Diana Gabaldon’s latest novel, The Scottish Prisoner (out Nov. 29), continues her epic, wildly popular Lord John series. We gave our signature book quiz to the historical fiction author to see which books make her cry, which ones inspired her to write, and which ones she never reads in public.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What book are you reading now?
DIANA GABALDON: I’m actually reading two or three of them right now. I’m reading The Book of Fungi, which is a life-sized guide to 600 species from around the world by Peter Roberts and Shelley Evans, which is extremely good. I’m reading the World Almanac of the American Revolution and Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution. Those are background research for the book that I’m working on at the moment. For fun, I just finished reading Right Ho, Jeeves, which is a P.G. Wodehouse book.
So you read a mix of nonfiction and fiction, which makes sense for you.
Yeah! In fact, I just picked up Alan Bradley’s brand new book, the fourth Flavia de Luce book I’m Half-Sick of Shadows. I just started that one this morning.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Well, I can’t remember not being able to read. I was told I could read by myself very well at the age of three. The earliest books that I can remember reading myself were Frank Buck’s Jungle books, which are full of rhinoceri and all of that, a couple of the early Oz books, and a picture book, which I remember very, very vividly, the main character of which is a very troglodyte-ish character named Mr. Mixie-Dough, and I don’t remember anything about the story, but I remember the book very vividly because of the images which were very beautiful — sort of primitive but complex images on a black background and vivid colors, and that book just gave me the most intense feeling of beautiful mystery about it. So I always loved it despite the fact that I don’t remember anything about the story itself. It’s called The Baker Man, and it’s actually by Vernon Grant, whose main distinction — other than being a very good artist — is that he’s the person who designed and drew Snap, Crackle, and Pop, the cereal elves. [Laughs]
Is there any book that for whatever reason you’ve pretended to have read but you really hadn’t?
Oh, sure. Huckleberry Finn. It’s not that I’ve never intended to read Huckleberry Finn, I do. It was just that I have been hanging around with this electronic literary cocktail party called The Compuserve Literary Forum, now we’re called the Books and Writers Community. Anyway, I’ve been hanging around there for 25 years, and at one point we were having a very heated discussion about censorship and Huckleberry Finn, and racist terms, and so forth and so on. I had very decided opinions about that, and the person I was talking to was plainly an idiot and hadn’t read Huckleberry Finn. I had a copy so I flipped through it and picked out little bits and pieces to support my own argument, but I didn’t admit that I hadn’t read the whole book myself. [Laughs]
Is there a book that cemented you as a writer?
If anything, it would be a Walt Disney comic book that I read when I was about 28. My mother taught me to read in part by reading me Walt Disney comics, and I never stopped. But I was reading one that I picked up at a convenience store on the way to work, and I said, “Well, this is pretty bad, I bet I can do better myself.” On a whim, I found the address and the name of the editor for that line, and I wrote him a very rude letter that said, “Dear sir, I’ve been reading your comics for the last 25 years, and they’ve been getting worse and worse. I’m not sure if I could do better myself, but I’d like to try.” Luckily, he had a sense of humor and he wrote back, “Okay, try.” He sent me a couple of layout sheets so I could see how a story was constructed by the company guidelines, so I wrote him a story. He didn’t buy it, but he did something much more valuable: He told me what was wrong with it. He did buy my second story, which was my first fiction sale ever. I continued to write for him for the next three years until the Disney Company said well we’ve got 40 years worth of Carl Barks in the files, why are we buying more stories? And that was the end of my comics career until I wrote the Exile last year, which is a graphic novel. I guess it would be that. It actually got me to commit something to print and send it to someone.
Is there any book that you were really surprised that you enjoyed?
And Quiet Flows the Don is one of them. It was recommended to me by this very peculiar Russian visiting scientist that I had in my lab when I worked at UCLA. Very strange man. Honestly, stainless steel teeth. Huge pain in the neck. Anyway, during one of our very rare moments of amity, he actually recommended this book to me, and I had not really read any Russian fiction as such, so I went and got it from the library, and I was quite astonished by how good it was. It raised my opinion of [the professor].
What genre would you read for the rest of your life if you could only choose one?
Probably crime fiction. Conflict and character are the heart of good fiction, and good mystery has both of those in spades. In fact, the structure of a classic, good mystery always has an external thread plot and an internal one, the internal one being what’s peculiar to the character—your investigator, usually, and sometimes your criminal. That’s going to lead you through the book, and that’s why you remain with this character. Beyond that, you have the external thread of the mystery, which you need to be solved. My husband asked me once why I read so many mysteries, and part of it is just intellectual, part of it is the joy of any good book, but part of it is the moral stakes there. Murder is the only crime that’s universally deplored by all cultures under all circumstances. If there’s a murder committed, there needs to be justice done. We have an instinctive need for that. That’s usually the external thread for a plot, so those threads will wind around each other and reinforce each other.
Have you ever hidden a book behind something else in public?
No. The sorts of books I wouldn’t want people to look at I don’t read outside my house. [Laughs] I actually have a selection of pornography here. Part of it is for research and part of it is just for fun. Some of it people send me. There’s this one Yaoi book right here. It was sent to me by a friend who had a story in it. I don’t know how familiar you are with Japanese pornography, but this is anime-style, and Yaoi is a very specific subset: It’s gay male pornography intended for women. [Laughs]
What’s a book you would kill a bug with?
It’d probably depend on how big a bug. You’d probably want something loose and floppy. What do I have here that’s appropriate? There’s one here called Scottish Place Names. That would work. There’s one here called Pickle the Spy by Andrew Lang that’s actually a late 18th century early 19th century book about Jacobite spies, but it’s as reprint so it’s a light, flexible paperback. I wouldn’t use any of the good hardcovers.
What’s a much-hyped book that you never saw the appeal of?
I hated The Lovely Bones. I thought her vision of heaven was amazingly uninspired and very depressing. The book was just tedious. Once you got past the first bit of it, I could see where she was going, and I was like, “No, I don’t want to go there.” In fact, I abandoned it on a plane in Sydney, Australia. [Laughs]
What’s a great film adaptation of a book?
Actually, Rob Roy was a great adaptation. It was a lot better than Braveheart.
What’s your favorite book to read on an airplane?
They tend to be, for me, what I used to call “toilet paper books,” that being a book that is totally necessary and useful, but it’s not something you’re going to use more than once. It’s the sort of thing you find at airport bookshops: Michael Connelly, Nora Roberts, just the very accessible kinds of fiction. Mind you, I like both Michael Connelly and Nora Roberts, but neither writes the kind of books I would want to read repeatedly or that require a tremendous amount of concentration. These days, though, with Kindle, I can carry several hundred books around with me, so I do. But you still need your takeoff and landing books, so for those I tend to take with me books that people send me in hopes of a quote, because those tend to be fairly small, and they’re also disposable, so if I finish one on a flight I can just leave them.
What was the last book to make you cry?
I cry very easily, so in fact it was probably — I don’t know if it counts or not — a scene from The Scottish Prisoner, while I was writing it. It would be the last scene in the book. That wasn’t the last scene that I wrote, because I don’t write in order, but I cried writing that particular scene.