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New novelists would do well to take a lesson in self promotion from Diana Gabaldon. Because, she says, her series is comprised of "such weird books" she feels it's important to get people reading them so they can tell their friends. "To do that" says the gamine 50-year-old Arizona-based author, "you have to get them to read it in the first place."
From the beginning, Gabaldon would go to bookstores in whatever town she happened to be, chat up the staff, offer to sign copies of her book and, where necessary explain the plot, because, "telling people the story is really the only way I've found of describing the books." Hopefully, says Gabaldon, by the time she's explained, they're hooked and "at that point they'll pick it up themselves."
The challenge of explaining her "weird" books has likely diminished since the publication of The Fiery Cross, the fifth installment in what is growing to be her massive Outlander series of novels. The Fiery Cross -- which at 500,000 words is the largest in the series to date -- was published to rave reviews and instant bestseller status, this last likely due to the huge fan base she's built with the previous four books and the fact that those fans have had to wait four years since the publication of the previous installment, Drums of Autumn.
The weirdness is due largely to the need booksellers -- and publishers -- feel to place books in genres. The Fiery Cross, like its predecessors, doesn't fit easily into a single place. The elements of romance, time travel all set against a historical backdrop actually set publication of Outlander back by about 18 months "because [the publisher] could not figure out how to market it." At one point, her publishing contract was very close to being canceled due to the impossibility of assigning the book a genre.
While Outlander wasn't an overnight sensation, it quietly built up a solid readership that has grown with the publication of each book as readers clamor to find out what's happened to Claire and Jamie Fraser and their growing clan. In The Fiery Cross, we find the Frasers in the middle of the War of Regulation. "It's a book about male responsibility, essentially," maintains Gabaldon, but it also sets us up for the American Revolution which the author plans on getting us through in her upcoming two books.
Gabaldon maintains that after five books with Jamie, Claire and company she has as much passion for the characters and situations as she did when she created them. "They evolve through the books. The become different people. They're older, their life situation changes, they're in a different place."
Gabaldon finds working with evolving characters to be just as demanding as dreaming up new ones. She says that she has to, "re-imagine the circumstances and the people and who they interact with each book. So in some ways that's much more challenging than doing it for characters that you've never dealt with before."
Diana Gabaldon is a former research professor. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and three children.
Linda Richards: The Fiery Cross is the thickest of your novels to date.
Diana Gabaldon: I know. It just gets worse and worse!
Is it by far the biggest one?
Well, no. It's just sort of increasing incrementally as they go along. But it is the biggest one.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because the story is getting more complex, for one thing. But also because the other characters -- Roger and Brianna -- their story is now a bigger part of the main story. It's not that I'm switching attention to them or preparing them to take center stage while I retire the older people and all that. It's just that they now have a major and important part in this story. In fact, people always ask me: What's the shape of this book? Because they've heard that I envision shapes for the books as I'm pulling them together. This one is a DNA helix: this twisting, double-stranded story. We have Jamie and Claire's story which is looping around the political events and we have Roger and Brianna's, which is doing likewise. They're complementary strands, they go back and forth. And the crossbars between them are all the other little characters and relationships in the stories.
Was that intentional or did it evolve over time?
Well, both. It evolves as I go along. But once I've seen it I can sort of work on it with that in mind. But the shape comes to me fairly late in the construction of a story.
I spoke with Sara Donati a while ago and that was fun. And, how did it go again? Did she borrow one your characters for one of her stories?
Well, not exactly. We know each other online and we've met once or twice in person but we had been talking in the writer's forum and we knew what each other were doing and every once in a while she'd send me a short scene to read and so forth. And one day she sent me this scene and she said: I won't do this if you have any objection, but I thought it was sort of funny. Anyway, what she had done is her book was set in 1795, I think. And mine, of course, is much earlier. But one of her characters was telling another character what had happened at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. And she knew from conversations I'd had elsewhere that eventually I intend to get to the battle of Saratoga in my own series and that I was intending to do something with it. I didn't yet know what, but that Jamie and Claire would be there. Anyway, her character is telling this other character about the battle and it's a little story about how after the battle this little boy he knew was sick and they sent across the rebel lines for a physician and this woman named Mrs. Fraser who is known as the White Witch came and treated the little boy and her husband Colonel Fraser came along to protect her. She also mentioned young Ian who'd come with the Mohawk because one of the features of that battle was that the Mohawk did fight in it, which was very interesting.
