Viewers have only just stepped into the time-traveling world of “Outlander,” Starz’s sprawling historical drama, but author Diana Gabaldon has been exploring the world of Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) for more than 20 years through eight bestselling novels. With over 20 million books sold and a freshman TV season complete, Gabaldon looks back on rediscovering her literary debut in a new medium.
Spoiler warning: This interview contains plot details for season one of “Outlander.”
What has been the most satisfying part of having “Outlander” on television?
It’s wonderful just to see how beautifully they’ve realized the story. Unlike many readers, I didn’t actually expect it to be a literal page-by-page translation. I understand what an adaptation is, and they’ve done just a fantastic job with the adaptation. It is “Outlander,” which anyone who’s read and loved the books would recognize and love it immediately, but at the same time there’s this wonderful sense of novelty and discovery about it, because there have to be changes in order to make it fit the television format — the way that they have taken the story apart and reassembled it with these nice little interpolations and fantastic additions. Rediscovering it as a whole new medium has been just wonderful.
Has watching the adaptation process reminded you of anything you might’ve forgotten, or helped you see the story in a new light?
While I wrote the book quite a long time ago, I do remember it — it is a continuing story, as far as I’m concerned. But the thing is that so many new people keep discovering it all the time and they talk to me, and that kind of keeps it very fresh in my mind. Also, the production people have been so kind about including me. I’m a consultant on the show, but as my agent said to me when we signed the contract, “That can mean anything or nothing, depending on how well they like you,” and luckily they seem to like me.
They do show me the outlines and the scripts and the daily footage, which is absolutely fascinating to watch, but that being so, this happens very slowly. You see one scene shot 25 times in one day, which is totally fascinating, but while you’re watching it you’re remembering, “this is what I was thinking when I was writing that part of the book,” and so it brings it all back very gradually as you’re working. So you see which parts are different and you think, “Oh, that’s cool.” Not in a way that, “Oh, I wish I had written that,” because it wouldn’t have fitted the way I wrote it, but just in this visual medium, this is a terrific thing to have done.
As you said, a book can’t be adapted literally word-for-word, so are there any changes that you particularly appreciated — not in an “I wish I’d written that” way, just that struck you as a good choice?
Oh yeah. I’d say a number of the things that they’ve done with Gary Lewis’ character, Colum. He’s a very strong and personable leader in the books, but he’s not anything like this firecracker Gary makes him, and I think that’s terrific what they’ve done there.
You made a cameo in season one, but are you tempted to write an episode next season?
Perhaps. When Ron [Moore] and Maril [Davis] came out to talk to me, before they’d even pitched the show, they said, “Would you be interested in writing a script?” and I said, “Well, I might.” I said, “But not now.” I said “two reasons: One is that I don’t want to be responsible in any way for lousing up this vital first season. I’ve never written a script before. I think I could probably learn how to write one, but I don’t want to be learning on your time, as it were. It’s vital that this succeeds, so this first season should certainly be done by professionals. After that, if we get a second season, I might see.”
The second thing is that I was coming into the final phases, what I call the final frenzy, of “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” and it takes me three or four years to write a book. It proceeds very slowly at first, and then it picks up to walking pace as I call it, which is about a thousand words a day. When we get to the end I’ll be working 12 or 14 hours a day and barely eating or sleeping. There is just nothing else but the book. It’s like being on some very addictive drug. It’s like being plugged into electricity all of the time. Just fantastically exciting, but you don’t do anything else. I said, “I can’t afford to need to be writing a script when I hit that. That can’t be in my way.” We have started to talk about the possibility, and I would be very interested in doing it.
What were your favorite scenes to see realized on screen?
There are a number of just fantastic scenes, just wonderful. Of course, the entire wedding episode is everyone’s favorite and is beautifully done and just a lovely job of adaptation, of using the material from the book, but also restructuring it so that it works dramatically as an episode and as the writer [Anne Kenney] said, taking what is a very long night and using the flashbacks so that it’s not a very long episode. That was done brilliantly.
