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WesternSFA

A Chat with Diana Gabaldon
by Catherine Book
August 10, 2012

Diana remains my most favorite author for a number of reasons:  she writes wonderfully engrossing stories and she’s just one of the nicest people I know.  Witness this month:  I had planned to interview her later this year but my planned interview for this month fell through.  I emailed her and asked if we could do it in the next few days.  She emailed almost right away and agreed even though she’s in the midst of planning and packing for an out-of-country trip to her Youngest Daughter’s wedding.  Is that awesome or what??

So I remarked to her – despite her tremendous success and fame, she remains a down-to-earth, approachable person.  How did she manage that?  Did she have a personal barometer?  She chuckled and pointed to her husband.  But seriously, she observed that she didn’t publish her first novel until she was forty after already having a successful career and respect and a healthy self-esteem.  It didn’t exactly hit her like a bolt of lightning like it might for some younger people who haven’t yet figured out to handle it.

Outlander remains a real phenomenon.  A debut novel by an unknown, and difficult to categorize.  Although a publisher bought it immediately, it was a challenge to market – was it historical, adventure, fantasy or romance?  Diana attributes a lot of its success to the publisher giving away free hardcovers at that year’s Romance Writers of America conference.  It sure got a lot of attention – a thick, hardcover romance book was unknown then.  Diana believes the word of mouth that generated was significant.  But it was pre-internet so the success grew slowly and she wasn’t really that famous for another ten years until her fifth book was published.  So it was no bolt of lightning for her.  However, she has some serious bragging rights – none of her books have ever been out of print and all of them are still printed in hardcover.  But, no swelled head here, she said.

How successful was her graphic novel The Exile?  Judging from the continuing royalties, the graphic novel was/is a great success. (she grins)  Still, "great success" in graphic novel terms is still nowhere near the level of one of the Big Novels.   Ergo, while she'd love to do another graphic novel, and she imagines it will happen someday - the publisher is by no means eager for her to take her eye off the next book she’s working on.  (Also, Betsy Mitchell, the wonderful editor for The Exile, went into business for herself as a book doctor, specializing in science fiction/fantasy - www.betsymitchelleditorial.com.  Diana said she couldn’t recommend her highly enough; one of the best editors she’d ever worked with!  But without Betsy pushing for a sequel, it'll take a little longer to get that organized.)

I was curious if she still got as much satisfaction and joy writing today as she had, say, when she wrote Voyager.  Oh, yes, she replied.  It might not be obvious to most readers but each of her books is actually quite different.  Diana doesn’t like to do the same things twice so each book is different in approach, theme, structure, or voice.  The next book, for example, is structured around the three cliff-hangers from An Echo in the Bone.  She’s spoken for years about her peculiar writing style:  she visualizes scenes or, as she once described it – islands rising up.  After she’s written a sufficient number of scenes, they will eventually tie together.  I wondered if that style had changed over the years?  Not essentially, she replied, although she’s refined certain procedures she uses.  For example, if she needs to lubricate her thought processes she’ll open a file she calls ‘What I know’ which is a collection of random thoughts she has had which will probably never end up in a book but will help her clarify what her characters want or need and maybe what will take her there.

Had she ever experienced “writer’s block?” Just once, she answered.  When writing her Ph.D. dissertation. They were living in Philadelphia, shiver>, Diana was unemployed, living on her husband's student loan and he was working eighteen hours a day in his MBA program.  D-E-P-R-E-S-S-I-N-G.   She eventually started keeping a journal - something she still does every night - it's not Deep Thoughts or inspirations; it's just a flat record of what she did during the day.  She learned that if she had to write "Did nothing but read Nero Wolfe novels all day," she'd feel terrible, but if she could record some achievement, even if it was only, "Analyzed the data for Fig. 22-A," she'd feel really good.  So the writing began, just in order to be able to record it.  And Diana learned the secret to overcoming writer's block:  You write anyway.  Really.  That's it.  Just write.  It doesn't matter if it's great, good, or total trash.  Putting words on the page lubricates your mental synapses; and after a while, you start really writing again.  But really, nothing else will do it.

