A Breath of Snow Ashes
Original Airdate: April 20, 2006
About the Author
About this Book
TranscriptRon Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Diana Gabaldon, who created the Outlander series, and whose newest installment in that series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, has just been published. Welcome.
Diana Gabaldon: Thank you very much.
Ron Carlson: Now, these are big books.
Diana Gabaldon: They are huge books, I'm afraid.
Ron Carlson: No, it's wonderful. And this is a big series and successful worldwide – millions of copies in lots of languages. Can you bring us up to speed before we move to this new book about the Outlander, a little about his genesis and who that character was and --
Diana Gabaldon: How this all started?
Ron Carlson: Yes, could you?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, it was all an accident. All of the primary events of my literary life have been complete accidents. In this case, the only deliberate decision I made was to try writing a novel. I had wanted to write a novel since I was about 8, but I didn't know how, and I came from a very conservative family background. My father would say to me, "well you're such a poor judge of character, you're bound to marry some bum. So be sure you get a good education so you can support your children." So with this going on at home, I thought, "well, maybe I won't admit that I want to write novels," because I did know this was not a very secure career path. And so I went into science. I like science, I was good at it. I enjoyed teaching. But I still wanted to write novels. And so I said, "well, you know, time is getting on here. I'm 35. Mozart was dead when he was 36, maybe I'd better get a move on. "You want to write a novel, write a novel." And so I said, "fine. The only way to learn to write a novel, I think, is to do it. And once I've done it, I can
Decide whether I want to do it for real. But this book will be for practice to see what it takes in terms of daily discipline and mental commitment. And so I'm not going to tell anyone what I'm doing. It's not for publication, it's just to learn how. Fine, what kind of book shall I write?" And after a certain amount of thought, I said, "well, maybe mysteries. I read a lot of mysteries, and then I said, "No, mysteries have plots. I don't know if I can do that. What's the easiest kind of book I could write? No one's going to see it, it doesn't matter." So I said, "maybe a historical novel," because historical novels really have no genre constraints. You can do anything from the very fact-based autobiography of Henry VIII sort of thing down to very light, fluffy historical romances or the less light and fluffy ones, World War II thrillers, the sort of heavyweight epics that James Clavell and James Michener did, and as you can see, that's where
I ended up. But you don't really need a genre to start with. What you need is a very vivid historical background that will pull people into the past, make them believe they're there.
And so I said, "okay, I've read enough historical fiction to know that this depends on having very vivid, convincing, believable details, which of course you get from research." I said, "Well, cool, I'm a research professor. I know what to do with a library."
Ron Carlson: But you were a research professor in science.
Diana Gabaldon: But research is research. I still knew what to do with a library.
Ron Carlson: Okay, so you just shifted your interest to history, moved it to history.
Diana Gabaldon: Well, not even that so much. It was just when I said "historical novel," I said, "fine, but obviously I've got to do research. I don't know anything about history.
Where shall I set this thing?" And I happened to see a really old Dr. Who rerun, speaking of PBS, and it was one of those done maybe 35 years ago in which there was a minor Scottish character, a young man who appeared in his kilt. I said, "Well, that's kind of fetching." So I found myself still thinking about this the next day, in church, and I said,
"Well, you want to write a book. It doesn't matter where you set it. The important point is, pick a place and start." So I said, "fine, Scotland, 18th Century." So that was about the only conscious decision I made. After that, everything followed a bit at a time because I went immediately to the library and looked up Scotland 18th century highlands.
There were 400 books, and -- customs, geography, language, anything you could want.
