Die Internet Connection

Ein Gespräch mit Diana Gabaldon

Soeben ist Diana Gabaldons erster Roman Feuer und Stein bei Blanvalet erschienen. Feuer und Stein ist ein opulenter und überaus abenteuerlicher Roman, der sich über sämtliche Genregrenzen hinwegsetzt: er ist Abenteuer- und Historien- und Fantasyroman und handelt von vielen der alten großen Themen. Während des Schreibens stand Diana Gabaldon in engem Kontakt zu den Lesern zweier Foren bei CompuServe. BiN befragte sie über die Rolle, die das Netz für ihren Roman spielte, über die Figuren aus dem echten Leben, die sich plötzlich in ihrem Roman wiederfanden und vieles mehr.

Das Interview wird hier in seiner englischsprachigen Originalfassung wiedergegeben.

BiN: Your German publisher told us that your book was written somehow interactively. They said that you discussed new chapters and passages with an Internet audience. To what extent did those discussion influence your book? Did they alter the story itself? Did somebody say that (s)he thinks that a certain charachter should do certain things, and did you follow such an advice?

DG: Ah, the Internet connection. Publishers and publicists – most of whom would not recognize a modem on a plate with watercress around it – always get this wrong. I tell them the story, and what emerges is what you describ – a garbled notion that I somehow write books interactively while online, or that I write books by committee. This is – rather obviously – nonsense. I write books much as everybody else does. That is, I stare at the wall for awhile, then hit a few keys on my word processor, stare out the window for awhile, hit a few more, read what I wrote and erase all of it, get up and stare blankly at my library shelves, sit down and tap a little more...you know, the normal way. So what really happened is this: I used to write freelance articles for BYTE, Inforworld, PC and the other big US computer magazines, for extra money (I was a university professor, with a Ph.D. in Ecology, but I was a cough "expert" in scientific computation, more or less by accident). So one day Borland (a large software company) sent me a package of software, manuals, etc. for review, and included with these a trial membership to CompuServe, saying that they had an online Forum which supported this particular software, and would I please be so kind as to check it out and mention it in the review? This seemed like a legitimate request, so I logged into CompuServe, found the Borland Forum, checked out their knowledgability and response times...and then had four hours of free time left in my trial membership. So I began to poke around to see what else was available, and stumbled into the Literary Forum. Now, the LitForum (and its more recently twin, the Writers Forum) is a collection of people who like books. It includes a large number of published writers, in every field from nonfiction to literary fiction, and also a great many unpublished but aspiring writers, and a lot of people who don't write, but like to discuss writing and books in all their aspects. Seeing this as a congenial assortment of people, I happily settled in and began logging in every day, chatting with a huge variety of well-read, interesting, articulate people.

Now, I had been inhabiting the LitForum for more than a year before I began writing the book that would eventually become Outlander (Feuer und Stein, in the German edition). I wasn't about to tell all these famous, successful writers that I was writing a book –so I didn't. I just kept working quietly away by myself, but kept on talking and learning everything I could from the stories and chat online. However, one evening I had an argument with a gentleman in the Forum, about what it feels like to be pregnant. "Oh, I know what that's like," he said. "My wife's had three children!" I laughed (electronically) at this, and said, "Yeah? I've had three children!" So he said, "Well, OK, tell me what you think it's like."

Now, by coincidence, I had a piece of Outlander in which a woman does precisely this – describes to her brother what feeling pregnant feels like. So I said, "Well, I have a...piece that describes it pretty well, I'll put it up in the data library for you to read." (the Libraries in the Literary Forum are for members to put up their own writing--novel chapters, poetry, scripts, short stories, etc.). So I did, and everyone who had been following the argument (most messages are public) went to read the piece, too. And they all came rushing back, saying "This is great! Where's the beginning?" I explained that I didn't have a beginning (or an end; I don't write in a straight line; I write in little pieces and stick them together like a jigsaw), and they said, "Well, put up some more of it!"