There’s [an] infamous [exchange] between Sam and me … which was right after we’d first met. We were [in Los Angeles] for the TCAs, but after that they had a fan event for 2,500 fans at the Orpheum, and they asked for questions from the audience. Someone asked, “What episodes are you particularly looking forward to seeing shot, or what scenes are your favorite?” and they asked it to the panel. It started at the other end, and the conversation derailed before it got to me, but that made me think, “What am I most interested in seeing?” A few questions later someone asked me specifically, “What scene are you most interested in seeing,” and so I laid it out, and I said, “Well, I hope you will take this in the spirit intended, Sheugs, but I really want to see you raped and tortured.”
Naturally everybody went nuts. One reason I did that is because I know just how fast Sam is. He and I had been bantering back and forth online for months and months and he is really, really quick. It took him 30 seconds. I saw the footage later. He looked totally gobsmacked for like ten seconds and you could see his face change. As soon as the laughter had died down he said very mildly, “Oh, I’m quite looking forward to that myself,” which slayed everybody again. He is really, really quick about it. But it was said in all seriousness — those are some of the most challenging scenes that I can imagine anyone filming.
There is such a subtlety to them, as well as the graphic brutality, but the emotional core of it… you don’t usually get to see people actually do sadism, let alone the reaction to it. Seeing someone being psychologically destroyed is naturally extremely difficult to watch on an emotional basis. But I lived through those scenes when I wrote them. I know everything that’s in them, and when I was talking to my husband about those scenes, I was saying, “I’m telling it this way, because the reader’s imagination is the most important thing you have. You don’t need to be explicit here. You need to evoke small, vivid things, but I don’t need to tell everything that happened there.”
He looked at me and he said, “But you have to know everything that happened there, don’t you?” and I said, “You’re right, I do,” and so that goes for the actors as well. They needed to know a lot more than what will show up on screen, and to do that well… I had seen Sam’s auditions, of course, but at that point I had not seen any of the film. They showed me footage for the first time at that gathering, and I knew he had Jamie. He understood him intrinsically, but to do something like this? No idea. I hadn’t even met Tobias [Menzies] at that point. I was really curious to see how that would happen. They are very, very moving [scenes] in various dimensions, but just to consider it from the point of craftsmanship and artistry, I have never seen anything better done.
Did you talk to Sam and Tobias about those scenes in particular, to give them your insight?
Yeah, I did. Even earlier, for the “Garrison Commander” scene [in episode six]. So before they got to that part, but when Black Jack started becoming obvious [about his interest in Jamie]… People have been talking to me about that man for years and years and years, and I hang around online a lot, and so I would answer them, and sometimes with quite detailed analyses of what he’s like, and why he’s that way, so I just collected a lot of this over the years because I publish these “Outlandish Companions” periodically that have background. Anyway, I had a lot of stuff on Black Jack Randall, and so I just tidied it up, and I sent it to the production team and also to Tobias and the writer, and I said, “In case this is helpful in your development, this is what I know about him.”
But yeah, I did talk to both Sam and Tobias as well as the production team, Ron and Maril, about the Wentworth scenes as we got close to doing those. I told them what I could and everything I could, and then beforehand, when I left, I said to Sam and Tobias separately, “Look, whatever you guys can make work between you is fine with me,” and they made it work just wonderfully.
Has anything changed in your writing process over the years? Or has it always been, as you said, walking at first and then all-consuming?
Yeah, the rhythm tends to be the same. It does work that way. Partly because of the way I write — I don’t work with an outline or in a straight line. I work where I can see things happening, and so I get lots and lots of little bits to start with, and I’m doing the research at the same time. So I’m evolving this timeline in the back of my head, and picking up little bits and pieces that stimulate other bits and pieces, and so it’s very patchwork to begin with. That’s why it’s slow. I don’t really know where anybody is going in this. I can just see them doing this, and I’m thinking, “Why did you do that?” but I may not know that for several months. It’ll come. It always does.
