Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.” The series is published in 26 countries and 23 languages, with more than nineteen million copies in print worldwide and a miniseries in the works.
I’ve known Diana for fifteen years or so, ever since we met on the Compuserve Book and Author forum. For several years we both served as presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference and had the opportunity to hang out in real life. Everyone who’s read her work knows Diana is a spellbinding storyteller. What you may not know, unless you’ve met her, is that she’s as delightful a person as she is a writer. She does a great deal for others that never gets talked about or reported, and I’m not going to out her here, except to say that she ministers to those who most need it and she goes out of her way to help fellow writers, as I know from personal experience. (See Diana’s comment on my forthcoming thriller, A DANGEROUS FICTION.)
Back when that book was just beginning its journey into print, I asked some friends to brainstorm titles. Diana came up with “In Cold Ink.” In the end it didn’t quite fit as the book’s title, but I loved it so much I adopted it as the name of my blog, making Diana its godmother. Now she has graciously paid us a visit and bestowed an interview, which I’m delighted to share with you here in several parts. In this first segment, we talk about Diana’s origins as a writer, her taxonomy of character types, and her own writing process. Along the way she punctures a few misconceptions.
Q: Were you a great reader as a child? What were your favorite books?
A: Yes. My mother taught me to read at the age of three; I can’t remember not being able to read. I do remember turning up on the first day of kindergarten, flipping critically through DICK AND JANE and dropping it, remarking, “That’s a stupid book. Is there anything else to read?” (I was not a tactful child.)
I read—and still do read—just about anything. I read my way through the entire children’s section of the Flagstaff Public Library by the third grade, at which point I went on to the adult section (my mother having assured the librarian—who was Very Dubious about this—that I could take out anything I wanted to). Among the things I read repeatedly, though, were ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, the Oz books, all the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, the entire series of biographies of famous people for children, and any Walt Disney comic I could get my hands on.
Q: Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you’d like to write stories yourself?
A: Yeah. I was about eight, and coming back in the car from a family outing to the cinder hills near Flagstaff (we often went out there on Sundays when the weather was nice). It was summer and the daily thunderstorm was shaping up overhead. I remember looking up into the clouds and talking to God—I wasn’t praying, just talking to Him—and saying, “I want to write books. I think I’m supposed to write books.” Mind—at this point, the notion of WRITING A BOOK was the most far-fetched, impossible thing I could imagine. I might as well have said, “I think I want to fly to Mars.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea how books were written, let alone how they got onto the library shelves (didn’t know people got paid for writing books, either; when I found that out, it seemed like an amazing bonus).
Anyway, God said (more or less), “Yes, that’s right. You should.”
Q: First novels are often autobiographical in some fashion or another. You haven’t got a drop of Scottish blood in you, you were never a nurse and you haven’t (as far as I know) time-traveled. Is there anything in OUTLANDER that did draw upon your own life experience and/or passions?
A: If you write an honest book, most of it is you, regardless of setting, time period, or the external aspects of your characters. And the idiotic assumption that one can only write about one’s own life experience—if widely adopted—would have prevented most of the world’s great books being written. (Not saying you’re an idiot, mind you <g>.) It’s just that that stupid, “Write what you know” axiom has been propagated so much that people don’t stop to question it, and thus don’t realize that it’s backward. It’s not that you should limit yourself to using your own life as material; it’s that you shouldn’t write what you don’t know—but you can find out anything you need to know.
There’s also this little item called “imagination,” which I think is given remarkably short shrift these days. As a novelist, I can be Anybody. Anytime, Any place, in any condition of body or mind. Why should I just be me? How boring.
(Not even going to touch the equally prevalent attitude that a writer should for some reason be strongly drawn to write about his or her ethnic background—but only if s/he isn’t white. People keep pestering me to “write about your heritage,” by which they mean the New Mexican/Hispanic side. Why don’t they pester me to write about the English or German side, assuming I wanted to write about my heritage in the first place, which I don’t?)
But returning to what you actually asked <g>: Sure. Owing to a series of academic accidents, I taught classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology in several different institutions, including Temple University’s School of Nursing. Now, this had nothing whatever to do with my own scientific interests, background, or research specialties—they just paid me for doing it. But the material was undeniably interesting—and it gave me the broad but shallow grasp of clinical medicine that is the core of Claire’s work as a healer and physician.
Now, I was a field ecologist for some time. Which means I naturally look at what’s going on around me when I’m outdoors. I know what the basic features of a given ecosystem type are—which means that whether I’m looking at the Scottish Highlands or the North Carolina mountains, I know that there will birds species doing X, and plant species that fill Y niche, and so on. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of looking up the specific plants and animals, and that’s a matter of very simple research.
