ove over Margaret Mitchell — there's a new author on Americans' literary pedestal. Or is Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series the revered Ms. M's reincarnation?
The resemblance is uncanny:
- Both women approached writing their weighty tomes in random order rather than typing the story from beginning to end.
- Both kept their manuscripts secret even from family members.
- Both have poked fun publicly about the length of their novels,
- and neither author could successfully categorize their best-sellers into Madison Avenue's neat genre packages.
Nor can you argue that Jamie and Claire Fraser now enjoy super-couple status with Scarlett and Rhett. Readers eagerly request maps to the fictional Lallybroch in the Scottish Highlands, just as their grandparents sought Tara in Atlanta's Jonesboro suburb. Fans try to trace their own family trees to find a connection to the Frasers (good luck, Gabaldon smiles), and run horoscopes for the characters to determine their destinies.
But unlike the unhappy Mitchell, Gabaldon has handling her international fame down cold.
For starters, she refuses to allow Jamie and Claire to trap her into becoming a one-story author. She begins her escape with Lord John and the Private Matter (originally titled Lord John and the Chamber Pot “until publishers on three continents said, ‘What!? We can't call it that!
People will think of toilet bowls,’” she says), a slimmer historical mystery that takes readers on the darker side of London life in the company of Scottish whores, plumed Huns, reprobate sergeants, Irish apothecaries, transvestite spies and Lord John Grey, a gay British statesman. Technically, the book is a weaning, as Grey popped in three books of the main series. Expect Jamie and Claire to do likewise in his trilogy.
The only pushback Gabaldon anticipates will stem from readers who blame the years between Jamie and Claire's books on the penning of this one. She added a special front letter to readers to set their minds at ease: Yes, the sixth and seventh books will someday materialize and no, she hasn't abandoned the story before The End.
All of which should send Lord John's print run numbers higher with each passing week. After all, Bantam successfully marketed Sara Donati's first historical book on the fact that it mentioned Jamie and Claire. “If people will buy a book by a total stranger on the grounds that she references two of my characters, I kinda think they'll like Lord John,” Gabaldon says, tugging slightly at the cuffs of her long-sleeved crimson blouse, donned like any good native to protect her skin from Arizona's blistering 109-degree sun.
“People want you to go on publishing what you've been publishing, and publishers are not eager to have you change.”
She deftly finagled her publishers into respecting her freedom several years ago when she made a contract for two contemporary mysteries part of the bargain they needed to shake on to get their hands on Drums of Autumn. “I was afraid of this syndrome,” she admits. “People want you to go on publishing what you've been publishing, and publishers are not eager to have you change. But if I have a contract in place, they won't have any recourse.” Red Ant's Head, too, should see print faster than the next Jamie and Claire adventure, if only because the German publisher has already paid her in full for its delivery.
The Price of Fame
They've made a good investment. Gabaldon's debut Outlander — a book its publishers awkwardly pitched toward the romance shelves because that niche delivers more readers than science fiction or generic literary categories — wasn't an instant bombshell. Enthusiastic readers buttonholed friends into picking it up, who in turn encouraged their circles to buy it. In fact, of the 25,000 first run copies, Walden's buyer ordered 12,000 for the country; B.Dalton's took just 300 for its entire chain. Tired of constantly reordering the title, that confused buyer finally read it for herself, and promptly upped her request to 10,000.
Book two, Dragonfly in Amber, sold its 25,000 first-run copies in three weeks, 50,000 hardcover copies in a month.
Voyager flew off the shelves to the tune of 110,000 in a week. The Fiery Cross, needed an initial hardcover run of 385,000 to meet presale demands. And with each launch date, the fan base of this historical series in the vein of James Clavell grows more rabid.
“I don't seem to write the kind
of books that attract nuts.”
Take the two gentlemen from the Arizona Reptile Society, who dropped by one afternoon. Gabaldon, thinking it a contact from her days as an assistant research professor at that university, invited them into her adobe home. Turns out, they were just curious readers. “We sat there and talked about books and reptiles for a while,” she says breezily. “I don't seem to write the kind of books that attract nuts. Some tend to be a little odd, but really nice.” However, the family did remove its listing from the Yellow Pages.
Husbands email her, begging she send their wives a birthday greeting. One reader requested she sign and post a wedding card to friends getting hitched in Sweden. Aspiring writers mail her manuscripts she can't legally read. Her web site's FAQ eerily echoes the same responses of a beleaguered Mitchell nearly 75 years ago - right down to the sharp wit both women share.
