Writing a novel shouldn’t have been high on Diana Gabaldon’s list of priorities in the late 1980s. She already had two jobs, as a university professor at Arizona State, with an expertise in scientific computation, and as a software reviewer for the computer press. And she had three children under six. But she’d known since she was eight years old that she was “supposed to be a novelist”, so she decided it was time to give it a try.
With three degrees – a bachelor’s in zoology, a master’s in marine biology, and a PhD in quantitative behavioural ecology (her thesis was on “nest site selection in pinyon jays”) – Gabaldon says she “liked science, I was good at it. But I knew that was not my vocation, that’s not my calling. So when I turned 35, I said to myself, well, you know, Mozart was dead at 36. If you want to be a novelist, maybe you’d better start.”
More than 30 years later, it is clear Gabaldon had her priorities right. The Outlander author, whose blockbuster historical fantasy series about Claire, a married woman from the 1940s who accidentally time travels back to 18th-century Scotland and falls for outlaw Jamie, has sold 50m copies around the world. She is in London after a cruise from Basel to Amsterdam accompanied by more than 100 of her fans, here to talk about Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone , the eagerly anticipated ninth novel in the series.
Fans have been waiting for it since 2014, when Written in My Own Heart’s Blood left them hanging, but Gabaldon has been somewhat delayed by the television adaptation of her series, which kicked off that year and on which she is a consultant. Go Tell the Bees, in which Jamie and Claire have finally been reunited with their time-travelling daughter Brianna and her family in 1779 North Carolina, only for the American revolution to cast its shadow over their lives, also runs to more than 900 pages.
“It was definitely more of a challenge to write, mostly because of the chronology, which was very complicated,” she says. In any event, seven years is less time than fans of George RR Martin have been holding on for the sixth Game of Thrones novel; Gabaldon has, incidentally, included a chapter in her latest doorstopper called The Winds of Winter – a “nod or a dig, depending on how you want to interpret it” at Martin’s writing speed.
“Poor George, I feel very sorry for him,” she says. “What happened is that his show caught up with him, and he then met with the showrunners and he told them what he was planning to do in that book, so that they could then write accordingly. Only they didn’t write accordingly, they took his stuff, and distorted it and wrote their own ending, which wasn’t at all what he had in mind but used all the elements that he told them.”
This won’t, she says, happen to her: she has one more Outlander novel to write and the popular TV series, starring Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser and Caitriona Balfe as Claire, is only up to the sixth, which is due to air next year. “They’ll never catch me,” she says. “I will certainly finish the 10th book before they finish the show.”
Gabaldon began writing novels in absolute secrecy: she knew her husband would have raised an eyebrow at her desire to add writing to her packed schedule, so she’d get up and work between midnight and 4am, before getting on with her day. “He would have said, wait till the kids are in school and you have more time, wait till my business is doing better and you can quit one of your jobs. It would all have made perfect sense, and he would have succeeded in stopping me because my grip on it was very tenuous to start with.”
Gabaldon read everything, voraciously – she didn’t have a particular genre she was drawn to. So she decided that she might as well put her academic research skills to use in writing historical fiction. “Also, if I turned out not to have an imagination, I could steal things from the historical record.”
The only question was, with all of history laid out before her, where to start. “I was just casting around mentally for a time and place to set this novel – Roman times, the American civil war, Venice under the Borgias. And in this malleable frame of mind, I happen to see a really old Doctor Who episode.”
This serendipitous viewing, much recounted, was of Jamie McCrimmon, a kilt-wearing 18th-century Scot played by Frazer Hines. Gabaldon was an instant fan, but had never been to Scotland, so she went to her university’s library and started checking out books about its history, culture and geography.
“The only thing I knew about novels was that they should have conflict, so I was thinking, well, what kind of conflict was going on in Scotland in the 18th century? That’s an easy one to answer, it’s the Jacobite risings. That sounded cool, and it’s this doomed cause that’d have a lot of openings. So I said OK, we’ll do that,” she says. “It looked to me, at this point, not knowing the subtleties, that it was essentially the Scots, the Jacobites, versus the British army. I had to have a lot of Scotsmen because of the kilt factor, but I thought it would be good if I had an English female to play off these guys. We’d have sexual tension, that’s conflict, and maybe they’d fight over her or want to kill her or whatever.”
But when she wrote her Englishwoman into a scene, she just didn’t sound as if she came from the past. “I sent her into a cottage full of Scotsmen to see what she’d do. They all turned around when she came in and stared at her, and one of them stood up slowly, and he said, ‘My name is Dougal MacKenzie, and who might you be?’ Without my stopping to think, I just typed ‘My name is Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, and who the hell are you?’” says Gabaldon. “I fought with her for several pages, trying to beat her into shape and make her talk like an 18th-century person. She wasn’t having any of it, she just kept making smartass modern remarks. And so by the end of three pages, I said, ‘OK, I give up. I’m not gonna fight with you all the way through this book. Go ahead and be modern. I’ll figure out how to get there later.’ Plainly, she was a time traveller, so then the question was, where did she come from?”
It took Gabaldon 18 months to write Outlander, which runs to almost 650 pages – all of it in secret, apart from a group of online friends she made on a literary forum (she’d got a free CompuServe membership thanks to writing for Byte magazine). After getting into an argument with a man online over what it felt like to be pregnant, she posted a section from Outlander in which Jamie’s sister Jenny evocatively describes the experience; her forum friends liked it, and one eventually introduced her to a literary agent. He took her on, and landed her a three-book contract.
Outlander was published in 1991 – pitched firmly at the romance market, something to which Gabaldon objected. “The problem with writing a book that nobody can describe is marketing, and I agreed that we could sell it as romance provided that I had tasteful covers.” (No bare-chested men.) Her proviso was that if it did well, the series would be moved to general fiction, and after “a whole lot of pushing on my part”, by the fifth in the series, The Fiery Cross, it was.
While she’s since published an article on the Gabaldon theory of time travel in the Journal of Transfigural Mathematics, Gabaldon admits that the passion between Jamie and Claire – forever thwarted as it is by pesky time travel, by the dangers of the 18th century, and by evil antagonists – is what fans love about the books. Fortunately for her readers – and viewers – she’s still not tired of writing explosive sex scenes for them, even as the couple enter their late 50s/early 60s in Go Tell the Bees. “Let’s put it this way, since my husband’s left the room,” she says. “We will have been together for 50 years in February, and it is possible to have a rewarding sex life, even if you’re not young newlyweds.”
Along with passion, Go Tell the Bees is packed with everything readers love about the Outlander series: the delicious clash between modern and historical life (there are particularly delightful moments when Jamie and his 18th-century compatriots are given copies of The Lord of the Rings and Green Eggs and Ham, or when Claire fulfils her quest to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich). The epic sweep of history, in this case the American revolution, set against the smaller tragedies of everyday life (a mother is mauled to death by a bear in a scene that had me weeping buckets). Love – for friends, romantic partners, family – abounds, as does conflict, danger and derring-do.
Gabaldon has also written a handful of mysteries starring Lord John Grey, a protagonist in the Outlander series who is forced by the times to conceal his homosexuality, and is considering whether the intriguing character of Master Raymond is due his own novel. For now, though, there is the 10th and final novel to write – but at least she knows the end point she’s heading towards.
“It was about 20 years ago that I saw the ending, and I got up in the middle of the night and wrote it down with tears rolling down my face,” she says. “And no: I’m not telling you what it is.”