National Book Festival

Diana Gabaldon
Tuesday, September 20, 2005; 2:00 PM

Diana Gabaldon spent a dozen years as a university professor before she turned to writing full-time. She is also the author of more than six novels including "Outlander," "Dragonfly in Amber," "Voyager," "Drums of Autumn," "The Fiery Cross," "Lord John and the Private Matter" and one work of nonfiction, "The Outlandish Companion."

Gabaldon was online Tuesday, Sept. 20 to discuss her writing and appearance at the National Book Festival .

Her most recent book is "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" (Delacorte Press, 2005).


Diana Gabaldon: Howdy! Happy to see all these bright and shining faces here today. So nice of you you to come!

I've just come back from a lovely book-tour in Germany, where I introduced most of my events with a Rather Rude limerick (well, it isn't a true limerick, but I don't know the precise word for the sort of short poem it is--if one of you _does_, do tell me). I'm hoping that one can use such language (cough) on this site--though if not, I imagine someone will tell me. If any of you happen to be children, though, you can skip the next two paragraphs (OK, it's not _that_ rude; I don't know a child over the age of ten who would be shocked).

(ahem) Back in the day, when I was a university professor, I used to teach a class in Human Anatomy and Physiology. This class was popular with the football players, who all took it under the tragic misapprehension that it would be easy. And so I'd come in at 8 AM and see 400 bodies filling the auditorium, half of them sound asleep. And so I'd walk to the edge of the platform, pick up my microphone, and say, "Well, this morning, ladies and gentlemen, we're going to talk about the History of Contraception." At this point, they'd all begin blinking. And so I'd say...

"In days of old, when knights were bold,

and condoms not invented...

They wrapped old socks around their c***s

and babies were prevented."

That tended to wake everyone up and get things off in the proper mood--so we'll hope for a similar effect here. Any questions?


Carrboro, NC: How do you do research for your books, and how much of the historical part of your fiction is fact, and how much is filling in the gaps of history?

Diana Gabaldon: The historical part is as accurate as good research can make it. That said...history is written down by people, and the ones way back when weren't necessarily any more accurate about what they wrote than the modern-day ones.

I do research mostly via libraries--augmented by the Internet, and by occasional trips (when possible) to the places I'm writing about. The Internet has improved a LOT in the last few years, but still, you wouldn't want to depend on Web sources for historical analysis. There's just something hard to beat about a book.


New York, NY: I just wanted to tell you that I've loved your books since my 9th grade best friend's mom got us both hooked on them. I have already pre-ordered 'A Breath of Snow and Ashes' and can't wait to read it. Keep up the great work!

Diana Gabaldon: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy A BREATH OF SNOw AND ASHES--but I _think_ you will. The general response of the people who've read advanced copies has been, "OhmyGod,OhmyGOd,OhmyGOD!" (pant, pant, pant) "I can't _believe_ you did that!!!"


Germantown, Md: I'm so excited to find out your new book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, is going to be available at the National Book Festival. I'm clearing my schedule for Saturday. I've been an avid fan of the Outlander series since I read the first book in 1994 and have anticipated each addition to the series long before it was available. It's been such an epic undertaking. Now that the story of the two primary characters is heading into the final chapters... or books... do you feel that you'll miss them when you finish this?

Diana Gabaldon: Well, no. For one thing, there's certainly _one_ more book about them, possibly two--which means they'll be along for quite some time yet, at the speed I write. And there are a _lot_ of other people who live in my head, all jostling for attention. I won't be lonely. (Besides, they aren't necessarily _gone_, just because I'm not writing about them, you know. I can see them anytime.)


St Louis, Mo.: So many of your fans love your writing so much--your grocery list would be a best seller! Do you have many scenes that for whatever reason will not make it into one of the remaining books of the series, and if so, do you have any plans to compile them and release them--perhaps in an Outlandish Companion, Part 2?

Diana Gabaldon: I end up with a lot of what I call "orts" (this being defined as a small fragment of something, usually food) at the end of a book, but not usually a lot of scenes. Sometimes, I have a scene that I _know_ goes in another book, and there are a _few_ things that just plain don't fit, but not a lot.

I suppose I might put those in a second volume of the COMPANION, if I was sure they wouldn't terminally confuse people.


