The Great American Read, hosted by TV personality and journalist Meredith Vieira, is an eight-part TV competition shining a national spotlight on the importance of reading and will feature an interview with Diana Gabaldon, best known for her Outlander series of novels and the STARZ TV series derived from it.
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In fact, the TV series returned Outlander to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best seller list 23 years after it was first published.
Gabaldon, who is currently working on the ninth book in the series, appeared at PBS’ summer TCA session for The Great American Read. Following is a bit of what she had to say.
What was it like when you found out you made the list?
I said, “Who else is on this list?”
Is your favorite book on the list?
Trying to pick one favorite book out of the universe of books is impossible. Trying to pick one off of a list of 100 is difficult but maybe not impossible. It’s a dead heat between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Lonesome Dove. Having made that decision, I was thinking: What do these books have in common? Why do I like them both so much? I finally decided that it’s because they share what my husband refers to in reference to my work as the “One damn thing after another” school of fiction.
What book or books really changed the way you thought?
My dad at one phase of his career was an elementary school principal. And his elementary school held a book sale — it was a very active school and all the parents brought in books by the ton — which he collected in this little janitorial room. Just before the book sale, he would let my mother, my sister and me into that room with an empty cardboard box each. We brought back the books that we had taken last year and added them to the pile, but we extracted new ones. When I was about 15, I filled my box halfway with the paperbacks that had the covers ripped off and I found out why.
What are you reading right now?
I’m in one of those phases where I’m reading four books at once because I’m actively working on the ninth book of my main series, and so I’m rereading Dorothy Sayers‘ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery for probably the 80th time, because I love the series and the characters, but it’s a book I can step in and out of. I can put it down when it’s time to go to work myself. But I’m also running a nonfiction book in the background that I’m reading for general interest. Then, I’m also rereading parts of my own eighth book Written in My Own Heart’s Blood because I’m working on the ninth book, and there are pieces where I encounter an emotional thread that I had dropped in the last book. So, I will go back to read through it and pick that up so it will come into the new book with its original power.
When you were first writing Outlander, did you start with the love story or did you start off with the mythic quality of the show?
Neither one. I don’t write in a straight line and I don’t plan stories out ahead of time. In fact, I don’t actually know what’s going to happen in a book.
I began writing Outlander for practice. I knew I was supposed to be a novelist, but I didn’t know how; and I decided the way to learn was to actually write a novel. So, Outlander was my practice book. I was never going to show it to anyone, so it didn’t matter what I did with it. It didn’t have to have a genre, so I used anything that I like. I’ve been reading since I was a 3-year-old. I like a lot of stuff, so I used it all.
Now that Outlander has been adapted, does the image of the actors supersede in your own minds, or maybe in your readers’ minds, the characters as written?
I know that for a number of readers, because they say so on my Facebook page and so forth, the vision of the actors does, in fact, supersede their original vision of what the characters looked like. It doesn’t for me. They still look the same way they always looked.
That said, what an actor does is magic. It’s pretty much what we do but in a different venue. Their magic is to embody somebody that they aren’t. The first time I saw Sam Heughan, though, they sent me his audition tape for Jamie Fraser, and I was looking up his pictures on my way to wherever I was going, and he has a very limited filmography, not many pictures, and, frankly, the ones that he had up were strange.
Anyway, so, when I saw the audition, I didn’t know what to expect. He appeared, and five seconds into it, I was saying, “He doesn’t look anything like his photos. He looks fine.” Five seconds more, he was gone, and it was just Jamie Fraser right there. I recognized him immediately.
How did your story get discovered and championed?
Well, it’s actually extremely humdrum. The only novel thing about it was that in 1988, the internet basically didn’t exist except for a few small special interest groups, CompuServe, Delfi, GEnie, but owing to various career choices I had made, I was an “expert in scientific computation,” and I was in that world. I had discovered a group of people called the Literary Forum on CompuServe. This was not a writers’ group. This was just people who liked to talk about books. There were a few writers there, though.
I had always known I was supposed to be novelist, and when I was 36, I said, “Well, you better start writing a novel, then.” Actually what I said was “Mozart was dead at 36. You better get started.” So I did. I was not going to tell the people that I knew on CompuServe what I was doing for various reasons, and I didn’t. But one night I was having an argument with a gentleman online about what it feels like to be pregnant.
He said, “I know what that’s like. My wife’s had three children.” I laughed, and I said, “Yeah, Buster. I’ve had three children.” He said, “Can you tell me what it’s like?” I said, “I can, yes, but it’s kind of complex. I can’t fit it in a 30‑line message slot.” I said, “I have this little thing I wrote a few months ago in which a young woman explains to her brother in some detail what it’s like to be pregnant. I’ll put it in the library here for you.” My husband says I am congenitally unable to lose an argument, and he’s right. That’s why I overcame my fear of showing what I was writing, in order to win an argument, and I did, as a matter of fact, win the argument.
But what happened was that everyone who had been following the argument went and read this piece, and they all came rushing back, and they said, “This is great. What is it?” And I said, “I don’t know.” They said, “Well, where’s the beginning?” I said, “I haven’t written that yet.” And they said, “Well, put up some more of it. This is fascinating.”
I don’t write in a straight line. I write in little bits and fit them together. Whenever I had a bit that would stand alone without too much discussion, I put it up. And people got more and more interested. They said, “This is great. Diana has a new chunk. Have you read it?” This was my first experience with the power of word of mouth, also the power of giving out free samples, which I have employed ever since.
And essentially what happened is that I was introduced to an agent who I had my eye on by a CompuServe friend who was this man’s client as well, and he said, “You’re almost ready to look for an agent. Would you like me to introduce you to so and so?” And I said, “Yes.” I wasn’t finished writing the book, but I was afraid my friend would be run over by a bus or leave CompuServe, so I said, “Yeah. Go ahead and ask him.”
So he wrote a perfectly straightforward typed letter to Perry Knowlton, who was the agent. Perry, God rest his soul, was a much older gentleman who never touched a computer in his life. So, I followed up my friend’s note with my own query letter. Mind you, my book was still not done. It said, “Dear, Mr. Knowlton, I’ve been writing and selling nonfiction by myself for several years. But now that I’m working on a novel, I understand that I need good literary representation. You’ve been recommended to me by John and these other people who all think you walk on water.” I said, “I have this very long book. I don’t want to waste your time reading it, it’s a long historical novel. Would you be willing to read excerpts from it?” I didn’t tell him it wasn’t done. Excerpts were all I had.
He very kindly called me back and gave me a heart attack and said, yes, he would read my excerpts. So, I hastily wrote a 26‑page single spaced synopsis of what I thought I knew about the rest of the story and sent it with my bundle of excerpts, and he took me. It is not usual to buy an unfinished book as a first novel, but I was very lucky. I actually finished the book six months later, gave it to him, and he sent it to five editors who he thought might like it. Within four days, three of them had called back with offers to buy it. So, he negotiated amongst them for two weeks. He emerged with a three‑book contract, and bing, I was a novelist. Like I said, it’s very humdrum.
New episodes of The Great American Read premiere September 11 through October 23 on PBS. Voting opened with the launch of the two-hour premiere episode on May 22 and continues throughout the summer, leading up to the grand finale on October 23.
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