Written by: Jayne Coleman
When I made plans to visit Cape Town for my vacation, I was so hopeful I’d be able to meet some of the Outlander cast or crew, as well as area Outlander fans for a South African Outlander Cast Blog meet-up. Sure, Cape Town is a large city, but I was going to go to the studio where they were filming. Fans saw Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in Scotland. Why not South Africa?
Then I heard Diana Gabaldon was going to be in South Africa and Cape Town around the time I would be there. It is possible I could meet her? A fan can dream, right?
Imagine my surprise when Diana said yes! I almost fainted dead away—especially because I got her response just after I had finished a 14-hour drive away from Cape Town and she wanted to meet the next day. The good news is this story ends well. Here’s our exclusive interview with—yes—Herself.
It started with an email…
My love for Outlander is decades’ long. I’ve been reading Diana’s books since the early ‘90s when I chanced upon Cross Stitch (as Outlander was called in the UK) at my local library. Over the years, I have searched local book shops, especially secondhand ones, for the various titles, and my collection has grown, along with the occasional Christmas or birthday present. Living at the southern end of Africa, I never dreamed of actually being able to speak directly to the author I have admired for so many years. Imagining she might be available and interested in meeting a fan was like Christmas and my birthday rolled into one shiny package, but still out of reach.
I had sent Diana an email asking if she would be available to meet for an interview before heading to Cape Town. None of my various emails had borne any fruit, so I was feeling a bit down despite having had a lovely happy evening with other Outlander fans while in Cape Town (more about that and the week in another blogpost). After making the 14-hour drive home, and unpacking and getting my computer up and running, I checked my email to find—wonder of wonders!—an email from Diana indicating that she would be happy to meet with me for an interview—the next day…14 hours away. I was ecstatic on the one hand and devastated on the other. It felt like that shiny package had been ripped away from me.
My husband, Mike, always practical, said, “Well, why don’t you ask someone to do it for you instead?” Hmmm, now that’s an idea that got me thinking. The end result, after quite a bit of toing and froing, was that Vanessa Tyler Bourne, a fan living in Somerset West who I met at our first Outlander Cast Clan Gathering, agreed, with a song in her heart, to be the local live body. We arranged with Diana that she would meet Vanessa, and I would do a Skype interview from East London the next afternoon at 4 pm.
As four o’clock crept closer and then sped by on wings, the butterflies were dancing a fandango in my tummy. Finally, Diana and I got to see each other face to face on the Skype video link with Vanessa holding the phone on her end. With my heart in my throat, I started asking her questions.
South African Adventures…
My first question was about their time in South Africa. “We’ve had a great time and my husband has said it’s been a wonderful balance between work and sightseeing, resting and doing but not having huge, long work days,” Diana said. “We’ve been able to spend time on set as well as seeing something of the country.”
When we talked, Diana and her husband had just returned to Cape Town after a safari at Thornybush Game Lodge, which is near Hoedspruit and adjacent to the Greater Kruger National Park. While there, they saw a lot of animals in the wild, including lions and most especially leopards, which are super difficult to find and see, especially up in trees, which is where they saw them. I have a personal link with Thornybush because in my first job after college, I worked with an orphaned cheetah, Targa, who was found at Thornybush after his mother had been killed by poachers.
Three Lazy Leopard, hanging in a tree… (cubs, sisters, 8 or 9 months old, stashed by their mother for safe-keeping). pic.twitter.com/RwkefYY9Ac— Diana Gabaldon (@Writer_DG) April 9, 2017
Diana on Outlander, the TV show…
Time to get into some Outlander. I asked her to name her favourite episode of the two seasons so far. Answer? Season one, for one simple reason: the story is more linear and easier to tell even with having to move pieces around for the adaptation. “As I told Ron D. Moore at the start, Dragonfly In Amber was a sonofabitch to write,” Diana said. When asked how she feels about the products of her imagination coming to life on screen, Diana’s response made me laugh. “Yes, of course, it’s really interesting and exciting,” she said, “but my imagination is much richer than that. It’s always been completely real to me.”
“It is really interesting to be on set as there are thousands of people on set that we don’t normally see as we only see the actors and part of the film,” she continued. “Each take or each scene may last only 30 seconds or so. You have all these people supporting that—the costume people, the wardrobe people, the makeup people, who every time you take a break, spring from their hiding places between takes to powder and primp the actors for the next take. There are also all the technical people who are actually running the show and the directors.”