I’m sixty-one. I’ve been in love, been married, borne children, had people near me die. Naturally bits and pieces of all these experiences filter through into the books I write. Be strange if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?
Q: You have many readers who are passionate about your books and personally invested in the characters. Putting all modesty aside, why do you think readers connect so deeply with your characters?
A: I do write honest books, so far as it lies in my power to do so. People recognize reality (in terms of character and situation and emotion) when they see it, and it’s natural for them to empathize with people they see as real.
(The Washington Post recently asked me for “a few sentences” describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, for a column in which such bits from a dozen (female) authors were quoted. Most of the other participants went on about going out for a romantic dinner with their husband and toasting each other with pink champagne, or…well…take this one:
“I love seeing the glowing pyres of fat, deep red-red roses in full cry, displays of pink Champagne and boxes of chocolates that spring up all over London, and hope that a glorious bunch might find its way to me. Yet, if I was giving roses to a man on this particular day (and why not, for all sensual men love them), I’d buy flame orange, rich yellow or creamy, pink-tinged white; and pretend — because I’m old fashioned — that it was merely joie de vivre, or exuberance, or entirely accidental….”
And then there was what I said (the absolute un—er—varnished <g> truth:
“We’re having the saltillo tile floors resealed. This means having to move all the furniture, send the dogs to my son’s house for a sleepover, and walk around in our socks for two days. Our bed is disassembled and hidden in the closet, so I’m sleeping in a daughter’s room, and my husband is nesting somewhere in the living room (where all the furniture is). On the other hand, romance is not dead; he gave me a bathrobe and a card with a singing bug, and I gave him a jar of white anchovy filets and a tube of wasabi paste.”
Now, clearly one would like to escape now and then and wallow in thoughts of accidental roses…but which author do you think you might feel more connected with, on the basis of these brief snips?)
Q: It’s hard for readers to imagine characters in their embryonic state, when we experience them as fully-developed, complicated human beings. But characters don’t spring to life that way. Can you talk a bit about how you go about growing characters from stick figures into people?
A: But I don’t do that. I know there are a lot of popular assumptions about how writers work, and the notion that one decides that a specific character is needed, equips him or her with a name, and then sets to work collecting pictures of actors and drawing up index cards with the character’s taste in peanut-butter is certainly one of them. It’s possible that some writers really do do that, and God help them, if so—whatever works, you know?
For me, characters are pretty organic. I don’t plot a story and insert characters; the story exists because these particular people have needs and desires and motivations, and finding themselves in a particular situation, act upon them.
You hear about “plot-driven” stories vs. “character-driven” stories (and why always “versus,” I wonder? There’s nothing antithetical between plot and character)—but in fact, the plot is simply what the characters do. They may do what they do in part because of the situation and circumstances in which they find themselves—but they do what they do mostly because they are who they are.
For me, characters tend to fall into one of three main types: mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts. (That’s not a description of their personalities, btw, but rather of the way in which I work with them, and them with me.)
Mushrooms are the delightful people who spring into life unexpectedly and walk right off with any scene they’re in. Lord John Grey is a mushroom, as is Mr. Willoughby, the Chinese poet with a notable foot fetish, and Mrs. Figg, Lord John’s redoubtable housekeeper (“Mrs. Figg was smoothly spherical, gleamingly black, and inclined to glide silently up behind one like a menacing ball-bearing.”). They talk to me freely, and I never have to stop and wonder what they’d do in any given situation—they just do it.
Onions are the ones whose innermost essence I apprehend immediately—but the longer I work with them, the more layers they develop, and thus the more well-rounded and pungent they become. Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall are both onions.
Hard nuts are pretty much what they sound like. These are the people who “come with” a story by default, rather than developing organically by popping out of the mental compost. Historical figures, for instance, who were necessarily there, and have to be animated in a satisfying way, or people who exist only because another character was pregnant, leaving me with an unknown child to deal with. These, I just research (for the historical people) or live with (for the unknowns), and gradually, I begin to have a sense of them. But as with everyone else, they truly “develop” only in the context of their own situation and circumstance.
End of Part 1.
Go to Part 2.
In part 2 of the interview, Diana goes on to talk about her relationship with her readers, some controversial choices, and the demands that literary success imposes on the writer’s personal life. Sign up for the blog’s email or RSS feed so you won’t miss it!
I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback. Diana Gabaldon called A DANGEROUS FICTION “a terrific read–A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing,” and NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.