Aye, Sassenach — Gabaldon's Appeal Is Timeless Twenty years ago, Diana Gabaldon's time-travel epic Outlander shot to the top of the best-seller lists — and stayed there. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates digs into the enduring potency of Gabaldon's magic.

Aye, Sassenach — Gabaldon's Appeal Is Timeless

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The novel "Outlander" came out more than 20 years ago. It featured a determined heroine who time travels from the 20th century back to 18th century Scotland. It was the first novel for the author Diana Gabaldon.


Even she says she has trouble describing just what that book is about, but it grew into a series that has made her famous and wealthy.

And now "Outlander" is a television series which debuts tomorrow night on the Starz channel with a Z. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, with an S, from our Code Switch team caught up with Gabaldon recently at ComicCon in San Diego.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Diana Gabaldon was speaking to a couple hundred fans who'd squeezed into a small theater during ComicCon to hear her talk. Outside, a group of kilt-wearing laddies walked the streets passing out swatches of tartan emblazoned with The Kilt Drops 08/09, a mildly risqué reminder of an important date.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, tighe, we love you.

BATES: Gabaldon - she says her Spanish surname rhymes with bad to the bone - has a PhD in quantitative behavioral psychology - something she describes as animal behavior with lots of statistics. She was a university science professor for years but decided in her mid-thirties, she wanted to write a novel. Best way to do that was to write a practice book. That exercise became "Outlander," the best-selling tale of Claire Randall, a young English battlefield nurse who inadvertently hurtles back two centuries to find adventure, intrigue and, yes, romance.

The first book was so popular, it blossomed into a series. Two decades and seven big books after the original one, Gabaldon says bookstores still don't know where to place her work because it contains elements of several genres. After her talk on the now-quiet theater's bare stage, Gabaldon says when she first made author appearances as an unknown, she'd craft a pitch for each prospective buyer.

DIANA GABALDON: Depending on who I was talking to - if it was a young woman, I'd say, oh, historical romance - you know, men in kilts. If it was a slightly older lady, I'd say it was historical fiction. If you like Shogun, you'll love this. If it was a young man, I'd say, oh, it's fantasy - you know, time travel, things like that, swords. And if it was a slightly older gentlemen, I'd say, oh, it's military history.

BATES: Eventually, rather than contort herself to describe her series, Gabaldon took a different approach.

GABALDON: After a while, I took to saying, look, tell you what - pick it up. Open it anywhere. Read three pages. If you can put it down again, I'll pay you a dollar. So I never lost any money on that bet, but I sold a lot of books.

BATES: A lot. By several reckonings, the "Outlander" series has sold 25 million books since the original "Outlander" was published in 1991. It's been translated into 34 different languages. Now "Outlander" the television series will premiere and extend Diana Gabaldon's reach yet further.

It begins as Claire Randall is finally reunited with her husband, Frank, after peace is declared in 1945. The young couple drives up to the Scottish Highlands to reconnect with each other after having been separated by the war. Frank, a historian and former intelligence officer, wants to trace his Scots ancestry. So he's researching his family tree. While he's doing that, Claire goes off to collect plant specimens in the hills, enters a circle of standing stones and is pulled towards a noise she hears from them. Puzzled, she puts her hand out to touch the stone and faints. When she awakens, she seems to be in the middle of a firefight between soldiers in 18th century British battle dress and kilted Highlanders. She thinks she has an explanation.


CAITRIONA BALFE: (As Claire Randall) Perhaps I had stumbled onto the set of a cinema company filming a costume drama of some sort.

BATES: It isn't that simple. Somehow, Claire Randall is in 1743. She soon finds herself running away from her husband's ancestor, Captain Jonathan Black Jack Randall. Just as he's about to take her - in the 18th century sense of the word - she's rescued and then kidnapped by a group of Highland rebels who aren't sure where her alliance lies. The conscripted nurse tends to a tall, injured redhead who turns out to be James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. And somehow, Clare has to come to terms with where she is. She reluctantly does that when Jamie Fraser points through the twilight to show Claire Inverness, the city where she'd been staying.


BALFE: (As Claire Randall) Where is it? Where's the city? It should be visible from here.

SAM HEUGHAN: (As Jamie Fraser) Inverness - you're looking straight at it.

BALFE: (As Claire Randall) There were no electric lights as far as the eye could see. So as much as my rational mind rebelled against the idea, I knew in my heart, I was no longer in the 20th century.

BATES: Claire's early adjustment from 20th century medical professional to the much more restricted role assigned to most 18th-century women was rocky.


BALFE: (As Claire Randall) So far, I've been assaulted, threatened, kidnapped and nearly raped. And somehow, I knew that my journey had only just begun.

BATES: Lucky for her, she would have Jamie - intelligent, deeply moral and fiercely loyal - to help her with the transition. Claire was forced to marry him for political reasons, but they soon become true lovers. The romance is a central thread that's woven throughout the "Outlander" books. Diana Gabaldon served as consultant to the television series.

BATES: And what do you think? Are you pretty happy with it overall?

GABALDON: I'm very happy with it. I'm just thrilled. It couldn't be better.

BATES: Apparently, Starz is happy, too. This year, there will be eight episodes of "Outlander" beginning tomorrow, another eight early next year. One of Gabaldon's best friends is George R. R. Martin whose "Game Of Thrones" series has broken records for HBO. The two enjoy a little friendly competition.

GABALDON: George Martin asked me how many episodes are you getting? And I told him 16. And he said, what? They only give me 10.

BATES: Gabaldon says there will be a small "Outlander" novella sometime soon, but not one of the thick epics she's become famous for. That'll take a couple more years. For one thing, publicizing the current book, "Written In My Own Heart's Blood," takes up a lot of time, as Gabaldon, with typical directness, points out.

GABALDON: Well, you know, if I wasn't here talking to you, I'd probably be home writing.

BATES: I'll shut up and leave now.

BATES: And then there's the on-going battle to keep her "Outlander" books from being relegated solely to one category, as they are on Amazon.

GABALDON: At the moment, it's romance. And I have every expectation of being able to fix that because I will be seeing Jeff Bezos in another couple of months.

BATES: Want to put money on who will win that fight? Remember - her last name rhymes with bad to the bone. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can see a trailer for the "Outlander" TV series as well as an excerpt from Diana Gabaldon's most recent novel at our website npr.org.

You know, this is lovely music, David, but I wish that we'd been playing George Thorogood's "Bad To The Bone." I think that would've - more appropriate.

GREENE: That's what I was expecting and hoping for.

INSKEEP: Anyway, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.

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