So I took several out that looked interesting, and quickly began an overview of the 18th
Century. I said, "Well, the only thing that I know for sure about writing novels is they should have conflict. Okay, a quick look at the 18th Century shows me that bonny
Prince Charlie and the Jacobites were probably the high point of conflict in Scotland then. So fine, backdrop for the story. Cool. Now, I must have a lot of Scotsmen, of course, because of the kilt factor, but it would be a good idea, I think, if I had a female character to play off these guys, and we'd have sexual tension, that's conflict. That's good." I said, "Okay, we have Scots versus English. If I make her an Englishwoman, we'll have lots of conflict." And so about the third day of writing, I introduced this
Englishwoman. I had no idea who she was, what she was doing in the story, or how she got there, but I loosed her into a cottage full of Scotsmen to see what she'd do. And she walked in, they all turned around and stared at her. And I was thinking, "Why, does she look funny?" And one of them drew himself up, And he said, "My name's Dougal Mackenzie, and who might you be?" And without my stopping to think, I just typed, "My name's Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?" And I said, "You don't sound at all like an 18th-century person." So I fought with her for several pages, you know, trying to beat her into shape, make her talk like an 18th-century person.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, okay.
Diana Gabaldon: But that's where she named herself, and she kept making smartass modern remarks about everything she saw. She also took over and started telling the story herself. And so I said, "well, you know, this is not for publication, no one's every going to see it, it doesn't matter what bizarre thing I do. Go ahead and be modern. I'll figure out how you got there later." So it's all her fault that these books have time travel. But, of course, having reached that point, I figured well, anything goes. Consequently, you know, we have the loch ness monster, and anything else. They are essentially very
straightforward and very accurate historical fiction, like Clavell, Michener, and the
like. However, the main character is a time traveler, which introduces any amount of
difficulties and complications.
Ron Carlson: Well, also a kind of richness. I mean, in this book, just because she lives in 1772 during the American Revolution doesn't prevent her from all of these contemporary allusions to... Well, why would it?
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah, exactly.
Ron Carlson: And so, research has its own joy for you.
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, sure.
Ron Carlson: And have you -- let's talk about research methods. They've changed.
You said you got up and went to the library, and now everybody's just googling everything. Has there been something lost in that?
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, I think so, yeah. No, I still use libraries. No, google is a great tool.
It's excellent for things like checking a date or if you suddenly need to see a picture of something. That's very good for things like that, and you will turn up little things as you google around, but the difficulty there is it is not nearly as multi-dimensional as a library is. When you're at a library, you're looking through the stacks for a particular title, for instance, but on the way you'll spot all kinds of things that are related, and they're related much more closely than google links are, because google links don't necessarily reflect relation. They reflect how many people have hit them, which is a different thing.
And so you may be looking for this book, but you find this book, and this book is just
what you needed. This one is okay, but this one is really good, and you would never have thought to look for it had you not seen it in passing.
Ron Carlson: And so you're still – you still visit libraries.
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, yeah, all the time. And again, you know, the web is excellent for what it does. Over the last five years, it's become a really good research tool. Prior to that, it wasn't, and when I began writing these books back in 1988, of course, it didn't really exist in its present form.
Ron Carlson: Now, the -- when you talk about research, you obviously are very excited about your work. And, you a vital writer, and we understand the outlander series is going to have a long life, but the -- you're making it -- I want to talk about something-- I want to talk about work. So that you -- you get a lot of data, you get a lot of research, and there's two things about this. One is -- and I want all the writers who are listening to listen to it.
What is the hardest part of your work? You obviously have great enthusiasm for your characters, Claire and Jamie, and this book Just brims with vitality, but where's the -- what's the hardest work in writing? This is a thousand-page book. And so we understand that, and it's weight, and so on, but for you -- many times in here when we talk about writer's process, we talk about moments of – of doubt or moments of risk or moments of -- where it gets a little thin. But what's the toughest part for you?
Diana Gabaldon: Just starting on a day when I have no ideas and have no idea what's happening next. I don't write with an outline, and I don't write in a straight line.
In fact, writing for me is always sort of a tightrope act, you know. I just have faith that I'm not going to fall. But the other thing is that I also have it in mind that nobody's going to see what I'm doing until I say it's ready. So if I write something and it doesn't work, you know, fine. I'll just write something else. It's not a problem.
Ron Carlson: You know, it's surprising. You and I have not talked before on this matter, but you said you don't have an outline.
