Diana Gabaldon lives in two worlds. In the real one, she’s the internationally best-selling author of the eight-title multigenre “Outlander” series, and resides mostly in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Outlander” is a publishing phenomenon translated into 34 languages across 38 countries, with 25 million copies in print (including the three “Lord John” spinoff novels).
In her imaginary world, she lives in 18th century Scotland, France, England and America, and in 20th century England through a time-traveling avatar, Claire Randall.
Claire is an English ex-combat nurse who was second-honeymooning with her husband, Frank, in Inverness, Scotland, in 1946. One morning, she was out walking on a distant hilltop when she stopped to explore an ancient Stonehenge-type circle of giant stones – a portal to the past, as it turned out – “fell through time” and awoke in 1743 Scotland. There, she was rescued from rogues by dashing Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser.
They became an item, to understate their relationship, and many adventures have followed, as well as convoluted plots and major historical events involving a parade of characters. To keep that universe organized for her readers, Gabaldon wrote a compendium, “The Outlandish Companion,” and is at work on an updated edition.
On the phone from her “small place” in Santa Fe, N.M., Gabaldon said she is looking forward to her sold-out Friday-night appearance here at the Crest Theatre, sponsored by the Sacramento Public Library. (Gabaldon has appeared for the Sacramento Bee Book Club.)
Of more immediate concern, though, was her “recovery” from finishing the new “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” (Delacorte, $35, 848 pages; on sale today). The novel chronicles the further dramas of Claire and Jamie as they navigate revolutionary Philadelphia in 1778 and take to various battlefields. The book has a first printing of 500,000, an astonishing figure given today’s slimmed-down publishing model.
“I’ve spent the preceding two months working 15 hours a day in what I call the ‘final frenzy,’ finishing ‘Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,’ ” she said. “I made the drop-dead deadline one dawn after writing all night. The experience of finishing a book is like walking from California to Japan across the sea bed – there’s immense pressure and effort, but it’s an amazing journey. My life is never boring.”
There’s a story about how Gabaldon came to write the first “Outlander” novel, one that’s legendary in the publishing world and helps lend insight into her intellectualism and lifelong practice of mastering challenges.
Gabaldon holds degrees in zoology, marine biology and quantitative behavioral ecology and was an assistant professor of environmental studies at Arizona State University, Tempe, through the 1980s. She reads “literally hundreds of books a year” and, always curious on a big scale, wondered what it would be like to write one of her own. So she sat down to create a “practice” novel, and if that worked out, to then write a “real” one.
“ ‘Outlander’ started by accident,” she said. “I had no characters or plot. I was not going to show it to anyone, therefore it didn’t matter what genre it was. So I just used elements of any genre I liked, and I was quite familiar with all of them. Consequently, I wrote a book that is impossible to type. As my beloved first editor said, ‘This has to be a word-of-mouth book, because it’s too weird to describe.’ And that’s exactly how it worked out. You never know what’s going to happen.”
“Outlander” was published in 1991 and became a global sensation. Halfway through working on its sequel, “Dragonfly in Amber,” Gabaldon left teaching to write full time. She told her husband, Douglas Watkins, “We won’t starve if I quit.”
Since the beginning, the series has confounded literary critics in their attempts to describe exactly what it is. Some have dismissed it as “time-travel historical romance,” others have labeled it “fantasy” and “science fiction.” Gabaldon laughs at those notions.
“It’s an (epic) that exists on multiple levels,” she said. “It has a courtship story, which causes some people to say it’s a romance, but it’s not. It’s the evolution of a relationship. Romance novels don’t have sequels, and mine do.
“On another level, it explores the consequences of cultural dislocation – Claire living in 18th century Scotland – and metaphysical speculations through the time travel element,” Gabaldon said. “There’s moral ambiguity with time travel: If you travel into the past and you know a (disastrous event) is about to take place, do you have a responsibility to try to alter it?
“Another level is the entire second half of the 18th century, a really interesting time of tremendous political and intellectual foment, the echoes of which we are still feeling,” she continued. “You had all these entertaining conflicts – the Enlightenment, revolutions, new inventions and innovations, spiritual awakenings and the rise of rationalism.” (For research, she draws from her core collection of 1,500 volumes.)
“However, many (readers) choose not to look beyond the conflicts of my characters and into the metaphysical and historical, and that’s fine. They still get a nice tale of rousing adventure, love, sex and all the other good stuff.”
