Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series has been called “The smartest set of science fiction, adventure romances ever written by a science PhD with a background in scripting Scrooge McDuck comic books.” The series is currently being adapted for TV by Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore and premiered on Starz on August 9, 2014.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
I’m sure that a lot of our listeners are big Doctor Who fans, and so they might be interested to hear that your Outlander series was actually inspired by Doctor Who. Could you tell us about that?
I was intending to write a novel for practice and had decided that, for me, the easiest kind would probably be historical fiction. I was a scientist in my previous incarnation, but I was a university professor, and I knew my way around a library because it seems easier to look things up than to make them up, and if I turn out to have an imagination, I can steal things from the historical record. So the next question was, “Well, where am I going to set this?” because I have no background in history to speak of. I was looking for a convenient time and place, and in this malleable frame of mind, I happened to see a really old Doctor Who rerun. It was one of the old Patrick Troughton episodes. Luckily, I don’t have to stop and explain to your listeners who Doctor Who is, but in this one, the Doctor picked up a young Scotsman from 1745 named Jamie McCrimmon who was eighteen or nineteen and appeared in his kilt, and I said, “Well, that’s kind of fetching.” I found myself still thinking about this the next day in church, and it occurred to me that if you want to write a book, the important thing is to just pick up one and get started. So I said, “Fine, why not—Scotland, eighteenth century.” So that’s where I began, knowing nothing about Scotland or the eighteenth century, having no plot, no outline, and no characters. Nothing but the rather vague images conjured up by the notion of a man in a kilt.
Is writing science fiction something that you had wanted to do for a long time?
I wouldn’t say writing science fiction particularly. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and everything else. I just wanted to learn how to write a novel. I wrote Outlander for practice in order to learn how to write a novel because to that point, I had been a professional writer as well as a university professor for some years, but that was all nonfiction. I had sort of slid sideways and became a quote “expert” in scientific computation, so I wrote extensively for the computer press and anything else anyone would pay me for, basically, including comic books for Walt Disney. But that genre just wasn’t anything I thought about at that particular point.
But it does have this prominent time-travel science fiction aspect to it.
It does, yes. That’s had actually nothing to do with Doctor Who, though. It was about the third day of writing, and I had been doing a bit of research and decided to use the Jacobite rising as my backdrop and said, “Well, I must have a lot of Scotsmen, of course, because of the kilt factor, but I think it would be good if I had a female character to play off these guys. We’ll have sexual tension, that’s conflict, that’s good.” So I said, “Well, it looks like Scots vs. English so if I make her an English woman, we’ll have lots of conflict.” About the third day of writing, I introduced this English woman. I had no idea who she was, what she was doing there, how she got in the plot, but I loosed her into a cottage full of Scotsmen to see what she’d do, and they were all muttering around the fire, turned around and stared at her, and thinking, “My, does she look odd.” One of them stood up slowly, and he said, “My name’s Dougal MacKenzie and who might you be?” and without stopping to think, I just typed, “My name’s Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp and who the hell are you?” I said, “Well, you don’t sound at all like an eighteenth century person.” I fought with her for several pages trying to beat her into shape and make her talk like an eighteenth century person. She wasn’t having any; she just kept making smartass modern remarks, and she also took over and started telling the story herself. I said, “Well, I’m not going to fight with you all the way through this book. No one’s ever going to see it. It doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do, go ahead and be modern. I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So it’s all her fault for this time travel.
How did you go about developing the rules for time travel? I saw that you actually published an article in the Journal of Transfigural Mathematics.
I did, yeah. I dabbled in the theory of time travel. I thought about it as a teenager and in my early twenties. I had, of course, read quite a lot of science fiction and some classic time-travel novels and so forth. I’d noticed that anyone who writes about time travel rolls their own. You have to figure out how it’s going to work for your particular setting. The basic question, of course, is can the past be changed, or rather, can the future be changed by different actions being taken in the past? If that’s the case, exactly how does it work? Can it always be changed? Only under certain circumstances? Basically I just sat down and thought about it until I had figured out what seemed to be a good, working model. Evidently, the Journal of Transfigural Mathematics agreed.
What is transfigural mathematics and why was time travel relevant for that magazine?
