this one: “Julio and Emilia’s peculiarities weren’t only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.” Ah, chantarelles!
For Book-Spying-Trip #2, I went to Laguna Beach. I’m sorry to say that I spotted very few readers there. (Oh, California, I thought, don’t embarrass me further.) Most of the adults were too busy swimming or chasing little kids around. The teenage girls spent a lot of time spraying Sun-In into their roots as their male counterparts tried to make them laugh. There was one gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl whom I was mentally casting in a French film. She might have been wearing lipstick. On the beach! Almost all of the teenagers were tattooed (none with dragons); one girl, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had a tramp stamp. Really. Clearly, I wasn’t doing much reading myself. The man next to us, however, was very studious with copies of Hemingway and Arthur Miller, and he wore a beanie like an old-timey Stevedore. I made up all kinds of stories about him: his delicious loneliness, his journal of beautiful sentences by dead authors, his tiny sand-crusted apartment with the bad overhead lighting. That was a good novel, this one I was writing in my head. On sale, summer 2012.