You keep working every day, and things happen subconsciously and consciously, and things fit, and so gradually I get large chunks, 60 to 80 pages of continuous stuff that’s probably pretty well fixed. When I’ve got five or six of those I can line them up against this timeline, and with luck I will see the shape of the book. All of my books have an internal geometric shape and once I’ve seen the shape, then the writing gets much faster and easier because I now do know where we’re going, and I know what’s motivating these people, why they were here, and therefore I have some good idea how they got there, and so I can fill in the missing chunks somewhat more easily. Once I’ve seen the shape then the whole thing develops a velocity at a certain point that I call critical mass, and the book is just up and running. It’s alive. I don’t need to think anymore when I sit down [and say] “Well now what?” I know what and we go from there.
Do you have an end point in mind, or are you finding it with every book?
(Spoiler warning: Vague details of Gabaldon’s novels ahead.)
No, every book has a shape and comes down in some particular spot, but those books added together have a super-shape and there’s connections between the books. “Outlander” and “Dragonfly” make a pair because those are the early days of Jamie and Claire, and it’s courtship and the development of their marriage, and then there’s this disjunction before we hit “Voyager” which starts another phase of their lives, rediscovery of their identities, and who they are, and who they are together, and then that leads directly into “Drums” which is the evolution of family and the regaining of family, and “Fiery Cross” which is the spreading of that family into community and connections.
Then there’s another disjunction before we start with “Breath of Snow and Ashes” when the war is heating up and things are starting to go to pieces, and so you get these sub-connections between books. “Dragonfly” and “Drums” echo each other in their internal structure. “Outlander” and “Voyager” are also rather similar in that there are these linear voyages of adventure; one thing after another keeps happening, whereas the other two are more of an internal development, and so with all that going on, we haven’t reached the end of this gigantic shape.
I get to see more and more of it with each book. That and we’re all getting older here, including me. There will be an end, but I don’t know exactly where it is, still less how we’ll reach it. I just know it’s there. I’ll know it when we come to it.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Everywhere, as any writer does. It can be things people say to you, things that you see that make an impression … or it could be things you hear. You hear music, for instance, and it might be music from the period, or music from a related period: World War II and so forth. That’s where Claire comes from, and while I very seldom address World War II directly — sometimes she’ll have memories or flashbacks, but they’re not very common — that was such a formative experience for her that it’s always with her. So reading about what people did and said, and how they were in World War II always puts me very deeply in touch with her. That’s an important part of her character, even though it’s not explicitly showing. So there’s background.
Going to the UK, which I do frequently, you just look at the place and it speaks to you. The history is lying all over the ground. You hit artifacts. People will often send me old books from the 18th century and just to hold one of those, you think “this was there then, someone read it then,” and so it’s this fantastic feeling, and it’s very evocative. The book itself may have nothing to do with what you’re thinking of or doing, but the feel of it, the sense of the cover and the weight of it… You hold one with a leather cover and you’re thinking of old dukes’ libraries and things like that, and before you know it you’re in an office and there’s chewed pens all over the desk because he’s not a tidy man, and you’re wondering what’s bothering him, why’s he chewing his pens, the next thing you know… Anything will do it, and you draw, of course, on your relationships with your own family, with your own friends.
I have a friend who’s an author who reads voraciously, and another who says he never reads because he feels like he’d unconsciously steal from other writers — what’s your perspective?
I know a lot of writers who say that. I’m thinking, “how can you not read? What’s wrong with you? How can you not read just for enjoyment?” It’s true that you can be influenced by things you read, but you’re influenced by everything if you’re a writer, and that is where you draw your mental compost, from this stuff. So I figure by reading voraciously, reading everything, you certainly lessen the effect of any one book, so you’re really not in any danger of plagiarizing or being unduly influenced. If that’s 1 of 300 books you read while you were writing your novel, it’s probably not going to be that important.
What do you watch in your free time?
I really don’t watch television on a regular basis, other than “Outlander.” I will occasionally get a show that I like, that’s already had a season or two out, and then I’ll buy the DVDs and mini binge-watch them. I grew up in Flagstaff and I still own my old family house up there, so I go up there a couple of times a month just to sit for a day or two and work without any kind of interruption, and I usually take a dinner break and I’ll watch two hours of DVD. “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” or “True Blood,” those are the ones that I’ve watched. I’ve got “Breaking Bad,” but I haven’t yet got into that one, it’s just waiting on my pile. As is “Game of Thrones” and a few other things.