Monday, July 20, 2020

“In Good Company” - an interview with Tara Bennett, author of the Outlander TV Companions by your Aussie Blogging Lass.

It’s a fairly well documented fact that Diana Gabaldon decided to write her first novel “Outlander” for practice, and that the character of Jamie Fraser came to her courtesy of a Doctor Who episode that she was watching at the time. Since that fateful evening of television viewing, the whole Outlander universe has been created. From Ms Gabaldon’s pen have come 8 (almost 9!) “big books”, supplementary short stories and novellas about individual characters and two Outlandish companions. But the Outlander world doesn’t end there, as adaptations have allowed for other creators to become involved.  Chief among these of course, is the heralded Starz series, which will, pandemic permitting, begin shooting season 6 later this year. The success of the tv show also provided the need for another book or two - in the form of television companions to the various seasons. Enter Tara Bennett, an experienced author and journalist, who has released 2 of these companions to date: the first covering seasons 1 and 2 and the second covering seasons 3 and 4. She very graciously agreed to chat to us here at Outlander Homepage, about the process of their creation and about her fascinating career. 

Since the writing of a companion book is a different process to writing a novel, we began our interview by asking Tara about this process and about how she got into the business in the first place. 

“I was lucky back in the early 2000's to write for Titan Magazines which had a lot of officially licensed magazines and books,” Tara explained. “Having worked with them on several licensed magazines from 2003, I was asked to co-author The Making of the Fantastic Four movie in 2005 and that led to my solo writing four companion books for the TV series, 24. I've written, or co-written 30 official companion books since then and each one is unique. But the throughline amongst them all is knowing the topic inside and out, figuring out what the book is going to be with an editor, and creating what’s known as a flat plan (or page by page breakdown of the book to determine topics and interviews). If it's a standard ‘making of’ book, I'll conduct phone and in-person interviews (when applicable) over a span of time until I run out of time with my deadlines (which are almost always very fixed). Or, if it's an ‘in-world’ book where I'm writing in a character's voice, then I have to perfect that voice and write the narrative in a way that feels organic to the source material and honors the intentions of the creators. Both types have their own challenges and it's sometimes hard to bring the right words forth, but you power through for those moments when it flows like water and hope it's not awful!”

By those definitions, the Outlander companions fall into the ‘making of’ category, and we wondered how Tara came to be involved in the Outlander world. As it turns out, it’s all thanks to her cousin!

“I'm an original Outlander fan,” Tara told us. “My cousin introduced me to Diana's books when she bought me a signed copy of Voyager during the book's original press tour and then directed me to go read the first two books. I fell in love with them just as she had. Over the years, I kept up with Diana's subsequent releases and the many tales of the books being adapted into a movie, and then perhaps a TV series. I was very excited to hear that it was picked up to series by Sony TV and STARZ with one of my long-time favorite TV genre writers, Ron Moore, at the helm. And then I was hired to co-write the ‘in-world’ book, The Blacklist: Elizabeth Keen's Dossier (another Sony TV series). I had a great relationship with Sony during the making of that book, so I pitched myself as the author of an Outlander TV companion if they ever decided to license one. Luckily, they did and recommended me as the author to Penguin Random House. The rest, as they say, is history!”

But Tara’s Outlander companions have an extra thrill for the avid fan, as the forewords are written by none other than Diana Gabaldon herself. We asked Tara how that came to be.

“Random House is Diana's parent publisher for all things Outlander publishing, including any books, companions or cookbooks licensed around the TV show, Outlander,” Tara said. “So, when my companion book for season one and two of the TV series was commissioned, my wonderful editor, Anne Speyer, asked Diana if she would like to write a Foreword. We all knew the path to adaptation was a long and interesting one, so we all thought she might like to tell in her own words in the book. She graciously agreed and has been an incredibly generous supporter of both TV companion volumes.”

So does this mean that Diana takes an active role in the creation of the companions?

I believe she looked at the first book to approve placement and photos for her Foreword, and her interview for her penned script,” Tara replied. “She wasn't interviewed for the second companion because of her busy schedule. I’m not sure if she ever looked at the companion for seasons 3 and 4 until she saw the final print in her hands.”

As anyone who has read the Outlander TV companions will know, the books are filled with beautiful images from the sets. We wondered if Tara had the opportunity to see any of the locations up close whilst preparing the books and which of these were her favorites.

“Well, one of the realities of writing a book around a show that is produced in Scotland is that travel to the location is not an easy thing to do,” Tara explained. “When my contract is signed, it's not always when the show is in production, or it's not always conducive to me visiting them. Case in point, the first book started in earnest in December and was written until May. If I were to travel to Scotland in winter, close to when they were finishing the production of season 2, I would have been an imposition. It's freezing, locations are already brutal and they don't need me asking for their cast and crew time between takes or when they are finished shooting. It was actually easier for me to just conduct phone interviews when they had days off or short days, and that's how the first book was done. We decided that would also be best for the sequel companion book, but I did do several interviews in person with the cast and the writers for that book because they were on hiatus for some of my writing. 

