Two weeks ago, I had a major thrill when I had the chance to sit down and chat with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon at the Thru the Stones convention in Davenport, IA. My “partner in crime” Koko Pipkin joined me (as I joined her when she interviewed Graham McTavish – see part 1 of her interview here). Diana was talkative, forthcoming, and very willing to share her writing habits, her thoughts about her characters, and give some glimpses into her personal and professional life. Due to space limitations, I’ve broken the interview into two parts. WARNING: This part of the discussion includes information about an upcoming episode of the TV series. I will mark that section – if you’ve read Outlander, it isn’t really a spoiler, just a description of a powerful scene, but if you haven’t read the book, you may choose to pass that section by for now. See Part 2 of this interview here.
Erin: Is Sam better looking now in his “Jamie” persona than he was before he bulked up?
Diana Gabaldon: I admit it’s sometimes very hard to think of something to say to Sam when you’re really close to him. You just want to sit there and watch him. I totally do think so, not the bulking, but the acting and the hair. I preferred his original body, I don’t go for the bulk. He’s very nice looking, I’ll say that. Boy, that man works hard. We were in New York for the second preview, we arrived In Newark at midnight, they stayed up late to check us in. The publicist who was traveling with us gave Sam his room keys and said “here’s the key to the gym.” He was going to get up two hours before the rest of us, we were leaving at 7, so he was getting up at 4:30 to do his workout. “Man, whatever you’ve got…”
E: His body and face are his currency, it doesn’t go very far without his ability and his talent, but…
Diana: He respects them and takes care of them. There are a lot of bodybuilders around, and some of them are nice looking too, no doubt. I personally like tall lean men, excessive muscle doesn’t add to the package, but it doesn’t detract from it. It’s hard on him.
E: The fans love it.
Diana: Yes they do!
E: This came from another fan, Susy Sterling. She wanted to know, where did Black Jack Randall’s sadism come from? What was your inspiration for that, when did you realize it was going to be part of his chraracteristics. Or do you think he even sees it as sadism?
Diana: The term didn’t exist in the 18th century, so he wouldn’t have seen it in those terms. He does know he has unnatural tastes, you could hardly not know that, and he keeps it hidden for the most part. He understands what he is, and for the most part, loathes it, but he does accept it.
E: But for you, where did that come from? How did you … He’s so close to the beginning of the book, but he really develops …
Diana: But I don’t write the books from beginning to end.
E: Where or when did that come in for you?
Diana: I don’t know. I just knew that he’s one of those people that comes along, and when she (Claire) met him and he looked just like Frank, I wondered if it was going to be one of those stories where she falls in love with her husband’s ancestor, and within instants, I realized that that was not going to be happening at all. I thought, ‘oh, this is much more interesting.’ I didn’t consciously develop Jack Randall at all, he’s what I call a mushroom, one of those people that just pops up, fully formed, and they’re right there. But if you wanted to trace his development to what elements there are in my psyche, no, that bit of him in so far as I can trace it to myself is part of the scientific side, you might say, analytical and curious, you want to see how things happen, why they happen and how people are put together, how they work, and all that, and to that end, in an experimental way, we do terrible things to find the truth. I haven’t had to do too many terrible things in my scientific career, a few things, like you know, gassing birds, it’s just awful, I totally don’t want to ever do that again. But it’s because I have a crippling empathy. At one point when I was very young I thought I might like to be a doctor, but no, I couldn’t stand dealing with sick and hurt people, I couldn’t do a thing for them, I’d just be a blubbering mass, so I went into other kinds of science. I knew I was a writer, but I hadn’t become a writer.
So the thing is, I do have a great deal of empathy, and a very active conscience, but I was thinking, what if I didn’t have those? If I didn’t have any kind of empathy for this person in front of me, what would they do if I did this sort of thing? That’s sort of how Jack works, except that he gets sexual gratification from it as well. And when you’re dealing with people’s kinks, it’s very individual, you can’t say the pursuit of Jack Randall, because he just is there. In the books generally, I do research in all kinds of areas, and as part of that, I read a lot of pornography. 18th century pornography, and for the period, style, and so forth, and it hasn’t changed a lot, and for details of gay sex, I read a lot, and some it I’m just thinking why do people do that? Ew! And other parts, how do you do that? Ah! And for the most part, it makes you appreciate that it’s very individual as to what turns you on. And it can be something extremely weird, which in Jack’s case it’s not weird, it’s straight-forward, but it’s a deviance, definitely. He is actually a pervert. He’s not homosexual, he will attack anyone, anyone who will give him gratification by acting afraid of him.
