Monday, September 28, 2009

Outlander series author Diana Gabaldon reveals the secret to writing a good sex scene
By Nicky Pellegrino

Twenty years ago it seemed an unlikely plot for a bestseller. In post-war Scotland a young married woman called Claire drops through a stone circle and finds herself in the 18th century where she falls in love with a handsome clansman called Jamie, marries him (bigamously of course) and becomes tangled up in history. But that book, Cross Stitch, sold like hot cakes, especially here in New Zealand and all these years later Diana Gabaldon, pic right, is still writing her sagas about Claire and Jamie who have since survived Culloden, had a family and been transported to the Colonies where they’re now having to cope with the American Revolutionary War.

The seventh and latest volume in what’s known as the Outlander series, An Echo in the Bone (Orion, $39.99) has just been released and in November Gabaldon will be touring the country meeting fans that have followed Jamie and Claire’s adventures devotedly over the past two decades.
“The pair of them are real people – at least to me and the readers,” the fast-talking American tells me over the phone from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona. “And they’ve changed over time. They’re like friends you’ve had for 20 years. You know all about the complexities of their lives and that makes them much more interesting than people you’ve just met.”

Gabaldon was a scientist, working two jobs and raising three young children, when she started writing Cross Stitch in her lunch breaks. She’d never been to Scotland and based her descriptions of that country on library research. It was after she’d posted excerpts of the book on an Internet site that she was introduced to a literary agent and took her first steps along the road to bestseller-dom.
A hybrid of historical romance and fantasy laced with bloody battles and countless sex scenes, Cross Stitch roused its share of controversy when it was first published, particularly with feminists who objected to a scene where Claire has to submit to a beating from Jamie after she’s disobeyed him.
“That’s one of my favourite scenes in the whole book as it so clearly illustrates the cultural conflict,” says Gabaldon. “It was quite funny for several years as people would have absolute fits in online discussion groups and then suddenly it stopped. Perhaps that particular phase of rampant feminism has burnt itself out and people have enough perspective to see it was the 18th Century and that’s how a husband and protector would have behaved.”

Gabaldon doesn’t think of the Outlander series as a romance. Happily married herself for 37 years, she sees the books more as an examination of how love can survive over time – hence her insistence on a robust sex life for her characters.
“While there may be some great marriages that don’t include sex I personally don’t know of any,” she says, adding that she can’t write sex scenes in cold blood, only when the characters are in the mood. “I’m very good at it and it’s not a common talent. A lot of people miss the point with sex scenes. A well written one is about the exchange of emotions not bodily fluids. In essence it’s a dialogue scene.
Physical details are provided to anchor the reader in time and space but if you’re old enough to read this sort of book you’ll know the basic mechanics. In my sex scenes people may be settling other issues - it might be about healing, hostility, the offering of refuge.”
It takes Gabaldon three years to compose one of Claire and Jamie’s epic adventures. She doesn’t write in a traditional linear fashion but instead in bits and pieces. “There’s this large hyper-space in my head and all the pieces are suspended in it like constellations of stars,” she explains. “As I write and research they begin to fall into place. It’s like putting together a jigsaw.”

Perhaps as a result of her scientific background, Gabaldon has spent a lot of time considering the complexities and moral ambiguities of time travel and has literally drawn up her own set of rules. “The readers and characters are discovering them as they go along,” she explains, adding that it makes sense for Claire not to be able to change the outcome of major historical events like Culloden or the American Revolution “If you look at how history works most major changes are the result of a large group of people moving in one direction. A time traveller wouldn’t be able to exert enough influence to push back against that. So Claire can’t change the big events but she can alter history by saving people who might otherwise die.”

There’s a large contingent among her fans that would like to see Jamie brought forward into the future to see how he’d react to things like flush toilets and cars. “That will never happen,” promises Gabaldon. “Readers do have opinions but the fact is they don’t have any say in it.”
An Echo in the Bone won’t be the final Outlander story. Gabaldon reckons she will have to write at least one more in order to be able to deal properly to the American Revolution. But she does know how the whole series will end. “I wrote that some years ago although I have no idea how I’m going to get there,” she says. “I’m not a fan of never-ending series that peter off into insignificance I can see what the end is and it will stop at that point. I don’t think I’ll be devastated. I have a good many other things waiting in the wings.”

*Diana Gabaldon is touring New Zealand from November 2 – 6. Go to for event details.

Nicky Pellegrino
, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her latest The Italian Wedding was published in May this year), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 27 September


Vanda Symon said...

I love this series, and have An Echo in the Bone vying for attention on my bedside table.

TK Roxborogh said...

Heading off to Queenstown now with it in my hands. Straight roads means I can read it while hubby is driving.

Anonymous said...

I am addicted to the series and I have never read a "romance"
novel in my life. I have read every classic in literature and have taken pride in smart fiction. These books are so much more than what people think. I completed Echo in the Bone 2 days after I received it. I want to know when the next book come out?