Well, they came to me rather than me going to them, so you would probably have to ask them exactly what is covered under transfigural. I gather it to be something of an umbrella term for mathematics that borders on metaphysics and problematical or hypothetical situations.
Did you know a lot of science fiction authors? One of my favorite books growing up was a book called Redshift Rendezvous by John Stith.
I’ve read that one, certainly. John was a friend of mine on CompuServe. He left CompuServe and I haven’t spoken to him in some years. I did run into him briefly about ten years ago, I think, at the Rocky Mountain Writers Festival, where he was in the audience and introduced himself to me.
He introduced you to your agent, right?
He did. I knew him on CompuServe, as I say, and I was asking people randomly about their agents, anyone who I knew as a professional writer, because I was just doing research and zeroing in on a man who I thought might suit me. His name was Perry Knowlton and he was a very reputable agent. The people whose agent he was—I knew a few of them on CompuServe—they all thought he walked on water, and besides being an A-list agent, which I wanted, he was not afraid of unorthodox books or unusual books or very long books, both of which it had struck me I had. So it seemed like a good match, but I didn’t know how to get at him. Anyway, one day, I was in conversation with John—this was on a bulletin board service, not a chat room that’s back and forth—I said, “I’m asking everyone about agents, John, do you have one?” He said, “Well, yeah, I do by coincidence, the same as so-and-so. His name is Perry Knowlton.” He said, “I know you’re almost ready to look for an agent. Would you like me to introduce you to Perry?” to which I said, “Why, yes, John, that would be very nice.”
Now I was afraid that John would leave CompuServe or be run over by a bus before I finished writing the book so I said yes, please. So he hastily wrote a nice note of introduction to Perry. Now Perry, god rest his soul, was a much older man who never touched a computer in his life, so at this point, the story leaves the online world. Everything else was conducted just as anyone off the street would do it, but John sent Perry a regular typewritten note saying, “I know this woman. People think she’s hilarious and she might be worth looking at,” and I followed that with my own query and said, “Dear Mr. Knowlton, I’ve been writing and selling nonfiction by myself for several years. Now that I’m writing a novel, though, I understand I need good literary representation. You’ve been recommended to me by John, Judy, Carol, and Sherry, and all these people whose opinions I respect. I have this very long historical novel. I don’t want to waste your time. Would you be willing to read excerpts from it?” He kindly called back and said yes, he’d be happy to read my excerpts. So I hastily wrote a twenty-six page single-spaced synopsis and sent it with my bundle of excerpts. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t through writing the book. He took me on, on the basis of an unfinished first novel, which is not usual now. I don’t know if it was usual then, but very lucky for me.
At that time, did you have any other involvement in the science fiction world? Were you attending conventions or did you know any other authors?
I knew several authors, again on CompuServe, at that point. There was the science fiction forum and also SF media. I hung around in the SF lit division for some time back in those days, as well as the literary forum, and I knew a number of people—Mike Resnick and a few others. But I was a university professor with another full time job and three small children, so no, I didn’t really go to cons at that point. After the book was published, I went to some of the local ones. I was invited as a local author and in my later years, I certainly attend them with a great deal more frequency. I’ll be at San Diego ComicCon next month, for instance.
Great. The new book is called Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and the other big news is that there’s going to be an Outlander TV show coming out. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how that came about and what sort of involvement you’ve had with it?
It’s a long story, for the most part a very boring one, so I’ll skip the boring part. The books have been optioned several times over the last twenty years. You want to be careful who you do an option with because there’s always the chance that they will, in fact, put a deal together, and at that point, once they’ve bought the rights, you’ve lost them forever. So you want to make sure you can trust the people you’re dealing with, insofar as it is possible to use the word “trust” in the same sentence as the word “filmmaker.” We have to have done four options at least. The last guy to hold the option, Jim Kohlberg, also wanted to make a two-hour movie of it and to this end, he hired several very respectable screenwriters whose names you would recognize if I were indiscreet enough to speak them aloud, but all to no avail because, as I could have told him, it’s impossible to make a two-hour movie out of that book and have it resemble the original in any way, shape, or form. It’s just too large, too complex, and too tightly constructed. You take out one chunk and the rest of it just doesn’t make sense. Jim was a very faithful optionor; he renewed his option, I think, three times and kept trying.
