This month the Amelia Island Book Festival welcomes Diana Gabaldon as one of the headlining, bestselling authors. She is already well known to many in our community. But for the rest of you, she’s the Arizona-based author of the Outlander Series—compelling historical fiction set initially in Scotland, featuring mystery, adventure, love and war, and even time travel between the 18th and 20th centuries.
More than 20 million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and the books—eight, so far—also have been adapted to an addicting television series on Starz. But that’s not all.
Dr. Gabaldon (pronounced GAA-bull-dohn—to rhyme with stone) holds three degrees in science: zoology, marine biology, and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. She also has an honorary degree as Doctor of Humane Letters. She worked as a university professor before turning to fiction writing. She and her husband have three adult children: two daughters and a son.
Now working on the ninth novel in the Outlander series, “Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone,” Diana graciously agreed to an email interview prior to her arrival in Nassau County. After the hundreds of interviews she’s done in the past year or so, many of which can easily be accessed online, I offered questions I thought would be of particular interest locally.
NB: Amelia Indie Authors is thrilled to welcome you for the annual Amelia Island Book Festival. It is a wonderful event surpassed, just only slightly, by our Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. I’m sure readers are dying to know: how do you like your shrimp?
DG: Tempura fried. Or cocktail style, with horseradish-laced cocktail sauce.
NB: I noticed in your “Want to watch me write?” post on your website, you are accompanied by what appears to be a stalwart black dog. And there are two canines in your Thanksgiving 2017 photo. We are mostly dog lovers here. What is your daily writing routine, and what role do your dogs play in it?
DG: Unfortunately, one of my dogs died on New Year’s Day (complications resulting from a freak accident), so I have one standard dachshund right now, named Homer. The dog(s) mostly just sleep at my feet while I work (I work mostly in the middle of the night).
NB: Can you describe your writing routine for us?
DG: Well, it depends a bit on where I am in the book (it normally takes me two to three years to write one of the enormous historical novels). In the beginning, I don’t know much about the story, nor the specific background, so am doing a lot of research and thinking, writing relatively little—but writing every day; if you stop, the inertia builds up and it’s hard to get going again.
As I move further into the story and begin to know more, I write more. “Walking pace” through the main part of a novel is roughly two single-spaced pages (about a thousand words) a day; some days I make more, but if I get that much, I’m satisfied.
And then, as I get near the end, and know almost everything, I’m not having to do much research, but am writing madly; the story develops “critical mass,” sucks me in, (and people are calling up from New York, yelling about where is this story), and we enter what I call Final Frenzy. In this stage, I’m writing for as long as I can sit at the computer, maybe twelve to fifteen hours a day, and barely eating or sleeping. Luckily, this stage never lasts more than two or three months, or I’d die.
During the long middle portion of a book, though, my daily routine is more or less this:
Get up around 9 AM, exercise, take the dog for a walk, then go upstairs, answer email and do my daily list, to get a foothold on the day. Lunch with my husband, then an hour or so of actual work after lunch, followed by whatever business or errands need to be done, then gardening, dinner-shopping, dinner-making, dinner-eating…then a spell of family time; watching Perry Mason reruns, reading while husband watches football, whatever. My husband likes to go to bed early, so I tuck him in around 9 or 10 PM and go lie down on the couch with a book and the dog. If no one needs me (and now that the kids are all adults, the chances that someone will are substantially decreased, but it still happens now and then), I’ll fall asleep after a bit, and nap until about midnight. Then I wake up, stagger back upstairs with a Diet Coke and work until around 4:30 AM—that’s my prime writing time.
That said, I don’t think there is such a thing as a normal day in this profession. Every day the email brings me astonishing things—this morning I was invited to come to Ottawa in November and give a speech at the Canadian War Museum, to be a featured guest on a cruise, and to appear at three different conventions. This is in addition to all the email about books, contracts, and Extremely Odd business suggestions (like a line of scarves adorned with quotes from my books, to be made in India).
NB: From studying pinyon jays to writing comic books, and then to marine biology and scientific computation, you made the leap to your true calling. Do these past work experiences inform your writing, or do you ever find modern-day technical information invading your prose?
DG: Well….no. Why would it? So far as I know, everybody has an assortment of language styles that they use for different things; if your mother calls you on the phone, do you talk to her as though you were one of your ancient Irish characters? <grin>
As to experience—everything a writer sees, hears, thinks, does, is, and has been, informs your writing to some degree, but it’s seldom directly autobiographical.
NB: It takes a lot of courage to write and publish fiction—not to mention the amount of work—because the writing is much more personal. From the start of your fiction-writing career, what has required the greatest amount of courage? How about in your life?
DG: Just starting. Anything. Once you start, the most difficult thing is not giving up. But that’s basically how you do anything: start, and don’t stop.
NB: In a recent interview, you said some scene writing could be “like chiseling rocks out of a hill and then pushing them uphill with your nose.” I love this and have experienced the pain. What would you say is at the heart of this struggle? And, are there any remedies that help you through it?
DG: It’s just hard work. Parts of everything you do are hard. You just do it anyway. What does help is the knowledge that you’ve done this before. Hard as it may be now, you can probably do it again.
NB: The central characters of Outlander (Claire Beauchamp, an English WWII nurse, and James Frazer, a Scottish laird) and the conflicts around them are so intriguing they have hooked millions of readers. In a recent podcast, you were asked whether you’d been surprised by a character or had said ‘no’ to a character. With other authors in mind, would you talk a little about how such surprises can enrich a story? And perhaps about the role your surprise character Mr. Willoughby played to enrich Voyager?
