Jane Johnson is George R.R. Martin’s longtime publisher and editor but modestly describes herself as the person who polishes the links on a Rolex’s strap for the master watchmaker.
The founder of the HarperCollins Voyager brand has a remarkable honour roll that includes publishing Robin Hobb from the start, publishing and editing Magician author Raymond E. Feist for more than 20 years, publishing Dean Koontz — and having one of his thrillers dedicated to her — and finding such talent as Mark “Prince Of Thorns” Lawrence.
She has even written 17 books herself. But she remembers clearly how she was blown away by The creator of the Game Of Thrones phenomenon.
“I had come to the genre through J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) — both as a reader, then later as the editor and publisher of the Tolkien list — and was at that point in the process of bringing together all the properties the company held that could be held under a single science fiction and fantasy imprint, which I would launch in 1995 as Voyager, and I was looking for a blockbuster to spearpoint the list,” she says.
In November 1993 she and her boss Malcolm Edwards received 150 pages of a manuscript called A Game Of Thrones.
“Those few chapters blew us both away. I had never read anything quite like them,” she says.
“When I reached the point at which seven-year old Bran Stark spies Cersei and her brother Jaime in a steamy incestual embrace, and gets pushed by Jaime off the tower to what seems his certain death, I was hooked. We had to have it!”
Of course, many others had also recognised how good the book was.
“The auction for the first three books of the series was extremely heated, the numbers eye-popping, and much of the bidding took place during the department’s Christmas lunch — we ended up offering the largest advance for a work of fantasy ever paid in the UK,” she says.
Famously Martin pitched it as a trilogy but he is still working on book six, Winds Of Winter, with a seventh, A Dream Of Spring, also in the works.
“It was clear even from the proposal that there was a hell of a lot of story to be crammed into three books but at the time it did seem possible,” she says.
“But, as J.R.R. Tolkien said, ‘the story grew in the telling’.”
The editor of a book or series works with the author to help polish and improve the books. The role is to spot potential issues and offer suggestions for improvements. But Johnson plays down her role with A Song Of Ice And Fire.
“That’s like asking someone who polishes the links for a Rolex strap if they’ve suggested any improvements to the master watchmaker,” she says.
“The thing about George is that when he’s writing he inhabits this universe. It’s all there in his head. Nothing is inessential or included without a reason. He’s a master storyteller. So even if you wonder why something is where it is, and you ask the question, the answer will always come back and there is always a pay-off or a good reason for it somewhere down the line.
“I did help with some suggestions for how Jon Snow and the wildlings might manage to scale the mighty Wall in A Storm Of Swords, since George knew I was a climber and wanted to check some of the feasibility and technicalities with me.”
The books are different from the TV show and even the huge scope of the show wasn’t enough to cover all the characters in the books. Was there one she would have loved to see make it into the TV show?
“Of course I was sad not to see Lady Stoneheart make her return, and I greatly missed Victarion Greyjoy, he’s a very different character to Euron and has a major storyline in the novels,” she says.
Catelyn Stark is resurrected in the books as Lady Stoneheart, who is determined to wreak revenge on the Frey family. In the TV series her role as an avenger for her murdered husband and son is taken up by daughter Arya.
Johnson was one of the first people to read of the deaths of first Stark patriarch Ned and his son Robb. So which was the most shocking?
“I was almost from the start expecting Ned Stark to die,” she says.
“There was a certain inevitability to it: his particular brand of rigid, upright honesty was clearly no match for the complex, conniving politicking of (his rivals) the Lannisters, or the sheer monstrosity of Joffrey, though I certainly wasn’t prepared for the simple, awful brutality of the manner of his death.
“The Red Wedding, though, took me hugely by surprise. Again, in retrospect there was a certain inevitability to the massacre, but even as a reader immersed in this vast story and invested in the lovingly crafted characters, I was stunned by the audacity of George as a writer to sacrifice such key figures as Robb Stark, his young wife Talisa and his mother, Catelyn Stark.
“It’s an absolute tour de force of writing — in any genre — a set-piece worthy of Shakespeare himself.”
So what is it that sets Martin apart from other authors?
“His sheer ambition, the vastness of his creation, his immense cast of characters, the complexity of his plotting and his willingness to sacrifice even the most beloved of his characters,” she says.
“To witness the series establishing itself as a global cultural phenomenon has been a joy and a blast.
“I adore the books, their epic scope, their combination of humour and violence and realpolitik, and it’s such a privilege to be one of a handful of people to engage with the manuscripts before anyone else reads them.”
WATCH OR RE-WATCH GAME OF THRONES
April 17, 2021 marks the Iron Anniversary, 10 years to the day since A Game Of Thrones first aired and changed television and storytelling history.
You can re-watch your favourite episode, binge on the whole thing or just go back to the start and take your time. There is also a wealth of behind-the-scenes content and a reunion special only available on Foxteland Binge.
Previously only available as a DVD extra and filmed in Belfast in 2018, this Conan O’Brien- hosted special features all the major cast reflecting on the end of the series — as well as the return of season one favourites Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo).