Friday, March 5, 2010

Diana Gabaldon visits Today

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as "the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting "Scrooge McDuck" comics," and the Lord John Grey novels, which are only slightly more describable. Dr. Gabaldon holds several advanced degrees in science, (plus an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters) and spent a dozen years as a university professor with an expertise in scientific computation before beginning to write fiction. None of this has anything to do with her novels, but there you are.

Welcome Diana. It’s wonderful to have you here. Can you tell us about yourself?

Well, given that there are a few photographs scattered around in proximity to the text and on my website, I'm assuming that you're looking for a Power-Point personality demo, rather than a police Identi-Kit description.


[The following is Diana’s top ten list of interesting facts about herself)

1. My son—himself a working novelist—asked me the other day what I thought of a particular book we'd both read. I told him. After a few minutes—we were walking through a parking lot—he said thoughtfully, "You know, everybody thinks you're this cuddly little hobbit. They're wrong."

2. A group of local fans often invites me out to tea in the springtime, in hopes of picking my brains about the newest book in progress, and very nice of them it is, too. On one of these occasions, though, they got on to the character of Black Jack Randall. For those of you so far unfamiliar with my work, Captain Randall is—to be blunt about it—a sadistic bisexual pervert. "Oh, he's disgusting!" they said. "He's just loathsome, eww, he makes my skin crawl!" I sat quietly sipping my Earl Grey, smiling pleasantly and thinking, "You have no idea that you're talking to Black Jack Randall, do you?"

3. Owing to my rather peculiar background—well, if you come right down to it, all novelists have peculiar backgrounds; if we didn't, we'd probably be lawyers or sanitation engineers or something else that provides health insurance—people continuously ask me whether I'm "right-brained," or "left-brained." My personal opinion is that my entire brain appears to be in good working condition, thank you, and I don't quite know how all these other people are getting by on half of one, but I suppose that's their business.

4. Oh, the peculiar background. Well, I was a scientist in my previous professional incarnation. This was my father's fault: he was fond of saying to me during my formative years, "You're such a poor judge of character, you're bound to marry some bum. So be sure to get a good education, so you can support your children!" Well, OK. I knew from the age of eight or so that I was meant to be a novelist, but I did have better sense than to mention it. So I went into science. I liked science, I was reasonably good at it, and in the fullness of time, I ended up with three degrees in the biological sciences, including a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology (don't worry about it; it's just animal behavior with a lot of statistics). (Actually, I now have four degrees, thanks to Northern Arizona University having given me an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Yes, I did ask them what an inhumane letter might be, but they were not amused. I guess dealing with undergraduates has an erosive effect on the sense of humor.)

Anyway, people find out about the 400-page doctoral thesis on "Nest Site Selection in the Pinyon Jay, Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus, " (or, as my husband remarks, "Why Birds Build Nests Where They Do, and Who Cares, Anyway") and immediately go all drop-jawed, asking, "But HOW did you get from being a scientist to being a novelist?"

5. I wrote a book. How else?

6. What sort of book? You got me. I wrote my first book (OUTLANDER) for practice, never intending to show it to anyone. That being so, I didn't see any point in trying to restrict it in terms of genre—or anything else. Consequently, I've seen my books shelved (so far) as:

Historical Fiction

Historical Non-fiction (Really. I can only suppose that the accuracy of my research compensates for the inclusion of time-travel.)

Plain Old Fiction (If I had to choose a category myself, I suppose I'd pick this one. More inclusive.)

Science Fiction (Well, OK, I was invited to write up the Gabaldon Theory of Time-Travel for the Journal of Transfigural Mathematics (Berlin), and I did, but still…)

Fantasy (no elves, but the Loch Ness Monster does make a cameo appearance)

Mystery (There actually is a full-fledged murder mystery in each of my novels. It's just that people don't always notice it, in among the other stuff.)

Military History (cf. "accuracy," above. I'm told I do battles fairly well, too. As one nice elderly gentleman said in his letter to me, "You don't write like a woman, at all!" I think he was under the impression that this was a compliment, so I thanked him graciously.)

Romance (I'm told I do sex rather well, too. I'll let you judge the handling of sex and violence for yourself, though; see the various Excerpts posted on my website (

Gay and Lesbian Fiction (No, this really has nothing to do with the appearance of Captain Black Jack Randall. He's not gay; he's a pervert. It's Lord John Grey—he's gay. I've only had one lesbian, and she was very minor, really.)


Horror. (No, really. A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES—the sixth of the big main OUTLANDER novels—won a Corine international literary prize for Fiction— and the 2006 Quill Award for "Science-Fiction/Fantasy/Horror," against one of Stephen King's books. I was Extremely Flattered. )

7. Back in the day, I used to do book-signings at mall stores. Sitting at my little card table, smiling pleasantly at passersby and answering questions like, "Where's the restroom?" and "Are the new Garfield calendars in yet?" Every now and then, though, someone would notice the pile of novels at my elbow, pick one up, look at it, and ask (logically enough) "What kind of book is this?"

Now, owing to the peculiarly amorphous nature of what I write ( magazine called them "the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting "Scrooge McDuck" comics."), that's not a simple question to answer. So for awhile, I'd answer on the basis of the age and gender of the person in front of me (riding the statistical probabilities, aye?): if it was a young woman in her twenties, I'd say, "Oh, historical romance—men in kilts, you know…" If a young man, "Oh, fantasy. Lots of swords and battles." A slightly older woman, "Oh, it's historical fiction. If you liked SHO-GUN, you'll love this!" A slightly older gentleman, "Oh, it's military history."

Well, this worked fine, up to a point. Eventually, I began to get small crowds, rather than one or two people at a time, and so would have a mix of ages and genders. So I had to find a new approach. At this point, I took to telling people, "Look. Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read three pages. If you can put it down again, I'll pay you a dollar." Sold a lot of books, never lost any money.

8. Yes, I did write comic books for Walt Disney.

9. I suppose you can't tell how tall I am from the photos. Well, as one online acquaintance from Texas blurted upon meeting me in person for the first time, "My Gahd, you're short!" Well, I was shorter than he was, I'll admit that much. I am, in fact, five foot two and seven-eights (copy-editors keep insisting that I mean "five feet two and seven-eighths," but I don't. Regional colloquial usage, aye?)

10. If you haven't yet found this a sufficient description of me…well, there are a number of YouTube videos that various fans and interviewers have posted of me doing my usual shtik at book-signings and the like:

A kindly friend collected a bunch of them (along with thirty or forty of the "casting videos" that fans impatient for a movie version have made) into a YouTube Channel for me.

11. Yes, I do talk very fast.

Is there anyone who influenced you or your writing?

I know writers of novels who say they don't read fiction at all while working on a book, out of fear of "being influenced" by what they read. I am struck by horror at the thought of going years without being able to read fiction (though perhaps these people write faster than I do, and take long vacations between books?)—but more struck by the sheer silliness of this.

Everything writers see, think, and experience influences their work. How could it not? Now, it's true that people do ask writers, "Where do you get your ideas?" and that writers--out of facetiousness or desperation--give answers like, "From the Sears catalog" (or "From," depending on the writer's vintage). But the truth is that writers get ideas from every damn thing they see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think, feel, or do—including the books they read.

Naturally, one wants to develop a unique voice, but do kids learn to talk without ever being talked to? You have an individual voice, by virtue of being an individual. And your individuality is composed of your essential God-given spark of personality and of the sum total of the things you encounter in life. Now, whether each encounter is a bruising collision or a fruitful act of love…who knows? But all of it is grist to a writer's mill; so much should be obvious, if one reads at all widely.

Personally, I learned to read at the age of three, and have read non-stop ever since. I turned 58 last month; you can read a lot of books in fifty-five years. I'm sure that every single book I've ever read has had some influence on me as a writer, whether negative (I've read a lot of books with the mounting conviction that I would never in my life do something like that) or positive.

When I first began to write fiction, though, I was deliberately looking for positive influences, and luckily had quite a few to hand. During the writing of my first novel (OUTLANDER/CROSS STITCH, which I wrote for practice, not intending to ever show it to anyone), I consciously considered the art and techniques of these five writers in particular:

Charles Dickens – Nobody does characters like Dickens did, and that's why his books endure. He told excellent stories and painted a vivid portrait of Victorian society, but that society consists of people who live, breathe, and speak on the page. I learned from him the art of evoking a character: naming and describing people in such vivid detail as to make them live.

Robert Louis Stevenson – One of the earliest and best of the romance writers—back when "romance" meant adventure and excitement, escape from daily life. TREASURE ISLAND? KIDNAPPED? THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE? The titles alone are enough to transport you, but the clean prose and vivid characters bring you back again and again.

Dorothy L. Sayers – Mistress of dialogue, character, humor and social nuance. From her, I learned that dialogue is the single most defining trait of character, and just how much you can do with accent, idiom, and dialect. Also, that a character is embedded in his or her social matrix, and that matrix is as important as the individual's personal characteristics.

John D. MacDonald – John D. was a prolific writer, with more than five hundred novels to his credit, in more than one genre, but was best known for his Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. From him, I learned how to sustain characters over the course of a long series, how to maintain a narrative drive, how to write action, and how to pace a story.

P.G. Wodehouse – one of the most popular humorists ever. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse taught me how much sheer amusement you can derive from the English language—and the art of constructing a plot that works so seamlessly that it doesn't matter how absurd it is. And no one who's ever had the pleasure of meeting Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's personal gentleman, Jeeves—let alone his bevy of friends and nemeses (Gussie Fink-Nottle and his Aunt Agatha, to mention only two)—will ever forget them.

I learned a great deal from all these writers—and from hundreds more. What every writer on this list of personal muses has in common, though, is great skill in the matter of creating characters. And character, I think, is the single most important thing in fiction. You might read a book once for its interesting plot—but not twice. When you meet a fascinating person in the pages of a book, though, you come back, discovering new relevance, seeing new depths—or just enjoying the renewal of a long and lasting friendship.

Do you have a favorite book or series?

See above. I read all the time, and I have (literally) dozens, if not hundred, of favorites.

When you're not writing, do you have any hobbies or interests?

