Photograph by Universal Images Group North America LLC,  Alamy Stock Photo
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The Jemez Mountains rise up behind Santa Fe.

Photograph by Universal Images Group North America LLC,  Alamy Stock Photo

George R.R. Martin Talks Santa Fe, Interactive Art, and 'Game of Thrones'

Author George R.R. Martin shares what he loves about his hometown and why he helped bring an interactive art gallery to the city. The writer's series A Song of Ice and Fire serves as inspiration for the popular television series Game of Thrones.

The Internet exists partly to provide Game of Thrones superfans a platform to debate all the rumors and controversies surrounding season six of the megahit HBO series, which premieres, oh, on April 24 or something (not that we’ve marked it in big red letters on our calendars or anything). Anyone connected to the production has been incredibly tight-lipped about revealing the season’s story lines, so we didn’t even bother to ask author George R. R. Martin to spill any plot points. Instead we asked him about his travels, his home base in Santa Fe, and the unusual art gallery he owns there. 

A few weeks ago, the renowned Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf opened its “House of Eternal Return,” an interactive art installation housed in a former bowling alley you bought and helped renovate. What was your reaction to seeing the installation?

My first reaction was relief that it was finally open. It took a lot longer than I thought it would. It was supposed to open in September. I visited two days before opening and it looked amazing. And we had a great opening. Huge crowd. Everyone seemed very excited.

What was your favorite thing about it?

This whole concept is wonderfully imaginative. That’s what drew me to it in the first place. I’ve spent my whole life writing sci-fi and fantasy, and this is very much along those lines. Someone described it as a sci-fi novel that you don’t read—you live it, you walk through it. The basic premise of it is this family who lives in a big old Victorian house and gets into various strange situations. Their house gets ripped loose of normal time and space, and there are portals to other worlds and other dimensions. Through every door is another adventure, another mysterious thing. Kids will just have fun running around in this. Adults, if they really want to get into the story, can slowly piece together exactly what happened.

How does Meow Wolf fit into Santa Fe’s already bountiful art scene?

It’s very different. Santa Fe has many different galleries that specialize in different types of art. Western art. Modern art. You name it and we probably have a gallery or two that explores it. Sculpture, painting, drawing—but almost all of them are traditional art galleries where you come in and look at paintings on a wall, but you certainly don’t climb on the sculpture or touch the painting.

Meow Wolf is interactive art. See what happens if you press on certain places. It’s meant to be climbed on and touched and prodded and pushed and handled. You’re meant to relate to it, not just looking at it with your eyes but all your senses. There are textures to be explored, sounds to be heard, places where there is fog in the air. It’s a whole different type of art, which is appropriate for Santa Fe, since the city prides itself as the City Different.

What do you think your Game of Thrones fans will think about your also being an art gallery owner?

I don’t know if the two things really relate to each other. Some fans don’t want me to do anything other than be chained to my desk writing the next novel.

How much influence did you have on any of the artists?

None whatsoever. This is entirely the creative work of Meow Wolf. My involvement was as financial backer. The precursor to “House of Eternal Return” was the “House of Due Return.” It drew thousands of visitors and was very popular. They were looking for a permanent home and needed someone to purchase the gallery. They did put some dragons on the woodwork on the Victorian house, so maybe there’s a nod.

Why Santa Fe out of all the places in the world you could live?

I fell in love with Santa Fe when I first visited in 1978 as a tourist. I moved here in ’79, about the same time I became a full-time writer for the first time. When you make that decision, one of the advantages is that you can live wherever you want. I could move to a place I’d never been. I fell in love with this place.

The years I was active in TV and Hollywood, I would be in L.A. for eight months out of the year, but I always kept a place in Santa Fe. It really has become home for me. I have considerable affection for Bayonne [New Jersey, his hometown] and Chicago. Santa Fe is a small town, 80,000 people and yet it’s the state capital. It’s one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Older than anything even on the East Coast. Because it’s a state capital, it has many amenities that you associate with a larger city—great museums and wonderful restaurants.

At the same time, I like the small town thing. You can get in the car and get anywhere in 10 minutes. Of my 10 years in L.A., two of them were on the freeways. Santa Fe, to my mind, has the most perfect climate in the world. All four seasons, all distinct, but none extreme. Our winter—we get snow, it’s cold, but I never feel like I’m entering a new ice age like I did when I was in Chicago.

Then there’s the question of addiction. When I got to Santa Fe, I became addicted to green chile. You can’t get it anywhere else. I can’t imagine life anywhere else.

Are your fans surprised to find out you live in Santa Fe? I told a colleague, who is a Game of Thrones fan, that I was interviewing you today. She was surprised you were in Santa Fe. She assumed you were British.

They do think that. I think it’s odd. I think it must be because I write about castles and such, but in the early part of my career I wrote about other planets and nobody assumed I was from outer space. Sir George Martin died recently—you know, he was the “fifth Beatle”—and a Chilean TV station did a story about it, but they aired my photo during the piece, so several people thought I had died. 

What’s the first place you take guests to in Santa Fe?

Usually it’s the Plaza, which is very historic. It’s the site of the old La Fonda on the Plaza and the Palace of the Governors. Now it’s a historical museum, but in the old days it was the residence of the governors.

If Santa Fe were a Game of Thrones location, which would it be?

It would be Dornish. Dorne is partly Spain, partly Mexico, and they have spicy food.

Does Santa Fe or any other destination influence the fantasy worlds you create?

I wrote a book called Fevre Dream back in the 1980s, which was set along the Mississippi River. It was strongly influenced by the time I spent in Dubuque, Iowa, where river steamboats were once built.

What’s the biggest misconception about where you live?

Two misconceptions. One is that we’re like Arizona. New Mexico is a very big state, and Santa Fe is in the state’s northern part—7,000 feet high in the mountains. The picture that people should form is more like Colorado.

The other is that we’re not part of the U.S. You would be astonished about how many times New Mexicans travel and check into hotels and are told, “We don’t take pesos.” Many years ago my mother sent me a watch for my birthday from Bayonne, New Jersey, and the post official required her to fill out a custom form. Even the post office was unclear.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in your travels?  

Boy, that’s hard to answer. The most exotic place I’ve ever been is the city of Marrakech in Morocco, where I visited during the filming of Game of Thrones. That seemed like a different world to me. Marrakech felt exotic. It felt like entering the world of the Arabian Nights.

The city of Ouarzazate is where we actually did our filming. That is the Hollywood of Morocco. They’ve been making films in Ouarzazate since the 1950s. If you drive there from Marrakech, which is a spectacular drive over the Atlas Mountains, driving through the desert on a two-lane road with mountains behind you and flatness ahead—not dunes, just flat and dry—you start seeing, through the shimmering heat, things to your side—a walled city, a sphinx, a pyramid, a medieval castle: all movie sets. They never strike them because there’s so much room out there, and other film productions can go and use them. It’s surreal.

We filmed on sets from Kingdom of Heaven. It’s all still there. We just rolled in and repainted a few things and shot there. Sometimes people move in there. When I was exploring one of the siege towers from a set, we found a guy living there. That set was relatively new, but some sets had been there since the 1950s.

Is there a book that made you fall in love with the world and want to travel? 

In terms of the U.S., John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley had a lot of influence on me. When I was a kid, we didn’t even have a car. We never went anywhere. Also an early book by Peter Beagle, I See by My Outfit, which is an account of him and his buddy in the 1960s touring the U.S. on motor scooters. That was quite an adventure.