Chatting with Diana Gabaldon
We swapped bytes with Diana Gabaldon a couple of weeks ago. Here are her comments on such items as the writing life on the Internet, grisly scenes, and gratuitous sex. You betcha!
BookPage: You seem to have an enormous correspondence on the Internet. How many folks are you in contact with, and how often are you online either answering email -- pesky interviewers, especially -- or participating in the online literary forums?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, I have accounts on CompuServe and AOL. I keep AOL mainly because there are several areas on AOL with "folders" discussing my books -- in the Writers Club Romance area, in the Science Fiction Realm, in the Book Nook (under Fiction Romance and Historical Fiction), in Book Central (there's a "live" Outlander discussion group starting up in their Cafe Books), and probably a few I haven't heard about yet.
I try to drop in on the folders dedicated to my books, at least every few days, and answer questions as best I can.
CompuServe is more or less my electronic "home," though; I got onto it by accident some ten years ago (in the course of a software review I was writing for InfoWorld), and never left. The conversation and the company are stimulating -- great depth and sophistication -- and it is in fact where I made the contacts that eventually got me an agent and a publisher (I told you all that stuff, I'm sure).
Anyway, I'm now "staff" on CompuServe; I'm co-section leader of a section in the Writers Forum, called Research and the Craft of Writing; we address esoteric questions like how deceased animals are disposed of in Great Britain (just what do you do with a mad cow? You evidently don't just get out the backhoe and bury it in the back yard), or whether striped peppermint candy was available in the American colonies in 1793, or what kinds of voice substitution are possible for a person with a tracheotomy, or exactly what would happen -- in physical terms -- to the body of a person who had cut their wrists in a cabin in the woods in high summer, who wasn't found for several days...and also questions concerning writing technique: what are the advantages and limitations of telling a particular story in 1st person vs. third-person? What's the best way to introduce backstory without boring the paying customers?
Occasionally people will put up brief snippets of work (not long pieces; we have formal workshop sections for those who want critiques of stories or chapters) and ask whether X works, or if anyone can see why Y doesn't work, or can anyone suggest what to do about Z?
To get back to your question -- I average maybe 80-100 e-mails (that's private correspondence) on the two services per week, plus as many threads (topics of conversation) as I have time to participate in on the public areas -- I probably post 50-60 messages a week in public areas. E-mail reaches me through the Internet, as well as from the online services. Normally (as though there was such a thing), I spend about an hour online in the morning answering mail and minding my CompuServe section, another in the late evening, before I start work. I'll log on from time to time during the day -- to CompuServe -- but just to collect messages and read them as a short break; I don't normally take time to respond then.
BookPage: Has the Internet played a role in your ever-increasing popularity?
Gabaldon: Yes, I'm sure it has. As my editor is fond of saying, "These have to be word-of-mouth books, because they're so weird you can't describe them to anybody!"
There's no better means of spreading word-of-mouth than the various pathways of the Internet. I've often "eavesdropped" on sections of AOL that I don't publicly participate in, and found people recommending my books to their friends, for example. It's also very common for people who drop by my CompuServe section to enjoy the conversation, then ask if I have anything published, and when I say yes, and describe it, to go out and get one of the books. And as a publicist at Delacorte once told me, "If you can get anybody to read the first one, it's just like pushing drugs--they're hooked!"
BookPage: Drums of Autumn seems to me a gentler book in some ways than its predecessors: Jamie and Claire are basically together, Jamie wants very much to put down roots (that's a very moving scene in which he points out that despite his age, he doesn't even have a place to call home). Yet, the undercurrent of violence that is a part of the times is there: the threat of the Indians, the pirates, the Redcoats, and the simple rigors of living in a wild place. What are your thoughts about including such graphic scenes? They do make harrowing reading.
Gabaldon: Well, it was a violent time, though the violence was often sporadic and unexpected. Daily life on a small homestead was frequently pretty dull -- except that a bear could easily come by during the night and scare your pig under your bed. Or an Indian could stop by and die of measles in your corncrib.