So anyway, it's not that my characters appear in her book, it's just that those characters are in one of her character's stories. But she treated them as though they were real historical people, because they're treated exactly the way General Skylar and the other people that this person is talking about are treated. And so I said: Well, yeah. I think that's fun. It's kind of a neat little inside joke. I think that's kind of cool, go ahead and keep it and we'll see if anyone notices.
Then her publisher decided to make a big hairy deal out of it which is why it got so much attention. The catalog copy for her book, every single paragraph mentioned me and how I thought so highly of her that I had allowed her to borrow my characters. [Laughs] It wasn't her fault at all.
How many books do you envision in your series?
There'll be at least two more because I need to get through the American Revolution. Which, as you know, is a very long and complex war. I don't see how I can do it in one more book. The other reason probably for the length of this one is that I had originally intended for Fiery Cross to be right on the brink of the American Revolution in 1776. And so, you know how I write: in bits and pieces and chunks, then I kind of line them up. Anyway, when I lined them up I could see from here to here and I said: Well, if I put all of this in, it's going to be 750,000 words. This will not do. [Laughs] In physical terms alone, it's just not going to work. So then I said: Well, where can I stop that will make a coherent, nicely thematically unified novel? And so I said: Well what if, instead of treating the War of the Regulation as build-up to this climax, what if we treated it as its own event? Which in fact it was, in terms of Carolina's history and so forth, it was a very neatly encapsulated happening. The minute I thought of that, it fell together very nicely, with the War of the Regulation at the apex of the novel, you might say. This being the turning point, so to speak, in Roger's development and acclimatization, because the evolution of the relationship between Roger and Jamie is one of the chief threads of this book.
That seemed to fit very nicely and it had this developing theme of preparing for war, even though you know what's going to happen -- you know this is going to be terrible -- what choice do you have? It's a book about male responsibility, essentially. I mean, it's about everybody's responsibility, but it focuses chiefly on Jamie and Roger. Jamie knows what his role is, and he always has. But at the same time you can see the difficulties he has in fulfilling it. You know how he's pulling his people together to face what he knows is coming and having to do things he doesn't want to do, and at the same time he's not forcing Roger to anything. And yet he's showing him.
A mountain of research, Diana?
It feels like it must have been.
Well, they all are.
You like that part, don't you?
Oh, sure. I do the research along with the writing. It's sort of the same thing to me. They sort of feed off each other.
So you figure at least another two books?
Because you know you can't do these fast enough for your fans.
[Laughs] The thing is, since I did stop and encapsulate the War of the Regulation, these chunks that I had originally for Fiery Cross, I still have them. So these are now the next book, or part of the next book, so I do sort of have pieces of it .... So I know quite a lot of stuff that happens in the next book because originally it was going to be in this book, but now it's that one. My guess is the next book will not only come out a little sooner, but it will be shorter because I know where I'm going with it already and it's from here to here.
A bridge book?
Yeah, essentially. And it's pretty triangular in shape, I think. I'll know more when I get into it.
When last we spoke, you were working on a contemporary mystery.
Oh, I still am. Or I have been, I should say. But I had to put it aside for the last six months in order to finish Fiery Cross because people were breathing down my neck for it. But I do still have chunks of the first mystery, too.
Breathing down your neck? Ugh.
Well, they were so eager to have it that they announced a publication date before I'd finished writing it. Which is not unheard of, but very aggravating. Another reason for the length, frankly, is that I finished writing it in August and normally for a book of that size and complexity the production period -- the editing, copyediting, proofreading, galleys -- would take eight months to a year. And it went to the bindery in early October: that's five weeks. And, in fact, they did not copyedit the last three sections at all.
Have you noticed this?
Well, I knew this. They told me. They said: Well, we're typesetting it directly from the e-mailed files you sent the editor. I was thinking: Well, that's hair-raising, but I'll have a chance with the galleys. Because that's the last chance you have to correct things. Normally, ideally, if you finish a book you would be able to put it aside for a few months, let your mind clear, separate from the book. Then you could go back and look at it clearly. At this point it becomes very obvious what you can do without: you can snip pieces and tweak here and condense this scene and generally tighten and prune and all that. I never ever give them a book until I'm sure it's complete and it's done and all that. But at the same time you can go back and do this tweaking and so forth. And, frankly, I would like the chance to prune 30 or 40,000 words here. [Laughs] Which I didn't get.
So it was intended to be a more slender book?
Well, not exactly. When I say "prune" I don't mean take out chunks or remove scenes, even, but it's what I call slash and burn. Where you go through it and say: Well, do I really need this phrase? Do I really need this sentence? Yes, I really need this sentence, but it has three too many words and you cut it down a little bit.
30,000 words is almost a whole book.
Well, Fiery Cross is 500,000 words so 30,000 words is not that big a proportion of it.
Compare that to your last novel.
Drums of Autumn was about 425,000, so [Fiery Cross] is not that much bigger.
Drums of Autumn is only an average novel length shorter.
[Laughs] Well, a small little one, maybe. But, as I said, I was thinking: This is horrible, but I will make sure to hang on to the galleys until I'm sure I've done everything I want to to them. And they called up and said: Well, we're sending you the galleys, they should arrive next Tuesday, you have three days. And I said: What do you mean, I have three days? This is a 500,000 word book I couldn't just read it for fun in three days, let alone do the galleys. And they said: We're bound and determined to have it for Christmas, it's going to press on the fourth day, whether you've sent the galleys back or not.
I hastily printed off the last three sections, which I knew they'd set from my files. And I proofread those as though they were galleys: made marks and corrections. When the galleys arrived, I gave those sheets to my husband and he and his secretary nobly spent three days transferring my markings to the galleys while I read like mad through the first six sections. As it is, I still have a list of typographical errors and errata as long as your arm, which I'll be posting on my Web site as soon as I get home.
Will they be corrected in the next edition?
They most certainly will! [Laughs] And they definitely will fix it for the paperback. I just need to go through them once more and make sure the corrections are all correct.
You do a lot of handsell on your books.
Well, I always have. From the beginning. Because they're such weird books. You honestly can not describe them to anyone. And so the only way they can be sold is by having people read them and recommend them to their friends. To do that you have to get them to read it in the first place.
Ever since Outlander was published I've been going in to bookstores and talking to the staff and saying: Oh, I see you have a copy of my book on your shelf, would you mind if I signed it? And they say: Oh, that's fine. And you sign it, and you chat with them and they say: Oh, what sort of book is it? And that gives you the chance to tell them a little bit about the story and so on. Because telling people the story is really the only way I've found of describing the books. You start out saying: Well, in 1946 a British ex-combat nurse, and so forth. And by the time you get to her joining up with the Scots to get away from Black Jack Randall they're sort of hooked and they'll say: Well, that sounds interesting. And at that point they'll pick it up themselves.
It's difficult for people to fit your books into a genre.
None of [the books] do. [Laughs] And they get weirder and weirder, I'm afraid.
It must be difficult, because the industry likes to slot things into genres.
That's how the publishing industry works: entirely by labels. It's very difficult to market a cross-genre book at all. In fact, a bookseller of my acquaintance was telling me that when Fiery Cross came out and started hitting the bestseller lists: You shouldn't even be published, by rights, let alone be on the bestseller lists, because it doesn't work that way. It's very difficult to sell a book that cannot be slotted. Especially a book by someone no one has ever heard of. You can just barely get away with it if you already have a reputation.
Would you recommend readers start with your previous books?
Well, they don't absolutely have to. I've been talking to journalists and a great many of them have not read my books before [The Fiery Cross] hit their desks, yet they read it and enjoyed it. I would certainly recommend starting from the beginning [Laughs]. But when you hit this book, the story was so long and complex already that I really didn't spend as much time picking up all the threads of the backstory as I did in the preceding four books. [I felt that] the books are visible enough by now that most people would realize this isn't the first one. And we did say inside the front cover that this is part of the series and these are the other four books and that should be enough warning. We do have some of the backstory involved in it and it seems to be enough because evidently these people have been reading it and enjoying it.
The cover of The Fiery Cross is very elegant. Understated. And quite different, I think, than previous covers.
This is part of the U.S. publisher's plan -- actually, it's my plan but they've agreed with me -- to move the books much closer to the mainstream fiction side of things. I don't know if I told you in the preceding interview, but when we published Outlander they sat on it for 18 months because they could not figure out how to market it. They said: We're going to put this out, it's going to fall flat on its face because no one will know what kind of book it is. So they thought and thought and came close to canceling the contract and giving me back the book.
Eventually my agent called and said: Well, they've decided what to do with your book. The hardcover is not a problem: it just goes with all the other hardcover fiction. But they've decided to sell your paperback as a romance. And I said: As what? [Laughs] Because, I really like well written historical romance, but that wasn't what I wrote. And I said: Well, I've got two major objections to this. You will destroy any claim I may eventually have to literary respectability if you do this. I will never be reviewed by The New York Times. And I said: This is not terribly serious because who knows if I would have literary respectability anyway and if The New York Times reviewed it, they may not like it so I don't care that much [Laughs]. I said: More importantly, though, you're going to cut off the entire male half of my audience. I was not writing women's fiction. There's stuff in these books that appeals specifically to men and some of it, in fact, women don't even see. I want them to have a chance at that. In fact, [The Fiery Cross] seems to be more of a man's book, perhaps, than any of the preceding ones. People pick up very strongly on the relationship between Jamie and Roger and the whole responsibility thing and they seem to identify with it. All of the men's responses that I've had to it -- and I've had a lot more than previously -- have all been very enthusiastic.
So anyway, he said: They want to publish it as a romance. And I said: I have objections. And he said: Well, I understand. We could publish it as fantasy or science fiction because of the other weird elements, he said, but bear in mind that a bestseller in SFF is 50,000 copies in paperback, a bestseller in romance is 500,000. I said: Well, you've got a point. [Laughs] Because, as I say, I've got a lot of faith in the books themselves.
The next two books in the series will also be based in the United States?
Yeah, for the most part. Except that we are dealing with the American Revolution which actually was a war between two countries so in fact we probably will have a substantial segment that takes place in England and Scotland. Because if I get them as far as England I can't see how they wouldn't go to Scotland. So, at the moment, I'm intending there to be a piece in England and Scotland. I can sort of see [it], though I haven't written any of it as yet. We'll kind of see how that goes. That's why I'm saying there are at least two books, because this war spanned 11, 12 years and it's politically complex and then of course we have a lot of rather major characters here to deal with.
With Fiery Cross you are five books into the series. Yet you still seem to have so much passion for these people and their story.
Well, you know, if I lost interest I would stop writing. Or write something else. And, in fact, people often say: Well, don't you feel like writing something else? The implication being: Aren't you getting tired of these same old people? And I probably would be if they were the same, but they're not. They evolve through the books. The become different people. They're older, their life situation changes, they're in a different place, they have children and grandchildren and everything. And, you know, as you get older and you get grandchildren and they have relationships, they're still a part of your life and your relationship and so consequently your life has changed just by their existence. Let alone if they live near you or interact with you. I have to re-imagine the circumstances and the people and who they interact with each book. So in some ways that's much more challenging than doing it for characters that you've never dealt with before. Because they do have all of this history and backstory that you need to [include].
Are you a disciplined writer?
Well, in a way. In that I keep doing it. [Laughs]
Is there discipline in your schedule?
