Outlander Author Diana Gabaldon on Strong Female Protagonists, Casting Jamie, and Doctor Who

Diana Gabaldon. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Diana Gabaldon is known to the most hard-core fans of Outlander as Herself. As the author of the book series at the core of the new Starz hit, the Arizona native has been toiling away for more than two decades on the time-travel saga, which tells the ever-expanding tale of Claire, a woman torn between her British husband in 1945 and her hunky Scottish love in 1743. Although Gabaldon isn’t writing scripts for the TV show the way George R.R. Martin does for Game of Thrones, she is actively involved as a consultant, contributing ideas, protecting continuity, and occasionally putting in a quick appearance. (She had a cameo in episode four, if you spotted her talking to Mrs. Fitz.) Before the season began, Gabaldon sat down for a cup of tea with Vulture to chat about Outlander’s resident heartthrob, tattoos, and her crush on David Tennant.

You brought the house down at 92Y when you told Sam Heughan he had a fine ass.
[Laughs.] I had just watched the wedding episode, and Sam was telling me that they had to reshoot a number of scenes because Ron [D. Moore] wasn’t quite pleased with them, and Sam was hoping that the new ones had come out well. And so I wrote back and said, “I just watched the wedding scene. It looks beautiful. All your stuff looks great. But honesty compels me to tell you ...” So that was harkening back to our previous conversation! [Laughs.] I knew the minute that I said “honesty compels me” he would know what was coming! Is it a spoiler, about his ass? It’s not like I’m giving away anything! [Laughs.]

Originally, though, you weren’t quite so taken with Sam, right?
Ron called up and he said, “We’re so excited. We think we found Jamie! We’re sending you the audition tapes.” I was driving from Santa Fe to Phoenix at the time, so I couldn’t watch them right away, but I was Googling Sam Heughan and looking at his IMDb photos, and I thought, He looks grotesque! What are you thinking?! His IMDb photos do not do him any kind of justice. And also, he’s a very chameleonic actor. He looks totally different in every single role. But they sent me two audition scenes and a chemistry test, so I could see him in his own persona. So the first scene was when he has a confrontation with Dougal McKenzie, when Dougal shows off his scars at the tavern and he’s facing slightly away from the camera, so it was neck and shoulders, but a beautiful body! So I went, Ah ... He didn’t look at all like he did in his pictures. He had a light stubble, and he was rumpled, and I thought, He looks a lot better than I expected him to look! Then he turned full around into the camera, yelling his lines with crazy eyes, and I was sold. The second scene was where Jamie was explaining to Claire, very logically, why he was intending to beat her. And he just played it perfectly. He was in total control of himself, and it was such a nuanced performance — the annoyance, the impatience, the love, the humor. It was charming that he grasped all that nuance of that scene.

So when [book fans] were grousing about Sam at first, I beat them about the head and shoulders the first few weeks: “Look, I’ve seen him do it. You haven’t seen him do it. Take my word for it, okay?” There’s always about a 5 percent minority who are all, “I’m so disappointed!” But the 5 percent eventually come around, or at least they shut up. But people get it firmly in their minds that Jamie is seven feet tall and has this steroidal bulk, that he’s this big, brawny, burly guy. They’re thinking, This is all well and good, but I like a really big guy. WWF people really turn me on. They don’t do it consciously, but that’s what they do. To which I say, “Take your Kindle and search for the words burly and brawny [in my novels]. If you find either one of them, I’ll pay you ten bucks. But if you search for lean, elegant musculature, you can find that.”

One of your fan groups got you male strippers once? What happened there?
It was just one stripper. [Laughs.] And he was in a kilt. The Ladies of Lallybroch hold gatherings at places where they know I’m going to be, or, at least, they used to. And they would try to find novel means of entertainment for their gathering. I came to this writers' conference in Surrey every year, and so they had this tradition of having their gathering the night before, and on this one occasion, they hired a stripper to come in at 11, and I came by at three minutes to 11 — just in time!

I’ve seen a lot of body art based on my books, too. I’ve had no fewer than three young women on separate occasions come up to me at book signings and unzip their pants, turn around, and drop them to show me that they had “Bonnie lassie” tattooed across their rumpuses! [Laughs.] That’s better than the one who had “Je suis prest” tattooed inside her lower lip. She explained that this was so it wouldn’t show at work. One fan ripped off her sock and shoe to show me that she had the running-stag brooch from the cover of The Fiery Cross tattooed on the top of her foot. I was going, “Oh! That looks painful!” [Laughs.] Shall we share a pot? Not chamomile, because that makes me sneeze. [We order Earl Grey tea.]