Diana Gabaldon: No. As I looked at this book, I couldn't imagine it being done without an outline. It's written by chapters, and it's written in sections, and it's an ocean. We cross -- I mean Metaphorically, there's a long journey here.
Ron Carlson: There's a long journey here, and I thought, certainly, Diana has an outline. But doesn't that lead you to -- this is a question I get all the time: doesn't it lead you to potential dead ends and having to reverse? This is a thousand pages. How many pages did you write to get these thousand?
Diana Gabaldon: A thousand.
Ron Carlson: So you kept every page?
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah, pretty much. I have a handful of scenes and partial fragments and things that were kind of left over at the end of this book, and those are my compost heap for the next book. I will often write a scene that is perfect in itself, but it's not really necessary to the ultimate shape of the book. And usually what I do is just transfer those intact to the next directory in my hard disk, and when I come to the next book, sure enough, it fits perfectly.
Ron Carlson: And so is, are there moments in the writing -- I mean a book like this takes a long time to write writing steadily. Are there moments when you feel like you're out on a tightrope, where you think, "oh, I'm not sure what this is connected to?"
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, all the time, yeah, especially in the beginning because in the beginning, I have very little idea as to what actually happens in this book. I'll have some idea, because it is a really big series with a lot of existing history. And I can see looking at some parts that, you know, this is obviously going to happen at some point, I just don't know how or when or under what circumstances. So I kind of compare writing a book to raising continents. You know, you're standing there looking out over this trackless sea of endless possibility. And way out in the distance, you see a volcano sprouting up. And as there's steam coming out, lava rolling down the sides, and all this excitement of ideas buzzing. But it's just that one thing. It's way out there. Well, and then here comes another one, and there's another one, and they begin to rise slowly as the lava goes down and
forms atolls and islands, and they begin to flow into each other, and as they come up, you
can follow the slope of one down and see where it has to intersect with the other even
though that part is underwater. You begin to see the constellation of the book. And so gradually, when you've got the whole land mass raised, you'll have mountain ranges and foothills, and then you'll have lakes and streams. And where you have the water in the low places, that's where you have the ambiguities of the thematic material. And if the reader bends over and looks into that water, they should see their own face looking back.
Ron Carlson: That's a fabulous metaphor. Let me remind everybody. We're talking with the writer Diana Gabaldon about her book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. You made the -- Claire is a doctor.
Diana Gabaldon: She is.
Ron Carlson: And she's lived in the 20th Century, and she's lived in the 18th century, and she -- what's the gateway? What in your cosmos, how does this gateway work, the ring of stones?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, once I had decided that Claire was in fact a time traveler, I had to decide where did she come from and also how did she get to there. And I was doing a lot of research on Scotland and – and related matters, and I kept coming across mentions in my research material of standing stones. There are a lot of these standing stone circles – you know, much smaller than Stonehenge, but the same idea --all over northern England and Brittany and Scotland and Galatia and Spain and all of the Celtic nations, in fact. And every time I would read about one of these, it would say, you know, "we think that so and so may have done this. And it might be an astronomical laboratory, or it might have been a place of sacrifice," or something, something, but they'd all end up saying, "but nobody actually knows the purpose of the stone circles." I began to say, "Well, I bet I could think of something. So, in fact, those are a point where the geomagnetic lines of the earth -- which exist, as a matter of fact -- form vortices. These vortices also exist. So my hypothesis is that the stones are in fact markers. They may also be amplifying devices, but they're markers for these vortexes. And people of a certain genetic makeup can not only sense these vortices but drop into them. Not everybody can do it. But it is a genetic ability. Yeah, it's like rolling your tongue, you know. Most people can do that, and if you can't do that, you can't do that. It doesn't -- try all you want.
