Even quite a few avid readers of Diana Gabaldon’s works will agree that The Fiery Cross is a long book. Some might even say it contains the longest day ever… Most say it was difficult to read because of that. In this interview from January Magazine, all the way back in 2002, Diana explains how The Fiery Cross was published without her getting the chance to hone the finishing touches which would possibly have made the book 30,000 or 40,000 words shorter.
“When last we spoke, you were working on a contemporary mystery.
Oh, I still am. Or I have been, I should say. But I had to put it aside for the last six months in order to finish Fiery Cross because people were breathing down my neck for it. But I do still have chunks of the first mystery, too.
Well, they were so eager to have it that they announced a publication date before I’d finished writing it. Which is not unheard of, but very aggravating. Another reason for the length, frankly, is that I finished writing it in August and normally for a book of that size and complexity the production period — the editing, copyediting, proofreading, galleys — would take eight months to a year. And it went to the bindery in early October: that’s five weeks. And, in fact, they did not copyedit the last three sections at all.
Have you noticed this?
Well, I knew this. They told me. They said: Well, we’re typesetting it directly from the e-mailed files you sent the editor. I was thinking: Well, that’s hair-raising, but I’ll have a chance with the galleys. Because that’s the last chance you have to correct things. Normally, ideally, if you finish a book you would be able to put it aside for a few months, let your mind clear, separate from the book. Then you could go back and look at it clearly. At this point it becomes very obvious what you can do without: you can snip pieces and tweak here and condense this scene and generally tighten and prune and all that. I never ever give them a book until I’m sure it’s complete and it’s done and all that. But at the same time you can go back and do this tweaking and so forth. And, frankly, I would like the chance to prune 30 or 40,000 words here. [Laughs] Which I didn’t get.
So it was intended to be a more slender book?
Well, not exactly. When I say “prune” I don’t mean take out chunks or remove scenes, even, but it’s what I call slash and burn. Where you go through it and say: Well, do I really need this phrase? Do I really need this sentence? Yes, I really need this sentence, but it has three too many words and you cut it down a little bit.
30,000 words is almost a whole book.
Well, Fiery Cross is 500,000 words so 30,000 words is not that big a proportion of it.
Compare that to your last novel.
Drums of Autumn was about 425,000, so [Fiery Cross] is not that much bigger.
Drums of Autumn is only an average novel length shorter.
[Laughs] Well, a small little one, maybe. But, as I said, I was thinking: This is horrible, but I will make sure to hang on to the galleys until I’m sure I’ve done everything I want to to them. And they called up and said: Well, we’re sending you the galleys, they should arrive next Tuesday, you have three days. And I said: What do you mean, I have three days? This is a 500,000 word book I couldn’t just read it for fun in three days, let alone do the galleys. And they said: We’re bound and determined to have it for Christmas, it’s going to press on the fourth day, whether you’ve sent the galleys back or not.
I hastily printed off the last three sections, which I knew they’d set from my files. And I proofread those as though they were galleys: made marks and corrections. When the galleys arrived, I gave those sheets to my husband and he and his secretary nobly spent three days transferring my markings to the galleys while I read like mad through the first six sections. As it is, I still have a list of typographical errors and errata as long as your arm, which I’ll be posting on my Web site as soon as I get home.
Will they be corrected in the next edition?
They most certainly will! [Laughs] And they definitely will fix it for the paperback. I just need to go through them once more and make sure the corrections are all correct.”
You do a lot of handsell on your books.
Well, I always have. From the beginning. Because they’re such weird books. You honestly can not describe them to anyone. And so the only way they can be sold is by having people read them and recommend them to their friends. To do that you have to get them to read it in the first place.
Ever since Outlander was published I’ve been going in to bookstores and talking to the staff and saying: Oh, I see you have a copy of my book on your shelf, would you mind if I signed it? And they say: Oh, that’s fine. And you sign it, and you chat with them and they say: Oh, what sort of book is it? And that gives you the chance to tell them a little bit about the story and so on. Because telling people the story is really the only way I’ve found of describing the books. You start out saying: Well, in 1946 a British ex-combat nurse, and so forth. And by the time you get to her joining up with the Scots to get away from Black Jack Randall they’re sort of hooked and they’ll say: Well, that sounds interesting. And at that point they’ll pick it up themselves.
It’s difficult for people to fit your books into a genre.
None of [the books] do. [Laughs] And they get weirder and weirder, I’m afraid.
It must be difficult, because the industry likes to slot things into genres.