Diana's Answers to FAQs:
- “If your husband left you for a younger woman and doesn't pay child support, you have my profound sympathy, and I totally agree he's a louse. However, I'm afraid I really can't send you any money to go back to school and become a botanical healer like Claire, I'm sorry.”
- “I do know a few things about the 18th century. However, I'm not a genealogist, and alas, I really don't know the names and personal histories of everyone alive during that time period, let alone other times and places. So I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure that I have never read anything helpful about your eight-times great-grandfather, John Cornelius McChatto, or his wife Matilda.”
- “Anybody who asks, ‘So who would you cast for Jamie Fraser in the movie version?” will get the same reply: ‘I don't know, I don't care, and I would have nothing to say about it in any case.’”
But unlike Mitchell — known for her tireless personal notes written to acknowledge every correspondence — Gabaldon borrows her husband's secretary and answers these hundreds of daily emails using the computer's cut-and-paste feature. “I hate to call them form letters, because that's not very personal. It's the same letter you would get if I were sitting there typing it to you. But there's no reason for me to type it individually six million times,” she says firmly.
“...a good writer had better be disciplined
and orderly in some respect...”
And Gabaldon believes writing is the best kind of fame, as she can saunter into the CVS Pharmacy up the street or feel avocados at Albertson's without donning a disguise. She's even approached people reading her book in Scottsdale hang-outs, startling them that the author was at their elbow, let alone wanted feedback.
“People are fascinated by writers, but they have preconceived impressions of what we must be like,” she says. For instance, volunteers at the state's blind and dyslexic department where she has read textbooks into a recorder for 23 years always find it strange that someone with a scientific background like Gabaldon could also be a novelist. “The underlying implication is that you shouldn't be able to do this. They think a scientist is very linear, logical with a tidy, orderly mind. They also assume you are rigid and anal. A novelist, obviously, is intuitive, creative and randomly disorganized.
“Some writers I know never do find the balance — they're either divorced because they let the book take over or they never finish that first manuscript.”
“But both science and art depend on the ability to perceive patterns out of the chaos of every day life. A good scientist is terribly creative and imaginative, and a good writer had better be disciplined and orderly in some respect,” she explains.
There's another side to Diana Gabaldon readers don't grasp, judging by their comments on Claire's strength as if that's unusual in a woman. The author, too, finds these remarks baffling. As a mother of three teens and a self-employed husband, she juggles tasks every bit as daunting as her leading lady's time-travel tumble into the 18th century. She holds the weather-analysis station while he flies his airplanes and cheers as he races dragsters. Her daughter needs ingredients to whip up an enchilada for oral presentations in Spanish, at midnight no less.
And with three dogs, five cats, six parakeets and two sex-crazed desert tortoises, Gabaldon's space is a menagerie of needs — not helped by the fact the year-old dachshund pup, Gus, happily chews up his basket in her office.
“I have an eight-track mind.”
“Everybody has one life, which is your family, your job, your religion, and it's usually as much, if not more, than what people can handle,” she says. “If you are a writer, you develop a second, inner life: you and the books. It's a solitary life, and the two will intrude on each other. Some writers I know never do find the balance — they're either divorced because they let the book take over or they never finish that first manuscript.” Gabaldon's secret: “I have an eight-track mind.” She also takes breaks by switching from writing project to writing project as opposed to physically leaving the office and risking a no return.
In a fit of honesty, she also confesses to being “congenitally unable to lose an argument” and a “know-it-all,” as in she'll tell people everything she knows about a subject if they express an interest. Latin names for flowers, objects the Catholic church uses at Easter, FORTRAN programming language — it's all part of her eclectic knowledge base. “It's probably really aggravating,” she grins unrepentantly. But it's this same puckish attitude that brings her delight every time she sees chocolate, holds a baby animal, hears her husband coming up the stairs to her office, or watches Gus waddle down those steps.
“My father was fond of saying to me, ‘You're such a poor judge of character you're bound to marry some bum. Be sure you get a good education so you can support your children,’” she recalls. “So I knew at eight years old not to announce I wanted to write novels for a living because I had the idea it was in iffy profession. I was good at science, but I knew I was destined to write.”
Julie Sturgeon is an Indianapolis-based writer with more than 20 years of professional writing experience. The former editorial director of Indianapolis C.E.O. magazine, her resumé covers everything from lifestyle reporter to sports writer. Her awards include winner of the Writer's Digest magazine national feature contest and a regional award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for best special section.