In October 2019–Yes 2019!–I sat down and chatted with Diana Gabaldon about writing. It was my intent to publish this in Spring 2020 after editing but idk, something took over the world. Oh yeah, that damn virus. Needless to say, I never got it done. No excuses.
Before I started recording, the questions about books and such were quite structured but then we got into the nitty gritty of what makes a best selling author work and the interview took a turn to the casual side.
I’ve done my best to break it up where I could. Part 2 will be published at the end of the week. So make sure you check in.
After the general greetings, we jumped right into the interview. Enjoy! Do remember tho that it may seem a bit jumpy, but that’s the beauty of an interview.
I’ll now introduce Diana Gabaldon, an American author renowned for her OUTLANDER series. Her latest novel was just recently released.
You can purchase her books HERE
Diana’s answers are all in purple.
Me: What is your education level?
DG: I have a PhD in quantitative Behavioural Ecology. I was a scientist in my previous incarnation.
I have a Masters Degree in Marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and I have bachelor’s degree in zoology.
I also have a Doctor of Humane Letters which was awarded to me by my Alma Mater for real life experience in writing novels. (note: this is an honorary degree for humanitarian and philanthropic contributions to society.)
So, technically, I have four degrees.
Me: So, you don’t have an MFA?
DG: No. I couldn’t think of anything more pointless. Unless you want to teach.
SideBar: Hearing this response from Diana Gabaldon, made my day. I’d always felt like I should have an MFA. I thought it would make me write better or be more respected or legit, but that was my own insecurity and now, thanks to this interview, I haven’t thought of it again.
Me: How did you begin your writing career?
DG: I just wrote. There’s no other way to do it, unfortunately.
Me: When did you start writing?
DG: It depends on what you mean by that. Do you mean Outlander?
Me: Well, what did you write before that?
DG: Outlander was my first attempt. I wrote it for practice.
I’ve known since the age of eight or so that I was supposed to be a novelist. That’s the age at which I realized that people actually wrote books.
You know when you’re little, stuff just lives in your house; you don’t think about where it comes from.
You have toilet paper in the bathroom and books in the living room.
Suddenly at age eight, I realized people write books, and that was a fascinating revelation and so I thought I’d really like to do that.
But… I came from a very conservative household.
My parents were both born in 1938 and grew up during the Depression. So it’s all about security—you get a good job that you’ll stay in for the rest of your life with pensions and life insurance and all that kind of stuff.
Even at the tender age of eight I could see what my father would do if I suddenly said I wanted to be a novelist. He’d be saying, no, you need to get a good job. You know when you retire you can play with your writing.
Both my parents were teachers. My dad became a politician later in life. That what he always wanted to do.
I was born in Arizona. I’ve lived briefly in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Each for about 18 months, getting various degrees.
I’d never been to Scotland before I wrote Outlander. I went for the first time in the middle of writing Dragon Fly and Amber.
Gabaldon on Writing…
I wanted to write a novel. I wrote quite a few things before Outlander but they weren’t novels.
In my query letter to my first agent, I said I’ve been writing and selling my writing for several years, but understood I needed a good literary representation for fiction. I said, you’ve been recommended by people who’ve worked for one of your clients and they think you walk on water. I’m writing to see if I can interest you in my writing.
In other words, I did research on the agent. I knew his clients and went to the trouble to talk to them. I also pointed out, right up front, that people pay me for what I write which lets him know that I know how to write.
Then I sent a very long, long historical novel. I didn’t want to waste his time because I am respectful of what he does, but I asked if he’d be willing to read excerpts from it.
I didn’t tell him I wasn’t quite through writing it and excerpts were all I had. But luckily he called back.
Having experience in commercial nonfiction helped a lot. I wrote software reviews and articles and things like that. So I developed an expertise in that.
Me: How did you meet the agent?
We met through friends.
It was a time when I was looking for such an opportunity. I was hired by Arizona State University without a job description.
We were in the process of moving from LA to Phoenix because my husband was offered a much better job there.
I needed a job too, so I called my old professor and asked who he knew at Arizona State to help me get a job. He gave me a name of a good friend and said they were putting together a new multi-disciplinary center. So I went for an interview (all sciences)ad I got hired but didn’t have a job description.
This was 1981.
It was there that with $250 from petty cash, I started the “Science Software Quarterly” and I raised enough in subscriptions to get it off the ground.
Sidebar: I love the way Diana describes her early marketing. The face to face. The phone calls. Basically the ground level hard, grunt work. You have to be willing to start somewhere.
I went to scientific meetings and handed out my little brochure to everybody I met.
They say find a need and fill it, and that’s what I did. The need was obviously that I ran SSQ (the newsletter) for the next 8 years as its Editor and Chief and then it sold to John Wiley and son.
That’s basically what I did for my scientific career at ASU. It had nothing to do with my biological background. I did small projects that were biology, but it was the scientific computation.
It was at this time when I decided that I was going to start a novel on my next birthday. I turned 35 so I told myself that I better get started. I actually started a couple of months late because of procrastination, but I started that same year.
I told myself that it would be a practice novel.
It’s for me to learn how because up to this point all I’d written is scientific stuff. I wrote technical articles, all kinds of freelance articles for the computer press.
SideBar: Diana told me she made more money from her freelance work than what she did from the University.
I told my agent I’d been writing and selling nonfiction for some years so I knew I could write. But I also knew that to write fiction is another thing.