E: He does have some… if you can call it that, redeeming qualities for him. He has his own sense of honor.
Diana: He has a code… it’s a little twisted, but it’s there. He will abide by it.
E: And that was evident where he was willing to trade information to care for his brother.
Diana: He would violate his code for his brother. People say he’s a psychopath or a sociopath, they don’t feel anything for anybody, but I think this is one of these broad generalizations. People that read psychology manuals try to map out the human psyche, and say, “well, he’s this way” and if your diagnosis is this, we make certain assumptions about this, and those assumptions may be totally wrong because people and the way their minds and their emotions work are much more flexible and messy than any psychologist could lay out on paper, let alone deal with. And obviously, he’s a pervert, with sociopathic tendencies, and that doesn’t mean he is incapable of love – he loves his brother – and people say, oh well, sociopaths don’t really feel love, they just get positive reinforcement from someone, and that is what they think is love.
E: And there is such a broad range, in the human condition, of what you feel sexually, and the things that interest you.
Diana: Just in the ordinary ways, when you start talking to writers, you start to realize just how oddly people are wired up. This is something that I do in writers’ workshops all the time. You go to school, you’re taught that this is how you outline things, this is how you write something, you think of an idea, you think of a topic sentence, you write your topic paragraph, you make your outline, you do your rough draft, and so when people ask me how I write, they go on the assumption that I must be doing it that way because this is how they were taught to do it in school. But no, I don’t do it that way at all. Are you brainwashed? Yes obviously you are. But when I talk to elementary school students, I’ll have the teacher turn his or her back, and I say tell me the truth now, your teacher can’t see, how many of you, when you get one of these outline assignments, you know, do this, do this, do this, how many of you just write the damn paper and then fake the rest up? And about half of them raise their hands. Because that’s how people who are wired up like me do it. If you look at all this nonsense, you’ll say how could you do that? But since you have to turn in all this nonsense, then you go back and it’s pretty easy to backdraft an outline. But back then it used to be a big pain, because you’d be hand writing, and you’d have to hand write a rough draft, but you already had the perfect paper, and then you’d have to write that, and try to think of picturesque mistakes to put in. When you can spell and do grammar, it’s not a problem, you don’t need rough drafts. I do it right the first time.
E: You said that when you write, you put as much craft as possible into it. Does that then take away that heavy second draft editing?
Diana: I suppose so. I’ve never done that kind of editing. That’s not how I work. You know about kernels, you’ve probably seen me do that (ed. note: if you aren’t familiar with Diana’s “kernel” writing style, you can find several interviews discussing it by Googling “Diana Gabaldon kernel”). I write down a couple of sentences and I sit there and stare at it, I fiddle with those sentences. I move the words around. I move the clauses back and forth. I put in something, take something out. And that’s the craft thing. I try to make that sentence as elegant and euphonious and as clear as it can be, so you can actually have an image of what I was thinking, or feeling, or whatever, you know, what I envisioned. And while I’m doing that, the back of my mind is kicking up questions, like what time of day is it? How is the light falling? Is the room warm? Who else is here with me? That’s where the actual stuff of the scene begins to grow. So the top of my mind is occupied with this craft, and it’s also allowing the back of my mind time to dig up these questions and ask them. So if you say ‘how did you get the idea to do this,’ I didn’t get the ideas. I started working, and the ideas come.
They go on this assumption that they’ve been taught in school – you start with an idea, and you have to outline it, you have to flesh out your characters, and they say what do you think, I draw a body in print on my floor with chalk, and then strike it with lightning? That’s not how it works. And so the only way to explain how it does work for me is to let them see it. And that’s my little 90-second “watch me do it” kind of thing. Obviously if people can be wired so differently in terms of writing an essay, then how differently can they be wired in the other things they do? I’ve lived long enough, I’ve been a scientist long enough to not really be surprised about the things people can do. People say, oh mass murderers, he was such a nice person, or so quiet, nobody ever would have suspected, that’s probably true. The other side of this is people say, oh anybody can do anything, and that’s actually not true.
I go and visit prisons regularly, there’s a couple of events that I do now and then, someone connected with the event has a prison ministry, or teaches in a prison, and asks me will I go and speak to their class or to the inmates. And I always do. It’s very gratifying. It’s also terrifying. No one has ever molested me, and I’m not at all physically afraid, it’s the psychic vibe in there, you can feel it.