Gaithersburg, Md: I can't tell you how excited I am that your latest book is about to be released. I read your last book when I was living in New York City a couple of months after 9/11. I remember that it was a bright spot, an escape really, from the difficult emotions of the time. I've read your Outlander series through twice now and I'm amazed at your ability to create and weave together so many wonderful characters and plot lines. The detail and development keeps me glued to the page, and I imagine that most of your readers never really want the story to end. Of course, every story must have an ending and I'm not even going to guess whether or not your latest book will be the last in this series. However, I am curious about other book series in your future. I am familiar with your Lord John books, but are there other characters you might do a "spin off" series on?

Diana Gabaldon: Well, Lord John was an accident--PRIVATE MATTER was written as a short story. (No, really, it was.) But now that we're officially allowed to write novels about him, that's a good thing.

As for other series--well, I _do_ have two contemporary mysteries (set in the American Southwest) under contract, and am hoping to finish the first of these--titled RED ANT'S HEAD--something in 2006 (along with the second Lord John novel, LORD JOHN AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE).

But there _is_ Master Raymond. I happen to know who he is, and he has a very interesting story to tell. So in the fullness of time, he'll get his own book--or books.


Springfield, Va.: Diana: I just want to thank you for the wonderful world of Jamie and Claire. While I can't make to Book Festival, I hope to get to the Smithsonian series.

Diana Gabaldon: Thank you! I'll hope to see you December 7, then. (This is a lecture I'll be giving as part of a Smithsonian series on romance novels. Given that I don't write romances myself, my own talk is entitled, "When is a Romance NOT a Romance?" --this involves a look at 18th and 19th-century "romances," such as TREASURE ISLAND or TOM JONES, which are a lot closer to the books I personally write than are modern romance novels.)

For anyone interested in the lecture series, the link is:


Flagstaff, Ariz.: How long did you have between finishing "Outlander" and finding an agent who would promote it to editors?

Diana Gabaldon: No time at all. I had a literary agent before I finished the book--which is very lucky, but definitely unusual.


Washington, DC: Hello Diana, I enjoy each new book in the Outlander series tremendously. They have a great right combination of fantasy, history, adventure, and romance, all in terrific writing. My question is: when you have written the final book on Claire and Jamie ("final book" sounds terrible, I wish the story could go on...), well, do you have plans for a new future book or series? Thank you. Mary Ann

Diana Gabaldon: Dear Mary Ann--

Sure. I already answered that question upstream a little, though, so I think I won't repeat the information here. Don't want to bore people.

Diana Gabaldon: Oh--and thank you so much for the kind words!


St Louis, Mo: Love your limerick! I first read that one in college--it was etched on the bottom of a shelf above the bed in my dorm room. Thanks for the memory! You wrote Outlander as practice. Now that you've become very good at writing, as evidenced by your many bestsellers, what keeps you motivated to keep writing or is writing simply a calling for you, as healing is for Claire in your books?

Diana Gabaldon: Thanks! It's a calling. And I really like it, too.


Ijamsville, Md: Ms. Gabaldon - I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your Outlander series. When I finished the last one, I was sad it was over. Any chance you would ever write again about Jamie and Claire? Did you imagine that they would really die in a fire in North Carolina ? Thanks again for writing such great books. -Lisha Utt

Diana Gabaldon: Well, of course I'll write again about Jamie and Claire. As for the rest of your'll just have to read the new book and see.


New York, N.Y.: Not many people have explored, even in fiction, relationships and marriages of people from different generations. How did you come up with that concept?

Diana Gabaldon: You mean the notion of a twentieth-century person marrying one from the 18th? Well, it was all Claire's fault.

OUTLANDER was a perfectly straight-forward historical novel, until I decided to introduce a female character (I had to have a lot of Scotsmen, you see, because of the kilt factor, but figured it would be good to have a female to play off these guys; then we could have sexual tension, and _that's_ always good), and made her an Englishwoman.

So, she walked into a cottage full of Scotsman, Dougal MacKenzie stood up and asked who she was...and she replied (without consulting me), "I'm Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp--and who the hell are you?"

