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5 Things We Learned from George R.R. Martin on 'Bullseye'

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In this week's Bullseye interview segment, we reach into the back catalog—a 2011 interview between former mental_floss cover model John Hodgman and author George R.R. Martin. Let's go!

Listen To the Interview

You can hear the full interview using the SoundCloud player above. You can also jump to the parts we've highlighted using the time codes shown at the beginning of each snippet.

1. Martin Enjoyed Killing Off Characters Even in High School

(02:19)

John Hodgman: [In 1964,] I believe you would have been about 16 at this time. In this particular letter [printed in Avengers #12], you had suggested that Avengers number nine was slightly better than Fantastic Four number 32. My question is: Do you remember why?

Now, you can comment on the particular story, because I believe Avengers #9 was the introduction of Wonder Man.

George R. R. Martin: Oh, yes, I liked Wonder Man! You know why? Now it's coming back to me vividly. Wonder Man dies in that story. He's a brand new character, he's introduced, and he dies. It was very heart-wrenching. I liked the character; he was a tragic, doomed character. I guess I've responded to tragic doomed characters even since I was a high school kid.

John Hodgman: Especially those who might die at any minute.

George R. R. Martin: Of course, being comic books, Wonder Man didn't stay dead for long. He came back a year or two later and had a long run for many, many decades. But the fact that he was introduced and joined the Avengers and died all in that one issue had a great impact on me when I was a high school kid.

2. Stan Lee's Work at Marvel Was a Profound Influence on Martin, Because Characters in Lee's Comics Actually Changed

(03:25)

John Hodgman: I imagine it was pretty surprising in a comic book in that time to see a whole story arc resolve tragically in that way in one issue.

George R. R. Martin: Yes. It's hard to understand, I think, from the vantage point of 2011 exactly what was going on back in comics in the early 60s. It was the Marvel comics that I was writing letters to, who were really revolutionary for the time. Stan Lee was doing some amazing work. Up to then the dominant comic book had been the DC comics which, at that time, were always very circular. Superman or Batman would have an adventure, and at the end of the adventure they would wind up exactly where they were. Then the next issue would follow the same pattern, so nothing ever changed for the DC characters.

The Marvel characters were constantly changing. Important things were happening. The lineup for the Avengers was constantly changing. People would quit, then they would have fights and all of that. As opposed to DC where everybody got along and it was all very nice and all the heroes liked each other. None of this was happening. So really, Stan Lee introduced a whole concept of characterization to comic books and conflict; maybe even a touch of gray in some of the characters. Looking back on it now, I can see that probably was a bigger influence on my own work than I would have dreamed.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

3. A Song of Ice and Fire Came from Martin's Desire to Blend Actual, Gritty, Dirty, Historic Fiction With Fantasy

(04:55)

John Hodgman: One of the things that first struck me when I first found the books was that this was a fantasy world which not a lot of people would fantasize about living in. There wasn't a lot of fantasy aspect to it in the sense that it is set in an alternate world, or a made-up world.

George R. R. Martin: Secondary universe, Tolkien called it.

John Hodgman: We'll call it a secondary universe, that's a term I came up with for it independently just now. Didn't steal from Tolkien at all there.

It's set in a secondary universe, and it has certain sword-and-sorcery trappings, although more swords than sorcery certainly in the first book. But it also is really rooted, grounded, if not sort of mired in the harsh realities of medieval life, and a harsh feudal caste system, where the only medicine around is a kind of poultice and people are routinely considered elderly at the age of 35 because they're dying all the time. It's not a place or a world or a time where most people would want to live. Why was it important to you to write in that setting?

George R. R. Martin: As I said, I read a lot of different things, not just science fiction/fantasy. One of the things I read a lot of is history and historical fiction. I'm a big fan of historical fiction. Of course, I did read fantasy as well. As I read that, I sort of had a problem with a lot of the fantasy I was reading, because it seemed to me that the Middle Ages or some version of the quasi-Middle Ages was the preferred setting of a vast majority of the fantasy novels that I was reading by Tolkien imitators and other fantasists, yet they were getting it all wrong. It was sort of a Disneyland Middle Ages, where they had castles and princesses and all that. There are the trappings of a class system, but they didn't seem to understand what a class system actually meant.

John Hodgman: Or would mean to the people who are trapped within it, on both the high-status and low-status alike, it's a kind of a life sentence.

George R. R. Martin: It was like a Ren Fair Middle Ages. Even though you had castles and princesses and walled cities and all that, the sensibilities were those of 20th-century Americans. But you didn't see that in good historical fiction. There were people who were writing fine historical fiction that really grasp it. So in my kind of cross-genre/genre-bending kind of way was to go, you know, what I'd like to do is write an epic fantasy that had the imagination and the sense of wonder that you get in the best fantasy, but the gritty realism of the best historical fiction. If I could combine those two threads, I might have something fairly unique and well worth reading.

