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Growing up, George R. R. Martin used books to escape his ‘constricted’ life

The author, whose “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of novels inspired HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is being honored by the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

Author George R. R. Martin sat at a conference table on the 20th floor of a River North hotel Wednesday morning, facing a mountain of copies of his “A Game of Thrones” novel, signing the books one by one.

When asked if the stack of 1,200 books was the most he’s ever autographed at a single sitting, he replied: “Not even close.”

Martin, whose “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of novels inspired the HBO hit show “Game of Thrones,” is in town to accept the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 2019 Carl Sandburg Literary Award, which “honors an author whose significant body of work has enhanced the public’s awareness of the written word,” according to its website.

The gala event also honors education sociologist and author Dr. Eve L. Ewing, (“Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side”), who will receive the foundation’s 21st Century Award, celebrating significant recent achievements by an author with ties to Chicago. The event takes place Thursday night at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Author George R. R. Martin prepares to sign copies of his novel “A Game of Thrones” Wednesday at a River North Hotel. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Author George R. R. Martin prepares to sign copies of his novel “A Game of Thrones” Wednesday at a River North Hotel.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As he signed the seemingly endless stack of novels, Martin explained the impact of libraries and books on his life, especially when he was a kid, living in Bayonne, New Jersey.

“Our family was working-class poor. My father was unemployed for long periods of time, so there was never much money, and even if there was money there wasn’t a book store in Bayonne.”

Martin said he’d buy little paperbacks from a candy store, and the rest of his books he got at a local branch library. “I pretty well went into that library and read every science fiction book that they had.”

A bus ride away was the main Bayonne library, he said, where he found a book that served as a how-to-guide for science fiction writers, which he read over and over again.

“You could always look in the back of library [books] those days and see who had taken it out, and you know for like two years it was just me bringing it back, taking it out again, and bringing it back.”

“It had a huge impact on me,” Martin said.

Martin’s life in Bayonne was constricted, he said. “I lived on First Street. I went to school on Fifth Street. We didn’t own a car. We never went down the shore or to the lake or anything. We went into New York City once a year to see the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall.

Books, and especially comic books, offered Martin an escape from his five-block-world, he said.

Through books I experienced a much bigger life. I mean, I could go to Mars. I could go to other planets. I could go to the Middle Ages and adventure with Robin Hood or King Arthur and his knights. Or I could go to Gotham City or Metropolis [to check in on] Superman or Batman. So books broadened my world and made it much richer and more exciting.

No stranger to Chicago, Martin earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in 1970 and a master’s degree in the same field a year later.

He was drawn to the school because of its journalism program. “I looked at the science fiction writers of the day and only a handful of them were able to do that for a living,” he said.

Martin said he figured out he’d write on weekends, nights and on vacations but he needed a day job and decided he wanted to be a journalist.

“Then I did some research, probably in a library, and said what was the best journalism school?” He landed at Northwestern, and took a Greyhound to get there.

“That was the time that was now known as the turbulent ‘60s,” he said. “We were protesting the Vietnam War, Kent State, Cambodia, marching in demonstrations, shutting down Sheridan Road at one point.”

“As a journalism student it was interesting because I was there but I wasn’t necessarily one of the protesters, I was covering the protest,” he said. “Those were very vivid times.”

Note: Martin will also speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Friday evening at Symphony Center alongside Ewing. The discussion will, in part, cover the way the fantasy genre illustrates the realities of power. Tickets are still available.