Sunday, November 1, 2015

Interview with Diana Gabaldon
by Goodreads


Diana answers questions from readers and discusses a typical day for her spent writing, how her character Claire has evolved over time, what intrigues her about the American Revolution, and sex after the age of 40. The interview was posted after book eight, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, was released on June 10, 2014.

Outlander fans have waited patiently (well...maybe not patiently) for five years for the eighth installment in the wildly popular, bestselling historical fiction series. Never one to disappoint, author Diana Gabaldon delivers with a hefty tome, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, which continues the saga of time-traveling nurse Claire and her 18th-century Scottish husband, Jamie, against the roiling backdrop of the American Revolution. Gabaldon's intricate novels, including the epic adventures of the Outlander series and the historical mysteries of the Lord John Grey series, are noted for their rich tapestry of characters, time periods, and story lines. Yet the Arizona-based writer says she doesn't outline her plots. She does embrace historical research—her personal reference collection boasts more than 1,500 volumes—a trait reinforced by her scientific background as a former university professor with multiple degrees in zoology, marine biology, and quantitative behavioral ecology. Gabaldon chatted with Goodreads about her decades-long writing journey, the upcoming Outlander TV series premiering on Starz in August, and sex after the age of 40.


Goodreads: You recently blogged about passing the 26th anniversary of writing the first book in the series Outlander.

Diana Gabaldon: Yes, I began writing Outlander on March 6, 1988. It's been a fun trip. I'll tell you that.

GR: And after 14 bestsellers in the Outlander universe, this is not yet the last book?

DG: There's one more. I've never been willing to commit to more than one at a time, because I just don't know—I don't plan the books out ahead of time. So I have no idea how much ground we'll cover. But there is certainly one, because I wasn't finished telling the story at the end of number 8.

GR: Do you already know how it will end, if not how exactly you'll get there?

DG: Yes and no. I do know what the last scene is, because I wrote that about ten years ago. It popped up in the middle of the night. But it isn't a plot conclusion; it's an epilogue. So, in fact, I have no idea where the story is going.

GR: Your readers have often wondered when they'll learn more about a mysterious scene that appeared in the original book, Outlander. Goodreads member Georgianna Simpson asks, "Will we learn why the ghost of Jamie was looking for Claire in book 1 in this [new] book or do we have to wait for more?"

DG: They do have to wait! It will be the last thing in the last book!

GR: Goodreads member Becki writes, "Thank you for the strong and fiercely honest character of Claire. Though Jamie makes me swoon and is an exemplary male character, it is Claire's depth and strength that I most appreciate." Can you talk about how Claire has evolved over the course of the series?

DG: People often say to me, "You write such strong female characters," and I say, "Well, I don't like stupid women." Claire has always had a mind of her own. She was quite accidental to begin with. All I had when I began writing the first book was rather vague images conjured up by the notion of a man in a kilt, so essentially I began with Jamie, although I had no idea what his name was at the time. About the third day of writing, I had gone to the library to look up things on Scotland—knowing nothing about Scotland in the 18th century—and all I knew about novels at that point was that they should have conflict. And was there any good historical conflict in Scotland in the 18th century? You don't ask that question without getting back Bonnie Prince Charlie [Charles Edward, Stuart] and the [Jacobite] rising of 1745 as an answer. A lot of conflict—fine! So now I need a female character to play off all these men in kilts. And some sexual tension—that would be good. So I introduced this English woman—no idea who she was or how she got there, but I loosed her into a cottage of Scotsmen to see what she'd do. And she walked in, and they all turned around and stared at her. And one of them said, "My name is Dougal MacKenzie. Who might you be?" And without stopping to think, I typed, "My name is Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, and who the hell are you?" And I said, "Well, you don't sound at all like an 18th-century person. So I fought with her for several pages, trying to beat her into shape, make her talk like a historical person. But she kept making smart-ass modern remarks, and she took over telling the story herself. So I said, "Go ahead and be modern. I'll figure out how you got there later." So it's all her fault that there is time travel in the books.