That’s how the publishing industry works: entirely by labels. It’s very difficult to market a cross-genre book at all. In fact, a bookseller of my acquaintance was telling me that when Fiery Cross came out and started hitting the bestseller lists: You shouldn’t even be published, by rights, let alone be on the bestseller lists, because it doesn’t work that way. It’s very difficult to sell a book that cannot be slotted. Especially a book by someone no one has ever heard of. You can just barely get away with it if you already have a reputation.
Would you recommend readers start with your previous books?
Well, they don’t absolutely have to. I’ve been talking to journalists and a great many of them have not read my books before [The Fiery Cross] hit their desks, yet they read it and enjoyed it. I would certainly recommend starting from the beginning [Laughs]. But when you hit this book, the story was so long and complex already that I really didn’t spend as much time picking up all the threads of the backstory as I did in the preceding four books. [I felt that] the books are visible enough by now that most people would realize this isn’t the first one. And we did say inside the front cover that this is part of the series and these are the other four books and that should be enough warning. We do have some of the backstory involved in it and it seems to be enough because evidently these people have been reading it and enjoying it.
The cover of The Fiery Cross is very elegant. Understated. And quite different, I think, than previous covers.
This is part of the U.S. publisher’s plan — actually, it’s my plan but they’ve agreed with me — to move the books much closer to the mainstream fiction side of things. I don’t know if I told you in the preceding interview, but when we published Outlander they sat on it for 18 months because they could not figure out how to market it. They said: We’re going to put this out, it’s going to fall flat on its face because no one will know what kind of book it is. So they thought and thought and came close to canceling the contract and giving me back the book.
Eventually my agent called and said: Well, they’ve decided what to do with your book. The hardcover is not a problem: it just goes with all the other hardcover fiction. But they’ve decided to sell your paperback as a romance. And I said: As what? [Laughs] Because, I really like well written historical romance, but that wasn’t what I wrote. And I said: Well, I’ve got two major objections to this. You will destroy any claim I may eventually have to literary respectability if you do this. I will never be reviewed by The New York Times. And I said: This is not terribly serious because who knows if I would have literary respectability anyway and if The New York Times reviewed it, they may not like it so I don’t care that much [Laughs]. I said: More importantly, though, you’re going to cut off the entire male half of my audience. I was not writing women’s fiction. There’s stuff in these books that appeals specifically to men and some of it, in fact, women don’t even see. I want them to have a chance at that. In fact, [The Fiery Cross] seems to be more of a man’s book, perhaps, than any of the preceding ones. People pick up very strongly on the relationship between Jamie and Roger and the whole responsibility thing and they seem to identify with it. All of the men’s responses that I’ve had to it — and I’ve had a lot more than previously — have all been very enthusiastic.
So anyway, he said: They want to publish it as a romance. And I said: I have objections. And he said: Well, I understand. We could publish it as fantasy or science fiction because of the other weird elements, he said, but bear in mind that a bestseller in SFF is 50,000 copies in paperback, a bestseller in romance is 500,000. I said: Well, you’ve got a point. [Laughs] Because, as I say, I’ve got a lot of faith in the books themselves.
The next two books in the series will also be based in the United States?
Yeah, for the most part. Except that we are dealing with the American Revolution which actually was a war between two countries so in fact we probably will have a substantial segment that takes place in England and Scotland. Because if I get them as far as England I can’t see how they wouldn’t go to Scotland. So, at the moment, I’m intending there to be a piece in England and Scotland. I can sort of see [it], though I haven’t written any of it as yet. We’ll kind of see how that goes. That’s why I’m saying there are at least two books, because this war spanned 11, 12 years and it’s politically complex and then of course we have a lot of rather major characters here to deal with.
With Fiery Cross you are five books into the series. Yet you still seem to have so much passion for these people and their story.
Well, you know, if I lost interest I would stop writing. Or write something else. And, in fact, people often say: Well, don’t you feel like writing something else? The implication being: Aren’t you getting tired of these same old people? And I probably would be if they were the same, but they’re not. They evolve through the books. The become different people. They’re older, their life situation changes, they’re in a different place, they have children and grandchildren and everything. And, you know, as you get older and you get grandchildren and they have relationships, they’re still a part of your life and your relationship and so consequently your life has changed just by their existence. Let alone if they live near you or interact with you. I have to re-imagine the circumstances and the people and who they interact with each book. So in some ways that’s much more challenging than doing it for characters that you’ve never dealt with before. Because they do have all of this history and backstory that you need to [include].”
Thank you January Magazine.