Outlander Author Diana Gabaldon on Writing Best Sellers and Playing Nice With Hollywood

LunchAtMichaelsJudging by the decibel level at Michael’s today the media mavens and swells had plenty to talk about between bites of their Korean tacos (delish!) and Cobb salads. There’s always a flurry of activity on the last Wednesday in July before most of the last remaining power lunchers depart for their much-needed vacations in August. You can only be fabulous (or pretend to be) for so long before you have to regroup and refuel.

For us, July isn’t going out with a whisper but rather with a bang as I had one of the most fascinating Michael’s lunches in eons with best-selling author Diana Gabaldon, whose wildly popular Outlander novels rocket right to the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list as soon as they’re published. She has sold a head-spinning 25 million books that have been translated into 24 languages. The mind reels. Her most recent, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (how’s that for a title?) came out in June, the same week Hillary Clinton‘s book did. I guess you know whose publisher had a better week. I was “the last stop” on Diana’s magical mystical media tour, which has included an SRO appearance at Comic-Con, a sell-out conversation at the 92nd Street Y and, just this morning, an appearance on CBS This Morning with the two lead actors of the new original series based on the books that premieres August 9 on Starz.

Diana Gabaldon and Diane Clehane.
Diana Gabaldon and Diane Clehane

It’s always a bit of a crapshoot sitting down with someone I’ve never met to make conversation over lunch with the expressed purpose of learning as much as I can about my companion in about an hour while fielding the numerous “newsflashes” that come courtesy of the diners around the room. I was grateful I got a good night’s sleep last night because simply put, Diana is a force of nature. I could barely keep up as she recounted the story of how she decided “to write a book just to learn what it took to do it; I did it for practice” and how her pragmatic approach to novel writing (which hasn’t changed much, by the way) has catapulted her to international stardom.

“I’ve known I was meant to be a novelist since I was 8,” she explained. “But I was doing a lot of other things. I thought to myself, Mozart was dead at 36, so I better get going.” So, without further ado back in 1988, while holding down two full-time jobs (more on those later) and raising three young children, she decided to try her hand at historical fiction. “I thought the easiest thing to write would be historical fiction. Since I was a researcher, I thought it would be easier to look things up than make them up.” Alrighty. She told me she was inspired by a classic episode of Doctor Who she happened to see around that time, which depicted a Scotsman transported back in time. “So I thought, why not 18th-century Scotland? The kilts looked pretty fetching.”

She continued, barely taking a breath, while sipping on her Diet Coke: “I knew nothing about Scotland, so I headed to the library, but the point was not to learn everything about Scotland — just enough to write a novel.” She made it sound as if it were as easy as following a recipe by Martha Stewart. “I knew a novel had to have conflict in it, so I added a woman for some sexual tension.” This is where our conversation got really interesting. “Three days into the writing, I unleashed her into this cottage full of Englishmen to see what would happen. I was fighting with her for the next several pages over her smart-ass remarks. She was speaking in too modern a language.” And that’s how Outlander was born.

It took her 18 months to complete the first book; she wrote a little bit every day. “Sometimes it was 15 minutes and other times it was two hours,” she recalled. “I write in parallels. If I get stuck in one area, I move on to the next. I just keep going.” Her most productive time to write was — and is — between 1 and 4 a.m., when “my biorhythms have me most alert.” Then she’ll go to bed at 4:30, get up at 8:30 and start again. “I don’t write in a straight line. I write in scenes,” she said, adding that she did a mental cut and paste that eliminated the process of writing multiple drafts. “I don’t do rough drafts — when I’ve written something and get it to where I want it, it’s done.” It doesn’t hurt that Diana came to her career as a novelist after having an incredibly diverse career where mental aerobatics were just standard operating procedure. Her work has been described by Salon as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting ‘Scrooge McDuck’ comics.” The connection between her past and present lives is simply explained: “Science and art are about the same thing — the ability to distinguish patterns.”

For the uninitiated, the Outlander series spans the genres of romance, sci-fi, history and adventure, so there’s something for everyone here. The books follow Claire Randall, a former combat nurse living in 1945 who is transported back in time while on her honeymoon to war-torn Scotland in 1743. The adventure began in 1991 in Outlander (“historical fiction with a Moebius twist”), and has continued through seven more New York Times best-selling novels — Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross,  A Breath of Snow and Ashes, An Echo in the Bone and the aforementioned Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. The series is published in 26 countries and 23 languages, and includes a companion volume, The Outlandish Companion, a primer on the settings, background, characters, research and writing of the first novels in the series.

To prepare for today’s lunch, I did some reading up on Diana and was so overwhelmed I needed a nap afterward. Dr. Gabaldon, who was raised in Arizona (where she still lives with her husband and their three “self-supporting” adult children), holds three degrees in science: zoology, marine biology and a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. Plus, she has an honorary degree as doctor of humane letters, which entitles her to be “Diana Gabaldon, Ph.D., D.H.L.” She spent a dozen years as a university professor with expertise in scientific computation before beginning to write fiction.  She has written scientific articles and textbooks, worked as a contributing editor on the MacMillan Enclyclopedia of Computers, founded the scientific-computation journal Science Software Quarterly and has written numerous comic-book scripts for Walt Disney. She is extremely active on Facebook, where she posts “Daily Lines,” doling out 200 to 300 words from her work in progress and always writes her own tweets to her nearly 57,000 followers.

When I asked her if seeing the figments of her imagination come to life on television matches the vision she had while writing, she was characteristically matter of fact about the process. “The actors are magic and beyond the physical constraints, it doesn’t matter what they look like as long as they can act. There’s makeup and costumes for the rest of it.” Working as consultant on the series has been a virtually drama-free endeavor (unlike that experience of her good friend and fellow novelist John Irving, who was so traumatized by his collaborative process with Hollywood he went years before he let another book be turned into a film, says Diana). Executive producer Ronald D. Moore and his producing partner Maril Davis have involved her in every step of the process, sharing “dozens” of drafts of the script and rough cuts of episodes. For her part, Diana told me she gives them notes and comments “sparingly” because “you have to be diplomatic. It isn’t my show.” There was one instance, she said, in which producers had ended a scene just a bit too soon. “In the rough cut, I noticed they’d edited the scene before a character uttered an iconic line that fans of the books really love. I explained that and asked if they’d go 10 seconds more to include it.” They wisely took her advice and reshot.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Hollywood Life’s Bonnie Fuller, hosting a scaled-down version of her monthly lunch for four well-dressed gals we didn’t recognize. Anyone?

2. The always dapper Dennis Basso

3. Diana Gabaldon and yours truly

4. Forbes Travel‘s Jerry Inzerillo, enjoying a boisterous lunch with a gentleman we didn’t get the chance to meet

5. Vogue publisher Susan Plagemann

6. Andrew Stein, presiding over a table of two young fellows (!) and a gal

7. Steven Stolman and Tom Shea. Steven, who left Scalamandre a while back for greener pastures, tells me he’s just inked a “multi-book deal” with Gibbs Smith, who published his first book, Scalamandre: Haute Decor. Up next: a “fun lifestyle/entertaining book” and Forty Years of the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, whose pub date will coincide with next spring’s show house opening.

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia going solo and taking in the scene from his usual perch

10. Patricia Malone

11. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh, who pulled together a fascinating and fun lunch for last week’s column, with her good pal, the tireless (and terribly chic) scribe Betsy Perry

12. William Morris’ Tracy Fisher with Joni Evans (long time no see!) and Suzanne Gluck

14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew

15. Madison Square Gardnen’s CEO Tad Smith

16.  Louis Vuitton’s Nancy Murray

17. PR princess Lisa Linden with Christopher Heywood, SVP of global communications for NYC & Company. A little birdie told me Lisa is on NYC &Co’s executive committee. We couldn’t help but notice that their power lunch selections were, of course, one of the “Restaurant Week” selections.  Act two: entertainment journo Roger Friedmanwho penned this week’s cover story on Woody Allen in The New York Observer

18. Forbes‘ Joseph DeAcetis with legendary lensman Harry Benson

20. PR maven Peggy Siegal, who seems none the worse for wear after that scary fender bender in the Hamptons with an elegant blonde no one seemed to know

21. Former NBA commissioner and my former Scarsdale neighbor, David Stern

22. Act one: Michael Appelbaum; Second seating: Paris Review publisher Antonio Weiss and editor Lorin Stein

23. The dashing Thomas Moore (who wins today’s best-dressed honors for his perfect tailored gray suit, pink shirt and summery pink tie). We met Thomas when he stopped by Mickey Ateyeh‘s table (where we were perched after our lunch) to say hello, and he told us he’s off to do battle against one of those master-of-the-universe types whose expansionist invasion among a previously quiet block in Bridgehampton has the neighborhood up in arms. Fight on!

24. EMI’s Neil Lasher

25. Noble Smith — Love that name!

26. Roxan Cason

27. Michael Tannenbaum

28. WABC’s Kim Bryant

29. Seth Brau, a good friend of Michael McCarty’s daughter Clancy, so we’re told

30. Sparks Global Brand Agency’s Karen Tarte

81. Andy Sandow of Sandow Media

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.


@DianeClehane lunch@adweek.com Diane Clehane is Adweek's weekly 'Lunch' columnist.