To which _I_ said--"Hey! You don't sound _anything_ like an 18th century person!" So I fought with her for several pages, trying to beat her into shape and make her talk appropriately--but she wasn't having any. She just kept making smart-ass modern remarks about everything she saw, _and_ she started telling the story herself.

So I said, "Fine. Nobody's ever going to see this book; it doesn't matter _what_ bizarre thing I do--go ahead and be modern; I'll figure out how you got there later."

Like I said, it's all _her_ fault.


Washington, D.C.: Will you have your new book, Breath of Snow and Ashes, at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. this weekend? I see you're scheduled for a book signing, but your website shows a date of September 27 for the launch.

Diana Gabaldon: Yes, the publisher has graciously let us release books early, ONLY for the Festival. So we will indeed have A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES for sale on the Mall. See you there!


University of Pennsylvania: Rumor has it you worked here for awhile. How did you enjoy your time in Philadelphia, and did your experiences at Penn ever inspire anything you wrote?

Diana Gabaldon: Well, to be perfectly honest, we hated the place and couldn't wait to get the heck out of Dodge and back to civilization in the West, the minute my husband finished his MBA. However, we didn't live there at one of the city's most salubrious points--or ours. We were totally broke, living in student housing, about six blocks from MOVE headquarters, while the Mayor was bombing the place.

As to inspirational experiences...well, there _was_ the time I left the windows open because of the heat, and a number of flies got in and laid eggs in the pans of bird parts I was processing--came back the next day to writhing pans of maggots. _did_ ask. On the other hand, the food was undeniably great, and I'd love to go back as a nonstudent with money, to enjoy the better aspects of the place.


Bethesda, Md.: Thanks for taking my question--and for your books! Have you had the whole story of Jamie and Claire mapped out since the beginning, and, if so, have you found yourself changing things along the way?

Diana Gabaldon: No, I didn't have them planned. What fun would _that_ be?

I never plan out novels ahead of time. I occasionally know _some_ things about them, but I'm inclined to write in bits and pieces, inspired by the research I'm doing. I glue those together as I go, and watch for the underlying "shape" of the book to emerge.


Falls Church, Va.: I had the pleasure of selling your first book as a bookseller and look forward to the latest in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. Will this be the last in the series? If so, will you update the Outlandish Companion for your fans? Thank you.

Diana Gabaldon: Thanks! My darling editor always said, "These _have_ to be word-of-mouth books, because they're too weird to describe to anybody." So all your efforts are _much_ appreciated!

No, this isn't the last book; there's one more for sure--possibly two. I need to get all the way through the American Revolution, which was rather a long and complicated war, so I don't know how much room I'll need. But yes, when I _am_ finished, I plan to do an OUTLANDISH COMPANION, Part Deux, covering the second half of the series (possibly including the Lord John books written to date, as well, since those are in fact part of the series--just...different).


Rockville, Md.: I love your books, and will be first in line to buy A Breath of Snow and Ashes this week -My question is who was your inspiration for Jamie?

Diana Gabaldon: Well, fwiw, my husband *is* six-foot-four, with red hair. (cough) He also has a highly developed sense of humor, an even more highly developed sense of responsibility, and he's, um, good with his hands.

That said, he *isn't* Jamie. They're quite different individuals. Though I do now and then use a line my husband's given me (inadvertently), or steal one of his jokes (the bit about waking up smelling like a dead boar is his). And the scene in which Jamie goes up on the roof naked to fix a leak because "no proper man" would tolerate the idea of putting it off...that's drawn from life.

Diana Gabaldon: Er...I mean the racing up on the roof in the dark and rain to fix leaks, not the naked part. (cough)


Washington, D.C.: It is exciting that "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" will be available at the book festival before it is being released elsewhere. What can you tell us, in advance, about the book and its plot?

Diana Gabaldon: I can't detail everything, of course, because that would ruin the story, but for starters

Well, there is a big, fat war coming along, of course, and people behave badly under those conditions. House-burning, murder, rape, assault, tar-and-feathers and that's before the serious shooting starts.

And then there are the Cherokee Indians, who might fight for the Crown-or they might not, depending on what they think of either side. At the moment, they rather like Jamie, but if he goes on refusing the naked women the peace chief keeps leaving in his bed, that could change

Then there's the young soldier with an "M" branded on his face (for "Murderer") and a bad case of hemorrhoids .

