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Time traveller (Sunday Times)

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A 20th-century woman in Jacobite Scotland - an unlikely story? It has made American writer Diana Gabaldon rich, as Patricia Nicol reports

Ladies and lairds of Lallybroch like an untraditional Highland welcome. New visitors to the ancestral seat of Jamie and Claire Fraser of Lovat are first invited to step into the parlour and sign the castle's tartan-trimmed guest book.

Thereafter they are given a free run of the ancient fiefdom, which lies amid steep glens and precipitous mountains about 50 miles southwest of Inverness. More wanton visitors will be delighted to discover that the door to the laird's bedroom is always open. The more demure may prefer a visit to Lallybroch's portrait gallery, where Liam Neeson, Sean Bean, Alex Kingston and Andie MacDowell are painted against a Highland backdrop.

A public notice hangs on one wall of the ancient stone broch. It reads: "This Order of the Golden Thistle is hereby presented to Diana Jean Gabaldon Watkins, because in the minds and hearts of the Lairds and Ladies of Lallybroch no one can write fiction better than thee!"

Lallybroch cannot be found on any OS map. It exists in the shifting landscape of cyberspace and the imagination of cult American author Diana Gabaldon and her millions of readers. Her books featuring a 20th-century Englishwoman, who travels through time via a standing stone circle to 18th-century Scotland have become international bestsellers.

How Gabaldon, a former academic with a master's degree in marine biology and a PhD in zoology, became an author of high-octane historical adventures is a story in itself. She a literary phenomenon. Her last novel, Drums of Autumn, knocked Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton down to third place on the New Yorker bestseller list. Next up is the controversially titled The Fiery Cross. The film and television rights to all her books are optioned. At least half a dozen internet sites are dedicated to her work, including the author's own website, The Ladies (and lads) of Lallybroch. Her reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival tomorrow is moved by popular demand into a bigger venue. Ticket sales outstrip those for starrier writers whose names are linked to the Pulitzer, Booker and Saltire prizes.

Gabaldon is not, as many of her readers assume, a Scot. Her books are found in the Scottish fiction sections, but she visited Scotland for the first time only after she wrote her first novel. Her surname comes from her Galician conquistador forefathers and her blood is a strange brew of Spanish, German, English and Cherokee. The nearest claim she can make to Scottish roots is living in Scottsdale, Arizona.

She is a small, handsome woman with long, liquorice-black hair, strong, clear features and a near-permanent look of amusement playing at the corners of her mouth. She has a soft, throaty voice, a quick mind and an arid wit. Her time-travelling heroine Claire is sometimes accused of being a witch. Gabaldon watched the eclipse from Stonehenge and wears the hippyish clothes and jewellery of a lady of the Arizona canyons. She has the exotic looks of someone versed in the darker arts.

Our interview takes place in Paris during her teenage children's first holiday to Europe. She suggests we meet outside Notre Dame and volunteers to wear a red shirt. I am to carry one of her books.

"This is all very cloak and dagger, isn't it?" she crows as we go off in search of a cafe in the Latin Quarter.

Family holidays in Europe were beyond the family budget before Gabaldon began writing. At the turn of the decade she was a 36-yearold academic, married with three young children, juggling a full-time job as a research professor with a specialism in "torturing boxfish and gizzards". It was not the most obvious time in life to start a first novel. Gabaldon, motivated by an on-line literary forum she stumbled across, was a would-be author in search of characters, plot and a genre.

She found inspiration in an old repeat of Dr Who on the American Public Broadcasting Service. "It's the only show I watched regularly because it gave me just enough time to let me do my nails," she says. "In this particular series the doctor has a young Scottish lad he picked up in Scotland in 1745. Well, I thought he looked rather fetching in his kilt.

"I had no plot, no outline and no characters. All I had was a time and a place and an image of a Scot in a kilt," she says.

Gabaldon's knowledge of Scottish history was poor. The name Bonnie Prince Charlie was familiar, but as Gabaldon says: "He's hardly a major player for Americans". She knew even less about writing novels, but from her own reading felt that no novel worked without conflict.