My husband tells me that the books overall have something of the rhythm of daily life; not that I necessarily give a rundown of every detail of the day (it just seems like that sometimes), but that you get the feeling of interest in small details -- the salamander that runs out of the wood in your fireplace, the ticks that bite you while you sleep, the difficulty of taking a bath -- underlying the more dramatic events, throughout.
That is of course deliberate, and one of the characteristics that causes people who write to me to say that the stories are so vivid, they feel as though they're actually living in another time and place. It's a technique I call "underpainting," and it's very tedious to do -- but worthwhile.
However, while the detailed background and sense of daily routine is the mortar that holds the book together, the interest of the storyline as a whole -- the dramatic "shape" -- is dictated by the more startling events and interactions.
As to harrowing...(shrug). If something happened, I just describe it. It would, however, be wrong -- aesthetically -- to gloss the more unpleasant events, while giving every detail of the pleasant ones. None of the scenes you mention are gratuitous; all are integral to the story, and in several cases, there's an underlying literary purpose, beyond the dramatic.
That's what usually bothers me about sex/love scenes in most novels (spy thrillers as well as romance, though it's naturally more prevalent in romance novels) -- in most, the acts described could be taking place between any two persons with the necessary genital arrangements. Not in my books; any such act could only take place between these specific individuals -- consequently, it's the interaction and relationship between the characters (and how it affects them) that's important; not titillation contingent on spinal-cord reflexes.
Ditto (re: literary purpose) the priest's execution by the Mohawk. You'll notice that Jamie remarks that he has seen precisely similar acts performed by French (i.e., highly "civilized") executioners -- the only thing he finds shocking is the subsequent step of cannibalization.
And in Dragonfly in Amber, the hangman, M. Forez, gives a harrowing, step-by-step description (much more graphic than this "hearsay" description of the Mohawk torture) of the same process.
What we're doing here -- and it's stated earlier, in more explicit terms, during their first encounter with the Tuscarora -- is pointing up the fact that "civilization" is largely a matter of perception.
BookPage: Your books are romantic but not romances; thrilling but not thrillers; historically rich but not history. If you had to categorize your books, where would you shelve them?
Gabaldon: How would I categorize these books? I wouldn't. I didn't have any genre or category in mind when I wrote them -- and they're all different from each other, in terms of structure, approach, and tone. While it was a sensible marketing strategy to call them "romance" in the beginning (they do have a lot of romantic elements; they just have a whole lot of other things you don't normally find in romance novels), that label is both limiting (insofar as a lot of people wouldn't even look at something called "romance," feeling that they know exactly what that sort of book is, and they aren't interested) and misleading (I get a lot of romance readers, who write to me, figuratively bug-eyed, saying, "But you can't do that in a romance!").
They sell under any number of classifications: I've found them shelved under Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, History (nonfiction) [Really. Foyle's, in London, keeps them in the nonfiction History section.], General Fiction, and -- on a few memorable occasions -- Literature.
I see Ingram is listing Drums of Autumn as General Fiction (defined as "any book that does not fall into another specific category"), which seems OK to me. I suppose I might call them "Historical Fiction," just to make it clear that they do have a historical setting.
BookPage: Who's your favorite character? Why?
Gabaldon: Goodness, I couldn't pick one -- I love them all (including Jack Randall and Stephen Bonnet), or I couldn't write them.
BookPage: Where do you write? Have you written all your books in the same place and way?
Gabaldon: Where do I write? Anywhere (I have a laptop computer), but most frequently in my office. I used to write where my desktop computer was (before I had a laptop) -- either in my University office (on lunch-hours), or my home office (a converted garage.) After I sold Outlander, though, we bought a new house, which has a real office). I've written on planes, in hotel rooms, and sitting in the middle of Discovery Zone (one of those places you take kids and turn them loose), though.
BookPage: After all your research into the 18th century, would you want to return to that period?
Gabaldon: Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.