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'Thrones' author George R.R. Martin: ‘It’s been an exciting ride’

In a candid discussion about his success, internationally acclaimed best-selling author George R.R. Martin offered advice to Northwestern University students Wednesday night: “This is not a profession for anyone who needs security.”

Martin, whose series of fantasy novels, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” was adapted into HBO’s Emmy Award-winning series “Game of Thrones,” participated in a question-and-answer session at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium. Earlier in the day Wednesday, he received the Medill Hall of Achievement alumni award. He graduated from Northwestern in 1971 with a master’s in journalism.

The broad and sometimes witty panel discussion covered topics ranging from his methodology — he writes on a DOS machine running Wordstar — to themes in his writing and the future of the fantasy and science fiction genres.

“Good versus evil is a theme for all kinds of literature and has been since people have been telling stories and will continue to be for people telling stories. But I don’t think that the battle between good and evil is necessarily fought between, you know, one group of noble heroes on one side, that have nice white cloaks or white hats or whatever, and on the other side, a bunch of really ugly guys who wear black and smell bad,” Martin said.

“The battle between good and evil is fought within the human heart, in all of us every day, every year.”

Martin, 67, warned aspiring writers in the audience that the career is not for the faint of heart, adding that he wrote pilots for “half-a-dozen shows” that didn’t get picked up.

“It is a profession for people who can live with violent reversals of fortune and ups and downs, who can live with being hot and lauded and very successful and then having it all crumble beneath you because your latest project failed,” he said. “It’s hard to get used to.”

He’s now at the stage of his career in which people will buy “pretty much anything I care to put down.”

But he called that level of success both a blessing and a curse.

“I try to be aware of that this too will pass,” said Martin, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “Game of Thrones right now is the most successful television show in the world, but it won’t always be. I mean, three years from now, some other television show will be the most successful show in the world.”

George R.R. Martin engages with students at Northwestern. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Christian Ubillus, 18, a freshman studying biomechanical engineering and creative writing at Northwestern, said he walked away from the panel discussion feeling “very connected” to Martin.

“What he said about molding ideas and defining your work really resonated with me,” Ubillus said. “He seems very down to earth and relatable. Many of the struggles he was having when writing are very similar to what I feel.”

Vera Zhang, ,24, a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, said she was immediately going to go home and order his books.

“I’m interested in marketing, so I’m trying to identify what the special ingredients are for his show and his books,” she said. “There’s something different and special about what he does.”

Zhang added that she hopes her favorite “Game of Thrones” character, Tyrion Lannister, doesn’t get killed.

“I really love him and I really don’t want him to die,” she said with a laugh.

Martin didn’t reveal what is in store for any characters, but he said that fans should expect a bittersweet ending to the series.

“I think you can certainly have darkness in a story, and God knows I do — “all men must die” is not a cheery philosophy, as true as it might be — but I do think you need to have some hope, at least if you’re going to have any commercial success,” he said.

Season 6 of the show is expected to air on HBO next spring. The last two books of “A Song of Ice and Fire” are forthcoming.

“We all yearn for happy endings, in a sense,” Martin said.