Diana usually sits at the photographers’ booth or the space directly behind the director of photography when she visits the Outlander set. That way, ”I can see the two monitors the directors are using so I get to see everything, like the costumers rushing out and the lighting changes, including all that goes on between takes. They usually send me the daily films, which means everything that they have shot that day. On set, the actors are relaxed, but as my husband said, the actors go from giggling, poking each other in the ribs and joking around to becoming their character in the blink of an eye and suddenly they are Jamie and Claire.”
In the Company of Giants…again! pic.twitter.com/dJKJdHmJLl
— Diana Gabaldon (@Writer_DG) April 4, 2017
I asked Diana how she liked collaborating with the writers’ group on Outlander since she was used to writing alone. While quite different than her usual writing habits, Diana said she enjoyed the experience the one time she’s done it. (Diana wrote “Vengeance is Mine” in Season 2.) “It’s quite different as, when you write novels, you are God and have complete power over everything. The story unfolds at its own pace and takes life as your characters develop,” she said. “When you write for an existing television show with a lot of other people involved, it is a much more constricted thing. When you write for episodic television, which is quite another thing, each episode has to have its own dramatic arc, and they are only 55 minutes long. You have to move the pieces around to get a satisfying mini-story. If you try to film from front to back, it wouldn’t work at all, as you could cut things off in the middle. So I did know this before going in as I had talked to all the writers before.”
Bringing life onto the page…
As someone who has worked in the environmental field myself, with a heightened awareness of the landscapes I move through, one of the things that has always struck me is Diana’s ability to bring a landscape to life, to enable us to envision the places where her characters are situated. I asked her about this. “I see more in the environment than most people thanks to my training,” she said. “I take note of the details of a landscape, their many differences and inhabitants such as plants, birds and animals.” She then uses these details to build a word picture so we can, in turn, imagine what it looks like.
Overall, Diana, who has degrees in zoology, marine biology and a PhD in quantitative behavioral ecology, sees a strong link between science and fiction. “Some people think that science has nothing to do with writing fiction,” she said, “but in science you start with a hypothesis and then set up an experiment to prove or disprove that hypothesis. Science also has a very particular structure. People think that science is all about logic, but it, in fact, requires intuition and perception of patterns.”
Diana follows a similar strategy when she writes a novel. “I start with an idea (hypothesis) with a particular focus and then make choices based not on the natural world, but on my own internal world,” she said. “A novel also has to have a structure and underlying order in place just as a scientific experiment does. Writing is hard work, and it requires discipline and precision as well. It’s a very logical and structured business. Both science and art rest on the ability to perceive pattern in the midst of chaos.”
Outsiders in Outlander…
The concept of being an Outlander or outsider is central to many of the characters in Outlander who do not fit into or actively defy societal norms. My first posts for the Outlander Cast Blog had focused on this theme, so I ask about it. “This is an ancient narrative device in literature dating from Hellenistic times —that of the fish out of water—and it allows one to play with many different ideas and situations,” she said of this choice. “Romance used to have a very different connotation—that of an adventure story, rather than a love story. So romance novels took you out of the ordinary, into exciting stories and adventures. By writing from a fairly modern viewpoint with Claire as a 1940s combat nurse and placing her in the 18th century, I was able to explore the contrasts in social mores of the times because things change in different time periods. It really opens up the scope of what can occur within the structure of a book. Those who don’t study or know history tend to think that how things are now is how they have always been and can be quite shocked that people believed and behaved so differently in earlier times.”
Talking faith and history…
I asked Diana about her faith, which is obviously very important to her, and how she reconciles the tenets of her faith with time travel. “The world is a fabulous place and there are many things we don’t understand and God is so much bigger—so why can time travel not be a possibility? As a Catholic, I believe in God and in evolution; once there were dinosaurs and now there aren’t; six million years ago there were no humans and now there are, so obviously something changed. God has more imagination than anybody.”
