Sunday, June 18, 2023

“Good Libraries in Heaven” - An interview with Diana Gabaldon by your Aussie Blogging Lass

In the late 1980s, so my internet research tells me, Diana Gabaldon sat down to write a novel for practice. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, so that may help to account for the fact that over 30 years later, that practice novel, Outlander, has turned into an entire literary universe comprising large novels, companions, a graphic novel, numerous novellas and short stories - and of course an internationally successful television series, now screening its seventh season. 

When the news came that Outlander Homepage had been granted the privilege of an interview with the woman who began it all, this humble writer and fan had to sit down for a moment. (Actually, I had to lie down, as the news arrived after midnight here in Australia!) After the initial excitement wore off, I was faced with a dilemma - just what do you ask an international bestselling author who has been interviewed thousands of times before? Needless to say, not much sleep was had as I tried to come up with something to ask. What follows are my attempts at some original questions, and Ms Gabaldon’s generous answers! 

Diana attending our Outlander Homepage dinner in Arizona 

I began by considering just how much time must be taken up with all things Outlander, and thought I would ask Ms Gabaldon what would constitute her perfect day. 

“Having bacon and toast with strawberry jam for breakfast in a nice hotel restaurant (and hot chocolate, if it’s winter),” she replied. “Then spending the morning with my husband in a good art museum, then having a long, delicious lunch with a lot of wine, talking about what we saw—and anything else that occurs to us, like why the waiter had his hair cut to resemble a Polish rooster and whether that was a good look on him. Then walk back to the hotel through the city and sleep in a big, soft white bed until cocktail hour, then go have a nice dinner and see a movie. Basically, I just like to hang out with my husband and talk with him while drinking wine.”

With my mind filled with images of waiters with Polish rooster haircuts (and realising that I had never considered the prospect of roosters having nationalities before now) I moved onto my second question. As someone who reads and writes millions of words, I wondered if Ms Gabaldon had a favourite word or phrase.

“Surely you jest!” she said, with a grin. “Are you British? Or Canadian?”

I scrambled to explain. I had simply meant that since her vocabulary is so vast, perhaps she had come across a word or phrase that she particularly liked. (Then I added that I was half British, born in Australia with a Scottish father.)

“No,” Ms Gabaldon said, patiently. “I mean ‘Surely you jest’ is one of my favourite phrases!”

After giving myself a facepalm, I continued. Had Ms Gabaldon turned her hand to other types of writing - such as poetry, writing for children or writing for the stage?

“Poetry….not to speak of,” Ms Gabaldon replied.  “Once in a blue moon, I’ll be struck by a thought or a random snatch and write it down, but it’s nothing formal or frequent.

Writing for children is a completely different skill than writing for adults (it needs to be short, for one thing), and it’s not a skill that I have, so no.

Not for the stage, but I do write scripts for the Outlander TV show now and then. And I do write nonfiction.”

Next, I wondered if each writing style required a different approach, or whether Ms Gabaldon had a basic formula that she followed, no matter what.

“I’m not sure that I understand what you mean by this one,” she replied. 

The only basic formula that I can think of for writing (anything) is Gabaldon’s Three Rules: 1) Read. 2) Write. 3) (most important) DON’T STOP!

If you mean what are the differences between writing, say, novels, versus scripts—well, they have different forms, but surely everybody knows that…”

Ms Gabaldon then gave a fascinating insight into the differences between writing novels and writing scripts.

“Essentially, I don’t work with an outline, and I don’t write in a straight line—but scripts have a dictated shape and content (content dictated by show-runners and Writers Room), and novels don’t,” she continued. 

“I’ll still write chunks of a script out of order, depending on where I hear or see something specific, but there are constraints on what those things can be. I mean, I’ll know that there’s a conversation between Jamie and Claire about X, and it has to fit here in the script, but it’s up to me what they say about X and (to some extent) where they are and what they’re doing when they say it. You also don’t give emotional directions in a script, because that’s the business of the actors (guided by the director).

When I’m working on a novel, what I need to begin with (on any given day) is what I call a kernel—a line of dialogue, a vivid image, a sound, an emotional ambience….anything I can see or imagine concretely. Then I write that down as best I can, and stare at it. I move words around, put in clauses and take them out again, insert phrases—and all the time, the back of my brain is going, “Where is the light falling? What time of day is it? Who else is in the room (stable, field, garden, etc.) with me?...” Meanwhile, my frontal cortex is fiddling with the words, trying to make the sentence as brief, clear and elegant as possible.

I don’t really do that with a script, because any movement, sight, ambience, etc. will be dictated by the actors, director and crew, not me. I only deal with plot, story structure (very brief, by contrast with a novel) and dialogue.”

And non-fiction?

"The essential skills for nonfiction are the same as for fiction—clarity and specificity—but the form is largely dictated by a) the subject, b) the audience, and c) the imposition of form. For example, if you’re writing a scholarly article, software review, etc., different journals have different specs as to form, and essentially you just fill in the blanks with the appropriate information, written as best you can. If it’s something informal, like the Outlandish Companions, it’s more like story-telling; I’m just telling the story of what’s in my head.”

It struck me that someone who deals with people so often, both real and fictional, must have heard lots of opinions over the years! So I asked Ms Gabaldon for the best piece of advice she had either given or received.

“I like my mother’s advice,” she replied. ‘Never marry a mean drunk.’ I passed that on to my daughters and am happy to say that they both married delightful men who are happy when intoxicated.”

When interviewing other members of the Outlander world, I have invariably asked them where they would like to travel to, should they go through the stones. This time I went for a variation on a theme, by asking Ms Gabaldon if she were to throw a dinner party and could invite any guest, living or dead, real or fictitious, who would make the guest list. I reasoned that the stones question probably fell into the realm of “questions that have been asked a thousand times before.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “So does the one about the dinner party. I don’t know. I hate giving dinner parties, unless it’s a family/friends gathering, and even that’s kind of a trial, though I like cooking for such dinners.”

My questions finished, I thanked Ms Gabaldon not only for her time, but also for the joy her writing has brought over the years. My mother and I had always discussed Outlander, I explained, but illness and death meant we never had a chance to share Bees together. Ms Gabaldon was kind enough to respond with her condolences, before sharing this wonderful opinion.

“I've always thought that Heaven must certainly have a good library.”

I'd like to think that too. 

Diana at the premiere of Outlander season seven in New York City's Tribeca Film Festival 

This interview was conducted by Susie Brown, a children’s writer and teacher librarian who lives in Australia. She will always be grateful to Ms Gabaldon for her generosity and kindness - and also for the visual image of waiters with Polish rooster haircuts!

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