So I did. Every few months, whenever I had a 10 or 20-page piece that seemed more or less coherent by itself, I'd post it. Now, this was not "critique" (there are a formal critique workshops available in both LitForum and Writers Forum, but I've never used them), merely to share something I'd written and see whether people liked it. And they did. They kept begging for more of the story, speculating about what the characters were doing, and what would happen next, and asking why I had done this particular thing? You know, general reader's comments, all of which summed up to--"Post more!" So I kept doing it, and people began saying to me, "You know, you should really try to publish this." And I would explain that I was only writing the book for practice, to learn how...but if I did want to publish it, what should I do?

The published writers online mostly said, "Well, first you should get an agent. An agent can get your manuscript read much more quickly, and if it should sell, the agent can negotiate a lot better than you can for a good contract." "Fine," I said. "How would I find an agent?" To which the general answer was, "Talk to people who have agents. Find out which agents handle what kinds of material, which ones have a good (or bad) reputation, which ones seem to work with writers who do things like you're doing." So I did. I was nowhere near finished with the book, so I just inquired casually, whenever I found myself in conversation with a published author--how did they find their first agent, did they still have this agent, if they did more than one kind of book, did they have different agents for each kind, how much did they pay, did they think it worthwhile, and so forth and so on. And one day, I asked these questions of a man named John Stith, who writes science-fiction mysteries (very good, too!). And John said, "Oh, my agent is X; would you like me to introduce you to him?" Now, I'd seen X spoken of before, and always in the highest terms. He also seemed to handle a number of people who wrote – not what I write, because that's indescribable – but something in the manner I write; vivid, engaging stories. So I swallowed hard and said, "Sure, John, that would be nice of you." So John wrote a note to the agent, saying I was worth looking at (the agent doesn't accept unsolicited or unrecommended mss.), and I followed this with my own query letter, asking whether Mr. X would look at "excerpts" of this very long novel I had (I didn't think I should tell him I wasn't finished writing it yet, and "excerpts" were all I had). Mr. X. very kindly called and said he would--and agreed to represent me, on the basis of an unfinished first novel, which is not at all usual.

Anyway, I finally finished the book six months later (it took me about 18 months altogether, to write), and the agent sent the manuscript to five editors who he thought might like it. Within four days, three of them had called back, wanting to buy it. He was therefore able to negotiate among the three, and emerge with a very good three-book contract, with Delacorte Press. And that's how I got published.

You can see why the story loses a bit in translation; press releases have a very limited amount of room. Essentially, though, I'd done exactly what writers have always done – written a book, and discovered contacts who could convey that book through the proper channels. It's just that the electronic component makes the process somewhat more efficient –and mysterious. I didn't meet my agent until after I had finished the book; I didn't meet John Stith, who introduced me to him, until just this last year – some seven years after we had met online.

A brief P.S. to this. It is true that I still post pieces of the work in progress in the Writers Forum libraries. The main reason for this is that it takes me nearly two years to finish one of these books, and the main reason I write, is to have people read my stories. Two years is a long time to wait. By posting small pieces of the book, I get the gratification of an audience every few months, without having to wait so long for publication. Now, people do now and again speculate about the pieces I post, and give their opinions as to what will happen, or give me incidental anecdotes and other helpful information that the piece has reminded them of (one woman from North Carolina read one of my pieces, set in that state, and said that it was exactly right – except that in the summer, one thing you noticed was that if you walked through a field, as my characters had been doing, your legs would be covered with ticks. Now, we don't have that sort of tick where I live, and this isn't the sort of detail that you turn up in the customary research. So I was glad to know this, and included a sentence in the piece, in which the characters pause to inspect each other for ticks). But by and large, such comments don't affect the story; if I post a piece, it's pretty much the way I want it – I'm not looking for advice or criticism; only an audience.

BiN: Furthermore Blanvalet said that some of your discussion partners became characters in the book. Did you just change, say the character of already existing characters to adjust them to your discussion partners, or did you invent completely new characters? In case of the latter: Did this affect the story seriously?

