In 1994, Diana Cranstoun of the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) sent Diana Gabaldon a list of questions via traditional mail. Diana was in the midst of writing her fourth book. It’s been over twenty years and ARWA were curious what had changed, particularly given the recent success of the STARZ Outlander series based on Diana’s books. Diana was incredibly gracious to make the time to speak me (an ARWA member!) at the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Here is Part I of that interview.
GTL: In the original interview, in the last question, you were answering at a time that Voyager had just come out and you were working on the fourth novel (at the time untitled), and you said that the fourth novel was going to be the last story for Jamie and Claire. What happened?
DG: Well, it’s basically that I don’t write with a plan. I never plan the books out ahead of time. I don’t write with an outline, I don’t write with a straight line, so I can see a little way ahead, some things. It’s like looking out over a trackless ocean. You see a volcano here and another one there, so you have ideas, but you have no idea what’s on the other side of the horizon or how deep the ocean is.
GTL: Yeah, I figured inspiration just hit.
DG: Well, people do keep picking at you. They keep saying well how many books are there going to be? When is the next one going to come out? What difference does it make? There will be as many are there are going to be. They’re going to come out when I’m done with it. Why do you have to know? But they have to know.
GTL: So, does the fact that fans want you to write more factor into it?
DG: No, that’s got nothing to do with it.
GTL: They’re your characters.
DG: Well, it’s a story and I will tell it as long as there is story to be told. I’m glad if [fans] read it, and I’m really glad if they like it, but that’s not why I write it.
GTL: You’d also said in the original interview that you didn’t belong to a writers’ group at the time. I figured you probably still don’t, but I wonder how with your son being a writer (Diana’s son is fantasy writer Sam Sykes), has that changed anything? Do you collaborate? Do you talk about your storylines?
DG: No. Not really. Once in a while… Sam does write in a straight line, so occasionally he’ll run into something that he’s wrestling with. He doesn’t usually come to me on purpose to talk about that. He’ll leave his dogs while he goes to a conference or something and I’ll say, “How’s it going” and he’ll say, “You know I’m wrestling with this particular thing” and I’ll say “Well, tell me about it, what’s happening?” And so forth. Sometimes I can suggest something, sometimes we just start tossing ideas back and forth, and he comes up with whatever he needs in the course of the conversation. Sometimes it’s a technical thing. He does think about his scenes before he writes them, which I actually don’t, so he’ll say, “well, I wanted it to go this way… but it’s just stuck here.” When it happens to me it usually means I’m using the wrong viewpoint. I’ll say to him, maybe you should back it up and try it again with another character from the scene and see if it belongs to them. It’s a suggestion, whether or not he uses it I don’t know, but we just talk as writers do.
GTL: Have you learned anything from him as a writer?
DG: [Pause]. No. [Laughs] It’s very eerie to read Sam’s stuff. He’s a very good writer, he writes epic fantasy, but it is nothing like what I write in terms of content. He has very fully realized characters. What’s eerie to read is that he has my pacing. He’s never read my books, but he breaks paragraphs where I would break them. He inserts a line of dialogue where I would do that in order to change the focus. He’ll write a fairly hyperbolic passage of prose and then undercut it with a one-liner exactly where I would do it and exactly the way I would do it. It must be genetic because I didn’t teach it to him and he’s never read my books.
GTL: You had written Outlander without visiting Scotland, though you did a ton of research. After visiting in person for the first time, were there any details that you felt you missed and were there any where you felt you’d nailed them?
DG: When you visit a place you’ve never been, there are always details. There are things you never realized were there, so you didn’t go and look for it, but as far as for things that were slightly wrong, the only thing that comes to mind is Loch Ness. When we sold [Outlander] to the U.K. I said, “for God’s sake have a Scot read it” and so they asked Reay Tannahill who was a well-known historical novelist. She did read it and sent me a couple of pages of minor questions and occasional emendations. She took particular exception to my Highland Wedding. She said you’ve got a tabernacle at a blood vow. I said the blood vow is in fact a traditional Highland detail and the tabernacle is because these people are Roman Catholics.
She said you have Loch Ness smelling like warmed mud and raspberry canes. She said, actually I’ve been there and it smells like cold rock. I said, all right! I’ll fix that.
GTL: You’ve been coming to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference for 22 years. What keeps you coming back?
DG: It’s a unique conference. It’s mainly that I like to teach. You always do learn things here in one way or another, from many of the people that you talk to. It’s a very inclusive conference. Everybody is respected regardless of their level of aspiration or accomplishment. Everyone is applauded for their work because we all know what it is to write, what the effort involved is and the strength of will that it takes to do this. Some people are very successful and have been doing this for a long time. They know how hard it is and they respect people who are setting out to do this and will help all they can.
There’s this level of collegiality and equality that is very rare and I don’t think that I’ve seen it at another writers’ conference. In many conferences the presenters or published authors are sequestered and elevated. [SIWC] certainly recognize the accomplishment, but [authors] mingle because we want to. It’s a nice conference with a high level of energy and they go out of their way to provide eight tracks of programming, and make sure that there is enough entertaining, involving material going on at all times so that everybody can be occupied all day if they want to. At the same time there is enough space for the discussion and socializing to take place, which is a very important part of it.
GTL: One last question for you. What have you learned about yourself through writing?
DG: Almost everything. I don’t know what I could tell you, really. Honest writing involves a lot of mining of what you are. It’s not that you don’t know this, it’s not that you’re learning stuff about yourself, it’s that you’re looking at it in a very objective way. You’re drawing on it emotionally and refining this through craft, which is a very conscious, objective process. It’s just looking at yourself through a lot of different filters.
Diana spent so much time with me that we have Part II of the interview next week focusing on the STARZ TV series of Outlander. Check back on February 20th or subscribe for blog posts below to make sure you don’t miss it!
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