Saturday night’s Outlander finale went where television has never gone before. And in the process stirred up quite an interesting conversation about sexual violence. But Ronald D. Moore wasn’t the one who created the story, it was author Diana Gabaldon back in 1991.
On Sunday we had the immense pleasure of chatting up Gabaldon prior to a Q&A and signing at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles (where several of the show’s iconic costumes were also on display), where we dished about the subversive nature of the story, the public’s reaction to sexual violence, and what she’s looking forward to in season two. Here’s an edited and truncated version of our chat:
The Nerdist: So, the first season is over. What do you think about how they adapted your first book?
Diana Gabaldon: Oh, they did a wonderful job you know, given that it’s a three-hundred thousand- word book and they had sixteen hours to do it, they did a fabulous job, absolutely.
N: And a lot of stuff happens in that finale…
DG: Yes it does. [laughs]
N: And you wrote this source material first, so the subversiveness of this scene came from you. Usually it’s a damsel in distress situation but here, Jamie is the one in this position. So what was it like, seeing that translated to television?
DG: Well I wrote Outlander for practice; I never intended for anyone to read it. Let alone publish it, let alone have it appear on television finally! I can’t say I wasn’t intending being subversive because I always am, but I was just sort of born with a “says who” gene, you know? [laughs] It wasn’t intended to be any particular kind of book — I read everything and lots of it — I just used elements from everything that I like. At one point I had, I think, posted a love scene and they said, “Oh, is it a historical romance maybe?” and I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never read one.” So I went to the grocery store and bought three New York Times bestselling romances figuring these would be a representative sample. I read all three and I said, “No, that’s not what I’m writing, [laughs] but that’s interesting.” I’m sure this was purely by coincidence, mind you, [but] it was the mid-1980’s when styles where different, and the heroine was raped in every single one of these three books. In one of them she was raped by the one who eventually turns out to be the quote-unquote hero. In the others, she was raped by somebody else, but having sex with the hero “fixed her up.” It was like, come on!
N: Oh, god.
DG: Exactly. So having realized that what I wrote was, well, it wasn’t that sort of book — All of these were virgins. Of course: 18 year old virgins with 34 year old men, this was the style then — [so] I said, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” I knew who Claire was — I had been working with her for a while then — and I knew who Jamie was as well, so I said let him be the virgin bride-groom. I take decisions sort of on the, not exactly the whim of the moment, but the revelation of the moment. Just “Oh, it’s this way.” And having done that, I didn’t shirk the ramifications of the developments that come from that. So everything grew out of that.
Something drastic was going to happen: this isn’t the sort of book where the leads foil evil at the last minute and escape harm and sail off into the sunset. The connection with Captain Randall was evolving: It wasn’t Claire he was after; she was sort of incidental. He would take anybody that he thought he could get alone and helpless — but he was fascinated with Jamie for various reasons.
I did in fact, write a little essay — which I’m sure is all over the web by this time — about Jaime and the rule of three and why I did that.
N: Obviously there was a big discussion when the book came out, but now that it’s aired on TV, what is it like having that discussion play out with the new meaning people are couching into it in terms of the why and how this story played out the way it did?
DG: Well everyone is going to have their opinions, and the thing is, the culture has changed considerably since I wrote the first book. It was quite controversial at the time, but in different ways. People tended to get much more excited about the spanking than the rape — and even that went in waves. I would have these little outbreaks of rage and fist waving and it then would all die down and I wouldn’t hear anything for five years and suddenly it’s big again. I’m not quite sure what controls this wave; it’s just something to do with media and the culture and so forth. In part, it’s the search for content. The media is always looking for a story of one kind or another. You won’t have a story unless you have conflict, which means if there’s no conflict in a situation, people look for a way to make some.
N: It’s interesting timing-wise too, what with this and everything that’s going on with Game of Thrones…
DG: Yeah, that was rather coincidental.