Meanwhile, Ron Moore, whose name you will know from Battlestar Galactica, of course, had become aware of the books because both his wife and his production partner were huge fans and had drawn his attention to them. He read the book over one night, said, “Yeah, I think this is great, let me see what we can do with it.” So he went to find who had the option, found Jim, Jim said, “No, I’m trying to make a movie out of it,” and this went on with Ron coming back at intervals just to check. Finally, Jim said, “Well, I’m beginning to think you’re right. It might be a TV series.” At this point ensued eighteen months of insane negotiations and this is why I’m glad I have an agent (though it’s no longer Perry). This resulted in this unwieldy five-corner arrangement between Sony, who actually holds the rights; Starz, which is the production company actually making the show—and they, therefore, have the US distribution rights; Sony keeps the international rights, which are in the process of being sold to various other countries—so between Sony, Starz, Ron, Jim, and me. This had to be signed by everybody and all these things agreed to, and we finally got it done about a year ago at the end of May. They started casting immediately. They started filming the first week of October in Scotland, by which time they had taken over this used circuit board factory. We made it into Outlander world and set up this absolutely fabulous production apparatus.
I don’t know how much time you have to watch TV, but when you heard that Ron Moore was associated with the project, were you familiar with Battlestar Galactica and his other TV work?
Yeah, I was struck by his sense of character and how he develops character and that the stories are all focused very tightly around character, which, if you ask me, is the sole ingredient for a good story. Without that, it’s not worth reading, or watching for that matter.
I heard you say that you were friends with George R. R. Martin, and you guys have been comparing notes on what it’s like having your books turned into a TV series.
Yeah, to a limited degree. He lives in Santa Fe and my husband and I live in Santa Fe part-time, so when we’re both in town together, we go out for breakfast and chat. We’re just friends.
Could you say what kind of conversations you’ve had? I heard you say that you told him your series was going to have sixteen episodes a season, and he said, “Hey, my series only gets ten episodes a season.”
He did say that. On the other hand, he has a terrific budget for every one of those episodes. So they can do these fabulous location shots and so forth. Well, mine, too—we have quite a generous budget for ours, as well, but it is all shot in Scotland, so there’s not nearly as much expensive location work to be done.
It seems to me that Game of Thrones really—the success of it—has enabled a lot of these other similar fantasy-oriented shows.
You bet it has, absolutely. I was told so by any number of production people and agents and so forth, saying Starz is really looking for a series that they can adapt. Talk like that was around for quite some time before this deal came together.
You’ve been watching Game of Thrones I assume?
No, I have not. I have been, for the past six months, neck-deep in finishing the final book as well as doing a certain amount of work for—I wouldn’t really call it work, but just looking at the stuff the production people send me requires a certain amount of time and attention. So no, I actually didn’t watch television at all for about the last eight months. I’ve been saving Game of Thrones as a treat for when I finish.
Then I don’t know if you followed any of the controversies around some of the ways that Game of Thrones was adapted in terms of the sexual violence and things like that.
I catch the breezes because I hang on Twitter and all that. I don’t take part in the conversation, but I see bits of it.
But I mean, there are a lot of aspects of Outlander that are potentially controversial. Do you have any idea how those will be adapted for television?
Well, like Ron says, if it’s in the book, we’ll film it the way it is in the book. I couldn’t ask better than that.
So, for example, in the book, there’s a scene where Jamie beats Claire, right, in the first Outlander book?
Well, he doesn’t exactly beat her. He’s not punching her in the mouth or throwing her against the wall. He spanks her with his sword belt because she did something incredibly dangerous and nearly got them all killed. This was basically what the Highland justice was like. If you screwed up, you got punished for it, and then you were back in the good graces of the clan. That’s what he’s doing; it’s his duty as her husband basically to correct her, set her on the right path, and mind you, she doesn’t like it because she’s a twentieth-century woman. She’s very affronted that he’s hurting her.
But do you think that will be portrayed in the TV show the same way it was in the book?
I know it will. I’ve seen it.
What sort of reaction do you think that that will get from viewers?
