Wednesday, March 3, 2010

a romantic echo in time

Niki Bruce talks to author Diana Gabaldon about her latest Outlander book.

THE Outlander series of books have had a remarkably long, and successful, life and they are still going strong. The seventh in the series, An Echo in the Bone, has just been released, continuing the amazing story of Claire and Jamie Fraser.

According to its author, Diana Gabaldon, the story continues with no obvious end in sight. "The story exists outside of myself," she tells me on the phone from Sydney where she is finishing up her publicity tour.

For those who have never read one of the Outlander books, the story starts in Scotland in the 18th century with a 'handsome young man in a kilt' and an English woman who is somewhere she shouldn't be.

The premise comes, oddly enough, from an old Dr Who episode featuring that particular guy in the kilt, as well as the concept of time travel says Gabaldon. For that is what Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser is, a 20th century woman somehow sent back in time.

Still, Gabaldon says that the whole time travel concept came more from her character Claire than it did from the Dr Who episode. "I tried to beat her into submission," she says jokingly, but apparently the character had a mind of her own.

All seven books have focused on Claire and Jamie (the handsome Scott) and their abiding love through the ages; their children, relatives and friends and the odd historical personage.

Gabaldon started out as a university professor who decided one day that she was going to try writing a novel. With what seems to be characteristic determination, Gabaldon took to it like a duck to water and once on the path couldn't seem to stop.

"I didn't intend to publish the book, but I ended up with an agent by accident. We decided that I should stop writing while I could still lift the book, that's why there have been so many of them," says Gabaldon.

Her throwaway comment isn't as flippant as it seems; Gabaldon's books are literally doorstoppers, they're huge in size, scope, imagination, historical details and romance.

While the Outlander series has been described as historical fiction, it is really a romance – don't get me wrong, the historical detail and information is entirely there – but it's the love the two central characters have for each other that makes this such a lovely read.

In An Echo in the Bone, Jamie and Claire are in America at the time of the revolution. Jamie, as a Highland Scott and former supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, is not exactly in favour of the English retaining a hold on the colony.

And so, the adventure continues as Jamie and Claire – and Jamie's nephew Ian – attempt to live their lives without become too caught up in the growing conflict. Of course, this isn't going to happen as Jamie has always been a fighter and Claire has always held 'strong opinions about freedom'.

Characters from the entire series re-appear adding complications to the storyline, naturally enough, including Lord John Grey and Jamie's illegitimate son, William – who thinks he is John's son. Jamie's adopted son Fergus is mixed up with the American rebels as well, and as Jamie and Claire attempt to return to Scotland calamity befalls them.

At the same time, Claire and Jamie's daughter Brianna, her husband Roger and their two children, have returned to modern times and are living in Scotland in Jamie's old home. The couple returned in the previous book because of their daughter's illness that could only be fixed with modern medicine. However, their idyllic life is about to come crashing down around the family as the both the past and the future catch up with them.

Medicine is a major theme throughout the Outlander series as Claire starts out as a nurse and becomes a doctor; a 'witch' or 'white lady' for the primitive past, since she knows about germs, creates basic penicillin and even comes up with a rough anesthetic during her forays into the past.

The 'science' of how this family manages to travel through time is relatively believable – based as it is on the use of 'ley lines' or the Earth's magnetic fields and some complicated, but verifiable, physics – 'unified field theory' anyone? Gabaldon understands it, at any rate, and her explanation is confident and reassuring.

In Echo in the Bone, Gabaldon leaves the reader with a major cliff-hanger, although she says she did try to tie up some loose ends. In the previous book – A Breath of Snow and Ashes – her fans panicked and assumed that because she'd tied up all the storylines, that it was the last book. So, Gabaldon says she had to leave something hanging this time around.

Unfortunately it takes about three years for Gabaldon to write an Outlander book – which mean fans will be waiting a while to have the latest cliff-hanger sorted out. Gabaldon says that the books take so long, not just because of the immense amount of research she does, but also because she's a very slow writer.

"I'm a slow, fiddly writer. I don't write anything except the actual text; I don't write an outline so I don't know what's going to happen or where the story is going. I start with a kernel of a sentence, build it into a scene over a couple of days. And I assemble a mental timeline about the sequence of events. Then pieces just coalesce," says Gabaldon.

She also does the research at the same time as she writes the story, which means sometimes visiting historical places a number of times, as she did for a major battle in An Echo in the Bone.

So, those who are waiting with bated breath for the next installment of Jamie and Claire's story will be waiting for a while. However, there's a graphic novel on the way in September 2010, following the story from the perspective of one of the other characters, which should keep the faithful happy.
For fans of the series, An Echo in the Bone, is a tour de force. There is enough action, intrigue, love, sex, romance, history, blood, gore and betrayal to keep anyone happy. Gabaldon has again delivered her signature interweaving plots and strong characters, both old favourites and new friends. All in all, if you have even a vague interest in historical fiction and/or romance, you can't pass up An Echo in the Bone and the Outlander series as a whole.

If, however, you've never read an Outlander novel, you really should start at the beginning, otherwise you'll not only miss all the adventure, but you'll have no idea of who anyone is. Luckily the next one won't be out for a couple of years, so you'll be able to finish the first seven in time for number eight.

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon is published by Orion Books and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on December 03, 2009


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