Catherine Coker, coordinator of Research Services and Science Fiction Curator, Cushing Memorial Library and Archives and Todd Samuelson, curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, say there were two questions they heard over and over as they worked on Deeper Than Swords: Celebrating the Work of George R. R. Martin: “Why Martin?” and “Why A&M?”
“Let’s start at the end there,” they decided.
Texas A&M is the home to one of the largest collections of genre material in the country, if not the world. It encompasses more than 47,000 individual items and over a hundred archival collections that span from 1680 (the first English translation of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia) to yesterday (the most recent issues of science fiction magazines like Analog). The Science Fiction Research Collection, as it is known, was established in 1974 and has grown ever since. Scholars from across the world visit regularly to access the collections, while students and faculty at A&M often come for research and for reading. In 2010, we designed another full-scale exhibit introducing the collection, One Hundred Years Hence: Science Fiction and Fantasy at Texas A&M, which met with resounding success.
Mr. Martin visited A&M regularly throughout the 1970s for the annual AggieCon events and to meet with his friends and fellow writers like Howard Waldrop and Lisa Tuttle (whose collections are also housed in Cushing). Librarians and curators often attend AggieCon as well, and one year Don Dyal, then the Director of Special Collections, met with Mr. Martin to discuss the possibility of his donating his collections to Cushing. By that time Martin was already an award-winning author of note, though not yet the celebrity he is today. He came to the library for a tour and was impressed with the physical facilities which protect the collections, as well as the librarians’ care and enthusiasm for their work and for the genres of fantasy and science fiction. After years of contact with Texas A&M librarians, Mr. Martin decided to make his first deposit of materials in the Collection – around 40 boxes of books and papers – in 1993. In the years since, his own archive has grown to include 200 boxes and nearly 1,000 volumes, all housed in one of Cushing Library’s protective vaults. The collection fills the entire length of this sizable room, and we like to call the area where it’s shelved “The Wall of Martin.”
Now returning to that first question: “Why Martin?” The presence of Martin’s archive at Texas A&M is a testament to the collaboration that can arise when gifted creators and dedicated librarians work together to produce a trust for the future. Mr. Martin is dedicated to seeing his work preserved, but also to the idea that it will be available to students, to scholars, to historians of media and popular culture, and to the community. His dedication to the enterprise has led him to send boxes of itemized objects – from manuscripts and first editions to international versions, artifacts described in his novels, and personal ephemera such as one of Martin’s now-iconic Greek sailor’s caps – with astonishing regularity. And anyone who has watched the explosion of interest in Martin’s work can see how his writing has struck a chord in an ever-expanding audience. This type of phenomenon can reveal a great deal about a culture, and a thorough archive such as the one that Martin is developing at Cushing Library will reflect much about this moment of time, our preoccupations and anxieties, to researchers of the future.
As for why we chose to initiate and create the exhibition – well, we’re both fans, of course, but beyond that, we’re curators and scholars. It is clear to us that Mr. Martin’s work has altered the history of his chosen genre, as well as the ways we view popular literature. In 2005, Time magazine reviewer Lev Grossman christened Mr. Martin “The American Tolkien”— and we took that idea and ran with it. J.R.R. Tolkien not only originated modern fantasy as we think of it today, but has had an ongoing impact on literature (not least through the host of imitators he spawned). George R.R. Martin’s case is not dissimilar. Indeed, as we conceptualized the exhibit we decided that the narrative should tell the story of both the inspiration taken by Martin—Tolkien, of course, but also Stan Lee and Robert E. Howard and all the rest—and Martin’s own influence on genre and popular culture in his turn. HBO’s Game of Thrones made his characters and the world of Westeros household names, but even before that, his work had made a deeper impression on genre through its gritty realism and unflinching portrayal of the darker sides of the human condition.
Full-scale exhibits at Cushing take a lot of work. It took two years of planning for us to pull off Deeper Than Swords — collaborating with Martin to get a place on his (very busy) calendar; negotiating reproduction rights with award-winning artist John Picacio to utilize his iconic work in the exhibit catalog and the exhibit itself; working with local artists such as Anise Press and independent artists from farther afield like Evangeline Owen, in order to bring all-new interpretations of Martin’s work to the fore; and of course, our writing and the installation of the exhibit itself. When we unveiled the plans for the exhibition as part of our initial promotional work at AggieCon back in 2012, the convention’s planners and participants became very interested in the project, and actually moved their dates and location so they could coordinate with us and have Martin as a Guest of Honor this year, too! And finally, with the new season of Game of Thrones aligning with our opening and Martin fresh from a media junket, HBO chose to sponsor a special preview screening of the first episode of season three. Martin had seen the episode twice, in LA and San Francisco (including once at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater), but he reported that the Aggie audience was by far the largest and most enthusiastic!
It is difficult to say which might be our favorite moment of the entire process. Perhaps the donors’ dinner, in which fans of the novels were privileged to eat from a sumptuous menu inspired by the food described in the books, recreated by Chef Tai, with Martin himself at the head table. Perhaps it was the book signing, in which hundreds of students and local fans waited in lines extending out of Cushing and most of the way along Evans Library, in order to have a moment of interaction with the author. It may have been the lecture and Q&A, in which Martin spoke about the significance of his reading history for his life as a writer to over two thousand Aggies in Rudder Auditorium. But I suspect that we’d agree that the highlight was seeing Martin encounter his own archive in its place on the shelves within Cushing Library’s stacks. It’s one thing to count boxes and titles, but to see the breadth of the material in a single glimpse, extending the length of a massive bookshelf, is really something. As we conducted him into the Library’s secure area to see the material which he created – now preserved in archival folders and boxes, arranged and catalogued – he reached out to brush his hand against the objects. The products of an author’s life – imagination, images and words – tend to be abstract and ephemeral. To see such an expanse of papers and books as a testament to the impact of his writing seemed quite powerful to him. This visit, combined with a private tour of the exhibit, provided Martin with an opportunity to reflect on his career and achievements. It’s one thing for an author to become a celebrated figure, even a celebrity – recognized in the airport and approached for photographs on the street – but to see that his work is beloved both in popular and academic circles may be even rarer. It clearly meant a lot to him. And that brought us a great deal of satisfaction.