HAPPY WRITING ANNIVERSARY!
To me, that is. On March 6th, 1988, I began writing what eventually turned out to be OUTLANDER. I intended to write a novel for the sole purpose of learning how to write a novel… and here was are, some 34 years on…
…and many thanks to all of you who have been with me through those years, as well as those who have just come aboard this voyage through time and space!
Rather than celebrate the occasion by telling what a bookseller of my acquaintance refers to as “your origin story” (because I’ve told it thousands of times, and if anyone wants to see it, it’s here on my website as well as hundreds of other places on the web), I went through some of the dozens of interviews I’ve done over the intervening years, and thought I might publish a few of the most interesting ones, over the course of this month (interspersed with discussions of Season Six, to be sure).
This interview was done nine years ago, for my friend Barbara Rogan’s blog on writing (Barbara now teaches writing, and the blog has shifted somewhat in form, but is still very much worth reading. It’s called “In Cold Ink,” and is on her website.).
Hope you enjoy it!
BR: Were you a great reader as a child? What were your favorite books?
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.
BR: Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you’d like to write stories yourself?
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.”
BR: 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?
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. Any time, 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.
(Am constantly staggered by people who ask, “How did you do all the research for your books?” in tones implying that “research” is a terribly arcane skill. “If there’s something I want to know, I go look it up,” being the basic answer. Are people no longer taught how to use libraries? Apparently there are millions of people who use computers—because they’re using them to ask me these questions—who haven’t yet grasped how to use Google to look up the meaning of an English word like “absquatulate,” let alone own a real dictionary. But I digress…)
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?
BR: 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?
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?)
BR: 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?
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 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.
BR: I read some time ago about certain fanatical GAME OF THRONES readers who were furious that George Martin doesn’t churn the books out faster, ignoring any possible link between quality, time and effort. They seemed to feel he was holding the books hostage and could release them in the blink of an eye if he chose. The Outlander series inspires equal devotion among its readers. Have you ever had to deal with overzealous or irrational fans?
Deal with them? Well, they’re there, certainly. Most people have no idea how writers work, and many of them seem to feel that a writer is a sort of artistic Pez dispenser: all the stories are stacked up inside, one on top of the other, and all you have to do is bonk the writer on the head hard enough to make them spit one out.
(In re which, James Patterson and his marketing machine have done a lot to promote this injurious notion. For the record, folks—when the cover says, “by JAMES PATTERSON and someotherperson,” it was someotherperson who wrote the book. Don’t believe me? Google “James Patterson ghost writer.”)
That is, of course, not how it works. <cough> I explain, periodically, how it does work, and most of my readers are intelligent, well-meaning people who are happy to direct new readers to the places where I’ve explained my working methods.
But as for dealing with people who clamor for the next book, all I can be is honest. I.e., it’s my name on the front of the book, and with luck, said book will be out there for a long time. Ergo, it’s going to be as good as I can make it before I send it to the publisher.
BR: Would you like to have lived in the world you created?
To a point. <g> That point stopping well short of life-threatening disease, warfare, injury, extremes of temperature or gross poverty.
BR: Lord John Gray is one of my favorite characters of your invention. What made you choose a gay man in particular as a series character?
Well, that was an accident. Some years ago, I was invited to write a short story for a British anthology: historical crime stories. “Well,” I said to the editor, “it would be an interesting technical challenge, to see whether I can write anything under 300,000 words. Sure, why not?”
Well, the obvious first question was—what or whom to write about? I didn’t want to use the main characters from the OUTLANDER series for this story, because—owing to the peculiar way I write—if I were to incorporate some significant event in this story (and it would need to be, to be a good story)—that would make the event a stumbling block in the growth of the next novel.
“But,” I said to myself, “there’s Lord John, isn’t there?” Lord John Grey is an important character in the OUTLANDER series, but he isn’t onstage all the time. And when he isn’t… well, plainly he’s off leading his life and having adventures elsewhere, and I could write about any of those adventures without causing complications for future novels. Beyond that obvious advantage, Lord John is a fascinating character. He’s what I call a “mushroom”—one of those unplanned people who pops up out of nowhere and walks off with any scene he’s in—and he talks to me easily (and wittily).
He’s also a gay man, in a time when to be homosexual was a capital offense, and Lord John has more than most to lose by discovery. He belongs to a noble family, he’s an officer in His Majesty’s Army, and loves both his family and his regiment; to have his private life discovered would damage—if not destroy—both. Consequently, he lives constantly with conflict, which makes him both deeply entertaining and easy to write about. So I wrote the short story—titled, “Lord John and the Hell-Fire Club”—for the British anthology.
Well, it was a good story; people liked it. But just as word was spreading into the U.S. about it, the anthology went out of print (it was called PAST POISONS, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, for those bibliophiles who are curious). People kept asking me about the story, though, and I thought, “Well, I enjoyed writing it—maybe I should write two or three more short pieces about Lord John, just as time and inspiration allow… and when I have a handful, we could publish them as a book, and all the Lord John fans could get the stories easily.”