There’s a moment when they’re collecting the rent, and Claire takes up with some village women. We learn that (1) they use their own urine to waulk the wool; and (2) they’re not wearing any underpants! Even though that scene was not in the book, I sensed your touch there.
In the script that I saw, the writer had Claire wandering around the village and seeing a sugar-bowl vase in a window of a cottage, and a woman seeing her staring at it and [comes] out to talk to her, and then they go inside and have tea with other ladies, and they play cards, and that’s what they’re doing when Angus comes back to collect her. I wrote back, “No. 1935 London, maybe. 18th-century Scotland, remote village, no. Even up through the 20th century, people in the remote areas of the Scottish Highlands thought that playing cards was like devil worship! You certainly wouldn’t find any respectable women playing cards. And drinking tea? They didn’t have any! If you want a sugar-bowl vase, that could be imported, fine, but they would not be hanging around in the middle of the afternoon drinking anything. They would be working, because they had to scrape a living out of the land. And women with children worked harder than anybody else.” I suggested that if they were looking for a way for Claire to enter the life of these women, the most picturesque thing they could be doing was waulking wool, and I explained to them what that was, with the hot urine. Peeing in the bucket was their addition to that. [Laughs.]

Do you think the exorcism story line helped enhance an aspect of the story that was previously in the background, by pushing certain issues to the forefront that will become important later?
I thought that scene was actually rather dull, so I skipped over it! I mean, there was a point to it. It was furthering the plot. But I wasn’t particularly interested in it. I got tired of the women wailing and carrying on. [Laughs.] And the priest was a very one-note actor, at least in that role. I didn’t care for that, but I didn’t object to it, either. You know, we can’t really read these tea leaves. One, I don’t know how. Two, they’re too crumbled!

Bummer. Let’s talk about your theory of writing time travel instead?
In a great many stories that deal with time travel, there’s usually somebody who knows how time travel works. They lay out the rules. In this story, [readers] are finding out the rules at the same time the characters are, making the point that there are no experts on time travel. And here, you don't know what’s going to happen to you when you step through those stones. Claire realizes she’s having an effect on the past. But the underlying point there that I’m making is that every single one of us affects the future, every single day, with the decisions that we make or don’t make. You don’t have to be a time traveler to know this. If you donate to a charity and save a few kids, 20 years down the line, there will be more people who exist because of you. In other words, you should consider your actions fully. That’s just one of the small themes of the book. But you know, when I realized I was writing a book about time travel, I stopped reading time-travel stories! And I don’t watch time-travel movies — [although] I watched Kate & Leopold. Leopold was all right. I hated Kate. Whiny, self-absorbed, selfish, stupid, superficial — why would he care? People ask me why I write strong women, and I say, “Well, I don’t like stupid ones.” Who would want to read about weak and whiny women? Are they people who assume women are weak and whiny? If so, why do they think that?

You are friendly with George R.R. Martin. Do you really have breakfast with him about once a month?
He lives in Santa Fe full time, and my husband and I have a small place there. We live there for a week out of every month, so if George is in town when I’m in town, we have breakfast once a month or two, and chat about interesting things. [Laughs.] Mostly gossip about the production. Like, the difficulty they had in casting someone because [Game of Thrones] has these grotesquely enlarged people in the cast, people named the Mountain or some such thing. And he said, “There are only, like, 12 people in the world who are six-foot-eight or taller and professional actors, and all of them are Lithuanians!” That sort of thing. [Laughs.]

Can we talk about the Doctor Who connection, since Outlander is on the same night that BBC airs Doctor Who? From what I understand, Doctor Who helped provide the inspiration for the books in the first place. How?
Back in the day, years ago, in 1988, the only TV I watched was Doctor Who because I had children and two full-time jobs, and Doctor Who was the exact length of time it took to do my nails, so I would watch Doctor Who once a week! [Laughs.] David Tennant was my favorite Doctor. I’ve been married to the same man for 41 years, but David Tennant and Tom Baker from Doctor Who are my crushes. David Tennant is a little cuter, softer-edged, but equally heroic, and yet he’s got this very vulnerable streak. His last episode made me cry. But in the Doctor Who episode I saw that was the inspiration [for Outlander], Jamie McCrimmon, who was played by Frazer Hines, was an 18th-century Scotsman wearing a kilt. And the situation [in “The War Games” episode] was that they were in World War I, and he was with a female ambulance driver, and they have to go out and find the Doctor. He says, “I’ll go!” And she says, “Nonsense! You’re just telling me that because I’m a woman!” He looks at her and says, “Well, yes!” The pigheaded gallantry I really liked. That certain attitude of manliness.

So why start Outlander at the end of World War II, as opposed to World War I, then?
It was the medical technology. I didn’t want Claire to be a hotshot medical student who said, “I need an MRI!” Cognitive dissonance, you know? I wanted her to be able to fall to her knees and start stitching [Jamie] back together. She needed to be tough and willing to exist in the middle of violence and cope with it. She had to be sufficiently modern, and the three modern developments in medicine were antibiotics, anesthesia, antisepsis. All three of those came into wide use during World War II.

What was it like shooting your cameo?
I dish out my share of catty remarks! [Laughs.] I spent half an hour going over the script with the dialect coach, going over the accent or delivery. Caitriona [Balfe] very kindly lent me her fan, which came in very handy — it was 102 degrees up there in the gallery! And you learn to carry yourself very upright — you can’t not, because you’re wearing a corset. That morning, it was really, really tight, and it split on one side because one seam was unfinished, and they had to rush out to make an emergency repair. And it is a wig, in case you had any doubt! They plaited my hair in five or six little braids, pinned them closely to my head, and then they fitted the wig over it. It’s pretty much like wearing a shower cap. Lightweight. Slightly sweaty.