What I mean is, she's essentially always been who she is. She's always been straightforward, take-no-prisoners in her attitude. Her essence hasn't changed. Claire is an onion, as is Jamie. I have three kinds of characters: mushrooms, hard nuts, and onions. An onion is someone I know who they are at the core of their souls, but the longer I work with them, the more layers they get. They become more rounded and pungent with time, but they remain who they are. Claire, of course, has been through childbirth, loss of family members, death, dislocation, serious illness, threat of death—and the continuing struggle to express what she feels is her destiny as a healer. She just goes on being who she is, but that "who she is" is also constantly being shaped by the experiences she's been through.

GR: Goodreads member Suzanne writes, "There are not many books out there where the main romantic couple are in their 50s and are still as passionate about each other as they were 20 or so years earlier. What keeps their love so intense?"

DG: Honesty. They actually appreciate each other for who they are, not merely for their external, physical trappings. They are both extremely honest individuals, and they believe in commitment. They are people of strong principle, and having taken each other for better or for worse, that's exactly what they do. I remember when I wrote my third book, Voyager, Claire and Jamie are in their mid-40s, and any number of interviewers expressed aghast horror that I would do that. "No one wants to read about people having sex in their 40s!" To which I replied, "Wanna bet?" Well, actually what I said was, "I'm 42 and my husband's 43, and I'm not planning on stopping having sex any time soon, and neither is he, if he knows what's good for him."

The sex isn't [in the books] for purposes of titillation. It's there because I'm telling the story of a very long marriage. There may be very long, satisfactory marriages that don't involve sex, but I'm not aware of any.

GR: You've described that you don't consider chapter breaks when writing—chapters are one of the last things you'll put into a draft. On a larger scale, do you think of the books as very separate endeavors or are you always writing the series as a whole?

DG: I don't write with an outline, and I don't write in a straight line. I write where I can see things happening, and I glue these little pieces together. When I start, I'll just be working on little bits here and there, depending on what I think I know about the story at that point or bits of historical research. I do the writing and the research concurrently; they feed off of each other. In the first months, I'll have handfuls of these small scenes that have no discernible connection, for the most part, but as I go on thinking and working and writing, they begin to stick together. I'll write something and think, "Oh, this explains that piece that I wrote six weeks ago!" And then reading that larger piece through, I'll see what has to happen next as a consequence. They continue to conglomerate in this fashion. It's like playing Tetris in your head. They build up into larger, contiguous chunks.

Now all of this time I'm doing the research and developing the historical timeline in the back of my mind—what are the significant events in history? This battle, this incident with the British army, and so forth. By the time that I have four or five of these big chunks, 60 or so pages, I'm able to line those up against my historical timeline, and if we're all lucky at that point, I will see the shape of the book. I think in geometric shapes, and once I have seen the internal geometry of a book, then the writing becomes much faster and easier. I can see the shape of what's missing. If I told you the internal shape of any of my books, you'd be able instantly to see it, but if I don't explain it, it's pretty invisible to the normal reader.

GR: For Written in My Own Heart's Blood, what intrigues you about the American Revolution for your story's grand backdrop?

DG: Well, it's largely an accident of time—that's what was going on at that stage of their lives! [laughs] But I'm an old enough American to feel absolutely no shame in feeling patriotic. The American Revolution was by and large a very good thing, and the government that resulted from it. One of the things I'm doing here, besides explaining how a very long marriage works, is exploring the geopolitical dynamics of the second half of the 18th century. Now if you come right out and tell people that's what you're doing in a book, they won't read it! So that's not what's on top, but it is always there. So we're looking at the movement of the Enlightenment and how this affected the principles that underlay the American Revolution. We're looking at some of the personalities who participated and the backgrounds from which they came. And we're looking at scientific evolution, as well, and the effects of this on what was not quite modern warfare. There's just a lot of stuff going on in the 18th century, especially the second half. It was one of the greatest periods of social and intellectual ferment the world has ever seen.

