Monday, April 20, 2015

Diana Gabaldon at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest

Diana Gabaldon was the keynote speaker for this year's Southern Kentucky Book Fest. She's sold 26  million books worldwide, and Outlander won the People's Choice Award for a SF/Fantasy TV show. When Diana, Catriona Balfe who plays Claire, and Sam Heughan who plays Jamie, went to the award show, they were treated like rock stars. Sam and Catriona were surprised. Gabaldon told them she's never had a bad fan experience. She said some can be a little obsessive, but she's never had a stalker. She commented that with the size and complexity of the books, people with mental derangements can't get through a book. But, anyone can watch TV. She did warn Sam, though, not to get too near the fans when he was wearing a kilt.

Gabaldon went on to tell a story I've heard before, and love. She was in Germany, doing interviews with the German press for her German publisher. By the end of the week, she was tired, and one journalist asked her what is the appeal of a man in a kilt. She answered, the idea of being up against a wall with him in a minute.

Diana went from being a a scientist to being a novelist. A group of students in writing questioned that she didn't get a degree in creative writing. Someone said, "Why would she do that? They just teach you to be boring." She actually wanted to write from the time she was eight. Her father said, though, you're a poor judge of character. You'll probably marry a bum, so you need to get a good education so you can support the kids. She went on to get a number of degrees in the sciences.

When Gabaldon was teaching physiology and anatomy, everyone would take the class, including the football team. They would sit in the front of the class, large inanimate blobs. But, she knew how to get the attention of the class, even in morning sessions. She would recite the poem, "In days of old when Knights were bold, and condoms weren't invented, they stuck a sock upon their cock, and babies were prevented."

When she turned thirty-five, she said by her next birthday she will have written a book. She had written scientific papers and articles. She wrote comic books for Walt Disney. She wanted to write a novel, and, in deciding on a genre, decided that the easiest kind of book for her to write would be historical fiction. She knew how to do research. But, she had no background in history.

Gabaldon was looking for a good time period for the setting. Then, she saw an old Doctor Who episode on PBS. The Doctor had picked up a companion from Scotland, a young man in a kilt. So, she decided to write about Scotland in the 18th century, although she had no idea what Scotland was like, or life in the 18th century. She decided to research as she went along since it was a novel.

In 1988, there was no Internet for research. But, the university library's card catalog was electronic, and she found four hundred books on Scotland. As faculty, she could check as many out as she wanted, and keep them indefinitely. It was a rude awakening when she left and had to give them back. It took her three days to take all the books back.

She was looking for conflict in Scotland, and found the Jacobite uprising and Bonnie Prince Charlie. She also saw the Scots versus the English. In writing her story, she decided to put an English woman in a cottage with a bunch of Scotsmen and see what she did. She said to them, "My name is Claire..., and who the hell are you?" Diana had a smart-ass character who made modern comments. So, she said to the character, go ahead and be modern, and I'll figure out how you got there. So, blame Claire for the time travel.

Gabaldon doesn't outline, and she doesn't know what's going to happen. As she spoke, and digressed from her stories, she said there's a reason she likes long books. She likes digression.

At this same time, her husband had quit his job to start his own business. There's not a lot of difference between a bum and an entrepreneur. So, Diana was the sole income for a few years as they continued to have kids. With her knowledge of science and computers, she started doing scientific writing for BYTE, Wired, and other journals. Within a year, she was making as much from her writing as she was as a professor. She received a special assignment from BYTE that included a membership to CompuServe, and she was to do a review. When she finished, she still had four hours of free connect time when it was $30 per hour. She wasn't going to waste $120. So she searched around, and found a writers' group.

Diana hadn't even told her husband that she was writing a book. She thought she'd write the book first. Then, when she was eight months into it, she had an argument with a man online about how it feels to be pregnant, and she posted a piece she had written in which Claire had that discussion, and anyone could read it. (Her husband says she's congenitally unable to lose an argument.) The group members liked her writing, and they continued to encourage her.

Then, they told her she needed to get an agent. And, one friend recommended her to Perry Norton, an agent who was not afraid of unorthodox or long books, both of which she had. He took her on based on the synopsis and an unfinished novel. When he asked if there would be more, she said she thinks there's more to the story. So, within two weeks of him handling it, she had a three-book contract.

Asked about The Outlandish Companion, she said it's a nonfiction book with a synopsis of the first four books in the series for those who don't want to go back and reread the earlier ones when a new book comes out. It has a list of characters. There's background to the stories. It's been in print in hardcover for twenty years, even though the publishers were reluctant to take it on. She's been putting together The Outlandish Companion 2, covering the next four books, and it will be out in October.

The audience would have let Diana talk forever with her witty stories and humor, but she finally ended saying she likes to write at night, from midnight to 4:30. And, then it was time for her to sign books for all the fans who waited patiently in line.

(Pictures courtesy of Donna Seaton)


Sandi Lewis said...

Gabaldon is one of my favorite historical novel writers. I can't begin to tell you how many people have read the books on my recommendation!

And I am enjoying the Outlander series on TV.


Lesa said...

She's a delightful speaker, Sandi, if you ever get the chance to hear her. I'm so glad the TV series isn't a disappointment since you love the books.