N: And that must feel weird to you, ‘cuz for me, it’s kind of a “right versus wrong” way of how to deal with these things.
DG: I’m of the same opinion myself.
N: I’ve been having this rape conversation for weeks and I’m admittedly sort of tired of it, and yet there’s a lot of good that’s coming out of it.
DG: Oh I know, but that’s why you don’t worry when you write something that’s controversial. It’s a big nuisance in media: you have to deal with it over and over and over — which you’ve noticed — but at the same time, very valuable stuff comes out of it along the way. And not just in terms of the public conversation, but in terms of people’s private response. And that I hear a lot of because people write to me all the time and they tell me “this is what I felt as a result of this.” The bottom line for me is I get lots and lots and lots of mail, and I have never, ever — not once! — had somebody write to me saying, “I’ve been raped and this was terrible and it brought it all back and how could you do such a terrible thing?” Never, not once. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of mail from people saying, “I was raped and reading your book, sometimes the scenes were difficult, but it was cathartic. It was so honest, that meant a lot to me. And further, you indicated that recovery is possible, that there was healing, there was hope.” And that just made me feel so validated and understood. It made me feel good. And now I’m thinking, OK: I guess this is the right way.
N: It’s such a tricky thing and it’s always going to be one of those things where people vacillate between the lines of what’s appropriate and what’s not, but it’s so important to have that discussion, based on a mistake or somebody doing it right. It’s valuable in all regards.
DG: Yeah, well, as a writer of fiction, I don’t think that the notion of appropriateness applies, ‘cuz how would you know?
N: You don’t really.
DG: In terms of popular culture and media and entertainment and so forth, everybody says “Who is the audience for this?” I didn’t really care who the audience was. The audience was me. And since that worked, I’ve always proceeded on that assumption: I don’t care what the audience thinks. Basically, it’s going to be the way I think it should be written. But the other thing is that there is no audience, there is no reader. If you’re going to have more than one person read your book, they’re going to have totally different opinions and responses. No person — no two people — read the same book. It’s always based on their perceptions, their background, their experiences, their expectations of the moment. You know, what side of the bed they got up on that day. I read some books and I thought, “This is better than sliced bread!” and a month later I couldn’t remember thinking about it. And I’ve read others that were kind of a slog and I’ve put them down and come back six months later thinking, “Wow, this is great.” So, you know, things change all the time.
N: So what was it like seeing Sam and Toby act this out?
DG: Oh, it was fabulous. I’m sure you know that months and months before they started filming, I said to Sam [Heughan, who plays Jamie Fraser] on stage — they asked me what filming I wanted to see particularly — “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Sam, but I really want to see you raped and tortured.”
N: I do remember that. They have such a good attitude about the subject matter. I’ve spoken to both of them about it and I love the way they both approach the whole thing.
DG: They are total pros.
N: And it’s unlike anything that’s ever been on TV before.
DG: It was so beautiful. I mean, it seems odd with that kind of material, but it totally was. And not just visually, the photography was spectacular, the staging: everything. It was total, unflinching honesty all the way down. On both sides.
N: What are you excited about them representing next season? Because everything is completely different now: I talked to Ron a couple of weeks ago and he was like, “I’m basically creating a completely new series” because it’s so different.
DG: Well that’s the thing about my books, because I don’t like to do stuff I’ve already done, so each one is totally different. Tone, structure, approach, plot, and so forth. All I can reuse are the characters, and they, of course, remain who they are — but they evolve. People say to me, “Well, aren’t you tired of writing these same old people?” Well, if they were the same old people, it would be, but they’re not: I have to reimagine them with each book. Who are you at this point in your life? All this has happened since the last time we were together; how are you feeling about things? How is this? It’s always a new day for me. This is why I don’t get bored and this is why, presumably, the books continue to be popular. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that they were boring. They may or may not have liked them, but they don’t bore people.
What did you think of the Outlander finale? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments.