Worth the Waiting

Tuesday night was a really special night for me and a friend of mine. For my 40th birthday, my husband purchased two tickets to Art and Letters Live’s Diana Gabaldon talk in Dallas. I was thrilled! He was willing to accompany me even though he has not read any of her books (having instead listened to me prattle on for years), but he knew that the occasion would be even more special if I went with someone as equal in nuttiness over this author as me.

And so it was that I left work about 3:30 in the afternoon and picked up my friend. In exchange for the blessed ticket, she offered to drive us and buy my dinner. We stopped at Wal-Mart to each pick up an extra copy of the latest book to get signed for friends.

The night involved a lot of standing in line. About a half hour waiting in line for our books. Another half hour waiting for food at the museum’s cafe. Almost that much again waiting to get in to the church sanctuary for the talk. And then a staggering two hours waiting to get the books signed. Standing up past my bedtime with about 15 pounds of books in my arms was exhausting! And the crazy part was that when we left the museum after 11:00 that night, the line still stretched back farther than the point where we had managed to start. I am very curious what time the last person got her (or his, but likely her) book signed. I wonder if she got anything special for her determination.

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It would have been hard for me to have been this cheerful at this point if I were her.

The best part of the night, though, was without a doubt the talk. After about 20 minutes of waiting in our pew in the balcony of the church (at least we were sitting), we were regaled with the sounds of bagpipes and drums coming up the aisle below us. I was terribly amused when the five gentlemen in full Highland regalia turned to face us because one – the drummer, front and center – was actually not in “full” regalia. While the others were wearing the traditional tall socks and matching shoes to go with their kilts, he was wearing sneakers and ankle socks! I’m guessing someone had forgotten part of his costume.

After a lively and entertaining introduction from a very funny reporter from the Dallas Morning News, Diana Gabaldon took the stage to a standing ovation. She is a dynamic and outgoing person and I couldn’t help but wonder how hard something like this might be for a shy author. When she began to speak, I noted just how raspy her voice was. Of course. She had been in Ontario the night before and had been doing this nearly nightly for two weeks! I almost felt bad requiring her to talk that night. Almost.

Some of you may not know who this author is so let me save you the trip to Wikipedia. Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series of books, which is slated as a new mini-series premiering on the Starz network on August 9th. There are 8 books in the main series, published over the last 25 years, and numerous books, novellas, and short stories about various side characters.

The basic premise is that a British Army nurse from World War II named Claire accidentally falls through time, landing herself among some Scotsmen of the 1740s. Her modern sensibilities and dress make them and others instantly suspicious and launch a series of events making it impossible for her to make it back to the stones that would return her to her time.

The books track her, her 1740s husband Jamie, and a number of other engaging characters through time and space, encountering historical figures, danger, magic, and more. It’s full of adventure, intrigue, romance, war, betrayal, and questions of loyalty. It’s also full of really big words that I’m always looking up, which I love… especially since I read on my Kindle, which will open up the dictionary entry with the touch of my finger on the word in question!

Her talk mostly concerned how she came to be a writer and how the first book formed. I knew that she had been a biology professor, holding a PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. What I didn’t know was that she had programmed in Fortran to support a colleague’s research (on the contents of bird gizzards).

That programming experience, coupled with some comic book design work for Disney and a need to earn some extra income while her husband built his new business, caused her to contact Byte magazine and another early computer periodical about creating software programs for them. As part of that gig, she was given some access to CompuServe, one of the forerunners to the internet. On CompuServe, she joined a literary discussion group composed of readers and writers.

When she decided to try her hand at writing a novel, she didn’t tell any of her CompuServe friends because she had seen how the professional writers in the group seemed to react to the wanna-bes. She also didn’t tell her husband out of fear he’d try to get her to stop.

This wildly popular series around the world started like this:

Hmmm. I don’t know if I have adequate imagination to make up my own plot so I think I’ll go with historical fiction so if my mind isn’t up to the task, I’ll have existing stuff to work with. Ok, now what? Or… when?

She saw a Doctor Who rerun where the doctor picked up a companion in the 1740s – a young Scotsman in a kilt – and she thought Ooh! Man in a kilt – I like that! Ok, so 1740s Scotland. Fiction requires conflict and she quickly found Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rebellion.

She wanted a woman with this group of Scottish men, to add some sexual conflict, and thought that making her English would add even more conflict, so she threw the men into a cottage and had the woman walk in. (This is how she writes – no outline, no planning, just throw the characters together and see what happens).

One of the men looked up and said, “Who are you?”

To which the woman replied, “I am Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. Who the hell are you?”

Hmmm. That’s a problem, she thought. Eighteenth century women wouldn’t talk like that.

Try as she might, she couldn’t keep Claire from behaving like a modern woman. She finally caved to her character and decided Claire had to come from the future and thus added time travel. Claire also took over the story – she’s the first person perspective in the novels.

And so it began.

She eventually put pieces of the story on CompuServe and asked around about literary agents. She then had a series of experiences that is every starting author’s dream. She got an introduction to the (highly successful and very selective) literary agent she wanted. He agreed to look at excerpts of her manuscript (which was incomplete). He found her to be a great storyteller and agreed to take her on. He then sent her manuscript to five publishers, telling them they had 30 days to respond. FOUR days later, he called her to say that 3 of the 5 had already responded that they wanted the book. And just like that, she was a fiction author.

To her chagrin, the first book was marketed as Romance. It has been shelved under many different sections in bookstores including Romance, Historical Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror (have no idea why), and… History! She found that one at a little bookstore in Britain. When she pointed out to the young man that the books didn’t belong there, he explained that there was a little old lady that determined where all the books should be shelved and she insisted that’s where it belonged. “Apparently, she believes in time travel,” he quipped.

The romance reputation turns a lot of people away before they even break open the book. That’s a mistake. I’m not going to lie – there is considerably more sex than in most novels I’ve read. She’s known for writing very good sex scenes. But the books do not follow the usual rules for romance novels and the sex is not the point of the stories.

(A quick aside: As her main characters aged from their twenties to their forties about twenty years ago, she was asked if she thought people really wanted to read about people in their forties having sex. She responded, “Well, I’m 42 and my husband is 43. I don’t plan on stopping having sex any time soon and if he knows what’s good for him, he won’t either.”)

I’m sure that many of her fans – admittedly mostly women – are in it for the sex… or for Jamie. But I’m not. I genuinely enjoy the writing, the dry wit, the complex story lines, the dialogue, all the (very accurate) detail, the conflict, the history… all of it.

After waiting for two hours to get my books signed, I finally got to stand next to her. The museum staff were very efficient. Someone had already stuck a post-it note with my name on the appropriate page and had me mark it with the book flap. As I approached the front of the line, one woman took my phone so she could take a picture of me with Diana. Another took my purse so I’d be unencumbered. Another took my books and, glancing at the two post-it notes, asked which person I was so she could introduce me.

Before I knew it, I was standing next to Diana as the lady slid the book in front of her and introduced me. Diana said hello, addressing me by name, as she signed the book. I said hello and commented that we were happy to see she had a glass of wine to help her get through this.

“Actually, it’s Diet Coke. I wish it was wine.”

I mumbled something in response and then my friend approached her and commented on the wine. “She probably thinks we are such lushes!” she remarked later.

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That’s Diet Coke, not wine, as it turns out!

I enjoyed hearing the history of the novels and picking up some writing tips and meeting her, however briefly. Mostly, it was just nice to get a glimpse into the mind and face of the person responsible for one of my favorite series of books.

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