Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!
Seven years after the series’ last release, a new “Outlander” book by Diana Gabaldon is finally here. “Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone” is the ninth installment in the megahit adventures of time-traveling physician Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser and Scottish Highlander Jamie Fraser.
Grasping the fat new volume is an unbearably delicious moment for devotees, as celebratory — though distinctly more R-rated — as any “Harry Potter” midnight release.
Outlander was a hit from the 1991 publication of the first volume, a tapestry weaving historical fiction, passionate romance, mystery, medicine and even military history with a core of science fiction. A Starz TV series premiering in 2014 added a new stratosphere of superfans. Truly, that word is too weak: I am talking about people who get tattooed with Jamie’s clan motto, needlepoint Claire and Jamie’s wedding vows, or (naming no names here) may or may not dreamily read certain scenes out to their partner in bed.
Gabaldon, 69, has written the same characters for more than 30 years and more than 8,000 pages now — and allowed them to age. The sexy 20-somethings of the first book are now, well, sexy grandparents, with the wisdom and weight of a long marriage behind them (even allowing for time-travel-imposed gaps). Jamie throws out his back. Claire (she of the “Jesus H.” outbursts) gets hot flashes.
That’s rare to read in an epic series, I said in a phone conversation with Gabaldon from her Scottsdale, Arizona, home.
“That probably ties into a misassumption that older people are not interesting,” she said. “If you come out of the romance novel reading tradition and so forth, only people up to about 30 — or maybe 35 these days — are at all interesting, because you know, they still have sex.”
(Note: If Gabaldon was transcribing, I bet she would insert one of her trademark <g>’s here, meaning <grin>, a remnant from her years on early-era computer bulletin boards.)
“You can’t have stereotyped old geezers running around doing stuff that 30-year-old people would be doing, but that doesn’t mean what they are doing is pointless or uninteresting,” she continued.
We discussed how on earth she found the will to write epic novels while parenting three children and working two jobs. (Gabaldon was a university professor in biosciences and founded a scholarly journal after acquiring a specialty in scientific and technical software at the dawn of the PC age.) The short answer: She wrote late at night, and learned to cycle between different projects as she hit roadblocks, from grant proposals to software reviews to novels and more.
“If some people are only working on one thing, they get stuck, they get up, take the dog for a walk, go get a cup of coffee, they don’t come back. That’s why they don’t finish their book. But I couldn’t afford to do that, I had to keep working.”
And she is not concerned by what I call the “Game of Thrones” question of whether the TV show will outpace her published work.
“Even if it took me another five years to finish Book 10, I don’t think they could catch me.”
Here are other excerpts from our conversation, edited in some cases for length and clarity.
The Seattle Times: The seven-year publishing gap in the main “Outlander” series is the longest one yet.
Every single interviewer I’ve talked to so far has started out that way.
In my own defense, I wrote four other books in those seven years. I also was a consultant for the TV show. I wrote several scripts for them, but also, being a consultant means they show me everything. … This is fascinating, interesting stuff, but there’s a lot of it, it does take some time to do. We also had two grandchildren born during those seven years, they being presently 4 and 2, so they also take up a little time.
Is it different writing these characters now, when you are so familiar with them, versus 30 years ago?
Actually, when I start working on a new book, I have to consider who these people are at this point … to kind of get reaccustomed to them and [ask], “Who are you now?” One reason why there’s a large gap between books is just that they’re big and that they require a lot of engineering, so to speak, to pick up the threads of previous books. … But it’s also because I have to age to the right age to be able to interpret people like that. I could not have written the books I’m writing now when I was 35. I’ve aged along with the characters and I kind of know how they feel, what’s important to them and what the shapes of their lives might be like.
You come from this distinct era of the early online world, where you chatted on original CompuServe forums (which led to the publication of “Outlander.”) You still personally interact with a lot of people online. Why?
It’s totally discretionary on my part. If I’m really busy I don’t do it, or I do it to a very minor degree. [Social media also, Gabaldon commented later, makes it less of a shock to go from the total solitude of writing to the massive publicity of new releases.] But the CompuServe Lit Forum and the others like it did teach me exactly how to negotiate social media, which was a very valuable thing to know when social media started exploding, because I could rapidly see the benefits to having social media if you’re doing something like selling a book.
You still need to encourage sales at this point?
I would like people to realize that I am still writing books, because it does take me several years to write the large ones. When I write something new, I want them to hear about it ahead of time and be interested by the time the book itself turns up. The other thing is, writing is a lonely business, and in part you write because you want people to read what you write. Posting small bits as I do and getting a response to it is very gratifying. Also, by posting things occasionally, I will be saved from some hideous blunder of using foreign language inappropriately or something, because often people will tell me [for instance], “Oh, I think you meant to say this if you’re writing Polish.” Or I’ll ask for pieces of information: I’ll say, for instance, “I’m writing something set in Georgia, what color would the dirt be outside Savannah?” And people who live in Savannah will answer.
I love the day-to-day activities in 18th-century America. Could you have focused the series on just that at some point, like a “Little House on the Prairie”?