How does her hands-on editor approach manuscripts that are so enormous in scope, intricately plotted and historically detailed?
“I do offer advice here and there, such as, ‘We may need more information about how (a certain character) fits into the action here, because it’s been so long since the reader has seen (him or her),’ ” said Jennifer Hershey, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Brilliantine-Bantam-Dell.
“But I have to admit that a lot of what I do is just stand back and admire what she’s doing,” Hershey added. “Certainly I roll up my sleeves with some authors, and we take things apart together, but not with Diana. She does something so particular, and her world is so carefully calibrated and elaborately constructed, that it’s not something you can just go into and rummage around with your toolbox. It would be like taking a wrench to a really fine watch. So she doesn’t need a lot of help putting it all together. That’s what she excels at.”
Given the enduring, often contentiously debated relationship between science and art, has Gabaldon the scientist brought a lot to Gabaldon the novelist, or is writing its own kind of science?
“People always ask how I went from being a scientist to being a novelist because they think (they’re) completely dichotomous,” she said. “They think writing is all colorful and creative, and science is this stainless-steel kind of logic. They’re wrong.
“Art and science are the two faces of the same coin,” she said. “They both exist on the ability to see underlying patterns in the chaos. A novel is a hypothesis that you state, one that carries its own experimental design. You test it by unleashing in on the populace.”
Every A-list author has a fan base, of course, but some fans are more “fanatical” then others. Gabaldon’s are legion.
“There are huge online communities and clubs, and thousands of Facebook pages and blogs that are centered on the ‘Outlander’ universe,” she said. “My fans become instant friends with each other, and they reread the books. I think the record for reading the series is 23 times.”
What drives such passion? “It all comes down to the characters,” she said. “People want to spend time in their lives and care about what’s going to happen to them next. They’re terribly upset when bad things happen. Often they write to me: ‘I was so upset when that happened that I threw the book against the wall. But I ran right over and picked it up again.’ ”
Gabaldon’s fan base will doubtlessly grow when the cable-TV series of “Outlander” premieres Aug. 9 on the Starz network (watch a preview at www.starz.com/originals/outlander). Irish actress Caitriona Balfe (“Now You See Me”) plays Claire, opposite Scottish actor Sam Heughan (“A Princess for Christmas”) as Jamie.
“There have been many attempts to option my books for feature films, and I have seen many execrable screenplays, all of which has convinced me it’s absolutely impossible to make a two-hour movie of ‘Outlander,’ ” Gabaldon said. “I spent 10 days on the set (in Scotland) in February while the TV series was being made, attending production and script meetings. I’ve got a cameo in one of the episodes, but I’m not allowed to say which one.
“George R.R. Martin (‘Game of Thrones’) and I have breakfast now and then in Santa Fe,” she added. “He asked me how many episodes I’m getting for the first season. I told him 16. He said, ‘What? They only gave me 10!’ ”
Now that “Heart’s Blood” is out, Gabaldon is looking forward to returning to work on the first book in a contemporary mystery series set in Phoenix. “It’s half-completed. It has a male protagonist who’s a journalist, but I shouldn’t get into the plot,” she said. “I feel very comfortable with men. I like them. Many women don’t.”
Then there’s “Outlander: The Musical,” which has been in and out of development for a few years. “We had to suspend it when we started negotiations for the TV show because we didn’t want to complicate things, but we’ll return to it,” she said. “At the moment it exists as the basic song cycle ( www.outlanderthemusical.com). There’s a script for the stage production, but it has not yet been staged. We’re hoping it reaches Broadway.”
Back to the notion of time travel: As Gabaldon sits at her computer, manipulating Claire Randall in and out of danger, does she ever personally fantasize about visiting the past?
“If given the choice, I would not go back,” she said. “From the point of view of curiosity, it would be interesting. From the point of view of personal danger and leaving behind the people and things I love I’ve been with my husband for 42 years, and I’m not going anywhere without him.”
When she was in her late 20s, Gabaldon wrote scripts for Walt Disney comic books for 18 months. An incongruity, given her résumé. Is there anything else unexpected she can share?
“It’s hard to think of something appropriate,” she said. “Actually, my life is a pretty open book. Writers have no secrets, everything is right there on the page. If you’ve read my books, you have a good idea of who I am.”