Her books are published all over the world; what’s the most exotic language, I asked her.  She thought for a moment and mentioned Croatian, Serbian, and Lithuanian.  And the most exotic locale she’s ever traveled to?  Probably Lithuanian to the Baltic Book Festival in February 2012.  Her books are quite popular there.  So who decides where she goes?  For a book tour, the publisher will set the itinerary and organize the whole event.  Mostly Diana insists on returning home a couple days a week while she’s on a US tour but that is, of course, impossible when she’s somewhere like Australia or Indonesia .  Diana explained to me that the purpose of a book tour, for established writers, is to compress sales into a short period of time to drive the book up on the Best Seller List.  I never knew that. Another reason would be to give exposure to a new writer or book that shows potential for being a ‘break out.’

Over the years, her fans have sent her scads of gifts.  I recall some years earlier she related that the weirdest gift was a load of toilet paper sent to her by the Ladies of Lallybroch which, while eminently useful, was strange.  It came in response to a comment she made while under deadline that she didn’t have time to visit the store for toilet paper.  That still remains her strangest gift.  She went to her office and pulled out several examples to show me.  One was a lovely hand-carved flute given to her by a large tattooed man who rode a motorcycle.  And a charming little weiner dog made of colorful fabric (Diana has dachshunds).  A little on the strange side was a goshawk feather in a gift box.  It was a gift from a writer she met who is involved with falconry.  But I was most impressed by a pair of handmade dolls of Claire and Jamie.  Their faces were painted on the fabric and their costumes were most correct, according to Diana.  She’s posing with them for our picture.  She also plans to put some pictures up on her website. (www.DianaGabaldon.com).

What can she tell us about the next Jamie and Claire story? She just finished writing a short promo piece for Germany which goes something like this: “It’s June of 1778 and the world has just turned upside down.  The British Army is leaving Philadelphia and George Washington is preparing to leave Valley Forge in pursuit.  And Jamie Fraser has just come back from the dead to discover his best friend has married his wife.  The 9th Earl of Ellesmere has just discovered that he is not an English aristocrat but the son of the newly resurrected criminal and rebel, Jamie Fraser. Jamie’s nephew Ian has just discovered that his new-found cousin has an eye for his Quaker beloved. And Claire is dealing with an asthmatic Duke, Benedict Arnold, and the possibility that one of her husbands may have murdered the other.  Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, Brianna is thinking that life was easier back in the 18th century; her son has been kidnapped, her husband has disappeared into the past, and she’s facing a vicious criminal with a stapler in her hand.  Fortunately, her daughter Mandy has a cricket bat and her mother’s pragmatism…”  The next book is titled Written In My Own Heart’s Blood which is expected to be released next spring.  Diana assured me that there will be one more after that in the main series.  There will be more Lord John books, as well as assorted novellas of other characters in the series.

So what will life be like post-Outlander?  Diana has a contract for two contemporary crime novels, half of the first book is already done and Diana predicts she could finish it with six months more of work.  She also really wants to tell Master Raymond’s story.  You might recall he was the mysterious man who healed Claire after she lost her first child in Dragonfly in Amber.  I would love to know more about him and it will be interesting to see what Diana will tell us.  There is also, she told me, a planned prequel to Outlander that deals with Jamie’s parents, Brian and Ellen.  She also has two non-fiction projects.  One is a small volume on How To Do Research and the other on How To Write Sex Scenes.  Diana and I laughed about the purple prose prevalent in so many romance novels.  As she put it – just how many times do you want to read how ‘he laved her pink mound?’  If you get a moment, look up her blog on how to write sex scenes.  She noted that while bad writing in most genres is just bad writing, bad writing about sex causes people to laugh and read it aloud to their friends.

Thanks again, Diana.  You were, as always, gracious and charming.

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