Ron Carlson: I understand what you're saying, but walking through the stones has got to be harder than rolling your tongue. The -- what about the research
That you -- I've had the experience, and I know writers who've had the experience, of
research becoming its own mission and so interesting and unearthing and finding and
locating and connecting this data and then feeling obligated to it. Do you every get trapped by your own research, I mean, in terms of all this stuff? You've got all the dialect. You've got all the clothing. You've got all the cooking. You've got all the science and the culture, and it all rings authentic. Do you ever get -- do you have ever material you have to let go, you can't figure out a way to get it in there?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, this is the beauty of having very large books and a very large series. I always can tell myself, well, if it doesn't fit here, you can use it someplace else.
You know, it's never wasted. The thing is, when I began doing this I had had the benefit of talking to a number of people who wanted to write historical fiction, many of whom started in on the research, became sucked into it, and never wrote a word. You know, they knew everything about their period, they talked for hours about it, but they never wrote a word. I said, "This isn't right. My point here is not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century. It's to learn how to write a book." And I was bolstered by the fact that no one was ever going to see it. It didn't matter what I did. And so I said, you know, "I'm not capable of doing bad research." So it wasn't that. It was that I didn't feel bound to know everything before I began writing. The important thing is to write. "So i'm going to start writing, even though I know nothing, and as I go along, if I discover in the research that I've made a mistake, I'll just fix it." It's a page; you can fix it. It's not a problem. So I've never felt, you know, bound to my research as many people do, I think, because I didn't have this mass of it. The important thing has always been the writing.
The research serves the writing. And for me, it's sort of a positive feedback loop.
Since I don't work with an outline, I will be writing along and I'll realize, "well, I
really have to know something about this particular event." Or, you know, we've come to a place where I have to know how this particular procedure was done.
>Ron Carlson: A couple of the moments in his book are drawn from history: the battle in North Carolina, which is the battle of...
Diana Gabaldon: The battle of Morris Creek Bridge, yeah.
Ron Carlson: And tell me about that in terms of your obligation to real data.
You know, this whole discussion, it's very popular in America right now between fact and fiction. So you have this battle that actually occurred and then your use of the battle. So are you obligated to the facts or...
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, absolutely. When you deal with an actual historical event, yeah, I would not bend any of the known facts in the slightest. The thing is that, uh, history is not facts. History is a series of impressions that people wrote down at various removes from the actual events, and even within an actual event. I'm sure you've played that game
telephone or you've had the scenario where you have someone rush into a class and supposedly shoot someone, rush out. Then you ask everyone what happened, and you will get a dozen different answers. Well, with history, you get hundreds of different answers. Which is one of the reasons that you do a lot of research. It's so you can see where the intersections lie. This gives you sort of a – not the truth but a triangulation of it. And so you use the best approximation that you can get as sort of your responsibility toward the real people who lived and died there, and that's an ethical obligation rather than a legal one, you might say. Luckily, you can't libel the dead. You work hard to get the flora and the fauna and the time of year and time of day. And then you bring your characters into this very -- this place that exists, shall I say, realistically historically.
Ron Carlson: Yes it does, uh-huh.
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah, now, there you enter the craft end of things. If you're writing fiction, it's actually a two-step process. You are finding the story or making it up, however you like to describe it. For me, I'm finding pieces and assembling them. And it becomes live. The second point is getting it out of your head onto the page in a way that it will get into someone else's head vividly. And some people can do one but not the other. And, you know, it shows. You get these very pedestrian stories that are beautifully
crafted or you get this horribly written but really vital story, naming no names -- and at the top of the bestseller list.
Ron Carlson: Right, right.
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah, the story is more important than the elegance of writing.
No, I would like to write as elegantly, concisely, and clearly as possible. We always strive for that. But the story is what's happening. And -- I think I've lost track of what it was you actually asked me.
Ron Carlson: You're on a very good point. So I want to talk about these two very big elements. One is an understanding of story, which sometimes we think Of an aid or sometimes learned. And you've said in other interviews that you learned a great deal about story craft and understanding story from comics.
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah.
Ron Carlson: And, you wrote --
Diana Gabaldon: I wrote Walt Disney comics, yes.
