A scottish-american journey in time and space
By, Sergio Burns
Her books, like stars, twinkle in many different directions. She wanders through cornfields of historical fiction, romance, mystery, adventure and science fiction and fantasy. Reaping a harvest of entertaining and captivating work. But Diana Gabaldon is much, much more, than just a mash up of literary genres.
In case you didn’t know, Diana is the writer of the novels from which the television series Outlander has been adapted. To date she has published eight ‘Outlander’ novels with one in the process of being prepared for release.
Arizona-born Gabaldon, however, started out studying Zoology at Northern Arizona University, followed by a masters at the University of California at San Diego. She then completed a PhD at Northern before finding work at the ‘Center for Environmental Studies’ at Arizona State University.
“As to Zoology,” the novelist explained her subject choice, “I’ve always been curious about the natural world and had an early interest in science. While I knew that I was meant to be a novelist, I also knew that wasn’t an ambition that would go…well with my father (my parents were both born in 1930 and grew up during the depression; my sister and I were…brainwashed with the notion that we must get respectable permanent jobs, with health benefits, pensions, etc.). So I went into science, and thought that I would eventually figure out how to be a novelist.”
Gabaldon, of course, achieved her dream, though changing horses between the secure and steady world of academia – with fringe benefits – and the precarious world of the writer raised eyebrows.
“People often express their amazement that I moved from science to literature,” she told me. “Thinking – as many people do – that science is cold, hard, linear, tidy, white-coated and bloodless, whereas The Arts are of course wildly colourful, warm, vivid and a creative free-for-all. Actually, Art and Science are—at their bases—the same thing. Both depend on the same ability: the ability to perceive (and draw) patterns out of chaos.”
Despite harbouring ambitions to be a novelist, her writing career – as she states on her website – eventually started more by accident than design.
“I decided to write a book for practice,” she casually revealed. “Decided that the easiest sort of book to practice on might be a historical novel. I was a research professor; I knew my way around a library, and it seemed easier to look things up than to make them up, and if I had no imagination, I could steal things from the historical record.”
It was a simple plan, and a good way for Diana to get moving with her first work of fiction.
“So the next question, obviously, was—what period of history would be interesting?” she said thoughtfully. “I spent some time casually considering different periods: American Civil War, the Borgia papacy, ancient Egypt, etc., but nothing really attracted me. In this malleable frame of mind… I happened to see a random episode of ‘Dr. Who’ (a really old one, from the Patrick Troughton years) in which one of the Doctor’s companions was a young Scotsman, from 1745, who appeared in his kilt. I found myself still thinking about this the next day (in church), and shrugged, thinking, ‘You just need a place to start. Why not? OK, Scotland, 18th century.’ So nothing inspired me to write OUTLANDER, but a man in a kilt made me choose 18th century Scotland for the period of the novel I already intended to write. For practice.”
The young Scotsman in his kilt was the Yorkshire-born actor, Fraser Hines (Jamie McCrimmon in Doctor Who), who later, while working on Emmerdale, tried to get British television producers interested in bringing the novels to the small screen without success.
Hines, however, had strong Scottish connections, his mother was from Port Glasgow, and there is, of course, a strong Scottish feel to Outlander. Much of the television series, which emerged from the novels in 2014 (23 years after Diana’s first novel), has been filmed in Scotland. The series being shot in various locations around the country including Cumbernauld, Doune Castle, Stirling, and Kilmarnock’s Dean Castle. It also stars Sam Heughan, from Balmaclellan, New Galloway, Dumfriesshire and includes well known Scots actors Bill Paterson and Douglas Henshall.
What started as ‘practice’ was by 1993 a full blown series of three, the third a New York Times bestseller.
But while Hines’ attempts to bring the novels to television were unsuccessful, the books were eventually translated onto the small screen.
“I actually had nothing to do with that decision,” she says defensively. “Over the years, we (I and my agents) have optioned the books only four times. We got two or three requests a month for options, but you want to be really careful who you do options with, because while it’s long odds against anyone succeeding in the massive undertaking of developing a big project like that—they might just do it. And if they do go ahead and purchase the film rights, you’ll never, ever get them back. So you need to be sure that the producer you’re dealing with a) actually has made films before, b) has read your book(s) (many production companies just want to buy a book because it’s a bestseller; they have no intention of using the story as it stands), and c) … understands the book.”
The complexities of the process, perhaps, explains the long wait from published set of novels to appearance on television?
“The fourth producer with whom we did an option agreement,” Diana picked up on the story, “Was Jim Kohlberg, who’d made several very good small films, had read Outlander four times before coming to talk to me. Jim wanted to make a two-hour feature film, and despite my telling him I thought it wasn’t possible to condense a book of that length and complexity into two hours, he tried valiantly for several years. Unbeknownst to me (I’d never heard of Ron D. Moore), during this period, Battlestar Galactica had wrapped, and Ron began looking for another project. His production partner, Maril Davis, suggested Outlander to him and he read it. Sufficiently intrigued, he and Maril went to talk to Jim—who said no, he wanted to make a feature film. Ron being a laid-back kind of guy, he just said, ‘OK, we’ll check back with you.’ And they did—phoning every six months or so—until Jim finally said he was beginning to think that perhaps it was a TV show.”
Gabaldon is now working on the 9th novel of the series ‘Go Tell The Bees That I am Gone’, and it must now seem a distant field of wheat from that first Outlander novel over half a century ago.
So, has the success of Outlander satiated Ms Gabaldon or are there still some unfulfilled ambitions waiting to be met?
“Oh, heck, yes!” she tells me. “If you start doing anything with a whole heart, the universe kind of comes out to meet you, and I have the feeling that the universe and I have a good bit of unfinished business.”
It reminded me of a quote by E.E. Cummings : Listen : there’s a hell of a good universe next door ; let’s go. It could easily be a line delivered by Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan), or Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe), from an episode of Outlander…don’t you think?