DG: Oh, the "real" characters. Well, that's more of a joke than anything else. In the second book, I had a Highland seer, and I thought she should look very beautiful, but in a very unusual sort of way. Now, it happens that my editor looks just this way-- very unusual, but very attractive and striking. So I used her physical appearance (though I gave the seer a different name, my editor's own name not being appropriate). And in fact, my editor recognized herself from the description at once, and was very amused.

While doing research for the same book, I'd come across mention of a famous father-and-son team of sword-makers, who worked in Glasgow in the 18th century, who had come to Edinburgh (where part of the story occurred) to give a special sword to Prince Charles Stuart. Now, the name of both father and son was John Simpson. This struck me, because a good online friend of mine (who writes both literary fiction and mysteries) is named John E. Simpson, Jr., and he's always made quite a point of his "Jr." So I couldn't resist writing in a small piece involving the father- and-son swordsmiths (who were real historical characters), but giving them the physical appearance of my friend and his father. (I did show John the piece before including it in the manuscript, to be sure that he didn't find my depiction offensive; luckily, he also thought it was funny.) So, as I was writing the third book, I was naturally chatting away with all my online friends about all kinds of other matters. And one of them (in a discussion of GEEK LOVE, which is a Very Odd Book, indeed) confided that one of her early ambitions had been to be a carnival geek -this is a person who would bite the heads off live chickens, as "entertainment," at some carnivals in the 1930's and 40's.

Someone said jokingly that her only chance of achieving this ambition would be if I chose to include her in a book and cast her that way. Now, it's really very dangerous to make this sort of joke around a certain kind of writer, because it makes the gears in their head begin to whir. Since the books are set in the 18th century, I could hardly cast this woman as the classic sort of carnival geek...but then...part of the story was set in the Caribbean. And it did include some passing references to voodoo ceremonies. And....enter Miss Margaret Campbell (who in real life is a scholar of literature at the University of North Carolina), the Scottish voodoo oracle, who bites the heads off black roosters and drinks their blood from a gilded tea-cup before issuing her prophecies. You don't want to know about the defrocked Father Fogden and his "flock," believe me. But the "real" Barry Fogden is a very well-known English poet - and quite a good friend of mine, in spite of what I've done to him and his dog in my book. Likewise, the "real" John L. Myers (who appears in the fourth book as "Johnnie Lee Myers," a mountain-man with an inguinal hernia, a predilection for alcohol, and assorted other interesting traits) is the author of gay mystery and Southern literary fiction. These inclusions are basically made just for fun. However, once having made them, sometimes I'll find a good use for them, in terms of the story.

BiN: Did you write all of your 5 (?) novels in this very particular way? And do you plan to continue working this way?

DG: Did I write all five novels in this way? Well, I'm just now finishing the fourth one, though the fifth is under contract with Delacorte. And as I've explained above, I truly don't write them "interactively," but rather in a fairly ordinary way. I do plan to keep chatting with my friends online, though; writers are solitary people, and I find it both relaxing and gratifying to be able to talk about writing in general and my books in particular, with people who share my interests.

BiN: Are you still working at the University of Arizona? If so, how can you combine writing & research? Do you find it very difficult? Or do you like the heterogeneity of such a life?

DG: The University. Well, it was Arizona State University, which is the one in Phoenix (or Tempe, if you want to be specific about it). And no, I don't work there anymore. I "retired" when I finished the draft of the second book. My contract with the university came up for renewal just about then, and I said, "Well, luckily I don't have to have this job in order to support my family anymore – and it would be nice to see what it was like to sleep more than four hours at a time." So I quit. Yes, I enjoyed the variety and challenge – but I have three children, too, plus a husband (and a lot of animals), and I do need to sleep – sometimes.

BiN: What are your main future plans?

DG: My future plans. Well, I presently have three books published in the US (also Canada and the UK), and am working on a fourth in this series. I have five books under contract with Delacorte, including the one I'm working on; these are: the fourth and fifth in the Outlander series, a small "prequel" volume that accompanies the series but is not, strictly speaking, part of it, and two contemporary mysteries, set in Phoenix, Arizona. So I suppose I'll just keep writing for awhile!