Ron Carlson: Okay, how -- tell – explain that in terms of -- I know exactly what you're saying, but how does that happen? You mean planning stories or coming to understand how a story worked or...
Diana Gabaldon: Something about the structure of a story and how -- well, I should explain. People say, "Do you think you can teach people to tell stories or do you have to be born with it?" And I don't actually know because I was born with it. It was very fortunate. But I've just always had bits and pieces of, you know, what I call the other side floating around within plain view. And I would tell stories with my younger sister night after night after night. We shared a bedroom till I was 14, and she can also do this. And so we'd tell these long, interactive stories on and on and on. I've always been able to do that, but in terms of telling a discreet story, one with a concrete structure, with a beginning and an end, I didn't know how to do that. And my mother taught me to read when I was 3 by reading me Walt Disney comic books amongst other things, and I just went on reading them. I was about 27, I think, and I picked one up at the Circle K.
I said, "This is pretty bad. I bet I could do better than that myself." So I found the name and address of the editor who handled that line, and I wrote him this very rude letter.
It said, "Dear Sir, I've been Reading your comics for the last 25 years, and they've been
getting worse and worse." I said, "I'm not sure I could do better, but I'd like to try."
And Del Connell was his name. He had a good sense of humor. He wrote back and said, "Okay, try." And he showed me the format in which to submit a comic book script. I wrote him a story. He didn't buy it, but he did something much more valuable.
He told me what was wrong with it, and he did buy my second story, and I continued to write for him for the next couple of years while working as a post doc at UCLA.
So, well, what he told me is, you know, a three-minute lesson on what a comic book story looks like. He said, "first page, you have that big central panel that opens it. This takes up the space of four small panels. Then you have four small panels under that. Each page has normally seven or eight panels. He said, in that main opening panel, you must have the main character of the story, if it's Mickey mouse, if it's Donald Duck, whoever. They must be in a situation that contains the root of that story or has something to do with the premise of the story at least. Then below that, you have three panels to do any necessary setup or explanation that you need. By the final panel on the first page, your characters must be in motion. They have to be up, out, off on their adventure. And, and the final panel of the story has to have something to do with the first panel. In other words, the end has to have something to do with the beginning, which is a fairly elementary fact that still seems to escape a lot of people.
Ron Carlson: Yes, right, right. There's this echo, and as you said that, which is – what you've just said is very large.
Diana Gabaldon: Exactly.
Ron Carlson: But in your book --
Diana Gabaldon: I could teach two or three hours on that. In this book we have, um -- Claire's a time traveler, and she knows from a paper she's read in the future that there's
a fire that endangers her family. I mean, does more than that. Harms them.Yeah, the newspaper clipping says, you know, "The house," which is identifiable, "burns to the ground and kills everyone inside." So as her husband says, "well if you know the house is going to burn down, why the hell would you stand in it?"
Ron Carlson: The, um -- let's move over. So in a way -- and then of course, the last panel of your book has to do with that. So I was reminded powerfully of that as you were speaking. Can we -- let's shift to this -- your facility with language.
Diana Gabaldon: Sure.
Ron Carlson: Because you're a scientist.
Diana Gabaldon: I was, yeah.
Ron Carlson: I read something about the four-eyed fish.
Diana Gabaldon: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Ron Carlson: And the -- your research on Jays, your research on boxfish and bloodworms and so on. So, there you are. I can see you making your statistics and entering your log, but tell me about your connection to the sentence -- Sentence and paragraph, and your -- your books are very dynamic, very fluid, the language is advanced not only --not only the dialect but the prose itself. And where did you train on that? Did you -- were you writing as a young person?
Diana Gabaldon: No, no, I don't think I ever wrote anything until I got into school.
I was obliged to write papers and essays and things like that. I have not really written
anything creatively, say, as class requirements until I began writing Outlander, as I say, for practice. That and the comic books, of course. No, I learned because as I say,
my mother taught me to read at the age of 3, and thereafter, I didn't stop. And when it came time to write a book, I said, "well, you know, up to this point, you've written
anything anybody would pay you for: scholarly articles, textbooks, popular science."