There will undoubtedly be a certain amount of knee-jerk feminism from very young women. Anybody over the age of thirty-five will appreciate both the cultural conflict in that scene—it’s one of my favorite scenes, in fact, because each person in it is completely right according to his or her own view of the situation, and yet, in this untenable situation, they aren’t both going to get their way. When push comes to shove, he outweighs her by eighty pounds. Most people, as I say, above a certain age will appreciate it for the inherent ironies and also for the considerable humor in the situation.
In terms of feminism generally, what sort of relationship would you say you have with feminism? Would you describe yourself as a feminist? What do you think about that?
No, I wouldn’t describe myself as that, but I try to avoid describing myself by any sort of label, so to speak. I’m a Roman Catholic and a Libertarian, but that’s as far as I’d go in description. No, I can’t help but be a de facto feminist merely by virtue of when I was born and what I do for a living. But that does not mean that I’m agenda-driven, let’s say. I sort of think agendas are detrimental to art.
I was just wondering, as a woman, do you have any perspective on being a woman in science or a woman writing science fiction? Have you had any particular experiences with that?
Not to speak of, not that would strike me as being different than writing anything else. It’s all a question of whether you tell a good story; is it something that people would like to read?
You mentioned that you have a cameo in the TV show. Can you say a bit more about that?
Actually, I can’t. I’m not supposed to tell everyone who I am or where I appear because they would like people to be looking for me in the crowd scenes.
So we’ll keep an eye out for you, then.
I saw an interview with you and Ron Moore, and he said something that kind of struck me. He said that, in his experience, science fiction fans are all historians.
Yes, he’s right about that, because almost always the protagonist in a science fiction or fantasy story, if you care to make the distinction, is an alien of some sort. They’re an outsider; they come into this mysterious world, and in fact, that’s exactly what a time traveler or a historian does, is they look into this alien time. It’s a former version of their present time, but even so, it’s just as alien in its concepts, its cultures, its customs.
The American Revolutionary War plays a really prominent role in these books. Could you just talk about some of the things you’ve learned about the Revolutionary War era that you think might be the biggest surprise to modern-day Americans?
Well, I don’t know. There’s a tremendous amount of detail to the eighteenth century, of course, and you will find a tremendous amount of detail in my books. They’re immersive in that regard. As for the American Revolution, there were a great number of conflicts, both political and military, that aren’t really talked about in the history books. For instance, how many people who don’t live in New Jersey have ever heard of the battle of Monmouth, and yet, that’s sort of the military centerpiece of this particular book. It was a big, messy battle; it was the longest battle of the Revolution. It took place from before dawn until after dark. Hundreds of men died, but mostly of heat stroke. It was a series of pitched battles; it was terribly confusing. No one on the field had any idea what was going on, and yet, it was a really important battle. And why is that? Not because the Americans won, but because they didn’t lose.
It was the first battle fought when Washington’s troops emerged from their long winter in Valley Forge, so he had spent endless months drilling this raw-boned army into something that could confront the might of the British army—he hoped. So when the British began to leave Philadelphia, Washington and his men took out after them. They were only twenty miles away in Valley Forge, so they were hot on General Clinton’s heels. Now, Clinton was not merely withdrawing from Philadelphia. He was guarding the safety of thousands of Loyalists who were also escaping from Philadelphia, because they didn’t want to be left behind if Washington was going to come in and occupy the city, which he was, instantly. So General Clinton was at a substantial disadvantage here. At the same time, he did have the British army. He had about two thousand more men than Washington did. They were trained troops. Washington’s troops were about half militiamen—that is, they were not trained and were carrying just what they had at home, which in some cases was a musket and others was a hoe. The fact that Washington’s army did not lose that engagement was tremendously heartening to the whole American cause. If they had lost it, the Revolution would have ended right there.
Were there any particular resources that were helpful in researching this book in particular?
Yeah, for specific battles and so forth, the best resource that I found is usually the Osprey’s Men at War series. They’re very carefully written and they include a lot of minutiae, including the order of battle and the names of the individual commanding officers with the units and things like that, as well as doing the lead-up to the battle and then fighting it step-by-step with maps and everything. They’re very, very detailed and usually very clearly written. I used their guide to the Battle of Monmouth as kind of the backbone for that part of the story. However, that battle also included a number of figures of the American Revolution, from George Washington down to Marquis de Lafayette and Anthony Wayne and a number of other people whose names are memorable. This was their first major engagement for the most part, so I picked up a few of them and spotlighted them in a little more detail, and for them, I would look up individual biographies. Nathanael Greene, for instance, who was what they called a “Fighting Quaker,” in that he had been raised as a Quaker but had abandoned that faith—not only to fight in the American Revolution, but that was what allowed him to be a general.