This leads onto an explanation of the role of Catholicism in the Scottish Jacobite Rising of 1745. Diana explains that it was in essence a religious war rather than a war of independence. “The majority of Highlanders who supported Prince Charles’ claim to the throne were Catholic, and they believed it was necessary to place a Catholic on the throne of Scotland, England and Ireland. King George the Third of Hanover was a Protestant, and the English did not want a Catholic monarch. The Catholics, on the other hand, wanted to see the return to a Catholic nation under King James.”
“Jamie and his family and clan were not simply Catholic; they were Celtic Catholics, who grafted together Christianity and their indigenous Celtic beliefs and superstitions into an entire organic whole,” Diana added. “Their faith and its daily observance was a part of them. On the other hand, Claire was a largely non-practicing Catholic from the age of five when she was raised by her Uncle Lamb. The fact that she was Catholic saved a lot of trouble as if she had been Protestant, the marriage would have been very difficult and taken a lot longer to organise. She’s not used to observing her faith in a day-to-day sort of way. The advantage of this is that you, as the reader, get to see the sort of things a stranger might do so in that situation.”
Given that it had been a dicey week in South Africa during her visit—people had taken to the streets to protest government and President Zuma’s cabinet re-shuffle—I asked her if she thought her stories helped people to think about liberty and democracy and the challenges of fighting for it. Preferring not to comment on politics or religion in public, Diana turned this into a discussion about the role of Scots in the American Revolution (which book readers know figures large later in the Outlander series). “Many Scots immigrated to the Americas in the aftermath of Culloden, either voluntarily or as indentured servants. Inadvertently, the British were exporting the seeds of rebellion. Approximately one colonist in three was Scots or first generation settlers of Scots,” she said. “They brought with them this strong sense of resilience and reliance on themselves along with a suspicion of government.”
“The first three years of the American Revolution hung by a thread whether it would succeed at all. It was only due to good luck and General George Washington’s military genius that the colonists eventually won the war,” she continued. “Jamie tries to avoid publicly announcing his allegiance to the rebels as he knows, better than most, the troubles that will follow. He is finally compelled to declare himself a rebel in the end because he has a personal commitment.”
Focusing on family and fiction writing…
Family is an important part of the Outlander stories and for Diana as well. “Family always comes first. My writing habits came about as I juggled raising a family (three children of two, four and six), holding down my job as a professor at the University and writing for scientific journals, comic books and book reviews,” she said. “The only time I had to write my books was in the middle of the night. My children grew up with that schedule, so just considered it normal. I never had a closed door, all-must-be-silent rule. It’s only in the last frenzied rush of completing a book when the writing is flowing like electricity that I need to shut myself up. Other than that the kids came in and out as they wanted. If one of them needed me, then I would stop whatever I was doing, talk to them or do what was needed and then pick up on my writing.” She’s very excited about becoming a grandmother for the first time in July this year.
“I think part of the reason why some people don’t finish writing their books is because they get up to have a break, get a cup of coffee or a meal but then they don’t come back to it,” she said. “I think I have a mild form of ADD and usually get stuck about three quarters of the way down a page, whatever I’m writing. I then pick up the next piece on the pile and starting working on that rather than getting up and doing something else.” Her discipline is obvious, but Diana said that “I’m very flexible and that helps me to deal with interruptions and distractions very well.” There’s a lovely frank, down-to-earthness about Diana—straight talking, take no nonsense that I really like being one of those shoot-from-the-hip types myself!
Yes, I do work while traveling…. pic.twitter.com/107UmVqlJJ
— Diana Gabaldon (@Writer_DG) April 9, 2017
And yes, we talked about Sam and Caitriona
We finished off with a story about Sam and Cait. “They are extremely nice people, and it is always a joy to spend time with them. My husband and I had dinner with Maril, Sam and Cait last week,” she said. “We went to a restaurant called Primal Eatery that focuses on serving meat of all descriptions. We all ate huge portions of lots of exotic things. When I spoke to Sam yesterday and asked how he was, he said, ‘Still digesting last week’s steak!’” They must have felt like pythons after a feast.
I was completely wrung out when it finished; went straight into my husband’s arms for a long hug, which I really needed at that point. Thanks, enkosi gakulu, Diana for this lovely interview. It was a “peak experience” I will never forget.
|Outlander Cast Clan Gathering member Vanessa Tyler Bourne with Diana Gabaldon|
*Header image and photos throughout courtesy of Diana Gabaldon on Twitter.