Author Diana Gabaldon speaks at a book signing event at Chapters in Ottawa on June 23, 2014. (Joyce MacPhee)
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Diana Gabaldon appeared like magic. All of a sudden, she was standing right behind me in the Chapters store where more than 200 people had gathered for a book signing on June 23.
A small, beautiful woman with flowing black hair, she is one of the most popular American novelists and visited Ottawa as part of a Canada/U.S book tour.
Gabaldon beamed as the Ottawa Gaelic Choir sang before her talk. She has a special relationship with the choir and its guest vocalist Catherine-Ann MacPhee: the popular traditional Gaelic singer and choir member Catherine MacGregor translated Gaelic phrases found in some of Gabaldon’s books, including “The Scottish Prisoner.” They also contributed to fact-checking and proofreading.
In a distinctive alto voice, Gabaldon launched into a spirited and humorous talk. Although she had wanted to be a novelist from the age of 8, she initially chose an academic career. She has degrees in zoology and marine biology, and a PhD in behavioural ecology. She moonlighted from her job as an assistant university professor by working as a science and computer writer/editor.
How did she become a novelist? “Easy. I wrote a book,” said Gabaldon. In 1988, in her late 30s, she began a novel as an experiment. “I was inspired by a ‘Dr. Who’ rerun on public TV,” she said. That determined the Scottish setting although she had “just vague images of a man in a kilt.”
Although Gabaldon had no background in history she researched the time period and all of her books are historically accurate. The character of Claire kept emerging as a feisty contemporary woman, so she added a time travel dimension to make that plausible.
The first novel in the Outlander series became a bestseller when it was released in 1991. Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English nurse in 1945, is transported to 18th century Scotland and into the arms of Scottish hunk Jamie Fraser. Gabaldon has also written a spinoff series of “Sir John” books and other works.
Outlander is often described as multi-genre, artfully combining elements of history, fantasy/science fiction, adventure, and horror with romance and feminism added to the mix.
Gabaldon was happy to report that the latest book in her Outlander series, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” had just reached number one on the Globe & Mail Bestsellers List for Hardcover Fiction. It is also number one on The New York Times Fiction Hardcover Book List, where she had edged out Stephen King.
25 Million Books in Print
As a first-time novelist, how did Gabaldon get published? A friend from a literary forum on Compuserve recommended her to a literary agent whose roster included Robertson Davies and Frederick Forsyth. Within four days of the manuscript for Outlander being sent out, she was receiving offers and eventually signed a three-book deal.
To date, she has over 25 million books in print, is published in more than 30 languages, and has won several prestigious literary prizes.
When Gabaldon turned to answering questions from the audience, there was eager interest in the long-awaited television series based on the Outlander books. The 16-segment series was shot in Scotland and will debut in Canada on Showcase on Aug. 24. Gabaldon was delighted with the casting of Scottish actor Sam Heughan as Jamie, and Irish actress Caitriona Balfe as Claire.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” she said of the series, for which she is involved as an advisor.
When asked about the sense of faith and spirituality that runs through her books, she commented, “I am a practicing Roman Catholic, and we are increasingly rare.”
Although Gabaldon did not read any passages from her work, the audience roared when she read a poem circa 1774 from a volume of naughty Gaelic verse.
What’s next for her? A second volume of the “Outlandish Companion” as well as a prequel to the first book in the Outlander series are in the works. Gabaldon doesn’t know how the series will end but predicted, “There is a book nine because I haven’t finished with the story.”
Joyce MacPhee is a writer and editor living in Ottawa. She is no relation to Catherine-Ann MacPhee.