Read January Magazine's 2002 interview with Diana Gabaldon.
Buy it online
Books by Diana Gabaldon:
- The Outlandish Companion: In Which Much Is Revealed Regarding Claire and Jamie Fraser, Their Lives and Times, Antecedents. Adventures, Companions and Progeny, With Learned Commentary (and Many Footnotes) by Their Humble Creator
- Drums of Autumn
- Dragonfly in Amber
Diana Gabaldon is, in many ways, the rarest sort of author. First, her speaking voice is very nearly like the voice the reader experiences in her work. She sounds just a bit like Katherine Hepburn -- deep and slightly raspy, cheerfully staccato, with phrases elegantly oiled together. But beyond the sound of the voice, Gabaldon is an interviewer's dream: the tiniest question brings a lengthy and enthusiastic response. However else Gabaldon may have spent her adult life, the bestselling novelist is a storyteller born and she doesn't need much prodding to start her on the road to doing just that.
The path that led to the success of Gabaldon's Outlander series is a worthwhile story in itself. It's one of those wonderful Cinderella tales that give hope to aspiring authors. A set of impossible circumstances led to the publication of the 47-year-old doctor of ecology's first book Outlander in the early 1990s.
Though the circumstances may have piled up favorably, there's no real mystery to the success of Gabaldon's books: they're wonderful. Rich, deep tapestries that aren't fantasies, romances or adventures, but rather have elements of all of these things in a way, Gabaldon says, that initially made the books very difficult to market.
Linda Richards: Do you like doing book tours?
Diana Gabaldon: Oh yeah. They're a lot of fun. I don't like to do them too often because I don't get a lot of work done, and of course my family complains bitterly whenever I leave on one. But within the confines of the few days to the week or two that you do a book tour, it's a lot of fun. It's very intoxicating to meet people who read your books and are so enthusiastic about them.
You have legions of fans.
[Laughs] Well, there's a lot of them.
Do you have a Scottish background?
No. Not at all.
That's surprising. Because the Scottish elements seem so real.
Well, fortunately the Scots in general seem to have been very accepting of the books. In fact, I get a lot of fan mail from people in Scotland saying, "How long did you live in the Highlands before you moved to Arizona?" A lot of them come to the signings and say, "How did you get Scotland so right on?"
Did you do a lot of research?
Oh yes. I had to. Because I started out not knowing anything about Scotland or the 18th century so...
So it wasn't wanting to write about Scotland that got you going. Was it the time travel that you wanted a venue for?
Oh no, not at all. That was an accident. I mean, everything was an accident, amazingly. I wanted to write a book for practice to learn how to write novels. And I was thinking what would be the easiest possible kind of thing to write and I thought maybe a mystery, because I read more of those than anything. And then I thought, "Well, mysteries have plots. I'm not sure I can do that." And I thought perhaps that would be a historical novel because I was a research professor. Well, I was a scientist but I did know how to use the library and it's easier to look things up than to make them up entirely. So I said, "OK. I'll write a historical novel. Where shall I put this?" I had no formal background in history, so any time would do. And I happened to see a program on public television. You may have heard of Doctor Who ?
It was one of the early episodes, and he had a young Scots lad that he'd picked up in 1745. He appeared in his kilt, you know. And I thought, "Well, that's rather fetching." So I thought, "Well, it doesn't matter where I set this book, I'm going to have to look everything up anyway. The important thing is to pick a place and start in." So I said, "Scotland in the 18th century. That's where I'll start." So I started. But it was still a straight historical novel.
About the third day of writing I said, "Well, I'll have to have a female character here to play off all these men in kilts. And given that we're dealing with the Jacobite rising, perhaps I should make her an Englishwoman, that way we'll have lots of conflict built in." So I did, and I introduced her and the minute I put her in, she refused to talk like an 18th-century person. She immediately started making smartass modern remarks and she also started telling the story herself. And I said, "Well, if you're going to fight me all through this book, go ahead and be modern and I'll figure out how you got there later." So it's all her fault that there's time travel in it.
But it sort of evolved as I went along. Well, it was practice. I was never intending to show it to anyone. So it didn't matter what sort of thing I did, I could stick in anything I liked. Consequently I ended up with a series of books that is absolutely uncategorifiable. And no one has ever been able to tell me what they are.
That's wonderful. And probably at least part of the reason for their success.