That’s interesting, because the Quakers are famously pacifistic. Were there a lot of fighting Quakers like that?
Yes, there were, and particularly in that battle because of the nearness of Philadelphia, which was a major center for the Quakers. So there were a lot of them from the surrounding countryside and a good many of them decided. The basic structure of Quakers is the meeting, and they really have no clergy, no rituals, no liturgy or whatever, but there is this weekly or bi-weekly meeting where the entire congregation comes together and discusses anything they think needs discussing and they join together and worship, but worship as they feel individually moved to do so. They do not have exactly an authority, but there are what are called “weighty” meetings. This would be a central meeting that sent out not directives, but stated what they felt to be the sense of the meeting—how a Quaker should conduct him or herself in the current circumstances.
In a Philadelphia yearly meeting, which was the weightiest of the meetings, they had sent out an opinion to the Quakers throughout the colonies, saying that, given their dedication to pacifism, they felt that Quakers should support the cause of King George and let the rebellion be taken care of by the army and then crushed, because this seemed to them to be the better path toward peace, which it might have been. It would have resulted in . . . well, we’d be Canada essentially. But there were a number of Quakers who disagreed with this, and Quakers are very contentious in terms of speech, if not always in terms of action, and a great many of Quakers felt “moved at the spirit,” as they said, to take up arms in the cause of the rebellion.
We do have a Quaker physician working with the army who is a friend of Claire Fraser’s and we explore the Quaker philosophy in some detail throughout the book, not merely with regard to this particular battle. It’s an interesting philosophy and the more interesting when it comes up against what you might call the reality of life on the frontier.
How did that affect their relationship with the wider Quaker community after the war?
A great many of them were put out of their meetings, or read out of meetings, as they sometimes say, for doing this, and some of them formed smaller independent meetings of likeminded people, and some of them just practiced their faith on their own outside of a meeting. Some abandoned it completely and perhaps joined the faith of their spouse, if they were married to someone who wasn’t a Quaker.
That’s interesting. Also, I heard you say in your podcast that an example of an historical detail you gave was that there were landmines in 1752. Could you talk about these landmines? Where’d they come from?
Well, they were essentially gun powder-filled devices, and they were triggered by fuses. The way that eighteenth-century battles worked was that generally, as a matter of procedure, the armies would line up facing each other in ranks and then advance on each other until they got close enough either to charge with bayonets, to fire volleys, or, if you had artillery, until the other side came within cannon shot. So what you would do, if you knew where the ground was that a fight was going to take place on, was you would mine parts of it, and you wait for the enemy to advance over it, then set off your fuses. Land mines weren’t extensively used, but they were used. They were more frequently used, though, in undermining fortifications for cities that were under siege, so you would plant essentially a bomb at the base of a wall and then retire to a safe distance and set it off.
I actually heard you say that you get a lot of letters from soldiers who read your books.
Yes, I do. The books are very popular with servicemen. A lot of them who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan will go to a bookstore and pick up the biggest book they can find for the flight, which is often enough one of mine. When they get to the other side, they call their families and say, “Send the rest of the series.”
They empathize with Jamie Fraser. He’s a warrior, as they are, and he’s fighting for the same things that they are, so they identify with him. They’re very concerned with his burdens and his responsibilities, and how he reacts to them. But beyond that, they are also surprisingly interested and involved in the relationship of the main characters.
One of them said to me in a letter, “You get a weekly phone call and usually half of it is taken up with domestic inquiries—‘How’s your cold? Did Tommy flunk out of school?’—and it’s very stilted, and by the time you’re relaxed with each other again, the phone call is over.” It’s kind of unsatisfying. He said, “With the books to talk about, you can say ‘I’m up to chapter so-and-so. Have you read this yet?’ And if she has, then you can say, ‘Well, would you do what she did?’” Maybe she says yes, maybe she says no, but anyway, the conversation takes place on a much more immediately intimate level because they can discuss their own relationship in the safe context of the relationship with these characters, and it develops a strong sense of intimacy and rapid communication.
