She’s been breaking “the rules” of writing and publishing since she first wrote a story about a World War II nurse who travels back in time to fall in love with a Scots highlander, which, incidentally, was twice as long as a standard commercial novel. Her publisher didn’t know how to market the book. Reviewers tried to pigeonhole it as a romance. Or historical-adventure. Or a paranormal. Or . . . whatever.
But millions of readers didn’t care where it sat on the bookshelves, all they knew was that she’d written a great book. Diana Gabaldon’s debut novel Outlander became a word-of-mouth success and left readers hungry for more adventures of protagonists Claire Beauchamp Randall and Jamie Fraser.
Gabaldon’s since gone on to write six books in the Outlander series, with a seventh in progress, and the Lord John books, which started as a short story about a minor character in the Outlander series, but has since taken a life of its own. She’s garnered a loyal readership, and has satisfied their demands for details about the world she’s created by publishing The Outlandish Companion, a compendium of all Outlander errata for fans.
Gabaldon’s books are genre fiction at its best. Vivid imagery, authentic dialogue, characters readers fall in love with, inventive plot-twists and historical accuracy combine in a page-turning read. I clear the decks for at least a week when I start a Gabaldon novel, because I know I’m not going to get anything else done, and I spend a lot of time muttering, “how does she do it?” She takes her craft seriously, but there’s also a certain magic to her prose that no craft book can impart.
We were thrilled when she agreed to a Q&A with Writer Unboxed, because her work is the epitome of unboxed writing.
Please settle back and enjoy part one of our interview with Diana Gabaldon.
Q: You came from academia and were a pioneer in the use of computers for scientific analysis. What made you decide to pursue writing fiction? Did you have any notion that you could become a full-time novelist at the time?
Diana Gabaldon: I’m tempted to say, “See the Prologue in THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION.” Everybody asks this. And it’s either the nine-page Whole Story , or the short version: i.e., I always knew I wanted to be a novelist, so I thought I’d write a book for practice to learn how. I did. That was OUTLANDER. Having decided that apparently I could write a decent novel, I kept doing it.
And yes, I did have a notion that I could become a full-time novelist. I didn’t know for sure—no one does—but I certainly thought it was possible. As I not infrequently point out to people, the fact that I had not written a novel prior to OUTLANDER didn’t mean that I had no idea what a sentence was. I’d been writing—and selling—nonfiction as a freelance for years: I wrote not only academic texts and scholarly articles, but encyclopedia articles, software documentation, training materials, reviews for computer magazines, popular science articles and Walt Disney comic books. No, wait, comic books are fiction, I’m pretty sure.
But like I say, everyone always asks, “But how did you get from being a scientist (Oooo, logical, cold, tidy, hard to understand) to being a novelist? (Wheeeee! Warm, fuzzy, empathetic, creative!). To which the answer is Really Simple: I wrote a book. (Actually, it’s not the contradiction in terms that people often assume. Science and art rest on exactly the same principles, and are in essence the same thing.)
Q: OUTLANDER was a tremendous commercial success. Did you have any idea it would barnstorm like it did? How did your life change because of it?
DG: Well, it didn’t, really. Barnstorm, I mean. Nor did my life change markedly at the time; I didn’t quit my university job until after I’d finished the manuscript of DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, more than a year later.
You may have noticed that no one—including me—is able to describe OUTLANDER in twenty-five words or less. This is a serious drawback to a brand-new book.
When it was published, it had a print-run of 25,000. That was (and still is) more than respectable for a first novel, but hardly blockbuster numbers. OK, at that time (remember, this was seventeen years ago) the big super-stores hadn’t yet evolved; all the book business essentially lay in the hands of B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and to a much lesser degree, the independent stores. But everything (in publishing terms) depended on getting a book into B.Dalton and Waldenbooks, and thus the Fiction and genre buyers for these chains were hugely important. OK. The sales reps from Random House took out their new lists—including OUTLANDER as the lead title for the month–and showed them to the Fiction buyers at both major chains. The buyer from one chain (I think it was Waldenbooks, but don’t recall for sure) said, “I have no idea what this book is, but since it’s your lead title, I’ll take 10,000 copies.” Great!
The buyer from the other chain said, “I have no idea what this book is, and neither will anybody else. I’ll take 300 copies.” For the whole chain. That’s about one-quarter of a book per store.
But…those 300 copies sold out that first month. So the stores re-ordered, another 300 copies. Sold out. Re-ordered. When it happened a third time, the buyer said, “What’s this weird book that keeps popping up at the bottom of my list every month?” At this point, she actually read the book—and came back and ordered 10,000 copies.
As my beloved first editor always used to say: “These have to be word-of-mouth books, because they’re too weird to describe to anybody.”
Anyway, while OUTLANDER made a small stir here and there, mostly by virtue of being Big, as well as Weird, it was by no means a huge commercial success—to start with. The thing was, it just didn’t stop selling. (The entire series is still in print—in hardcover—seventeen years later. This, in a climate where the average new hardcover book stays in print three months.)
