As the author of the bestselling “Outlander” novels that inspired the hit Starz television series – both genre-blurring sensations that blend historical fiction, time travel, epic romance and brutal violence – Diana Gabaldon has built a massive fan following. However, you may not have guessed her writing career began on the comics page, in Disney’s Duckburg.
In an this interview with SPINOFF ONLINE, Gabaldon revealed her experience handing her baby over to Hollywood, through respected writer-producer Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), the joys of research and how she found a gig writing for Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and their brethren when she was just starting out.
Spinoff Online: What was the sensation to see that the show was working and see that Ron Moore and his team had really figured out how to translate your books to television?
Diana Gabaldon: It’s absolute fascination. Ron and Maril [Davis] came out and talked to me about their process of adaptation and storylines and backstory and character. We were very much on the same wavelength from the beginning, so I trusted them. But at the same time, you wonder about – the thing is, a book and a show can’t have the same structure. It’s a book. I’ve got infinite room. I can have climaxes as I want them. I can take my own pace. They can’t do that because they’re limited to a 55-minute episode, which must have its own dramatic arc.
And consequently, while they can use most of the material from the book – I’d say at least 85 percent of the book is in the show, including a lot of the original dialogue, which pleases me very much – they have to shape it so that it will fit this little arc-like structure and build over the series and come down in the right place. So to do that, they disassemble the book into all of its scenes and components, and they move those around. And sometimes they’ll break a scene into two or three different parts and scatter them. And so you may be expecting something and it’s not there, but then the other half of it is over here.
They interpolate material to make that dramatic arc work smoothly and get you back to the main storyline in the book. Consequently, when I watch it, I recognize “Outlander,” the way it’s been done, and it’s great to see it. But at the same time, there’s this wonderful sense of novelty and discovery because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Obviously, Ron has a great reputation in film and television. Was there something he said or something that happened early in the process to make you really say, “OK, he gets it”?
Well, it was more just his overall attitude to the material and all that – and I knew he’d read the book. You can tell when someone actually gets the book. But what actually sealed it for me, he was telling me about his ideas for adaptation and he said, “Now, you know the book begins rather slowly. And you can do that in the book because you can pull people along with the prose.” He said, “But you can’t do that on a show because you got to catch them in the first minute or they’ll change the channel.” So he said, “What I’d like to do is, it’s all about Claire, this strong, competent woman. We need to focus on her immediately being who and what she is. So I’d like to do a two-minute, visual prologue where we see her in World War II being a nurse, saving lives, blood squirting all over the place. That’s who she is and it focuses – it’s a lot of action.” I’m going “Yeah, yeah. Makes perfect sense. Go for it.” [laughs]
When Hollywood came calling, how nervous were you about the quality of the adaptation? Did you get to a point where you’re like I might have to just write it off and say that’s what that is on my books?
With earlier options I might have felt that way. As it is, I felt very good with Ron. But underlying this feeling of trust was the fact that he had a sixteen-episode season with the potential of a much longer series. All of the previous people who had options on the book wanted to make a two hour movie of it which I can tell you from better experience is flat-out impossible. It cannot be done.
As I told Ron when he very kindly showed me his pilot script before he took it to Starz and pitch to others, “This is the first thing I ever read based on my work that didn’t make me either turn white or burst into flames.” Because I’d read a lot of horrible scripts [laughs].
Have you any desire to write an episode, in the way that George R.R. Martin has written the occasional episode of “Game of Thrones”?
Well, the difference there is that George was a TV writer before he started writing novels. He’s accustomed to how the system works and the scripts and all that. I had not done that. When Ron and Maril came to talk to me, Ron asked me if I’d be interested in writing an episode. I said I think not, or at least not now. For one thing, this is a really important season. It’s kind of vital. If anything goes wrong, I don’t want it to be my fault [laughs].
I said, well, I’m a good writer and I have written a lot of things that I didn’t know how to write when I started. I’m reasonably sure I could master script writing, but I don’t want to have to do it when it’s totally vital that I get it right. Maybe as time goes on I might.