Well, it may be. Once you get past the original marketing hurdles. The only rules I made for myself were, well, one; I would not stop. You know, I would keep going until I finished this book, no matter what it looked like because that was the only way to learn how. And two, that I would do the absolute best that I could in the writing at all times. You know: being emotionally honest and technically demanding and all that. I wasn't just going to dash it off because I was wanting to learn how to write and the only way to do that is to make a good effort at it. So it did come together gradually and since it worked that's the way I've always written.
How long did that first book take you?
It took me about 18 months to write Outlander.
So at what point did you decide to show it to people after all?
Well, it happened while I was writing. As I said, I was a scientist. I was hired as an ecologist at Arizona State University. And owing to a number of things that I won't go into here, I had evolved my own specialty and become an expert in scientific computation. As part of that I wrote freelance for the computer press, for Byte and Infoworld and as part of that had gotten a membership to CompuServe to research bits of software that I was writing about. While there I stumbled into a thing called the Literary Forum which is a bunch of people who like to read and write, essentially. There were published authors and aspiring writers and just readers. It was a very congenial atmosphere for someone who is interested in books, as I always have been. It was also the ideal social life for someone with a full-time job, a partime freelance job and three small children under six.
So I began hanging around there normally. I'd been there for maybe a year before I began writing this practice book. For a certain time I didn't tell anyone online what I was doing. I didn't want anyone telling me what I was doing wrong until I'd figured it out. [Laughs] Also, I was very timid about admitting in front of all of these published authors that I was actually trying to write a book. So I didn't. I just kept quiet.
Maybe eight months into it I was having an argument with a gentleman online about what it feels like to be pregnant. This was long before the days of chatrooms, so we were just posting messages back and forth bulletin board style and I was logging on fairly frequently to pick up my messages. Anyway, he said, "Oh, I know what that's like. My wife has had three children." And I laughed electronically and said, "Well buster, I've had three children." So he said, "Can you tell me what it's like?" And I said, "Well, actually I can. It's a little complicated to explain in a short message, but I have this piece that I wrote recently in which a woman explains to her brother in some detail what it's like because he's curious." I told him I'd put it up on the electronic library there so he could read it. So I put it up and everyone who had been following the argument went and read the piece. And they all came rushing back and said, "This is great. What is it?" And I said, "Well, I don't know." And they asked where the beginning was, and I said, "Well, I haven't written it yet." They asked me to put up some more, "this is fascinating." So I did. A bit at a time.
I don't write in a straight line at all. I just write bits and pieces and then glue them together. So whenever I had a bit that seemed as though it would stand by itself, I would put it up in the library. This was maybe one chunk every two months or so. But I went on putting them up and people would get talking about them and saying, "You really should try and publish this." And I said, "Well, if I wanted to do that what should I do?" And they told me I needed an agent. They said that an agent could get you read much faster than if you're just sending it in to the slush pile. And also if you can sell it, an agent could negotiate a much better contract. And I said, "Well, that makes sense. How would I find an agent?" And they said there were reference books and things you can look things up in, but since you happen to know a great many published authors here already, why don't you just chat with people what their agent is like and also what kind of manuscript and what you should look for in an agent? All that sort of thing. So I did [and when I'd chosen one] I sent him my own query letter in which I told him that I'd been writing and selling non-fiction by myself for the last 15 years, but now that I'm writing fiction I understand that I really need a good agent and that he'd been recommended to me by all of these people whose opinions I respect and, "Would you be willing to read excerpts of this really long novel that I have?" I didn't tell him that I hadn't finished writing it. And he called and said he would. So I sent him my excerpts and a rough synopsis to bind them together and he took me on. On the basis of an unfinished first novel. Which is not very usual. So about six months later I finally finished the book. Sent it to him. And he sent it to five editors who he thought might like it and within four days three of them had called back and wanted to buy it. And we were off to the races like that.
Your karma was completely in place.
Well, I tell people if you want to do something, start doing it. Things will come and find you as you need them.
You work laterally?
I jump from lily pad to lily pad. I think it's like raising continents. You know, looking out over this vast and tractless sea and you begin to see volcanoes popping up here and there, spouting. And as they rise and lava goes down the sides you get mountains coming up and then gradually it all comes clear. You begin to see how one mountain flows down into a valley and up into another. But to start with, all you see are the mountains. Gradually as you get it close to the surface you can look in and see all the valleys and the connections.
When did you begin writing Outlander ?
I began writing it in 1988 and finished it late in 1989. And, as I said, it sold immediately, but the publisher sat on it for more than a year because they weren't sure how to sell it. The editor bought it and, in fact, gave me a three book contract, because she loved the story. But then, of course, they sat down with the marketing people and they began saying, "Well what sort of book is it? What can we tell people that this is?" And if you've ever gone into a bookshop you've seen that all of the shelves are labeled. You know: mysteries or romance, thrillers or suspense or westerns or whatever. And you can't do that with my books. I mean, they don't fit anywhere.
