Out of this world success from Outlander

REBECCA KAMM
Last updated 05:00 31/08/2014
Diana Gabaldon
Getty Images

THE KILT'S THE THING: Outlander author Diana Gabaldon talks to fans with TV show creator Ronald D Moore.

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Were I a struggling novelist, shopping my manuscript around and praying to the literary gods that someone - anyone - pay me the tiniest scrap of attention, interviewing Diana Gabaldon may well drive me over the edge. 

It's not just that Outlander, her eight-strong series of time-travel romance novels, is a publishing and pop-culture phenomenon, that it has sold more than 25 million copies or that cable TV company Starz (along with Sony) paid her god knows how much for the rights - and have kept her on as a "paid consultant".

No, it's the cavalier beginnings of that success that might finally be too much to bear; see me grab my dictaphone and run weeping from the plush Manhattan hotel in which she sits before me like the cat that got the cream. 

Just hours before the public premiere of Outlander the TV series, the well-groomed Arizonian tells me she "always knew" she'd be a novelist.

But: "I wrote Outlander for practice, never intending anyone to see it. So it didn't matter what kind of book it 
was; I just said, what's the easiest kind of book I could write?"

Then "things happened": it got published, she got a three-book contract, fans got obsessive, four more books followed, and now here we are. 

The concept stage was just as laissez-faire. Before she became a full-time writer, 62-year-old Gabaldon was a scientist and research professor, and knew her way around a library. So she chose to base her novel on a real time and place. Also because "it seemed easier to look things up than to make them up".

Then she happened to catch a Dr Who episode featuring a young Scotsman from 1745. "This was a young man, 18 or 19, who appeared in his kilt, and I said, well, that's rather fetching.

"That's where I began," she adds cheerfully, "knowing nothing about Scotland or the 18th century, having no plot, no outline, and no characters. Nothing but the rather vague images conjured up by the notion of a man in a kilt."

Outlander - and you probably know someone, somewhere, who has read at least one - follows Claire Randall, a married WWII nurse.

Shortly after the war ends and Claire is happily reunited with her doting husband, Frank, she is inexplicably sucked back in time to 1743 Scotland. Here she is confronted by civil war and the temptation that is comely Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser.

How exactly Claire manages to time-travel isn't the focus of Outlander. (While holidaying in Scotland with Frank she touches a rock some locals have pranced around the evening prior, which seems to do the trick.)

Time travel - or, rather, 18th century Scotland - is simply the vehicle that drives the tension at the heart of the story: Claire's love for both men.

Which is, putting aside the rock-as-tardis mechanism for a second, actually quite convincing. That is because both men are very handsome and sweet, and the camera pans slowly and often along Jamie's muscled limbs.

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Jamie is played by square-jawed Scottish actor Sam Heughan; later at the premier Gabaldon will declare in front of thousands, "You have one fine arse, my friend!"

It's fair to say sex drives Outlander's narrative. The storyline dances impatiently in the gaps between scenes of lust - consummated or otherwise.

"There's sex scenes in the book, and there's nudity in the book, and it's there for a purpose, and it's something organic to the tale, so we'll play it," says the show's slightly grumpy creator, Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek).

This, plus the fact Outlander is a fantasy, means the show has drawn countless comparisons to popular TV show Game of Thrones. ("It's a different... They have a different thing," says Moore. "Theirs is a little more glossy.")

It's also being hailed as a feminist television triumph. Critics have been more or less united in their applause since its launch in the US last month, and the internet is already brimming with talk of Claire Randall - played by Irish actress Caitriona Balfe - as the multi-faceted, sexually voracious female character that's tended to elude the fantasy genre thus far. (Though only the mutest sap could emerge as anything but feminist, plonked into patriarchal 1700s Scotland.)

For her part, Gabaldon has said she "doesn't like stupid women, so why would I write about one?"

Whether or not that makes the author a feminist, or Outlander a feminist response to the likes of Game of Thrones, is up for debate - and a quick Google will immerse you in plenty of it. One thing that is certain, however, is the conflict Gabaldon feels around the idea that Outlander is a 'romance' - and indeed around the romance genre as a whole.