GR: Fans are counting down to August 9th for the TV premiere of Outlander on Starz. Do you have any thoughts or advice for people who may become fans of the show, who haven't yet read the books?

DG: People who come to the books from the show will certainly recognize the first book, because the TV adaptation is quite good. It's a very faithful adaptation. At the same time, it's done very well in terms of a visual medium, because you can't film page by page—it wouldn't be a good show. You have to do things to a book that make it flow in visual terms. I know a little bit about adapting for a visual medium because I used to write comic books for Walt Disney, so I know how to choose images to carry the flow of the action and dialogue to explain the plot points.

GR: Does the show match what you envisioned in your imagination?

DG: No, it couldn't. But it doesn't have to. People's imagination is a purely personal thing. I am constantly amazed by people on Facebook who say, "Well, I don't like that actor. He doesn't look like Jamie in my head." And I say, "Exactly how would the producers figure out what is in your head?" What would they say to the other 7 million people who have their own individual notions of what he looks like? Actors act. It's magic what they do, as much as what I do is. It does not matter, beyond certain crude physical parameters, what they look like. Their job is to become this character. And I have in fact seen Sam Heughan become Jamie and Caitriona Balfe become Claire right before my eyes. It was an astonishing transformation.

GR: You've always made yourself very accessible to your fans. Do you feel a certain responsibility to the fandom or do you have to ignore all other inputs in order to write?

DG: It's part of my daily rhythm. I began hanging out online in the mid-1980s, and it's grown up along with the Internet. I began with CompuServe, before even America Online, and I happened to stumble onto a group of people called the Literary Forum on CompuServe (while in the process of writing a software review). These were people who liked books. For someone with two full-time jobs and three small children under the age of six it was the ideal social life. I've been hanging around there ever since, nearly 30 years now. So I was just at home in the online world, social media in its infancy.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DG: Stagger out of bed, take the dogs outside, and then I'll get a Diet Coke and a couple of dog biscuits and go upstairs. By the time I've consumed my Diet Coke and had a quick run through the morning email and Twitter feed, I will probably be compos mentis enough to work. I wake up usually between 8:30 and 9, so I'll be "going to work," so to speak, around 11. I work maybe for an hour before lunch, and go out with my husband for lunch. Afterward I'll work for another hour. What that work is depends where I am in a book: In the beginning stages I don't know much about it. I'm doing a lot of research and thinking, but I write every single day, because if you don't write, the inertia builds up. So you want to do it, whether you know anything or not. It's sometimes only half a page, but words on page.

Midafternoon I'll go out and do the household errands, come home, do my gardening, go for an evening walk. I live in Phoenix, so half the year it's so hot, I have to go out and walk at the local mall. Make dinner. My husband likes to go to bed early, around 9:30. So I'll tuck him in, go lie on the couch with the dogs and a book. I have two big, fat standard dachshunds who are very cuddly. We go to sleep, and then I wake up again naturally between midnight and 1. We get another Diet Coke and go upstairs, and that's when I do my main work. Between midnight and 4 am. It's quiet; there are no interruptions. The phone doesn't ring. No psychic noise. Nothing. It's the ideal time to work. One of the great perks of being a writer is that you can work when you're mentally capable of it, not when someone else thinks you should.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

DG: Everything I've ever read, one way or the other. But for actual literary role models, I've got five. If I can remember them...Charles Dickens, John D. MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and P.G. Wodehouse.

GR: What are you reading now?

DG: I have just finished reading one of Denise Mina's Scottish mysteries. This one's called Still Midnight, and I have another one called The Red Road waiting for me. In the meantime, I've got a Charles Todd going on my Kindle called Proof of Guilt. And I just got the first copy of Written in My Own Heart's Blood, hot off the presses yesterday. I usually carry a book around with me and fondle it after it comes in! [laughs] And then I read it to make sure that it's actually a book now. Because it wasn't a book the last time I saw it!

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