E: Some people just have a vibe about them, kindness or malevolence, or whatever. You can be fooled by that at times.
Diana: If you have some experience with people, you’re much less likely to be fooled by it. I don’t know if you saw People magazine this week, the cover story was about this man who had killed two wives, and I was looking at his wedding picture, and I was thinking, “my god, I would never have married that man. What were you thinking, woman?” And you can see the woman senses this, by the way she’s standing, and she’s thinking “I just married this man.” So leave it that Black Jack Randall is a human being – a complex human being, you can despise him, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have these interesting twists. Etc.
They show me dailies – I’ve seen most of the dailies for Episodes 15 and 16, which are very very intense ones, they just sent me the rough cut of episode 15, which is just astonishing from Tobias. Tobias is amazing as Jack Randall.
E: He’s doing a great job.
THIS IS YOUR ALERT!
Diana: He’s absolutely great. But it was really interesting – the bit that I hadn’t seen in dailies is one that comes right at the very end of the scenes between Jamie and Jack Randall in the prison, and he’s nailed Jamie’s hand to the table, and taken Claire out, pushed her out of the prison and now he’s come back, and so that scene begins with a shot of Jamie’s leg with a shackle around his ankle, and Jack Randall is opening it, and he lays it aside, very deliberately, and almost gently, and he’s just putting it down, no big deal, no attitude of heavy menace whatsoever. Except that you know, this guy sitting here with his hand nailed to the table, waiting for what happens next, and you saw his face when Claire left with Randall, and said “I’ll return shortly,” and it comes in on Jamie’s face. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those medieval pictures, Man of Sorrows, you know of Christ, Sam could do that. You’re like this before it starts, and Tobias undercuts that by this almost matter of fact gesture. He puts his hand on the table to stand up, and Jamie reaches over with his good hand, and claps it on top of his, and Jack looks up, and Sam did this beautifully, he wouldn’t look at Jack, he wouldn’t meet his eyes, he looks away fixedly, and says, “She’s away safe?” looking for assurance, and Tobias clasps his other hand on top of Jamie’s and says, “Yes, you have my word,” and in fact, we’ve seen her fall outside the prison, and she’s alive, and he means it, yes I’ve kept my word, just very matter of fact, and he stands up, and he puts a hand on Jamie’s shoulder, like an affectionate male acquaintance, this casual intimacy, and your skin is just going up and down.
E: I can’t wait to see it.
Diana: It’s just hair raising. Some of the real rough stuff happens as flashbacks in episode 16, and those I haven’t seen yet. Because they don’t show me what they call “closed set,” that goes to just the inmost production team, for the protection of the actors, the stuff does get out, and so I’m always interested to see those when they come along. But I’ve read the script, so I kind of know. And I’ve seen the other stuff that’s not naked.
END OF THE ALERT!
E: On the other side, there’s a lot of fantasy elements to your books. Master Raymond, Jem and Mandy being able to hear each other. Do you personally believe in these – I don’t want to call them occult, but extrasensory things? Have you had personal experience with some of these?
Diana: Every once in a while, the universe will be trying to get my attention, about something.
E: Some of those are very interesting. You’ve talked about more information on Master Raymond, that would be fascinating.
Diana: I know a lot about him… In terms of telepathy, you do develop telepathy with people you’re very close to, or live with. My sister, I always know what she’s thinking, you catch each other’s eye and know what they’re thinking. My husband and I have it to a certain extent, always in regard to restaurants, we go out to eat after church on Sunday, what we’re always discussing on the way out of the church to the parking is where we’re going out to dinner, and so often I will be thinking about that as we’re going down the street, I’ll be thinking, here, here, maybe this one, he’ll ask, and I’ll say, oh I don’t know, which one would you like, he’ll say the restaurant that I was thinking of, and vice versa. I mean, we just know.
E: I’ve been married 26 years, my husband will look at me and say “you didn’t want to go there anyway.”
Diana: Exactly. There’s a lot of that. On the total extrasensory idea, I don’t actually see ghosts, but I have met a couple, very unambiguously, that leave me no doubt.
E: If Jamie could come back through the stones to the 2000s, what would baffle him the most, and what would he find most interesting?
Diana: Never going to happen… I don’t bother thinking about things that aren’t going to happen. I don’t engage in idle speculation. There’s enough fruitful speculation going on.
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