As for personal favorites, I adore all of Terry and Jon Gary's work. They've made masterful costumes and sets, respectively, every single season and it was an honor to showcase just some of their work in the photos of our book. I'm sad they have both moved on now, but thrilled we get to relish their work with rewatches and in the pages of my two companion guides.”

So, can we expect a third companion once season 6 has been filmed and aired?

“In all sincerity, I'm not sure if there will be a third book,” Tara replied, much to our concern. “I always hope, but that's entirely contingent on prior book sales and if Random House can make a profit. Neither of the companions made it to the New York Times bestseller list, which is often a benchmark of financial success for books like these. But, I am so thrilled that fans have rated the book so well and their support and feedback has been nothing short of stellar. So, the reality is, if the publisher finds the sales worthy, maybe? Companion books are a funny thing. Just because audiences love a TV series, that doesn't guarantee that will translate to a companion book purchase. But as Outlander is seen on more outlets like Netflix and Amazon Prime overseas, the fandom grows. I hope the sales are there for more, then maybe I'll get to do another one. That's my fondest wish, but even if that doesn't happen, I'm really proud of what we've put together for these two companions.” 

It’s a pride that is entirely justified! Given that Tara has conducted many cast interviews, we wondered how different the interview process is from the writing process. 


“Interviewing and writing are very different animals,” Tara replied. “When I prep for an interview, I have to make sure I am well-researched and know in what chapters of the book the material is going to live. I know that I need to try and ask questions that haven't been asked over and over by other reporters, so the value of the book is clear for people who might consider buying it. And interviews are a conversation. The better prepared I am, hopefully, the more comfortable it is for the interview subject to relax and know that I'm treating their work, and the making of the show, with the utmost respect. So initially, it's about comfort and me being creative with what I ask, and then over time, there's a trust and rapport that comes with the interview subjects that make for even better answers. 

Writing is the pain of figuring out what is kept and what has to go! A book is finite so there are always things that don't make it to the finished book just because of space. And then it's trying to tell great stories. I like to be informative, and shed light on the production parameters of making a film or television show, so the audience has a greater appreciation for what they see in the frame. I'm also a college adjunct who teaches production for radio, television and film so I'm always explaining process to my students. I take lessons from that part of my career and try to marry my ability to explain the nuts and bolts of filmmaking with clarity to the page. Hopefully, that makes for a fun read that frames real-world context with the specifics of a show like Outlander.”

But Tara’s Outlander interviewing hasn’t been limited to pieces for her companions, having interviewed cast and crew for conventions as well. Surely there must be some memorable moments to share? 

“Oh, I have tons of great memories related to Outlander now!” Tara confirmed. “I've been so lucky that I've gotten to cover the TV series as an entertainment journalist, which means I covered the show from before it even premiered. I talked to Caitriona and Sam before audiences got to see an episode so it's been a really special journey to watch, and touch base with them, across the entire life span of the series to date. They have always been gracious, generous and fun whenever I see or talk to them. It's also been a dream come true to be in Diana's orbit. I've done two book signings with her in Scottsdale, AZ and to have the intimate opportunity to sit beside her on a stage, and observe how she interacts with her fandom and watch how much they adore her, has been a gift. And I got to have a late night dinner with her at Denny's. Life doesn't get any better than that, frankly.”

Given that the current pandemic has called a halt to filming everywhere, we asked Tara what she has been working on in more recent times. 

“For the last three years, I've been embedded at Marvel Studios writing the history of the studio and their films,” she said. “It's been the biggest writing project of my life, gratefully shared with my frequent collaborator, Paul Terry. We've been landing the 200,000 words of that book this year so it's continued to take a lot of our time, but it's been a life-changing experience.”

And speaking of life changing experiences, we couldn’t resist asking Tara one last Outlander related question. If she could travel through the stones, where would she want to travel to, and why?

“What a great question!” Tara replied. “I've never been asked that! You know, my answer in a post COVID world is a lot different than what I would have answered in 2019 - LOL! If the stones could fast-forward me to the other side of this global mess, that would be wonderful! But I know they don't work that way in the constraints of the books, so I think I would love to see something really geeky, like have the stones plop me out on the set of one of my favorite films being made, like an original Star Wars film, or Aliens, or A Room with a View, and just observe them getting made with my own eyes. Yes, I am that much of a nerd!” she laughed. 

Tara interviews Outlander cast at Comic con..... 

We’d like to thank Tara so much for being so generous with her time in answering our questions and we look forward to seeing her next creations - whenever they appear!

This interview was conducted by Susie Brown, a writer and teacher-librarian who lives in Australia. She agrees wholeheartedly with Tara’s wish for the Stones to be able to fast forward to the other side of Covid and hopes that Tara, and indeed every Outlander fan, stays safe and well. 

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