The mystery of Young Ian (Jamie's nephew) and just what did happen to his Mohawk wife and child

A plague of amoebic dysentery, and some public-health concerns about syphilis, which leads Claire to make Jamie take her to visit the local brothel ("If it's the two of you," the madam observes, "that'll be a pound extra.")

Dr. Fentiman and his renowned collection of pickled deformities (Claire takes him an gouged-out eyeball, preserved in spirits of wine, as a token of goodwill)

Ten thousand pounds of French gold that seems to have been stolen by a wandering ghost

A mysterious slave-ship, reeking in the night, and a rendezvous at the dark of the moon

A forgeress with a penchant for gambling, a gaoler's wife with a penchant for gin, and a sullen slave with a penchant for infanticide

A baby named "Rogerina" and what Brianna does about it

An Irishman who comes and goes like a will-o-the-wisp, but is inclined to appear in the most inconvenient places

And then, of course, there's that sinister newspaper clipping that says the house on Fraser's Ridge will be destroyed by fire in 1776, killing everyone. But will it? (As Jamie observes, "If ye ken the house is meant to burn down on a given day-why would ye stand in it?")

Only time will tell.


Philomathean, Philadelphia, Pa.: I know a lot of teachers who used their teaching income as a safety net when attempting to become writers. Yet, I find many become so busy they need to make a commitment to one or the other. You made the jump to being a full time writer? How scary or secure did you find yourself when you made that decision?

Diana Gabaldon: Oh, pretty dang secure. I came from a _very_ conservative (in all senses of the word) home--my father was fond of saying, "You're such a poor judge of character, you're bound to marry some bum--so get a good education so you can support your children!"--so the last thing I would have done was to quit a decent job to become a writer.

As it was, I didn't tell my father what I was doing, until after the book had been sold (my excellent agent got me a three-book contract, with what appeared at the time a staggering advance--and in fact, it _was_ pretty good). I called Dad, of course, to tell him the news at this point, and we had a nice, mushy conversation--him saying how thrilled he was, and telling me how proud my mother (who had died when I was 19) would be, and so on. Anyway, we said we loved each other and hung up. Thirty seconds later, the phone rings--it's Dad.

"Don't quit your job!" he blurted, panic-stricken at the thought.

So I didn't--until I'd finished the manuscript of my second book (and was thus on the verge of collecting another advance for it). At this point, my university contract came up for renewal, and I said to my husband, "Well, we won't starve if I quit--and it _would_ be nice to see what it's like to sleep more than four hours at a stretch...."


Fairfax, Va.: Why did you set your novels in 18th century Scotland, and now, The Colony of North Carolina? What was it about that time and place that drew you?

Diana Gabaldon: Well, to start with, it was an accident. I had to set the first book _somewhere_, and as I was writing it for practice and never intended to show it to anyone, it didn't really matter where--I'd have to look everything up, anyway.

So I was casting round for a good time and place, and happened to see a _really_ old "Dr. Who" rerun on PBS--with a minor Scottish character; an 18-year-old from 1745, who appeared in his kilt. "Well, that's fetching," I said.

And then I shrugged and said, "Well, you gotta start somewhere--why not? Scotland, 18th century."

As for North Carolina, that's just following the tide of history--that's where a lot of the Highlanders _went_ after Culloden.


Washington, DC: ... and we thought this day would never come (the new book).

Okay, I'll ask (you'll forgive, I hope). Any movement on the tv-film front?

Diana Gabaldon: Not at the moment. If and when there is, belive me, I'll tell you. (I.e., I'll announce it on my website--which is, in case anyone's interested.)


San Diego, Calif.: Would you talk a little about your research methods. What repositories do you rely on? How do you do your research? Thanks.

Diana Gabaldon: Well, no specific repositories--I use any library or resource I can get my hands on. I particularly like the bookshops at National Parks and battlefields; they often have _very_ unusual and helpful things.


Diana Gabaldon: Thanks VERY much for all your questions and enthusiasm! I'll hope to see some of you this weekend at the Book Festival, and more of you during October, as I whiz around the country like a boomerang. And thanks to the Washington Post for hosting this chat!


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