July 7, 2011

A Reading by Diana Gabaldon

Well, I’m back from vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks, and it’s taken me a couple of days to get my act together, but I missed you guys! I’ll tell you all about it, but before I do that I wanted to write about the great reading I went to last night.

The lovely and hilarious Diana Gabaldon gave a talk and short reading last night as plenary speaker for the University of Wyoming’s Sir Walter Scott conference (directed by my mentor and great friend Caroline McCracken-Flesher). I just felt honored to be in the room!

My first impression of Diana was that she is beautiful. She’s fairly short, but her presence fills the room, as she stands tall and projects such positive friendly energy. She wore a long flowing dress in black with rust and ruby and green panels at the bottom, and her hair is long and black. She has a heart-shaped face and a wide smile. As she said during her talk, “It’s German bones with Spanish coloring” ~ one side of her family came from Spain, the other side came from England with a bit of German thrown in, and she grew up in Arizona. (People come up to her and ask, impertinently, “What are you? Native American? Russian? French?”) Her voice is gravelly, with a quick-fire delivery and impeccable comedic timing.

(Her name Gabaldon rhymes with “stone,” by the way.)

There was a little difficulty with audio at first, but then Diana entered escorted by a wonderful bagpiper named John. (Sorry ~ I didn’t catch his full name.) Diana began by talking about her background as an academic in marine biology and behavioral ecology, with her dissertation on the nesting habits of the pinyon jay (or, as her husband says, “Why Birds Build Nests Where They Do, and Who Cares Anyway?”). She taught human anatomy and physiology to football players at 8 a.m. and would wake them up with this ditty:

In days of old when knights were bold
And condoms weren't invented
They'd pop a sock upon their cock
And babies were prevented

Yes! She has such a great irreverent sense of humor, and we were in stitches throughout. Yet she had some really profound things to say.

She talked about successful novelists. None that she knows have MFAs ~ which, since I have no MFA, immediately made me feel better. As she said, “Most successful novelists do not have an MFA. It’s not that they aren’t useful; it’s just that they don’t have much to do with writing.” Good point. There are great things about an MFA, but to master writing you have to be intrinsically motivated, to be obsessed and obsessive.

Most of the successful novelists she knows did something else first. Ian Rankin, crime writer, was a grape-picker and a swineherd and a taxman, among other things. Jack Whyte, historical novelist, was a cabaret singer and a whisky seller. Robert Burns and Thomas Paine were both tax collectors. Diana was an academic and, as she said, “killed seabirds and tortured boxfish” for her job. Novelists, she said, “hold jobs that nobody notices very much when they slack off.” Ahem. “All novelists find their own way,” she said, “often a screwy path.”

She talked about the distinction between storytellers and novelists. A story is nothing more and nothing less than a character in a situation that produces conflict, and even bad writers can be storytellers. You just need to keep generating questions, even small ones, in the reader’s mind.

She also talked about the distinction between genre writers and literary writers. “An invidious distinction,” she said, but genre uses the big human archetypes. Romance novels satisfy our needs for courtship, specfic/scifi our curiosity, westerns our need for identity and self-determination, and mysteries our need for social contracts. A very interesting way to put it I thought and something I’m going to be thinking about for a while. It goes along with the idea that genre stories follow specific patterns and conventions upon which our needs and desires play out. They affirm our needs, rather than challenge them. Literary fiction, she said, may use pieces of those archetypes, but it is fiction about individuals out around the edges.

This resonated with me a lot, as well: she didn’t start writing fiction until she was 35, but she had written all her life. She had known she wanted to write from age 8, but her family said, “You’re such a poor judge of character, you’re bound to marry a bum. Get a good education so you can support your family.” So she got a practical degree and became an academic. I was the same way ~ I felt I needed to do something practical and that’s why I almost flunked out of engineering and it took me 13 years to get my degree, in English, finally.

What got her started writing was that she turned 35 and realized that Mozart died at that age and so if she was going to be a novelist she’d better get started. She started writing Outlander the next day. She didn’t know what she was going to write about, but she liked to read mysteries, among other things, so she thought she’d write a mystery. She liked to do research, as she was a research professor, so she decided it would be historical. The reason it was Scotland was that she watched an episode of Doctor Who and there was a fine specimen of a Scotsman in a kilt. “Hmm, that’s fetching,” she thought. So her inspiration was the image of a man in a kilt.

Okay, she thought, I need conflict, so she thought the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 would be good, Scots versus the English. Well, if she had her man in a kilt, she would make her woman English, and there would be even more conflict. On the third day of writing, she had the woman walk into a room with a bunch of Scotsman but what came out of the woman’s mouth was decidedly modern. Diana fought with the character for days until she finally trusted the instinct and that character took over telling her own story ~ and that’s why there’s time travel.

That’s how she writes. She puts herself in the scene and figures out as she goes. “My hands are cold. Why are they cold? Oh, it’s winter. But my feet are warm ~ there’s a fire. Oh, there’s a dog over there.” And so on. She writes in bits and fiddles ~ that’s why it takes her a while to write a book. She doesn’t write from an outline or a plan. She puts herself in scenes where she can see what’s happening, and the scenes start to accumulate and fit together and then she has the timeline in the back of her mind and she starts laying them out in 40-60 page chunks and then she knows where to go. She knows the shape of her structure and all her books have a shape.

Reader interest in historical fiction ebbs and flows. This, she said, is due to a couple of things. 1) It’s related to the age of the reader, because as we get older, say 30s and 40s, we start thinking about our mortality, and we try to place our lives in context. We need confirmation of our choices. 2) In times of uncertainty, historical fiction is popular. People want assurance that things can work out, and historical fiction gives them that.

History isn’t what happens, she says; it’s what people write down. So true. There are three levels of lies in history: 1) the inadvertent lie or selective reporting, which is point of view, 2) deliberate bias but not messing with the fact, which is newspaper reporting, and 3) deliberate bias, which is propaganda. “I was born Catholic,” she says, “I know it when I see it.” She goes on to say that novelists can use these three levels to good effect. A good novelist will use facts and point of view and bias to enhance his or her story. And when Diana writes about a real person, she reads that person's writing extensively to get a sense of them, and she tries not to make them any worse than they really were.

She is sometimes asked, since she’s of Spanish heritage, why she doesn’t write about Spain. Nobody asks that of a white mainstream author, however. A very good point. “The thing about being a novelist is that you can be anybody, anywhere, anytime.” The adage write what you know is wrong, she says; it should be write what you want to know, what interests you.

Finally, the theme of the conference was Sir Walter Scott, Sheriff and Outlaw. A writer, she says, is both. They are sheriffs because they make the rules and enforce them, but the characters disobey just like the populace. They are outlaws too because they are a law unto themselves.

She finished off the evening with a sparkling reading from the book she is working on and answered questions.

And I leave you with some of John’s amazing bagpipe music.


Jeffe Kennedy said...

Funny - I just chatted with her at the RWA conference in New York City last week. Busy lady!

Tamara said...

Oooh, you are so lucky! She has an amazing amount of energy. So inspiring.

I hope your writing is going abfab!