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Quite often the lede for an article jumps out at you during the interview, something the author says gives you the ‘in,’ the logical starting point. Sometimes you don’t see it until you’re transcribing the interview (which is why you should always do it yourself; reading someone else’s transcription of your interview doesn’t give you the same kick).

My interview with Diana Gabaldon in March of 1997, when she was touring in support of her fourth novel, Drums of Autumn, wasn’t like that. Reading through my transcript, I find a lede in every new paragraph. The interview must have gone long, that’s the only reason I can think of to explain the page of handwritten notes that I found with the typed transcript — I must have run out of tape. And even on that page of handwritten notes there were three things I could have used to lead the piece off.

Gabaldon was at that point a very successful novelist at the top of her game, brimming with confidence and intelligence; you got the impression that she knew exactly who she was and what she was capable of. But of course she questioned herself — her original training was in science, and science teaches you to question your assumptions. The way she got her start as a fiction writer is probably legend by now, but it starts off with her questioning her ability to write. She was interested in writing, and had been hanging out in a chatroom with other writers. She had been writing fragments — practice pieces — with no idea of a story to tie them together but had never had the nerve to post any of them until she got into an argument with a guy who assured her that since his wife had had three children he knew what it felt like to be pregnant. Gabaldon, herself a mother of three at the time, was pretty sure he didn’t. So she posted a bit she’d written about a pregnant woman telling her brother what it was like. And, as they say, the crowd, who’d been following the argument closely, went wild.

‘My husband says I am congenitally incapable of losing an argument and he’s about right,’ she says. ‘So everybody who had been following the argument read the piece and they all came rushing back and said, ‘this is great, what is it?’ And they said put up more of it. So I began putting up more, a bit at a time, as I wrote it, if I had a chunk that seemed to stand by itself.’ This happened over the course of months, and as time went on people started getting more and more excited about her chunks. They told her she should think about publishing it, so she asked how she should go about doing that, and they helped her there too.

Recently I read an article by a science fiction writer who was going on about all the things writers these days need to do to promote their work — apparently the publishers don’t splash out on publicists anymore, at least not for the less successful authors, who are supposed to do a great deal of the work themselves. This guy was going on about needing a blog, having to have a Twitter feed, about the active social media promotion you have to do, including regular interaction with fans  — I was left wondering when he’d have time to write, or to work at a day job and write. I asked Gabaldon 18 years ago, when it was still the world-wide web and not truly the internet yet, whether she’d advise aspiring writers to find an online community and she said yes.

‘You can gain quite a lot of insight of how the business works as  a whole, the business both of writing and the business of selling your manuscript, which are two different things. It’s also very comforting to talk to other writers when you realize that absolutely everybody is struggling with the same things you are — that nobody has the time to write, everybodys’ kids pester them, everybody has domestic crises that occur while they’re trying to finish this chapter… Writers as a whole are very, very helpful to other writers, beginners or other people who are at a less advanced stage than themselves.’

I really liked what she said about the similarities between science — she has a Masters in marine biology and a PhD in quantitative behavioural ecology — and writing fiction. In my limited experience, you can do arts or science, but it’s a rare mind that’s good at both. Her experience is somewhat less limited — she says they’re two sides of the same coin. Both artists and scientists have the ability ‘to draw patterns out of chaos.

‘A scientist will look at random data and say, ‘I think this may be what’s happening.” What distinguishes a good scientist from a great one is the quality of the questions they ask, she says, ‘and that depends on your insight into the patterns that underlie your data. A novelist, likewise, is distinguishing patterns from random bits of data, the difference being that there you’re assembling the random bits yourself, rather than looking at patterns that necessarily exist. … When you’re writing a novel you’re embodying your hypothesis, whereas in a science question you construct the hypothesis and then you enter the realm of objectivity where you test it. That’s where science and art depart, once the hypothesis is made.’

Other things I could have said in my article 18 years ago and didn’t:

  1. The time travel — and the location — in Outlander were inspired in part by a Dr. Who episode. She was sitting in church the next day thinking about the episode — one of the old Patrick Charlton shows — ‘and I don’t claim divine revelation but it was in church.’ She decided that since it didn’t matter where she set the book, as long as she was writing, she’d put it in Scotland in the 18th century. ‘So I went out to the parking lot after mass and dug a piece of paper out from under the front seat of my car and that’s where I began writing Outlander.’
  2. The British publisher that bought the rights to Dragonfly in Amber demanded she cut 300 pages. She didn’t want to. Her husband asked, ‘Is it worth 20,000 pounds for you to be unhappy every time you look at that book for the rest of your life?’ She said no to his question, no to her publisher, and her publisher blinked. ‘No one lays violent hands on my manuscripts,’ she says.
  3. She was engaged to another man when she met her husband, sat next to a tall redhead in the french horn section of a marching band and went home and gave her fiance back his ring.
  4. Her husband is the body double for Jamie Fraser ‘from the neck down.’
  5. She used to play with margins and fonts so her publishers wouldn’t figure out how long the books were.
  6. She doesn’t read romance novels.
  7. She started writing the books to suit herself so she doesn’t feel constrained by genre limitations. ‘A lot of people that I talk to that are aspiring writers in both romance and other genres, they say, ‘well, I want to do this with my book but I’ll never sell it if I do.’ I wasn’t worried about that because I never thought I was going to sell it anyway. So I didn’t back off one inch from anything. I decided I’d let Jamie be raped and played it straight. I did it as honestly as I possibly could and consequently it’s a very powerful book. I would never have done that if I’d been writing an historical romance that I expected to try to sell to anyone.’ So maybe, I asked, it’s best to start out with no expectations? ‘Yes, absolutely. And having done that I also have absolute integrity. And having succeeded with that I saw no reason to back off so I never have.’