George R.R. Martin was 15 minutes early for his in-person appearance, and not a moment too soon.
Some fans had stood for hours, all day, outside the Barnes & Noble in Manhattan's Union Square to meet the best-selling fantasy writer and hear him talk Thursday night about his long-awaited "A Dance With Dragons."
"I've been here since 8 a.m.," said Mike Rosenzweig, an insurance agent from West Babylon, N.Y., who rose at 5:30 a.m. and took the train into New York City. He was among the first four fans among hundreds to arrive and he was rewarded with a free signed book and a tote bag.
"They're the fantasy books of our time," Rosenzweig said of Martin's ever-expanding "A Song of Ice and Fire" cycle, of which "Dance with Dragons" is the fifth of seven planned volumes (An eighth is not impossible). "The only other person I'd wait for this long is Stephen King."
So the writer had come, his presence as large as his books, and not unlike his longshoreman father. Martin is 62, bearded and heavy-set, wearing a peak cap and suspenders and black jeans. There was no formal announcement of his arrival. He simply appeared from the back of the reading area and the crowd stood and yelled, forgiving an elusive hero who had taken an unthinkable six years to complete the 1,000-plus page novel and return millions of readers to Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms.
"See, I really was working on it," he said as he reached the stage and held up a copy of the book.
It was a beautiful summer night and a perfectly timed occasion. "A Dance With Dragons" was released two days earlier and already had sold nearly 300,000 copies, publisher Bantam Books announced. On Thursday morning, the Emmy finalists were revealed and "Game of Thrones," the HBO series based on Martin's work and named after his first "Ice and Fire" novel, received 13 nominations. Martin listed them all.
"I love the TV show," said Martin, a native of Bayonne, N.J., who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. "It's amazing."
Authors usually read from their books at live events, but Martin simply wanted to talk. He looked out at the people, his people — some seated in silver chairs in front, others in white chairs in back and still others standing — and remembered a reading years ago in St. Louis when only four people showed up, and then immediately left.
He then answered in advance the questions he most expected to hear.
Why did he take so long to write a novel that he had promised to be done with years earlier?
"This took so long," he explained, again holding up the novel. "Look how thick it is."
When will the next book arrive?
"It will be done ... when it's done."
The audience was allowed questions, but warned against giving away plot points. Martin was asked if he might make a cameo in the HBO series ("At some point."), how much he cared about plotting (Not much, atmosphere matters more) and what he might tell a young writer with Martin-like ambition.
"Don't try to write something gigantic," he said. "This ('Ice and Fire') is obviously my magnum opus. That being said, if I ever finish this series, I'm never going to do it again."
Martin's books are so long and have so many characters that one man wondered how he kept everything straight. He doesn't, Martin confided, noting that a character's eyes might change colors or a horse change gender. The author was asked about his sex scenes, which can politely be described as robust. He acknowledged that "the whole sexual issue is such a tightrope to walk" and that even some of his readers have been offended. Blame it, he said, on the "strange American puritanical attitudes towards sex."
"I'm trying to represent the full humanity, in all of its colors," he added.
Not all questions were questions. One fan stood up and started chanting "Hodor," an homage to the Martin character ("a simple lad") known as Hodor because that's the only word he seems to know.
"Hodor," the fan called out. "Hodor! Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!"
Martin gave in: "Definitely, Hodor."
Everybody cheered. There was nothing more to say.