Yeah, I dig in my garden, I knit, and I drink a lot of wine with my husband.

Are there any current projects you can tell us about?

Oh, man…well, I like to work on multiple projects, because it keeps me from ever having writer's block, and insures that I'm always wanting to work. Since a Big Book just came out recently, and I'm just now—after five major book-tours—able to settle back into my regular writing routine, I'm in the enviable position of being able to decide what-all I want to work on for the next year or so. I've got four major projects that I'll be working on during that time (plus the little oddball things that come along; those are mostly unpredictable, though I do have a contract for a novella due in June, titled "Lord John and the Plague of Zombies"):

Book Eight – the OUTLANDER novel that follows AN ECHO IN THE BONE. I'm just in the beginning phases of this, gently feeling my way into it.

LORD JOHN AND THE SCOTTISH PRISONER. This is pretty cool; it's a two-person book, with viewpoints switching back and forth between the two protagonists, those being Jamie Fraser and Lord John Grey.

The Contemporary Crime Novel – I've been calling it RED ANT'S HEAD, but people make faces when I tell them the title, and that's never a good sign. I've been picking away at this book for some years now, and probably have about half of it. I think it's close to Critical Mass, though, and since I'm not—for the moment—obliged to shove everything else out of the way in order to finish something major, I might just be able to finish within the next year.

THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, VOLUME II - People keep asking whether I'm going to update THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, and I'm not; I'm writing a second volume, which will cover the material in the most recent three OUTLANDER books and the three extant LORD JOHN novels, as well as providing all the entertaining trivai people ask for: 18th-century recipes, clothing, and customs, floorplans for the various dwellings described in the series, timelines, etc., plus Reader's Guides for book-club use.

Do you plot your story before you write it or do you sit and let it flow?

Well, neither one, really. I certainly don't plan a book out before writing it—what fun would that be?—but when I hear the words "let it flow" used as a description of writing, I begin to reach for the nearest blunt object. "Flow," forsooth. Well, sometimes it flows. Sometimes, it's like shoveling rocks uphill. And for the most part, it's like working in a gold mine, where you're chipping away in the dark until you find a rich seam, and when you do, you follow it. You know—it's work.

Do you consider yourself eccentric as a writer? Is there something must have or do before writing?

You mean there's some definition of "normal" for writers? No, all I need is a laptop and something to put my feet up on.

What does your work space look like?

Well, it has a lot of counter-space, because I think in piles. For the rest, it's generally full of books (I have a huge built-in bookshelf across one wall that holds the 1500 or so books of the "core collection"—research and reference), the sort of small objects that come and sit on writer's bookshelves (I notice that most writers have rocks, feathers, shells, or all three on their shelves. I have all three, plus enough peculiar glassware and herbal stuff that my son says my office looks like the den of a medieval alchemist, small wood carvings, stacks of postcards (I buy postcards at art museums, and prop the little batches up here and there in front of the books, then shift the cards every so often for a fresh view. This came in handy just recently, when I had to find a good view of a naked man's rear end for professional purposes—I had one, from the National Gallery in London)), and dachshunds (I have two standard badger-hounds; they weight about thirty pounds each and keep trying to crawl into my lap while I'm working, in spite of the obvious logistical difficulties involved). Then there's a cat who lives on top of the armoire where I keep my office supplies, but she doesn't actually belong to us; she's a squatter who comes in when it's cold outside.

What can you tell us about your workshop at the Desert Dreams conference?

Well, good question. Probably I'll riff off the "plot-driven" vs. "character-driven" question, which I think is a complete non-question, myself, but it doesn't stop earnest people asking, and then go on to talk about why Character is Plot, and how you get one out of your head and onto the page.

Thank you so much for spending the day with us Diana.


  1. Now that I know ECHO isn't the last book in the series, I can read take it off the shelf and read it! It took me ages to finish ASHES because I was afraid it was over and I didn't want the book to end.

    Hmm. Perhaps I should get out more.

    Naw. Just going to read my thick book now.

  2. Looking forward to Diana - as always!

  3. So glad Diana mentioned the fact that when she writes, she has to put her feet up! I'm glad that someone else at the conference will be able to see me, eye to eye... I had the pleasure of meeting her a couple months ago at a book signing, and when I told a good friend (who has actually memorized Gone With The Wind by way of rereading the book once a year) didn't realize the significance, I told her, "Diana is my Margaret Mitchell!"

  4. Hi Diana, looking forward to saying hi in person! Great interview. I loved "My personal opinion is that my entire brain appears to be in good working condition, thank you, and I don't quite know how all these other people are getting by on half of one, but I suppose that's their business." LOL.

  5. Always a pleasure to hear from Diana Gabaldon. Cannot wait to see her at the conference.

  6. I had the opportunity to meet you at one of your PV mall book signings "back in the day"...I was in my early twenties... I got the historical romance I would get the Shogun version!I love your humor...I actually laughed outloud when you described using your entire brain and describing the cat with squatter's rights! Soooo looking forward to seeing you at the conference with all your wit and humor in tow....and give that kitty a big scratch from husbands allergic and I totally miss my cat.