Could you talk about male readers in general? Your books, I think, have a predominately female readership because they were published initially as romance.
Well, yeah, that’s why they have a predominately female readership. It took me years to make Barnes and Noble take them out of their romance section, but I finally made it. When I sold the book, it was bought by a general fiction editor who bought it because she said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read,” and she took it to her editorial meeting and said the same thing. They said, “Oh, great, what kind of book is it?” And she looked at them and said, “Well, I have no idea really.” There was a lot of marketing discussion, which I was not privy to, of course. I had no idea that it was taking them any time at all, but it took them about eighteen months.
I learned much later that they came very close to canceling the contract and giving me back the book because they could not decide how to market it. This was before Amazon and other online marketers made it possible to have multiple categorizations of a book, so any given book that went to a bookstore went on a shelf; the shelf had a label, so you had to call a book something, and they just couldn’t decide what to do because it actually isn’t one thing or another, it’s an amalgam of maybe six or seven different genres that I personally liked when I was writing the book.
Finally, my agent called and said, “Well, they’ve made up their minds at last what to do with your book.” He said, “It’s a hardcover, softcover deal, so the hardcover is easy. It just goes up front with the other hardcover fiction.” This was still back in the days of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, and that’s all there was. All the hardcover fiction went up together in the front section. And he said, “But they’d like to try to sell in the paperback as romance.” I said, “What? I read romance. I like well-written romance, but I have read enough of it to know that’s not what I’m writing.” So I’ve got two objections to this. You call it romance and it will never be reviewed by the New York Times—not that that’s a big problem, I can live with that—but much more important, it will cut off the entire male half of my readership. I said, “There are things in these books that men see that women don’t see, and there are things that they respond to in a much different way than women do. And I wouldn’t like that to be lost.” Well, he was a man, and he said, “Yes, I understand.” He said, “We could insist that they call them science fiction or fantasy because of the supernatural element. But bear in mind that a bestseller in SF/F is fifty thousand in paperback; a bestseller in romance is five hundred thousand.” I said, “Well, you’ve got a point.”
As my first editor famously said, “These have to be word-of-mouth books because they’re too weird to describe to anyone,” which is totally true. What I figured is, if that’s the case, then obviously it makes much better sense to expose them to five hundred thousand people who all go out and tell their friends, than to start with fifty thousand and grow more slowly because once someone has read the book, they will, of course, immediately recognize that it is not this or it is not that but that it is a distinct thing unto itself, and they can go out and tell their friends this is the best book I’ve ever read.
What are some of those things that your male readers and female readers tend to see differently?
They tend to see certain situations differently. For instance, I have never, ever had a male reader even faintly upset by the spanking scene, whereas, as I said, the younger female readers just jump up and down and froth at the mouth about it. But the men, they see where Jamie is coming from; they sympathize with him, and consequently, they find the scenes funnier rather than anything else. They’re just not bothered about it, whereas some women find it deeply erotic. Well, actually, some men do, too, but that’s a similarity rather than a difference, but that would be one of the scenes.
Others are scenes involving—I’m not sure what you would call it—anti-social actions. There are some cases in which, for instance, a man comes across a young girl whose been burned almost to death when her cabin was set on fire, and he finds her near death in the ashes and, unable to let her suffer, he smothers her. Men are okay with it. They find it very deeply upsetting, and they tell me how upset they would be themselves to have to do that, but they always put it that way, “to have to do that,” whereas women write and say, “Oh, I could never do that.” It’s like they feel they have a choice and the men don’t.
I heard you say that the men are a lot more squeamish about the scene where Jamie is tortured?
I just had the occasion to explain to one of the production people regarding a line in one of the scripts about a situation in which nonconsensual buggery might have been involved, and they had the character saying, “My father wouldn’t have minded about the buggery,” to which I wrote back and I said, “Oh, I bet he would.” This is a fairly gut-level response on the part of straight men. It’s not that they have any objection to anyone doing that if they want to. It’s just that they find the notion personally repulsive. They don’t even want to think about it.
But everyone involved in the production, though, has been good about maintaining all this stuff?