4. He Thinks Gandalf Should've Stayed Dead

(11:30)

John Hodgman: Without giving much away, I can say that there are characters in the book who you do not expect to die, and who do. Your characters are extremely fragile. It is one of the things that was most exciting to me as a reader, to realize that these characters who you're following very closely could be maimed, and that those scars would stay. They could be psychologically maimed and transformed by those scars, and that would stick to the book. And they could die. However, as magic seeps into this world, which is of course part of this unfolding story, not even death is really permanent anymore. What do you think about that?

George R. R. Martin: I do think that if you're bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that's a transformative experience. Even back in those days of Wonder Man and all that, I loved the fact that he died, and although I liked the character in later years, I wasn't so thrilled when he came back because that sort of undid the power of it. Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, “Fly, you fools.”

What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he's sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead.

My characters who come back from death are the worse for wear. In some ways, they're not even the same characters anymore. The body may be moving, but some aspect of the spirit is changed or transformed, and they've lost something. One of the characters who has come back repeatedly from death is a minor character called Beric Dondarrion, The Lightning Lord. Each time he's revived he loses a little more of himself. He was sent on a mission before his first death. He was sent on a mission to do something, and it's like, that's what he's clinging to. He's forgetting other things, he's forgetting who he is, or where he lived. He's forgotten the woman who he was once supposed to marry. Bits of his humanity are lost every time he comes back from death, but he remembers that mission. His flesh is falling away from him, but this one thing, this purpose that he had is part of what's animating him and bringing him back to death. I think you see echoes of that with some of the other characters who have come back from death.

5. Martin Avoids Fan Theories...Because They Might Be Right

(14:34)

John Hodgman: I read the books for the first time starting last year, I was late coming to them. I was very excited by it, and they sort of took over my life for a year, as I plowed through them. I do remember the first moment on Twitter when I mentioned that I was reading them. First of all, I suddenly got so much more response on Twitter than almost anything I say about my own life or work or anything that I do. Second of all, a lot of it was weirdly angry. It was only later that I began to appreciate that there was this weird community of people out there who were feeling impatient to get the next book.

Fandom, particularly science fiction and fantasy fandom, has this sense of proprietorship over its treasured authors, and also the sense that somehow they're in collaboration with them. How does that help your process and how does it complicate it?

George R. R. Martin: In one sense it's great; it's exhilarating to know that you have so many readers and so many people are anxious for the next book, and so many people are saying nice things about the book. There are dangers there as well. Way back in the 90s, the late 1990s I think was when the first website devoted to the series started. It was a website called Dragonstone, started by a guy in Australia. When I first discovered that, I thought, look, it's a fan site! All these fans are discussing my books and they're analyzing them. It was very exciting. Oh, look, they're actually paying attention. You're working hard on these books and you're putting in little things, foreshadowings or symbolisms or things that have double meanings. You're trying to hide things and these people are analyzing it and they're finding the things, and that's all great.

But it wasn't very long after that site started and I was reading it and enjoying it that I began to say, you know, I probably really shouldn't be reading this stuff. For one thing, they're generating so many theories, that some of those theories are bound to be right. What do I do if I'm setting up a mystery that I'm going to solve in book six, and people have already guessed this mystery as of book two and they're discussing—do I change it? Do I say, oh my god, they've already guessed it, they're four books ahead of me, I better change what I'm planning. I think it's a mistake to do that, because that's what you've planned. All the clues and the foreshadowing and the super structure that you build is in place for that reveal, you can't change it just because someone's got it. So I've sort of distanced myself from the sites.

A lot has happened since 1999. There've been several explosions, the books have gotten progressively more and more popular. Dragonstone is long gone, but many other sites have taken its place like Westeros and Tower of the Hand, Winter is Coming, gigantic sites with many thousands of members where these discussions go on. When the TV show came along, that increased it by orders of magnitude again. It's exciting that it's happening, and I'm glad the fans are enjoying it. But I can't be a part of it. It'd be too much involvement.

And then there's the dark side of it, that you've referred to in the sense of proprietary feeling that some of the fans have in that. There is also that 1%, the trolls or the detractors, I think as they were termed in the New Yorker article a few months ago that Laura Miller did about me, who for whatever reason feel some sense of betrayal because I took too long to write the last book, or they were looking forward to the fourth book or something, and it came out and it wasn't the book they expected. Some of those really, have gone over to the dark side, as one might say. So that's part of the experience too, I guess, of this level of popularity.

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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