How would you describe them?
I can't. [Laughs] No. I never have been able to. When I would do book signings in the early days, people would come up to me -- and the books have always had a very interesting but ambiguous-looking cover -- and they would say, "This looks fascinating. What kind of book is it?" So for a while, if it was a man between 40 and 60, I'd say it was historical fiction. If it was a woman between 15 and 45 I'd say it was historical romance. If it was an older man I'd say it was military history. If it was a young man I'd say it was science fiction. It worked very well for a while. But eventually I got more people coming up at once and in mixes of sexes and ages, so at that point I took to saying, "Well, I'll tell you what: pick it up, open it anywhere, read three pages. If you can put it down again, I'll pay you a dollar." And I sold a lot of books, but I never lost any money.
If you were going to compare it to something, I guess it's more like [James Clavel's] Shogun . Enormous historical fiction, with sort of a romantic thread running through it.
And a fantastical thread, as well.
Yes. That's the main difference. My main character is a time traveler. It's essentially very rich historical fiction, but it does have this fantastic thread. And it does have a very strong romantic thread. And eventually the marketing people said, "Well, we don't know what to do with this. If we just release it as fiction, no one will know what to make of it and it'll just sink like a stone and vanish in two weeks." Eventually my agent called and said, "They've decided that all hardcovers come out as fiction and they go on the same shelf. But for the paperback they've decided to sell it as romance." And I said, "As what ?" Because I like historical romance, but that wasn't at all what I thought I'd written. I said that I had problems with that because, for one thing, it would never be reviewed by The New York Times or any other literarily respectable venue if you called it a romance novel. I said this is not a real big deal, but -- more importantly -- if you call it romance you will cut off the entire male half of my audience. I said I wasn't writing women's fiction. He said he understood and said they could call it science fiction or fantasy because of the other peculiar things but, he said, "Bear in mind that a bestseller in SF/F is 50,000 copies in paperback. A bestseller in romance is 500,000." And I said, "Well, you've got a point. Sell it as romance."
Our agreement with the publisher was that we would allow them to sell the paperback as romance but treat it in a dignified manner. You know, with ambiguous covers. No Fabio. No flowers. None of this sort of thing. Because the thing is that romance accounts for over half of the paperbacks sold in the U.S. It's a huge market. And the people that do read romances read them voraciously and they read other kinds of books and they belong to book clubs and discussion groups and it's a very accessible sort of market. There are several review publications that address that market so it's sort of an easy one to get noticed in because if the book is at all good it gets read. So, what they said was they'd try to get the book noticed and if it began to spread and if it became visible -- which is publisherese for New York Times list -- then they would re-position the books and make them safe for men to read by calling them "fiction". So they did that and, in fact, the third book did hit the Times list and so now all the books say "fiction" on the spine and they've covered up the few discreet flowers they'd had on the cover.
Because it's now considered mainstream fiction.
Yes. So now I still get a larger proportion of female readers, but it's beginning to shift and I'm getting many more men coming to my signings and writing me fan mail and all that.
The romantic element is strong.
And the sex is wonderful. Subtle, but very lovely.
Thank you. [Laughs]
And gentle. Not in your face.
Well, yes. It's sort of non-explicit. There's actually a section in this book [The Outlandish Companion ] called "Controversies" which deals with the few people who write to me complaining about one thing or another. I get a handful of people writing to me who complain about the sex. Not that it's handled badly, but that they regard my books as being otherwise Great Literature -- you know, with a capital "G" and a capital "L" -- and they think the sex lowers the tone of my of my literary reputation. And I said, you know, the thing is what I'm dealing with in this series as a whole is an entire relationship. The first book does contain romantic elements in that it is about the joining together of these two people. But the series as a whole deals with their entire marriage and complications over 50 years, set against the backdrop of the second half of the 18th century. And there are possibly successful relationships that are asexual in nature, but most of them aren't. And, I said, if you're going to do a good job of revealing this, I think you're going to have sex. I've had maybe three letters complaining about the sex and maybe 3000 asking for more sex. And, of course, being neither a politician or a TV station, I don't respond to opinion polls.
Very well put! Do you get a lot of mail?