I was telling a bigger story. I was also not telling a story that was aimed primarily at women. I like adventure and war, and in fact I like men, even though that’s a very unfashionable point of view these days. The books are not intended for any specific gender. They are intended for people who are deeply curious and want to explore a life that is not the one they’re personally leading. And that involves a lot of stuff, from nursing babies and what you do about chapped nipples to, “Oh my God, there’s an uprising … and I’m going to have to go do something about it.”
I’m reasonably confident in saying there are very few other books like that; the closest things would have been, I guess, James Clavell’s books like “Shogun,” or [Larry McMurtry’s] “Lonesome Dove,” where these things that people do on a daily basis are certainly there and are interesting, but then you run into these periods of intense conflict and horrifying events.
There are lovely peaceful stretches of the books and then it’s like “Oh my gosh, someone’s trying to kill them again?” Can’t they just catch a break?
The second half of the 20th century was probably the most peaceful period in all of human history because of the Pax Americana and other things, but prior to that things were extremely turbulent for centuries. And the other thing is that I was sort of following the tide of history … and the only thing I knew about writing novels, which is still the most important thing, is that a novel has to have conflict.
There are supernatural elements in the book beyond time travel. Have you set boundaries for what magic you allow and don’t allow?
There are things that seem indigenous or that grow out of the story, so to speak [including the traditions of that time and those cultures]. And then there are other things, like, “What’s on the other side?” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and I’m still a practicing Roman Catholic; I mean, we believe in ghosts or spirits and things like that, it’s just that we incorporate them as part of daily life. Also, my father’s side of the family is Hispanic, from New Mexico, and they have a completely different view of saints and magic and so forth than does the other half of my heritage, which is from Yorkshire [in England].
How on earth did obscure medical conditions like Dupuytren’s contracture get into the books?
When I was a research scientist, they borrowed me periodically to teach classes in the biology department … I ended up teaching human anatomy and physiology repeatedly. So that’s where I got the broad but shallow basis of clinical medicine that Claire has.
Signed copies of Gabaldon’s books go through Scottsdale independent bookstore Poisoned Pen. How did your longstanding relationship with the store develop?
I had been shopping with them for years, and when I started writing, I was browsing and Barbara Peters, the owner, came up to me and said, “Can I help you find something?” I said, “I’m looking for books that are set in Scotland,” because that’s how I developed an ear for Scots dialogue, was by reading stuff written by Scots. She introduced me to Ian Rankin … and finally she asked why I was interested in Scotland. So I told her. … About a year later, I actually sold the book in question and I brought a copy into her and said, “This is the book I’ve been working on.” She was obviously dumbfounded that I had actually finished a book and someone published it. But she was interested in my career, and after three or four books, they ended up selling my books, and the sales got to a certain point and became a thing unto themselves. Then that bookstore was developing their own means of marketing as bookselling changed and [Peters] had very rightly decided that the only way to differentiate a small store such as hers was to do live events and have signed books constantly available. So we have had a very synergistic relationship for the past 30 years.
Are there any characters where you thought, “I should kill this person off, but but I want to keep writing them, so I won’t”?
Oh, no, no. I never plan on killing people. I’m always very upset when that happens. I was not expecting Jane, William’s love interest in the previous book, to die. In fact, I thought she would continue as his major love interest.
I see online how readers enjoy listing their favorite sex scenes in the book. (This quickly devolves into my sighing “so romantic!” at an encounter when Jamie says softly to Claire, “I like ye fat, Sassenach. … Fat and juicy as a plump wee hen. I like it fine.”) When you write these scenes, do they strike you as anything unusual, as they do to a lot of readers?
I can’t say that they do. I’m just listening to the people talk. What they say kind of grows logically out of both who they are and the situation in which they find themselves. [With that line], this was back in the 18th century, when it was in fact considered desirable to be on the plump side, partly because you were likelier to live through the next pandemic or plague or whatever. If you look at a lot of artwork, which I do, you’ll see that prosperous men were always portrayed with a large paunch, whether they had one or not.”
You’re writing about a central marriage where both partners are very powerful in very complementary ways. And you’re in a successful long-term marriage, where I assume the balance of power has changed over the decades.
It’s a constant process of readjustment, negotiation. Both of us have major strengths in one area or another, and sometimes those come into conflict. Early on, one of the reasons that I did not tell my husband that I was writing a novel was because I’m sure he would have tried to stop me. Not out of simple objection to my writing a novel, but out of fear that I would die, or, you know, take too much time away from family, etc., etc. He found out, but at that point, I was far enough into it that he couldn’t have stopped me. In fact, he didn’t try. At that point, he was just cautiously interested and began asking questions. He’s remained a staunch fan, my first reader, he’s always been behind me … Doug has been with me for the last week while I’ve been signing 20,000 copies of the book. He came along to hand me books and I said, “You don’t have to, the bookstore has like 10 people shuffling books in all directions,” and he said, “No, I want to come and do this for you.”