"I resolved that the chief point of conflict in 18th-century Scotland was the Jacobite Rising, so I chose that as a backdrop. In novelistic terms it suited my purpose. I felt that three battles in six months was well within my capabilities," she says.

By the third day of writing Gabaldon was ready to introduce a heroine. She had already decided conflict was the key dynamic of any story.

"I had all these men in kilts," she says. "I thought if I introduced a woman and also made her an English woman then I'd have sexual conflict and a lot more besides. So I let this Englishwoman loose in a cottage to see what she'd do.

"But the character refused to be an 18th-century woman. I fought with her for two pages, trying to beat her into shape, but she wasn't having any of it - she just kept on making smartass comments and started narrating the story. So I figured, 'Go ahead and be modern and I'll work out how you got there later'. The time travel in the book is all Claire's fault."

The first anyone knew about Gabaldon's literary adventures came when her husband Doug Watkins was looking for something on her computer hard drive. He noticed she had more than 60 files named Jamie, the name of the Highlander inspired by Dr Who.

She came out publicly as a writer during an online argument with a male member of the literary forum about what it felt like to be pregnant. To illustrate her point she posted an extract from her novel on the website. The interest was instantaneous. Buoyed by this encouragement, she went to see New York literary agent Perry Knowlton, who secured her a three-book deal in less than a month.

Gabaldon's books do not conform to the conventions of any single literary genre. Nor do her characters or plot lines fit into the conceits of conventional romantic fiction. If Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier, HGWells and JRRTolkien were forced to co-author a book, they might come up with something resembling Gabaldon's oeuvre. Her books are not romance, historical fiction, military history, fantasy or science fiction. They contain elements of them all. Her style is sharp. It owes more to historical adventures like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books than Mills & Boon.

"Her writing isn't purple - a very pale lilac, if anything," says Andy McKillop, her Coatbridge-born British editor.

As a time traveller from the 20th century, Claire - who Gabaldon says is influenced by Dorothy L Sayer's Harriet Vane and Vera Brittain - is better educated and more opinionated than most 18thcentury men she encounters. She is a proto-feminist who nevertheless seems happy for her husband to call her sassenach as a term of endearment.

Technically she is a time-travelling bigamist, as she has left behind another, 20th-century, husband. Before her nuptials with Jamie Fraser, she brings up the subject of their relative sexual experience: "'Does it bother you that I'm not a virgin?' He hesitates a moment before answering. 'Well no,' he said slowly, 'so long as it doesna bother you that I am.' He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed towards the door. 'Reckon one of us should know what we're doing,' he said. The door closed softly behind him; clearly the courtship was over."

When the book was published in 1991 it was marketed as a romance. Gabaldon's initial resistance was worn down when her agent explained the average print run for a romantic novel was 10 times the size of a science fiction one. If the books were successful they would be repositioned to appeal to male readers too.

In America, the novel was called Outlander, but in Britain, the publishers reverted to Gabaldon's original working title, Cross Stitch.

"I hate the look of the books in Britain," she says. "They've got these terrible gawdy covers with some goggle-eyed female on the front. I wrote to the publishers and said: 'We appear to have some sort of difference of opinion regarding my literary identity. I think I'm Alexander Dumas with a time machine, you seem to think I'm Dame Barbara Cartland on the large economy side." They have now agreed to change the designs.

Saccharine romanticising of Scottish history is not Gabaldon's bent. In her second book, Dragonfly in Amber, Bonnie Prince Charlie is portrayed as a feckless drunkard. On the eve of the battle of Culloden, Claire, who knows the bloody outcome, contemplates assassinating him, but although she has proved herself a competent slayer of men, she is unable to kill in cold blood. In Gabaldon's fictional world, time travel, free will and the relentless tread of history do battle. It is a theme she returns to in the forthcoming The Fiery Cross.