Another consideration is that I’m not a team player. I’m so used to being god in my own universe. I have total control over what happens in a book. And television writing is not like that at all. I have a number of friends who are television writers. I’ve heard about it. Ron and Maril had me come and see the writers’ room and meet all the writers, with whom I got along with beautifully. Having seen how they do work, I think I could work with them. Coming into it cold, I don’t know.
I understand that early in your writing career worked for a while in the comic book medium.
Yes. I used to write scripts for Walt Disney.
What was that experience like?
Oh, it was a lot of fun. My mother taught me to read when I was about three, in part by reading me “Scrooge McDuck” and “Donald Duck” comic books. And I never stopped. So in my late 20s I was reading one I picked up at the convenience store. I said “This is really bad. I bet I could do better myself.” So I found the name and address of the editor who handled that line, and I wrote him this very rude letter. And said “Dear Sir, I’ve been reading your comic books for 25 years, and they’ve been getting worse and worse. I’m not sure I could do better myself but I’d like to try.” Luckily I met Del Connell, who was a gent with a sense of humor. He wrote back and said “Try.”
He sent me a format sheet, so I could see how to lay out a script. I wrote him one. He didn’t buy it, but he did something much more valuable: He told me what was wrong with it. He did buy my second script, and I continued to write for Disney for the next three years or so. At the end of that, the corporate powers said, “Why are we paying for new stories? We have 40 years of Carl Barks in our files.” They quit buying new stories.
What were the characters that you tackled while you were doing that?
Uncle Scrooge was my favorite. But I would do Donald Duck and the Nephews occasionally. I did one or two Mickey Mouse stories. But Mickey is not as interesting to me because he’s such a straight arrow. He has no internal conflicts.
If you could point your fans to a favorite story that you wrote during that time, is there one that you’d single out?
They probably wouldn’t find one because the first five or six weren’t published in the States. After that they suspended publication, and Del Connell sent me to the foreign comics program on the Disney lot. And I wrote for them for another 18 months until they also suspended. So a good many of my scripts have actually not been published in the U.S.
You brought “Outlander” to the comic book format too, didn’t you?
Yes. I did a graphic novel. It’s essentially the first third of “Outlander,” covering the first dramatic climax. It’s done from Jamie’s point of view, so that you see what he and Murtagh are thinking and saying outside of Claire’s vision.
How was that, o come full circle in that way creatively?
It was a lot of fun. But having done the graphic novel, I understand what it is to translate it to a visual medium. So I was much less disturbed, maybe. about the way that’s done.
Would you want to do an original tie-in piece in a comic book or graphic novel format?
That never occurred to me, so I wouldn’t rule it out. Why not? Who knows?
Are you writing now actively, or are you taking a break?
The most recent book came out in June, and I spent the next three months gone. I was doing book tours in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. Two premieres for the show plus the intervening PR. I was gone until the end of August. So I took September off to kind of shuffle my office out and deal with all the stuff that accumulates while you’re gone for six months. Since then I’ve been gathering up the threads, but I’m just about to the point of writing regularly every day again.
Does research influence story, or does story influence where you research?
Both. They feed off each other. I do them concurrently. I’m going to deal with this particular battle. I will go and read about it. While doing so I’ll say, “Oh, Daniel Morgan was at this battle. He’s a fascinating person. I want to include him.” I’ll go and find a biography about him from which I will pick out some incident, that I’ll then write into the book, which leads to something else in the writing, which leads to something else in the research. It’s very circular.
As a research nerd, is it gratifying to see how many people are getting into the level of detail both from your books and from the show?
Oh, absolutely. People really like detail. It’s one of the things that they go to historical fiction for, to learn how things actually worked back then.
The pop culture is absolutely crazy about shared universes right now. You have another novel series that runs in the same universe as “Outlander.” Has there been any discussion, with the success of the show of doing something with that in television?
Not as yet, but we’re only through the first season. There’s a lot of time to discuss that. The character on whom that side series is based only appears briefly as 16-year-old boy toward the end of the second season. It’s in the third season that he comes into his own as a grown man. My guess is no one would be interested in doing his story before he reaches that point because it just wouldn’t dovetail.
”Outlander” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
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