So I did that. I began writing the second Lord John story after returning from a book-tour, as a way of easing back into my writing routine, and continued working on it, picking away with one hand whilst picking up the threads of my novel with the other… and six months later, I’d just about finished it. Well, at this point, I left for another book-tour, in the U.K., and stopped in New York on the way, to have lunch with my two literary agents.
I was telling them all about what I’d been doing, and casually mentioned that I’d nearly finished the second Lord John short story. “Oh?” said they. “How long’s this one?”
“Well, I knew you’d ask,” I said. “So I checked last night. It’s about 85,000 words; I need maybe another 5,000 to wrap it up.”
The agents looked at each other, then looked at me, and with one voice said, “That’s the size normal books are!”
“I thought it was a short story,” I said.
“Well, it’s not,” they said—and proceeded to take it off and sell it all over the place. Publishers were thrilled. “It’s a Gabaldon book we weren’t expecting—and it’s short! Can she do that again?” they asked eagerly. To which my agents—being Very Good agents—replied, “Of course she can,” and emerged with a contract for three Lord John Grey novels.
Now, the Lord John books and novellas are in fact an integral part of the larger OUTLANDER series. However, they’re focused (not unreasonably) on the character of John Grey, and—Lord John not being a time-traveler—tend not to include time-travel as an element. They’re structured more or less as historical mystery, but do (like anything else I write) include the occasional supernatural bit or other off-the-wall elements. (Yes, they do have sex, though I don’t consider that really unusual, myself.) And they do reference events, characters (particularly Jamie Fraser) and situations from the OUTLANDER novels.
In terms of chronology, the Lord John books fall during the period covered in VOYAGER, while Jamie Fraser was a prisoner at Helwater. So if you’re wondering where to read the Lord John books in conjunction with the larger series—you can read them anytime after VOYAGER. See my Chronology of the Outlander Series webpage for more information.
BR: Was his sexuality or your portrayal of it an issue for any of your publishers, domestic or foreign?
I think some of the foreign publishers may have boggled slightly at it, but no one’s ever said anything directly to me about it, no.
BR: The upside of great literary success is plain to see: millions of books sold, legions of devoted fans, awards, invitations to the White House, the opportunity to inhabit a wider world full of interesting accomplished people. Is there a downside?
The major drawback is the sheer amount of travel and appearances (both in person and online) associated with being very popular in a lot of different places. I really like to talk to readers and sign books—but I could do without the enormously time-consuming (and energy-sapping) travel involved in getting to them.
Then there are the constant demands for “content”—updates to websites, phone interviews, interviews for blogs <g>, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc. (though I know how to deal with Twitter and Facebook; I spend an average of 10-15 minutes a day on each, and that’s It. I have no Friends [on social media] <g>, and I don’t follow anybody).
And there are the readers who think they’re entitled to dictate when and what a favorite writer writes, and yap at me in public about why am I writing all this Other Stuff, when THEY only want Jamie and Claire? And why am I gallivanting all over the place, when I should be home WORKING? These people are, of course, sadly mistaken about the importance of their opinions, but can be a little annoying. Luckily most of my readers are very intelligent and have beautiful manners.
BR: What do you know now about writing that would have helped you when you first started out?
I’m not sure I actually know anything more about writing now than I did when I started—though I like to hope that I improve with experience. Most of the novel (sic) things I do, in terms of ambitious structure, time-juggling, and playing with literary devices, are things that are the result of experience; I couldn’t have done them when I was first writing, whether I knew about them or not.
BR: What do you know now about publishing that you wish you’d known earlier?
Just who has the power in various situations. For example, it took me eight years of hassling with Barnes and Noble in an attempt to make them move my novels out of the Romance section—until I finally got fed up and wrote a rude letter to Steve Riggio, then the CEO. Twenty-four hours later, I got a call from the B&N VP of Marketing, telling me they were moving the books to Fiction, where they’d belonged all along. Had I known that Mr. Riggio was the only person in that company who could change the diktat on where books went, I’d have started with him.
BR: Do you think women writers are taken as seriously as men by the literary/critical establishment?
Of course not.
BR: What’s the most common misconception readers have about you? (Here’s your chance to correct it!)
Well, they all seem to think I’m much taller than I actually am, and they can’t pronounce my name, but neither of those misapprehensions is actually offensive. <g>
(For the record: I’m five-foot-three. And my name has two pronunciations, both accurate: If you’re speaking Spanish (it is a Spanish name, and it is my own, not my husband’s), it’s pronounced “gaah-vahl-DOHN” (rhymes with stone). If you’re speaking English, it’s “GAH-bull-dohn” (still rhymes with stone).)
The image of me with copies of BEES to sign was taken in November, 2021, at the Poisoned Pen bookstore.
This post also appeared on my official social media accounts on March 4, 2022.