'Outlander': How author Diana Gabaldon really feels about Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe
We asked best-selling author Diana Gabaldon – whose Outlander book series inspired the hit Starz series that will return April 9 – to talk about her next (ninth!) tomb and how she became friends with that other epic writer, George R.R. Martin.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has the Outlander series on Starz changed your life?
DIANA GABALDON: It attracted a lot more attention to me and the books, which resulted in enormous amounts of travel. And it does, in fact, cut down my productivity considerably, so that’s why I decided this year I’m just not going anywhere.
Is there a release date for your next book?
I’m not one of these writers who says, “Oh yes, the next book is due out in one year and three days.” I just say you’re gonna get it when it’s done. It’s gonna be good, but you’re not going to get it until it is good.
Where are you in the process? Seventy-five percent done? Fifty percent?
Nowhere near that. It takes me about three years to write a book. They’re very complex and they take a lot of research, but also because the more popular your books get, the more popular you get, and people want to haul you off and look at you. People come up to me at book signings and say, “Is the next book coming out this year?” And I say “No,” and they say, “Well, why not?” I say, “Well, you’ve got a choice. You can get the next book sooner or you can look at me. And you’re looking at me. It’s all your fault.”
What kinds of questions do fans ask you?
Their questions are very minor and basically they’re just saying, “Does having the TV show affect your writing process?” No. “Do you see Sam Heughan [who plays Jamie Fraser] and Caitriona Balfe [Claire Fraser] every time you sit down to write Jamie and Claire?” No.
So you don’t picture the actors at all?
No. Everybody asks that and I keep wondering why. If you’ve read Gone With the Wind and then you watch Gone With the Wind, did it affect things? I learned just recently, in fact, that a lot of people who read do not form a visual image from what they’re reading. They just don’t. They follow the events and get the resonance with the language, but they have only a vague, general idea of what the characters look like. I don’t have any problem at all maintaining the original vision and the film vision, side by side. It’s just different things.
How have you reacted to fans who have questioned casting decisions on the series?
They read Jamie is head-and-shoulders above the crowd, which he is because everybody else in the 18th century was 5 feet 8 inches. Sam is not head-and-shoulders above everyone, so everyone thinks he’s puny. He should be bigger. His hair isn’t red enough. It just went on and on. Finally I just wrote a little piece and said, look, do you have any idea what it is that actors really do? Actors act. They embody the character. It doesn’t actually matter what they look like beyond certain rough physical parameters. Then I explained to them what Sam had done in his audition. I had no idea what to expect when they sent me the audition tapes, but five seconds in, I was thinking he looks fine. Another five seconds, he was Jamie Fraser. I was astonished.
Caitriona doesn’t look anything like Claire. I mean Caitriona is 5 feet 10 inches and Claire is 5 feet 6 inches and curvy. She has a good bosom and a very round, somewhat prominent rear end. Caitriona was a Victoria’s Secret model. People complained that Caitriona’s Claire doesn’t seem like book Claire to them, that she doesn’t seem to have any sense of humor, that she seems sort of sullen and humorless. But Caitriona does a beautiful job with Claire. She is different than the book, and that’s because most of what you find funny about Claire is the things she’s thinking, and you can’t do that on a show without constant voiceover.
This TV show was a long time coming. Give me a brief history.
Oh, let me see. That was a small company that wanted to make a two-hour movie. I can’t even remember what their names were, but they bought an option for $5,000. It lasted for a year. We got constant inquiries, two or three a month, and talked to a number of people. There was one producer who wanted to make a miniseries on ABC, like a six-episode thing, and she was talking to me about their internal politics. She said it’s an American channel and they have their own actors, so she said ‘I don’t see why we can’t change it so Claire’s an American.’ And I said, ‘Then why don’t you see why I won’t give you an option?’ Ron had finished Battlestar Galactica and was looking for another impassioned project. His wife had been a fan of the Outlander books for a long time, but he’d never noticed. He read it and loved it … the Starz people actually read all of the books and came back with the commitment not to change it. And CEO Chris Albright, bless his heart, said to make it for the fans, which is not anything that any of the others would have done. So we lucked out big time.
How did you become friends with George R.R. Martin?
My sixth book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, was nominated for a number of book awards, one of which was The Quill Award, and they had it in New York at the Natural History Museum. I had worn a very snazzy outfit with black suede boots with four-inch heels. I found my table, which was a Random House table, and George is also a Random House author and his book, whichever it was, was up for the same award as mine in the same category, science fiction fantasy and horror. Yes, they are weird. There was George across the table from me looking like an inflamed Ewok. He had this huge, purple brocade vest under his tux. I was not close enough to talk to him, so I just smiled. Anyway, I took my boots off the minute I sat down, which was fine. Our category was the very last one of the awards, and as we got closer I was thinking, “Well, do I put my boots back on?” And I was looking at George and I was looking at Stephen King, who was one of the other nominees, and I’m thinking, “Nah.” So, of course, I won. I just hampered up on the platform in my bare feet. I stood on my tip-toes and said well, “Now you all know the terrible truth. I’m short.” Anyway, I hadn’t planned on winning, and I didn’t have anything prepared to say, so I said, “You really ought to give this award to George R.R. Martin who really does write spectacular fantasy, as in I don’t write fantasy at all.” That went over big with George and his then-girlfriend.
Talk about your relationship with the Outlander producers.
They’re extremely kind to me. They include me in things which is very nice of them, because they don’t have to. They were cautious of me to start with because they didn’t know how I would take this. We were very much on the same wavelength and getting along fine. So when they began doing things, they began to trust me that I understood that it was an adaptation. I was not the sort of author who was going to be going, “Oh no, it says this here. You have to do it that way.” I also knew the constraints they were dealing with, which is that they have a limited number of 55-minute blocks, and within that block, you have to have a little dramatic arc. They’ve done a very good job of making it a faithful adaptation while still fitting it into the structure they need for TV. We knew all along that it was intended to be one season per book until perhaps [the third book] Voyager, which is a much longer book. People were saying to Ron, “Well, what are you gonna do when we get to Voyager?” And he said, “I should have such problems.”
Have you ever recommended a change to an episode?
In the fifth episode, the writers had written a lovely scene where the men were really getting on Claire’s nerves and she’s wanted to get away, so Claire goes off wandering through this little cobblestone village, and passes a house that has a vase in the window, harkening back to the first episode. The woman of the house comes out to talk to her and they get into conversation, and Claire goes inside and ends up having a nice time playing Bridge and drinking tea with the ladies. And I’m looking at that and going, “No.” I wrote back and said, I see what you’re trying to do here, but it’s the 18th century in the Highlands of Scotland. You don’t have cobblestone villages. You don’t have houses. And people would not be playing Bridge. People in Scotland thought playing cards were the devil’s playground.
So what happened?
I [gave them] a list of the things that women would logically have been doing during the day. You know, making butter, milking goats, so forth. I said there’s this one thing that was a very traditional Scottish Highland thing called wool waulking, and this is where they would take the freshly woven fabric and pour hot urine on it to set the dye, and then slap it back and forth on a table. They did this in groups because it was very tedious. [The scene ended up in the episode]. That was me. Wasn’t it good?
Will you make another cameo on the show?
I’m sure they’d let me if I said I wanted to, but I think once is probably enough.
Are you going to write these books forever?
Well eventually I’m gonna die so you have to bear that in mind. I just don’t know. I know there’s a book 9. I have more than enough material for that. So chances are good that there will be a book 10. I think 10 is probably as many as it will take me to the end of Jamie and Claire’s lifetimes, because it’s their story. It ends when they do.
To continue reading more on Outlander, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy it here.