DG: I have no idea which characters might have been surprises to any other authors, so can’t really answer that one. Don’t know why a character that was a surprise to the author should do anything different to a story than one who wasn’t, though.<grin>
As for Mr. Willoughby…he’s an outsider (a real outsider) in the culture he accidentally found himself in. The parallels to Claire, an outsider by token of her time-traveling, are pretty obvious, though, in this instance, she chose to come to a strange place. An outsider, though, always provides one or two specific things: an empathetic connection with the reader (who is also an outsider to the story), and thus a way of providing information about the strange circumstances in which they find themselves, and/or commentary on social situations/conditions (often it can be subtle (or not-so-subtle) commentary on contemporary conditions, as well as on the historical/fantastic conditions of the story).
NB: Your pirate villain Stephen Bonnet in Drums of Autumn rings some bells on Amelia Island, where local lore claims, “the island was so full of pirates that at one point, most of the 300 or so vessels anchored in the harbor were pirate galleons.” What might you suggest to an aspiring author who wants to weave one or two of these plunderers into a novel? After the initial trip to the library or local museum for general pirate information, how would you proceed?
DG: Well, look. There really isn’t a formula for doing this. You’d just let the information you’ve picked up inform what you write (i.e., you’d know what his ship might look like, how he (or she) might dress, how pirates of your specific time period conducted their affairs, etc.), choose a name for your pirate and turn him loose (unless you’re the sort of writer who plans things out ahead of time—perfectly OK, mind you; it’s just not how I work).
NB: Writers naturally improve and change over time and with each project. Since your first book in the Outlander Series, how has your writing evolved, and what has affected you most? Has constructive editing been important? Or has your growth as a writer been mostly internal?
DG: Nothing affects writing as much as the act of doing it, believe me. <grin> I’ve never had an editor tell me anything about the actual writing; such revisions as we do are almost entirely to do with the structure of the story (e.g., an editor feeling that someone’s motives weren’t entirely clear, or that such-and-such a situation might be misinterpreted by the less sophisticated sort of reader <cough>, or pointing out places (there are always a couple of them, owing to my individual way of fitting pieces together) where I’ve repeated a scene in two different locations, and asking where I actually want it—that sort of thing).
If you keep on writing, you grow older and you have more life experiences, and your critical mass of information increases and your perceptions deepen. Your writing will naturally reflect your personal growth, in terms of what you see and what’s important in your work.
NB: You were beloved and famous as an author long before the Starz Outlander Series. How has the increased hype over the past few years affected you?
DG: Well, now it takes me four years to write a book…
There’s just more of it—more fan involvement, more PR, more travel, more social media. I do have a physical involvement with the show itself, though (as opposed to hype): I’m a consultant to the show, which means, essentially, that they show me everything they do—script outlines, scripts, revisions, daily “roughs” while filming, and the edited episodes as they come together. I comment on whatever I usefully can, and while they don’t invariably do what I suggest <grin>, they generally do at least listen to me.
During the nine months (or so) while the show is filming, that means the show is getting one to two hours of my time, four or five days a week. And this is not counting the increased fan attention with concomitant growth on social media (but see below) or the absolute deluge of invitations (even turning them down politely takes work), or the intrusion of constant travel arrangements.
Anyway…social media. Social media kind of grew up around me; I stumbled into the Compuserve Literary Forum (and the wonderful world of “online”) back in 1985. As other innovations—like AOL <grin>—came along, I’d try them out, but I didn’t keep connections with anything that wasn’t immediately useful. Twitter and Facebook are useful, so I keep those accounts primed. I don’t do Instagram—there’s no real benefit to me in putting up photos (I do that on FB and Twitter when I have something worthwhile) and the need to do it every day would just be a burden. Instagram comments tend to be worthless, in terms of interest to other users, and lend themselves to stupidity and trolls, so why bother?
When the news of Sam Heughan’s casting as Jamie Fraser came out, all the Outlander-focused social media naturally exploded. In the midst of this, he emailed me and said, “Your fans are crazy. How do you deal with this?” So I told him—
Take ten minutes, once or twice a day, no more. During that time, read your Twitter-feed, as many messages as you can manage in that time. If someone says it’s their birthday, stop and tell them happy birthday; if someone says their dog died, stop and say you’re sorry. If someone says something witty to you AND you can instantly think of something witty in reply, say it. If someone says something negative to you, don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Social media is a Good Thing/Tool for a writer, but it’s a bad master. You keep it under strict control, or it’ll eat you alive.
NB: Do you have a mission, a core driver that transcends all the work that you do—often described as ‘the one thing’ that gets you out of bed every morning? What is it and how does it sustain you?
DG: Nothing gets me out of bed in the morning (it’s NOT my time) except a vague sense that if I do go on sleeping, I’ll later regret it because there won’t be enough time to do what-all I want to.
I generally take the dog(s) out, and blearily scan Twitter while waiting for them, then come in, turn on the TV (news, if there’s anything other than The Tedious Usual happening, Outlander re-runs if not) and do my exercise (if I’ve got up early enough to have time for it before the first Thing of the day happens). That’s a mix of yoga, pilates and light weights, routines done according to whim, need and time available.
With luck, I’m actually conscious by the time I finish this and get dressed, and the momentum will usually get me through ‘til lunch (dog-walking, appointments, email, whatever…).
But overall, barring things like having to take children to school or the house being on fire, it’s pretty much always love.