I wrote comic books for Walt Disney, which is fiction of a sort. I didn’t think writing fiction would be much different than doing software reviews, grant proposals, and a scientific articles. t
Obviously, you just have to practice and figure it out.
So, I decided to write a novel for practice and show it to an agent.
I didn’t tell anyone what I doing because I didn’t want to be constrained by anyone else’s expectations. So I asked myself what kind of novel shall I pick. It’s for practice, so it’s not that important.
I asked myself, what’s the easiest thing I can do? There’s no need to make it hard and so I said for me maybe a historical novel would be easiest because I am a research professor and I know my way around the library.
It seemed easier to look things up than make them up and if I turn out to have no imagination, then I could steal things from the historical record.
It works very well and is good fill.
SideBar: This is so smart. For her first novel, Diana decides to make it easier for herself with successful completion being the goal. She identified her limitations and her strengths and then went forward.
I asked myself where shall I set it?
I have no formal background in history, and I have to look up everything anyway, so it could be anywhere. So I was casting around for a time and place and wars/causes/romance etc, etc.
It was then, in that research frame of mind, when I saw a Dr. Who rerun. It was one with the second doctor Patrick Troughton.
In this particular episode, the doctor had a companion who was a young Scotsman whom he’d picked up in 1745 in Scotland. The young man was 18 or 19 and appeared in his kilt and I thought it quite fetching.
I found myself still thinking about this the next day in church and I thought about Scotland 18th century and thought—why not?
Knowing nothing about Scotland or the 18th century, having no plot, no outline, and no characters. Nothing, but the rather vague images conjured up by the notion of a man in a kilt. It seemed a good place to begin.
Meanwhile I was still pursuing my other careers.
I was well into writing my novel but I still wrote for the computer press and a bunch of other things. At the same time I was sent a software package to review and with it, they sent a trial CompuServe membership that had a support forum.
At this point, the internet didn’t really exist yet. It was the mid-1980s.
In 1984, I was asked to check out the CompuServe support forum for a review because it’s a big selling point.
I logged on and checked out that forum and wrote the review. Then I had 4 hours of free connect time left.
This was in the days when they charged $30 an hour to connect–I thought I’m not going to waste $120 and poked around until and I tripped over a literary forum which was a bunch of people who liked books.
There were some writers there.
They were the first professional writers I’d ever encountered in person, so to speak, and many more people who didn’t write but were interested in writing and books and literary discussions.
It was like a 24 hour literary cocktail party and it was fascinating. Also, I didn’t have to go anywhere.
This was my first link to the literary world.
SideBar: I think what’s really important here to take away is that Diana admits that she was curious and went hunting for what she wanted. This shows determination and drive to connect. All writers need that interaction whether in person or online.
Diana set out to garner as much information about the publishing process by asking questions… Read on.
I talked to people who were writers and found out how they went about writing a book and getting it published. It started out to be just a bunch of people talking, but as I continued with my book I started to ask questions. Like: Do you have an agent?
No one knew I was writing a book.
Then one night I was having an argument with a gentleman online about what it feels like to be pregnant and he said—oh I know what that’s like… my wife’s had 3 children and I laughed.
And so he said can you tell me what it’s like, and I said I can yes, but it’s kind of complex. I didn’t have enough space to write a thorough answer so I explained that I few months ago I wrote an article in which a young woman explains to her brother what it’s like to be pregnant.
So I put this piece in the data library and everyone who’d been following the argument went and read the piece and then came rushing back saying it was great. They all wanted more.
This was exciting and a beginning.
I don’t write in a straight line. I never have.
I write in bits and pieces.
I see things happening.
So, if I had a scene that could stand by itself without a lot of explanation and that I thought was pretty good, then I’d post it in the forum every two or three months… just 5 or 10 pages. People got more and more interested.
They said this is cool… you should try to publish it. I said it’s for practice but asked out of curiosity what should I do if I want to publish it?
And all the professional writers said you should get a literary agent and an agent can do two things for you.
- He or she knows editors. They know what they’re looking for. They would have a better chance at matching your book to an editor who might actually want it if you’re just scatter shooting it around to publishers. At this point, it was etiquette that an author did not submit a manuscript to more than one house at a time, whereas agents certainly could.
- And they said, that if the book sells, the agent can negotiate a much better contract—which is so true. You have no idea what rights you own, let alone the worth.
So I asked—how do I find an agent?
- You can go to conferences and talk to agents who are there. I said I can’t do that. I have small children.
- So then they said you could read Publishers’ Weekly and there are agent profiles and things like that. They said you could look for the name of their agents that they acknowledge.
- Or you can just talk to people who have agents and so I began talking to people who were published authors.
Eventually, a friend who knew my writing was legit, introduced me to his agent. He’s be happy to ready my excerpts, included a query letter and hastily wrote a 26 page single space synopsis—a synopsis is supposed to be two pages double space—but I wrote this and sent it with my pile of excepts and he took me on the basis of an unfinished first novel.
SideBar: Because this was a casual conversation, there was chitchat between questions.
Q: me: Are you familiar with the term imposter syndrome? and have you ever suffered from it?
DG: Yes, I know what it is. Maybe slightly. But not very much.
Me: Do you ever compare yourself to other writers?
DG: No. Sometimes writers will go down that rabbit hole of insecurity. Some don’t know how they should feel and question whether others actually know that they don’t know?
Something like imposter syndrome happened the first time someone asked me to autograph one of my books. The thought of writing in a book I was thinking it was sacrilege.
It wears off, though.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of this interview. Please like, comment, and follow.