"You know, certain people are going to perceive it like a 'woman's story'," she says.

"Sony, for instance, with their pastel art - they tried to use that for the tie-in cover of Outlander [the TV series], and I said, 'No, I'm not having that.' I've spent 20 years forcing people to take my books out of the romance section, not only because they aren't romances but because the R-word is a loaded one.

"People who read romance, of course, understand it," she adds. "They know how variable [the genre] is and appreciate it as literature and a powerful archetype and all that. People that don't read it, they assume romance is all harlequins and bodice-rippers and written by semi-literate people for completely brainless idiots...

"Consequently, I try never to let people say, 'She writes romance,' because I don't."

Romance or otherwise, on a fandom spectrum Outlander obsessives are as fixated and geographically far-flung as they come. They gather online in countless forums, Facebook pages, and generic fan venues - with the central hub a website called 'Ladies of Lallybroach' ('LOL').

Here they pick over plot twists; take polls; share jokes and facts; monitor the weather in both Scotland and Arizona; post links to every Outlander product available (including the soundtrack to Outlander, the musical - yes, there was one) and tell Outlander in-jokes using Outlander in-language.

You know you've got it really bad, I learn, when "You beg and plead your husband to just try wearing a kilt and promise him the world if he'll wear it without an undergarment."

There are regular and official Outlander 'fan retreats', too. In Seattle recently, a sold-out retreat (tickets were NZ$180) hosted by publisher Random House was billed as an "all-day celebration".

A comedy troupe "brought Jamie and Claire's story to life with the guests [sic] help during this interactive session".

Guests met Gabaldon, partook in Outlander-themed "programming" and enjoyed such perks as an autograph from Diana, "personal photo with Diana" and a "cocktail party with Diana".

Diana, Diana, Diana. Was she nervous, I ask, when she passed over her brainchild for its television baptism? She wasn't.

"I felt kind of fatalistic about it because once the deal was made it was essentially out of my hands. There was no way I could control it, and I did trust Ron - in so far as possible to use the word 'trust' with the word 'filmmaker'. Ha, ha.

"That said, there is absolutely no way of predicting what fans will want," she says.

"But I've never once in my life written anything with the expectation of pleasing a fan. I don't ever think, will they like this or not? I don't care if they like it. I will tell it the way it needs to be told, and with luck, they will accept it in that spirit."

Moore, who sits stonily before me in a kilt, is similarly dismissive.

"I've said many times that a TV show is not a democracy," he states. "We're not taking a vote. We're not seeing what the fans want and don't want, and [then] go that way. I've worked with a lot of big fan bases, Star Trek and Battlestar, significant, vociferous, heartfelt fans, and you always just try to make the best version of the show and hope they like it."

92Y theatre, New York City. A crowd of over-excited women in their forties stand impatiently in a queue, inching towards a table of Scottish crest-themed cupcakes. 

They sigh exaggerated, impatient sighs. The premiere starts in seven minutes; they should really be off to find their seats, not shuffling towards sugared coats of arms. 

"I don't know if we're going to make it," seethes a fan to her friend. She cranes her neck to glare at the front-of-queue loiterers.

Someone knocks a Perspex-encased image of Claire and Jamie to the ground. She has been working her way around the room, methodically documenting all the Perspex-encased images with her iPhone, but then excitement and elbows got in the way. Eyes roll and heads shake - there's no charity here.

Tensions are high. But only because this really, really matters, like a child's birthday party so hotly anticipated it's too much to bear in actuality.

Screams seep into the building from outside, marking the cast's red carpet arrival. 

"Outlander fans are going to crash the internet," says a giddy Outlander fan in an Outlander T-shirt, to no one in particular.

That same fan is behind me in the theatre. When Diana and co arrive on stage for their pre-show panel, I hear a choking noise above the uproarious applause and shrieks and whistles, and swivel around in alarm.

Her hands are clasped to her face, her eyes are wide as dinner plates and her chest has risen and stayed there, caught in elation and disbelief; suspended. Diana Gabaldon did that.

To watch Outlander, sign up for a 30-day Lightbox trial at lightbox.co.nz

- Sunday Magazine

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