Yeah, they’re very, very kind about including me in discussions and showing me things. They’re kind enough to ask my opinion, but under no legal compulsion to accept it. But they do pay attention, and if I have a real concern, which is very rare, in fact—I’m extremely pleased with what they’ve been doing and would not dream of getting in their way—but every once in a while, I’ll point out something and say, “This just wouldn’t happen in the eighteenth century in Scotland because . . .” In such cases, they will do something to change it or to address the situation.
Can you think of any other examples of that where you made a suggestion and they tweaked something a little bit?
Yeah, there was one scene, it was just an incidental scene where Claire is passing time while waiting for the rent-collecting party to get going, and she comes across a group of women who invite her to join them for afternoon tea and they’re playing cards and chatting. I said, “In the eighteenth century in Scotland, everybody regarded playing cards as a straight ticket to hell. You wouldn’t find a pack of cards anywhere in the Scottish Highlands,” and I said, “You wouldn’t have found tea either for that matter.” Only in the large cities like Edinburgh or Inverness, but not out in the remote villages. And I said, “Furthermore, in the remote highlands, these women would have been working eighteen hours a day. They would have been milking goats or cutting grass, or they would have most likely been waulking wool.” That’s a specific word “w-a-u-l-k-i-n-g,” waulking, and what it meant was two lines of women who would sit down with a length of freshly woven and freshly dyed wool, and they would wet it with boiling hot urine, and then they would squish it back and forth between the lines with their hands or in some cases their feet with a big bulky roll of cloth. What this did was to both to set the dye—hot urine is mordant for dye—and also to felt the surface. So make it waterproof. It’s a very time-consuming process, so over the years waulking songs evolved and there are a lot of traditional waulking songs, but they much more likely had been doing something like that. When I actually saw some of the footage from that bit, they had gone to the Highland Folkways Museum and had actually had women waulking wool, and that Claire joined. So I was really pleased that they did that. It turned out to be very effective.
Wow, yeah, that’s pretty cool. Actually, I was reading an article, I don’t remember when this was from exactly, but it was talking about how people used to think that reading novels was just really bad for your character.
That’s entirely true. Cultural concepts are one of the most fascinating things about historical fiction, but in some cases, there’s always a temptation amongst some historical writers to shade things toward the modern point of view. They won’t show people doing something that would have been perfectly normal for the time, but that is considered reprehensible today. For instance, women drinking alcohol while pregnant. I get a lot of people—they’re just appalled that Claire drinks wine while she’s pregnant. I’m saying it was 1743. Everyone drank wine regardless, and in fact, while Claire comes from 1945, there was absolutely no idea in anyone’s head that drinking alcohol while pregnant would cause any trouble whatsoever. The thought that you ought not to drink while pregnant was much, much later. In fact, I had my first child in 1982 and I was still told by actually nurses and so forth, “Have a glass of wine at dinner, it will help you relax.”
So was eighteenth-century America, this period you’re writing about, a time in which reading novels was considered suspect?
Yes, in fact, Nathaniel Greene, the Quaker general I mentioned to you earlier, said that he broke with his sect in part because his father considered reading to be a pastime that tended to separate men from God, whereas he himself was an avid reader.
Speaking of avid readers, tell us about the Ladies of Lallybroch.
They are the oldest of the online fan groups. They formed themselves in 1994, partly as a means of finding a place to talk to other likeminded readers. They told me that they had tried going to various book discussion sites and mostly romance sites, as the book was being sold as a romance at that point, and they said that the reception they got was so hostile and negative with people—certified romance readers—saying, “Well, that’s not a romance.” In general, they were all driven away and so they were moved to start their own group, which has been a very long-running group. I think they have about ten thousand members or have hit their peak. It’s worldwide. I have been to some of their gatherings in which they had people from New Zealand and Japan.
There was just a big gathering in Seattle, right? Just recently?
Yes, but it’s not them. That was a fan retreat held by my Random House publisher. I have no idea where they came up with this idea, but it was three days before pub date and they said, “We want you to come and spend the day with five hundred of your fans.” I said okay, and they said, “Everybody will get a free book, a free copy of the mobi, so they’ll get it pre-pub. They can buy one more copy for a friend if they want to, and we’ll have all this interesting programming going on for them.” The Starz people came and brought a couple of special trailers they had made for the thing. But the idea was not explained to me, it’s just my notion of what they had in mind was to seed the market with all these enthusiastic people who had seen the trailer and had had a chance to read the book before publication all rushing out and talking about it and how great it was on their various blogs and websites, which is pretty much what happened.