So when DRAGONFLY came out, the publisher took a deep breath and decided to risk another 25,000-book print-run. Sold out in a month. Reprinted, and ended up selling more than 50,000 copies in hardcover within its first quarter. That got the attention of people in publishing—but it’s still not huge numbers. That book began to appear on the weekly chain-store bestseller lists, but nowhere near the big newspaper lists.
Well, so, along comes VOYAGER, two years later. Now, DRAGONFLY has a Major Cliffhanger Ending. Consequently, people glommed VOYAGER like a herd of locusts. The publisher (shrieking and pulling hairs out of its collective head at the ungodly size of the book) had—with trembling and trepidation—gone for an initial print-run of 60,000! That sold out in the first three days. Went back to press. Went back for a third time at the end of the first week. Ended up selling 110,000 copies in hardcover in its first month. Now you’re talking bestseller territory—and VOYAGER was my first book to hit the New York Times list. But this was six years after I’d begun writing a novel to see if I could. You know—gradual progress.
How has my life changed? Well, I don’t teach or do scientific research at a university anymore; now I sit in my office and write books—and interviews.
Q: We have an ongoing debate in Writer Unboxed that the publishers are uncomfortable with books that they can’t easily pigeonhole into an identifiable market. Then I read in your interview with January Magazine, you reveal that OUTLANDER languished for 18 months because the publisher couldn’t figure out how to market a book that broke so many genre boundaries. How did you cope with that rollercoaster ride? Do you think that publishers these days are more relaxed about slotting books in a particular market, or are they even more resistant to the unconventional book?
DG: Well, I coped with it out of sheer ignorance; I had no idea what a “normal” publishing timeline was, so was not at all perturbed, since nobody told me what the problem was—or that there was a problem.
I think publishers are more willing to consider books that “stretch” the boundaries of a particular genre now (vide the fact that “vampire romances” are now such a commonplace that no one even blinks at the designation)—but a book that plain old doesn’t fit anywhere is going to give them fits.
Q: You are able to blend different genres — adventure, romance, paranormal — together within the overall framework of a historical. Do you think writers should explore outside their chosen genre? What advantages or disadvantages does it give them?
DG: I sure couldn’t tell anyone that they should do it. It causes major problems, in terms both of selling and marketing a book, if it can’t be slotted into a known genre—bookstores have shelves, and those shelves have labels, is what it comes down to. “Where does this book go?” is the basic question all publishing and marketing people have to start with. If you can’t answer that question in twenty-five words or less (let alone a single-word designation), you gotta problem.
On the other hand, in terms of writing a book…well, you can use anything that suits your fancy and the purposes of the book, and you aren’t (or needn’t be) constrained by the common conventions or expectations of any genre. (“You can’t do that!” was the usual refrain I heard through my first three or four books, generally from other writers who did work within the constraints of one or another of the genres I was using. “Maybe not,” I’d reply, “but I did.”)
Q: You’ve called your novels “big weird books”. They are multi-layered with several plot threads woven together. How do you keep your narrative on track? Do you plot extensively in advance, or “fly in the mist”?
DG: Oh, I don’t. Keep the narrative on track, I mean. I’m kind of a four-wheel drive sort of writer.
See, when I’m writing, I’m essentially constructing an n-dimensional object in the hyperspace of my head. Certainly it has a structure, but it’s a lot more like a DNA molecule than a straight line, and it really doesn’t matter which pieces are written first or last; each one kind of gathers others unto itself to make little vortices of plot, and these then begin to agglomerate into bigger chunks, and…it’s kind of organic.
Hmm. Well, look. The best metaphor I’ve come up with for describing what I do when I write is raising continents.
When you begin, there’s nothing but a trackless sea before you, stretching to the horizon. But wait! Out in the distance, an undersea volcano begins to spray smoke and cinders! Then another–and another!
As the lava rolls down the sides of the volcanoes, hissing into the sea, huge clouds of steam rise up, making clouds and temporarily obscuring things. But as the steam and rain begin to clear, you see the islands forming around these volcanoes–atolls, lagoons, islets…the mountains grow taller, the islands enlarge, vegetation grows, animals colonize them–and as the land rises and the water falls away, you begin to see the shape of the continent beneath. The slope of one volcano flows down into the water–and another rises over there…so you can deduce what the hidden land between them must look like, under the water.
When the whole job is done, you’re left with mountain ranges of conflict and excitement, and valleys of restful lyricism. Small lakes and bodies of water remain in the hollows–those are the depths where the symbolism, the moral ambiguities, and the nonexplicit themes of the book lie submerged, waiting for someone to dive for them. And when the reader leans over to look into these watery mysteries…he should see himself in the reflection.
Next week, Gabaldon talks about integrating mountains of historical research into a coherent narrative, and how fans received her new series, the Lord John books. Don’t miss it!