The writer behind the historical fiction series gives insight into the world of Jamie and Claire, and explains her next titles at EW PopFest
Outlander author Diana Gabaldon took a break from working on the ninth novel in the wildly popular historical fiction series and stopped by EW PopFest on Sunday, where she spoke to EW’s Lynette Rice (who wore a fantastic Outlander cloak!) and answered fan questions about all things Claire and Jamie. Read on for our eight best takeaways from the lively Q&A.
How she got started
Gabaldon says she’s known since she was eight years old that she was a writer: “Eight was about the age age I was when I realized that people actually produced books, they didn’t just spring out of the library shelves.” But she certainly didn’t begin Outlander thinking it would become a literary (and television) phenomenon.
“I wrote the first book for practice; I wasn’t going to show it to anyone,” she said. But after having an argument with a man about what it feels like to be pregnant, she shared a piece she had written describing the feeling in detail. When people encouraged her to expand upon it — “this is like heroin to a writer, to have people actually want to read what you write” — she shared her work, piece by piece. “I discovered that, given the indescribable nature of what I write, the only way to sell it is to give people free samples.”
How she comes up with her titles
Gabaldon is not yet allowed to share the full title of an upcoming collection of Outlander-related novellas she’s working on, but she did reveal that the title includes the word “seven,” for the seven stories within. (She wanted to call the collection Salmagundi, which is the name of an 18th-century dish meaning, appropriately, a collection of disparate elements, but alas, this was rejected by her editor.) The next novel in the Outlander series will be called Go Tell the Bees that I Am Gone, which comes from Celtic folklore. “Bees are very social insects, and they’re very interested in the comings and goings of the community,” she explains. “You want to always keep your bees informed.”
While she can just peruse a Welsh phone book (and has) to come up with new character names, book titles don’t come as easily. With the exception of Voyager, which Gabaldon says came to her quite naturally, coming up with her poetic book titles “is like pulling teeth.” She described her process as akin to polishing rocks: “When the book has reached a significant mass [and] I begin to see what it’s about, what are the elements, then I pick some evocative words that kind of have to do with those things and I sort of throw them in my rock polisher and try them out in different permutations,” she says. “Eventually things come out, and it falls into a rhythm.”
Engaging with her fans
Considering that her origins as a writer were based on interacting with her readers, Gabaldon finds it quite natural to be as engaged with her fans as she is. One fan wrote her that they had read the whole series 23 times; another gave her a Polaroid of an Outlander tattoo on her foot.
When she first met with the TV show’s Claire and Jamie, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, after a fan event, she assured them, “the people who read the books are intelligent, compassionate, civil, educated — great fans. I’d never been stalked, never had a bad fan experience. And I think that is because people with mental derangements don’t have the attention span to read [a book].” She followed up with a warning, however: “But on the other hand, anyone can watch TV, so when the show goes live, start looking over your shoulder.”
Her Outlander doppelgänger
Gabaldon has been quoted as saying that writers have no secrets, and “if you want to know anything about me, read my books — it’s all there.” Rice followed up the quote with the question that this naturally raises: Does that mean Gabaldon is a fantastic lover? Without missing a beat, the author replied, “I’ve been married for 44 years and I haven’t heard any complaints yet.”
As far as writing herself into her books, however, Gabaldon says her closest doppelgänger in the novels is Jamie — “He is what I would be if I were an 18th-century male.” Though she took evident pleasure in recounting a meeting with some fans, where they began discussing the loathsome Black Jack Randall. “I’m sitting there listening to this and sipping my tea and thinking, ‘you have no idea you’re talking to Black Jack Randall right now.’”
What she thinks of the TV series’ Claire
Outlander readers are fiercely protective of the novels in the transition to the small screen, and the Starz series’ portrayal of heroine Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) has attracted more criticism than Sam Heughan’s Jamie. Many fans have told Gabaldon that the series seems to lack Claire’s sense of humor, which Gabaldon attributes to the series’ lack of first-person perspective. “Caitriona’s a great actress, but there’s only so much she can do with her face,” Gabaldon says. “You can’t film in somebody’s head.” Gabaldon isn’t too concerned about this difference between the two Claires, however: “Mostly, it doesn’t bother people. For those it does, well, they can just go read the book again. No problem.”
Why John Grey fell in love with Jamie
Lord John Grey, whom Gabaldon describes as “a seething mass of repression,” was such a compelling element in the Outlander books that he merited his own related series of novels. Thinking about how to navigate Jamie’s imprisonment in Voyager, Gabaldon decided to bring back the character from Dragonfly in Amber because she thought Grey’s hatred of Jamie but obligation to protect him would make for interesting conflict. Then she just upped the ante. “I said, ‘okay, this is going to cause him a lot of conflict.’ So I was thinking, ‘what if there was a lot of conflict?’” she recalls. “Not only does he hate him and want to kill him, but he’s also physically deeply attracted to him — which is also something he can’t act on.”
How she deals with writer’s block
“Anything I see, think, hear, smell, any writer will pick up ideas like that,” Gabaldon says of her process — though she isn’t immune to writer’s block. “When that happens, When that happens, I will usually go to my reference collection and flip through the historical references just for something interesting that I can use as a kernel,” which might be anything she can sense concretely. “Once I have one, I will write a couple of sentences describing it, and then take words out, put them back, move things around. And meanwhile, in the back of my mind is kicking up questions: What time of day is it? How is the light falling? Is the room warm? No it’s not, my nose is cold and so are my fingers. Get my fingers warm, there’s a fire. Where’s the fire? It’s over there. There’s a dog by the fire. I’ve never seen him before — like that.”
The real Dunbonnet
One of the fans pointed out that Dunbonnet, which is a name that Jamie was called when he hid out in a cave in Voyager was a real figure. “I was at the time reading a lot of Scottish history, folklore, etc., etc., and I came across this mention of the Dunbonnet who had escaped from Culloden and had hidden on his own land in a cave for seven years,” Gabaldon says. While she knew that the figure had been real, she didn’t even realize at the time how perfectly he fit into Outlander, however: “Some time later, long after Voyager was published, I came across the Dunbonnet in another reference, and it gave an expanded version, and it told me the Dunbonnet’s name — which was James Fraser.”
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