What was some of the programming you mentioned?
Well, I talked, I gave a speech and then I went to sign books, which took several hours. They had some Scottish country dancers. They had a comedy improv troop—I couldn’t tell exactly what they were doing, but they seemed to be fairly funny. They were riffing off lines from the books and getting the audience to participate and so forth. They had eighteenth-century crafts and a cook who specializes in eighteenth-century recipes taken from my books. Outlander Kitchen is her handle, and she does a lot of this. Then we did the trailers for the Starz stuff, followed by a panel that had me and the Starz lady, and they had publicists from Random House and my editor and the very well-known bookseller from my town. The Poisoned Pen bookstore is who handles my autograph sales. In other words, they take pre-orders and will ship anywhere in the world, so if you want a personalized book, you just call them, and I go by the store once every week or two and sign everything, and they ship it out. It’s a very long-standing relationship. But anyway, all these people were talking about their relationships with my books starting with Outlander and their relationships with me. It was very nice, and they had a nice video that the fans had made that had been invited to send in little clips of “what Outlander means to me.” It was very moving, very touching, all very sweet, and then we had an hour and a half sort of meet-and-greet, mingle over cocktails and eighteenth-century snacks kind of thing in the afternoon. The whole thing was beautifully organized, very well run, and everybody who was there seemed to have a ball.
When people are talking about how much your books mean to them, do any of those things that they said stand out particularly?
Various people had particularly moving stories, especially the ones who say that they came to the books in the middle of a crisis, or having terrible health problems themselves, or in the wake of the death of a loved one. And they found that the books were sufficiently absorbing that they were able to escape into the book and that, I guess you would say, the ethos of the book uplifted them, and they felt protected and heartened by the stuff that went on with the book, which is very gratifying to me as an author.
What sort of reactions have your fans had so far to the stuff from the TV show that’s been released publicly?
They’ve absolutely loved every bit that they’ve seen, and I’m pretty sure that they will love the show itself. I saw the complete first episode, complete with score and with all the production values keyed in, at the Sony L.A. screenings last month, and it was just fabulous.
I’ve heard people talking about how hot Sam Heughan is . . .
He’s a lovely actor, and so is Caitriona [Balfe], who plays Claire.
Although someone was saying her eyes are the wrong color or something like that?
Well, you’re always going to get a certain amount of whining going on. Oh, her eyes are blue, I don’t think I can bear to watch the show! It’s the eighteenth-century. The lighting is such that ninety percent of the time, you can’t tell what color anybody’s eyes are, and this is completely irrelevant to the character. It’s just that people develop their own very vivid mental images based on what’s in the book, which is a compliment to the writing, I think, but at the same time, it’s obviously completely impossible for production people to telepathically extract the images of twenty million people and distill them into something that would be instantly recognizable to all twenty million, and find an actor who embodies that and who can also act. This is silly. I think people will very rapidly get over these things, like within five seconds of beginning to watch.
The show sounds really great, and I know everyone’s really excited about this new book. Do you want to just tell us what you have coming up? Are there any new or upcoming projects you want to mention?
There are lots of them. I’m actually on a heavy-duty book tour at the moment and won’t be able to work until I get back home. I have a two-week break in July, but other than that, it’s going to be pretty non-stop between now and September, which is finally when I go get my regular writing routine back. But I have a half-finished crime novel. There is book nine awaiting my attention. There’s a prequel volume about Jamie Fraser’s parents, Brian and Ellen, and the Jacobite rising in 1715. There are a number of interesting novellas. I write novellas to kind of fill in lacunae and beef out side stories, so there are all these little sprouts all over the bodies of the large novels. There is also the second Outlandish Companion, which is the nonfiction book that accompanies the series. The first Companion, which has been very popular, covered the first four books of the series. The second volume will cover the second four books and will include all the kinds of trivia and background information that people are interested in. That’s about eighty-five percent complete, though, and with luck, we might actually have that out by spring.
We’ve been speaking with Diana Gabaldon, and her new book is called Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and the Outlander TV series premiers on Starz on August 9. Diana, thanks so much for joining us.
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