To contemporary audiences, the title, with its associations with the Ku Klux Klan, could prove incendiary. Gabaldon defends its pertinence. "I'm not nervous about using the name The Fiery Cross," she says. "A friend sent me an e-mail saying, 'I can't associate that name with anything but the Ku Klux Klan. I answered, 'Well, where the hell do you think the klan got the symbol from?' The ancient Highland symbol used by the chieftains to rally the clansmen to war was later resurrected by the KKK. There were a lot of Scottish settlers to the American South after the failed Jacobite rebellion, especially around the Cape Fear river and the North Carolina highlands.

"In The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire have been given land in North Carolina, even though the governor knows Jamie is a Catholic. It is the eve of the American War of Independence. Jamie is in a moral quandary. Because his wife is a time traveller he knows who the winning side will be. But he has sworn an oath of allegiance to the crown and is responsible for the families on his land.

"A lot of the former Jacobites did fight on the loyalist side. They were doing well in America. After their disastrous routing at Culloden, they did not want to put their security into jeopardy again - and at that stage, the pro-independence lobby was very much a lunatic fringe. Jamie is walking between two fiery states. I think it's the perfect title."

A 574-page illustrated compendium companion to the books was published this year to popular demand. It has a mock-18th century preface and in America goes under the appeallingly tongue-in-cheek title of The Outlandish Companion: in Which Much is Revealed Regarding Claire and Jamie Fraser, Their Lives and Times, Antecedents, Adventures, Companions, and Progeny, with Learned Commentary (and Many Footnotes) by Their Humble Creator Diana Gabaldon.

In Britain, Gabaldon groupies have to make do with the rather more prosaic Through The Stones.

The tome is strangely compelling. It includes a synopsis of each book; background on the central characters, including horoscope readings for Claire and Jamie; research notes; details of flora and fauna; some of Gabaldon's favourite recipes such as chicken and mushroom in orange sauce, and a curry that can be made with meat, poultry or Quorn; Outlandish websites and online venues; a chapter on controversy, and an annotated bibliography.

A glossary of language and grammar translates difficult phrases in Gaelic, French, Yoruba, Latin, Mandarin, Pidgin and German used in the series. Words range from the familiar such as Hoovering (English) and sassenach, to the Swedish 'Kommer, kommer, kommer, dyr get', which means 'Come, come, come, dear goat.'

Gabaldon's Gaelic excerpts are particularly fiery. After the publication of her first novel, she received a letter from Iain Mackinnon Taylor, a civil engineer born on Harris but working in New York. After praising her work, he said her Gaelic translations were a little awry and offered his assistance. When he comes unstuck he seeks the help of his twin brother Hamish, a lay preacher on Harris. "Iain says that when it comes to cursing you need to ask a preacher," says Gabaldon.

Few other authors can be as accessible to her readers. There are something like 250 Celtic festivals and Highland games in North America each year. "I have a standing invitation to all of them," she says.

In the compendium she recalls a night out with the Ladies of Lallybroch Vancouver branch, which culminated with a stripper dressed in the style of Jamie Fraser.

She has no formal training in history, but has been widely praised for accuracy. She gleans her information from the internet and has acquired a personal reference library of Scottish fiction, historical journals, poetry anthologies and music.

"The only thing that you cannot grasp about a place without being there is the smell," she says. "In the draft of the first novel I described Loch Ness as smelling of wild berries and sun-washed stone. The Scottish writer Reay Tannahill wrote to say it actually smelled more like cool mud and dead fish..."

When Gabaldon first visited Scotland she felt an extraordinary sense of homecoming. "I was brought up in the mountains of Arizona, I feel happy in austere landscapes," she says. "I really like the Scots. They are funny in a very understated way and remarkably down-to-earth."

We lose each other at the end of the interview. One minute Gabaldon is there looking like an everyday American tourist in her bright shirt; then she is lost in the crowd. She telephones two days later to ask what happened, and says she stood patiently on the footpath outside the cafe. I am not convinced. I think she slipped into the medieval church opposite and travelled back to Paris, August 1789, when the streets of the Left Bank were awash with blood. Taller tales have, after all, made their way into print.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Nicol, Patricia (1999-08-15). Time traveller (Sunday Times). The Sunday Times .
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Time traveller (Sunday Times) | url= | work=The Sunday Times | pages= | date=1999-08-15 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 June 2024 }}</ref>
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