It's a flexible schedule, but it's a routine and every writer needs some kind of routine, whatever that may be. It varies a lot. Given that I have children and so forth, mine tends to be flexible and wrapped around the school day and all that. But I'm a night time person or an owl and fortunately my husband is a lark: he gets up early and so he will fortunately roust the kids out of bed and get them off to school and all that -- and our eldest is at university now, so that helps -- but I get up normally at nine or so and sort of slowly wake up and do e-mail and eat breakfast and do office chores: read contracts, sign letters and deal with all that debris. Then around 11 I'm usually compos mentis enough to begin writing. I like to get a foothold on the day's work fairly early on because then I can be thinking about it in the back of my mind during the day and return to it. Whenever I get a chance I can come and sit down and work some more. And then my husband comes home around noon. He comes home for lunch most days and we'll go run errands together: we'll eat lunch either in or out and mess around for an hour or two, lie down and relax if there's time. The kids start coming home at two -- one comes home at two, the other at three -- sometimes we have to go and get one of them. There's after school rehearsals if one of them is in a play. We do the errands: go grocery shopping, take the dog to the vet for shots, take in the dry-cleaning, just run around. Water up the garden, dig up the seedlings, that sort of thing. Then I cook dinner and then it's sort of family time: we do homework or go to the bookstore together. We always told our children we would buy them books any time they wanted so occasionally one of them will say: I don't have anything to read and so we all go down to Barnes and Noble and, you know, clean out the place. [Laughs] So there's family time and then my husband usually goes to bed around 10. I'll tuck him in bed and then I go lie down on the couch with a book and read so I'm available if anybody needs anything -- because the kids usually stay up later than that -- and if nobody needs me I'll go to sleep after 15 or 20 minutes and I'll nap until midnight and then I get up and go to work. Midnight until three a.m. is my main time.
So I get that morning hour. Sometimes I get an hour in the afternoon and then I have my three hour block in the evening. And, of course, when I'm doing research -- and I do a lot in the early stages of a book -- then I'm usually carrying a book around with me and when I have time I read. Sitting at the vet's or I'll have the book in the car with me if I have to go pick up someone and wait for them or if I'm doing my daily exercise on the treadmill or the bike, then I do my research reading.
So I guess I'm disciplined. But things give way on any given day. Occasionally I just have a really, really busy day and I lie down at 10 and I don't wake up again. [Laughs] Or I wake up long enough to go crawl in bed, but that's it. Or I wake up at midnight and I think: Oh, it's not going to work tonight. [Laughs]
So you're writing three or four hours a day.
You make it sound easy. But it doesn't sound like a lot of time to be building up half million word books.
Well, it's slow. I'm a slow writer for most of it. Though it depends on where I am in a book, too. Toward the early part of a book I may be writing half an hour a day because I don't know very much and I'm doing a lot of research. As time goes on and I segue into the middle part of a book my working pace is usually about two pages a day. That goes on for a long time. Toward the end of a book when I know everything and I don't need to do very much research at all I'll be working flat out, 18 hours a day: getting maybe 20 pages.
Also, I'm a very slow, fiddly sort of writer. I need what I call a kernel to start writing which is very vivid: a major line of a dialog, something I can sense. So I'll put that down as clearly as I can in a sentence or two and then sit there and stare at it. [Laughs] I pick out a word and then I put it back in and then I take it out and put in another one and then I divide the sentence and put in a clause and then I'll say: No, I liked it better the first way.
I go on doing this and gradually work backward and forward, like an oyster laying down pearl and just about as fast. By the time I've been through a scene I will have been through it, literally, hundreds of times because when I come back to work on it I start from the top reading down and as soon as I hit something that I want to change I start messing with it. So by the time it's done, it's done. It's as good as I can make it and as good as I think it will be in the context of whatever I think it will be in the book, but I don't know what. So I'll leave it at the point and go on. If I know what happens next I write that. If I don't then I go look for a kernel somewhere else and write that.
Gradually I get these pieces and they begin to stick together. I'll get one that I think: Oh, that goes with what I wrote four months ago and I bring them together. Sometimes at that point I'll need to write a small bridge or sometimes I'll need to tweak something in one scene or the other to make the background match. You know, if one of them was written with a spring background, for instance, and the other one is obviously autumn, I'll change the color of the leaves in one of them. something like that. But that's a fairly late in the process kind of thing because I have lots of pieces before that sticking together starts happening.
Then, as I say, I get chunks. Then bigger chunks, once I have a lot of pieces. And once I get big chunks then I can sort of line them up chronologically because I can at least tell which sequence they happen in. This point is where I begin to sense the shape of the book and at that point I can work a lot more consciously toward one thing or another. | March 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
Read January Magazine's 1999 interview with Diana Gabaldon.
You can visit Diana Gabaldon on the Web.