I did one article on how to clean a long-horn skull for the Texas cattleman's journal.
Of course, they paid me 125 bucks -- easy money. But anyway, I would write anything.
I knew one end of a sentence from the other before I began writing novels, you know, and I had read everything. So I said, "you've read novels for the last 30-odd years.
Surely if you write one, you will recognize it." But I took bits and pieces, of course, of everything I had learned from all those novels that I'd read. In fact, having run out of close friends and family for dedications, this book is dedicated to my five literary role models, who are the people who I consciously called on for technique when I was beginning to learn to write a novel. And those would be Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dorothy Lee Sayers, John D. McDonald, and P.J. Woodhouse.
Ron Carlson: What did -- which of Sayers did you -- I mean, are these – you read many books by these authors.
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, yeah. What unites all of those is a real muscular story. Terrific storytellers, all of them.
Ron Carlson: Right. And is that -- were they in your mind when you started? I was going to ask about your influences, and those five, as I saw cited in the book are the primary influences on you?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, no, not specifically. It was more that as I was approaching a certain passage, I would subconsciously think, "well, you know, if I were Charlie Dickens, I would kind of do this." And I could just segue into, you know, this sort of very
rich character description, which by modern-day standards would be kind of over the top,
but it had precisely that old-fashioned air that I wanted as well as painting a very vivid
picture of this particular character.
Ron Carlson: You get both worlds. You get to have a period piece but also the contemporary, this very contemporary, strong woman.
Diana Gabaldon: It's a great advantage having the time travel. It frees me to do anything.
Ron Carlson: Let's talk about genre and the marketing of the book, the classification of books. Your books kind of transcend. I mean there historical. They're fabulous fantasy,
Diana Gabaldon: You name it.
Ron Carlson: But they're -- but they're marketed and presented to the public as -- how are they presented?
Diana Gabaldon: Well, in a wide variety of things. Yeah. No, the marketing is very
difficult with a book like this because the publishing industry and the bookselling industry, as well, work on labels. You go into any bookstore, you find mystery, romance,
thrillers, and that's because people say, "I really like this kind of book," and so they want
to be able to find it easily. So this entire emphasis on labeling, in fact, has come to a head over the last 10 years with the rise of the superstores. Barnes & noble, I think, Invented this "nichification," Which is -- you know, makes economic sense, but it's very constraining to novels which may not fit conveniently there. Now originally, I didn't even
think about genre because I wasn't going to let anybody see the book. It didn't matter what I did. I used everything that I liked, And I like lots of things. Here's what -- I would say this: let's let that be their problem because I think that operating without constraints
is probably the best advice for any writer. Oh, I would think so, but it makes a difference as to what they want. People ask me this. They say, "I'm writing this book, but I really want to do this, and I can't do that within the constraints of this genre. What would you advise me to do?" And I said, "well, it depends. You know, if you want to increase your chances of being published, if that's what's most important to you, try to keep it as closely as you can within the genre constraints. They're loosening a little. You know, you can do things. Especially if it's a good story. The bottom line is you can do anything if it's a really good story and get away with it. But not everybody can do it that well. And the thing is, you can sell a genre book that is perhaps not the absolute top-quality whereas a really unusual book has to be absolutely top-quality storytelling if not writing as well in order to sell, in order to overcome this -- this roadblock. And so I say, if it means the most to you to write the story that you want, write the story that you want then worry about how to sell it. But there are people to whom the writing is secondary. They want to be a published author.
Ron Carlson: I've seen it. Well, you have done both.
Diana Gabaldon: Yes. By accident, yes.
Ron Carlson: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Diana Gabaldon: My pleasure.
Ron Carlson: We've been talking to Diana Gabaldon about her book, A
Breath of Snow and Ashes. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co.
I hope you'll join us next time.