Our VCR was set to record Halloween specials one year and the tape picked up an advertisement for Beauty and the Beast, the late-1980s CBS fantasy drama co-written by George R. R. Martin.
I didn't make much of it at the time. All I remember is a boat going through a dark, foggy canal and then the eponymous characters posing for the camera like the couples on one of my mother's romance novels. It's one of those odd tricks of synchronicity that the person responsible for the advertisement I fast-forwarded past countless times on my way to Garfield's Halloween Adventure is also responsible for the creative work I now do for Meow Wolf.
George R.R. Martin's connection to Meow Wolf could be puzzling to outsiders. How does the author of A Song of Ice and Fire and the mind behind HBO's Game of Thrones series fit into The House of Eternal Return? How do the screams of peasants outside of a burning village and severed heads translate to neon forests, cops from outer space and mushrooms that sing when you touch them?
That connection is easier to understand once you get a sense of George R.R. Martin's body of work, his connection to Santa Fe and his professional relationship with Meow Wolf's co-founder Vince Kadlubek.
As with so many transplants to Santa Fe, George R.R. Martin came here as a tourist before being snared by the City Different and adopting it as his home. In an interview with National Geographic shortly before The House of Eternal Return opened, the interviewer asked him (and it almost looks like a challenge in print): "Why Santa Fe out of all the places in the world you could live?" George responded:
"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…" 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."
George R.R. Martin's work and his connection to Santa Fe has puzzled people ever since Game of Thrones took off in pop culture. He told the interviewer that because he writes about castles people assume he's British. George points out that before Game of Thrones he wrote a great deal of science fiction, writing about other planets. "And no one assumed I was from outer space," he said. But George's connection to Santa Fe was always a feature of his life.
While looking up old articles about George R.R. Martin for a local history project, I came across an interview he did with a Santa Fe paper about his 1982 book Fevre Dream, a vampire novel. It seems like George was a known figure around town even then. The interviewer pumped him for information about upcoming books and George mentioned that he was developing a fantasy series about warring nobles. I believe this is an early reference to Game of Thrones and Santa Fe heard it first. It's George R.R. Martin's engagement with this town that helped build The House of Eternal Return.
The author doesn't seem content to sit back on his success. Much to the chagrin of some of his fans, George R.R. Martin devotes time to leaving his unique cultural stamp on the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal and we were scratching our heads when George re-opened the Jean Cocteau Theater in 2013. The theater had sat empty since about 2006, almost becoming an icon of untapped potential in Santa Fe. The attitude around the office was that it was nice that the building was being put to use again, but what did George R.R. Martin want with it? It wasn't until later that we realized what George was up to. The Jean Cocteau was a place where you could go to see the original Japanese print of Godzilla, a film you're not going to see at any of the commercial theaters in town, let alone some of the art houses. Vintage DeLoreans were parked outside the joint to celebrate the theater's showing of Back to the Future. There were red carpet-type events with the cast of Game of Thrones, actors leading enormous wolves into the theater as they attended the premiere of a new season of the show. These kinds of events would be expected in a larger city, but they certainly didn't have a home in Santa Fe until George R.R. Martin.
Perhaps the most exciting thing is not only that George filled a culture vacuum to the delight of thousands of Santa Fe sci-fi and fantasy geeks, it's that the tiny size of our city makes these events even better, intimate community experiences that are impossible to replicate in a larger town. I took my parents to their first viewing of Pulp Fiction and we were surrounded by my friends. At the Jean Cocteau you can have a beer five feet away from a weirdo comedy god like John Hodgman. The theater is almost like a sanctuary for geek culture and if you need any more evidence of that consider that Big Adventure Comics recently moved there, benefitting from and amplifying the salon-like role the Jean Cocteau has for Santa Fe. NPR, in an article about Meow Wolf, called George R.R. Martin "a modern-day Medici," a reference to the wealthy Florentine family that patronized the arts in renaissance Italy. The Jean Cocteau serves as a good illustration of this part of George R.R. Martin's character and of the kind of creativity he favors.
Vince applied for a marketing position at the Jean Cocteau and was surprised to find that George was doing all of the interviews himself. Kadlubek brought a project folder from The Due Return (2011), Meow Wolf's space-traveling pirate ship installation at the CCA.
"George R.R. Martin was definitely interested in what Meow Wolf had created. ” Vince said. Vince eventually left the job, but the two maintained contact. The writer followed Kadlubek's political work for Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales. In August Vince got up the courage to e-mail George R.R. Martin, asking for his support for a permanent Meow Wolf exhibition in Santa Fe.
Vince said he wasn't expecting to hear back from George, but he was surprised to get an answer almost immediately. The author agreed to help Meow Wolf renovate and purchase the old Silva Lanes bowling alley on the south side of Santa Fe. "What I said had resonated with him," Vince said of Martin. "We had similar goals in mind with Santa Fe. George told me later that's why he answered the e-mail. It aligned with him and with what he wanted for Santa Fe." Kadlubek said George R.R. Martin had a similar commitment to contemporary pop culture and a similar desire to celebrate it.
"So much of Santa Fe is based in historical culture and preservation of the past," Kadlubek said. "What George R.R. Martin is all about is imagination and pushing culture forward— embracing horror, fantasy, sci-fi and things that don't necessarily have to do with your specific location in the Southwest." In his pitch to George, Kadlubek brought up those aspects of the House of Eternal Return: a science fiction story that leaps off the page and becomes your total environment. George told NPR: "They explained this vision of a Victorian house, unmoored in time and space with a haunted forest and a magical cave system, and portals to other worlds," Martin says. "And of course, it pushed all my buttons. I love that kind of stuff."
People sometimes assume that George R.R. Martin helped write the story in The House of Eternal Return. He did not. Through the author's hands-off approach during the buildout of the House, Kadlubek said George R.R. Martin demonstrated a quality Meow Wolf tries to cultivate among its members. "He instills a blind faith in us," Kadlubek said. "Some may see that as being strategically flawed to trust someone blindly. He had no reason to think we could pull this off, but because he trusted us without any other reason it made us want to deliver. It encouraged us to see through his trust, to fulfill his trust... Here's someone the entire world wants to get at and he's giving us, little Meow Wolf, some of that energy, some of that magic of his."
This all led to an odd relationship where Vince and his internationally-known author buddy text each other about the outcomes of Jets and Giants football games, virtual reality or pop culture trends. He said he considers George R.R. Martin a friend.
"I'm a bigger fan of George than of Game of Thrones," Kadlubek said. "George R.R. Martin has a personality that is iconic in and of itself— the hats and the laugh and the way of speech and his consistent commitment to his authenticity. I love that the world sees it and the world responds to it." Kadlubek said he also admires George's commitment to culture in his city, so much so that he's willing to risk his own money to grow it. "I think that if you surround yourself with business advisors and financial advisors everyone wants to make sure you get your six percent return and retire happy... I would encourage people in similar positions to George R.R. Martin to diversify their investments and see what you can plant and what kind of garden you can grow in your own community."
There are people in every community that have ideas. That sort of backing, that willingness to take a risk can allow those ideas to actually flourish." And pay off. Not only in terms of ticket sales, but also in more abstract ways, such as developing new modes of art and geek culture and influencing the creative lives of children, who often exit the House wide-eyed and unwilling to leave.