Tons. Well, let's put it this way: had I known that Drums of Autumn was going to be as successful as it was, I would not have put my e-mail address in it. The day that it opened, it opened at #2 on the Times list and #1 on The Wall Street Journal and the day afterward I got 96 e-mails in the first pass. And continued getting 80 or 90 e-mails a day for weeks and months after. I still get 30 or 40 every day.
Since the books have come out, have you traveled to Scotland at all?
Oh yes. Well, after I'd sold the first one and they gave me a three book contract I said to my husband, "I think I'd best go see the place." So we went for two weeks. We put the kids with my parents and went and rented a car in London and drove up into the Highlands and down the other side. And I've been back two or three times since.
You have three kids?
They're how old?
17, 15 and 13. They're all born in May, so they just turned. They're girl, boy, girl.
How old are you?
And it is Dr. Gabaldon?
That's a fun transition. You're not doctoring anymore though?
No. When I finished the second book I retired from the university. My contract came up for renewal and I thought it would be nice to see what it was like to sleep more than four hours at a stretch. So I quit and became a full time novelist.
What's the next project?
Well, I'm working concurrently on the fifth of the Outlander novels and the first of a contemporary mystery series. So I'm working back and forth on those. Probably the mystery will be done soonest. Writing-wise that's about it. We're talking to two different production companies who want to do miniseries of the books but it's just talk at the moment so who knows? We've sold options before, but I have very mixed feelings about it. People say that they want to see the books made into miniseries but they want everything just the way it is in the books. They don't want to see anything left out. But if someone wanted to make a really nice adaptation I'd be delighted.
Tell me about the mystery you're working on.
It's set in contemporary Phoenix. It's quite a different voice. It's a male voice, for some reason, but it's the one that talks to me. So, I'll write it as long as I can hear something.
There seems to be so much synchronicity in the things you've done. The things that have happened to you. Is there some sort of spiritual thread through all of this for you? Something, perhaps, that ties you to the Celtic mysticism. Or something.
No. I'm a practicing Roman Catholic. My father's family are from New Mexico, where they've been for the last 500 years or so. My mother's family are from Yorkshire and Germany, respectively. So it's quite a miscellaneous heritage. Especially in the American south. People always look at me and say, "Oh. Are you a Cherokee Indian?" And, well no. It's just the mix of Hispanic coloring and German bones.
Can you talk at all about the contemporary mystery? Or are you leaving it mysterious?
Sure, if you want to hear about it.
Do you have a when?
I'm hoping to finish it by early next year, but I can't tell for sure. It sort of depends on how much time I'm obliged to spend with this. I didn't know until the last day or two how this book [The Outlandish Companion ] would be received. But people seem to be real enthused about it. Which is nice. But, then again, it means that I have to go places and talk about it and sign it and so forth and that's kind of a drain on the time. But I think I can maybe finish it by early next year because it's shorter than one of the enormous historical fantasias.
So it's contemporary. And it's set in Phoenix?
Yes. And the main narrator is a male voice. He's an investigative journalist from Philadelphia. The story begins -- more or less -- in a sort of prolonged flashback and he's recently become reacquainted with a woman that was his high school sweetheart and that he was romantically involved with in his early 20s and all that. They parted and she married an up-and-coming politician and now they've met again 20 years on. And she was unhappy with her husband who was into things she considers highly unethical and possibly criminal and she takes up with the journalist again and wants him to investigate her husband and expose him. She's planning to leave her husband, but she also wants to destroy him so that he can't come after her.
The journalist, of course, is very much taken by the possibility of this very juicy story so he goes along with it. He begins to realize that the woman has a dual motive. She not only wants him to expose and destroy her husband, she wants him back. She intends to leave her husband with him. And this is certainly not what he has in mind, but he does want the story. Anyway, he plays along and he's coming to meet her one night and she's bringing with her the incriminating documents that she's succeeded in stealing from her husband's study. The journalist knows that she's planning on running away with him that night with the documents and so he's going to this rendezvous trying to think how he's going to get the documents and leave without the woman. When he arrives there he finds her in the back seat of the car with her throat cut. The husband has found out. So the rest of the story involves what happens after that, because of course he has this tremendous feeling of guilt about what's happened to this woman. And, of course, he still wants the story. Even more now, since he has a double motive. The politician leaves Philadelphia under the guise of bereavement and moves to Arizona.
Leave me with one thought for your fans. What do people want to know?
When the next book will be out. Really. And as I said, I hope to finish the mystery early next year. And when I do the publisher will have it on the shelf six months later. So, with luck, there will be a book next year. | June 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
Read January Magazine's 2002 interview with Diana Gabaldon.
You can visit Diana Gabaldon on the Web.