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Diana Gabaldon and Outlander: The Graphic Novel

Mixing fantasy, romance, and historical fiction effortlessly, Diana Gabaldon has created a worldwide phenomenon with her bestselling Outlander prose series. With the recent release of the Outlander graphic novel The Exile, Gabaldon has released her work to a whole new audience…and, perhaps even more notably, she has introduced a huge audience to a graphic-novel market they have never encountered before. The author took time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.

What made you want to adapt the Outlander series as a graphic novel?
Oh, I didn’t set out to. I used to write comics scripts for Walt Disney in the late ’70s and enjoyed the form. So when graphic novels started becoming visible on the publishing scene, I told my literary agent that IF the opportunity should ever arise, I’d love to do a graphic novel. A month later, the opportunity arose, and I grabbed it.
How did you find artist Hoang Nguyen?
I spent an afternoon in New York with Betsy Mitchell (the Del Rey editor who asked me to do this graphic novel) and her graphic-novel editorial unit, going through tons of comics and graphic novels, all discussing the various merits and drawbacks of the various artists. We came up with a rough consensus on what we all liked in terms of the project’s known attributes (i.e., it was a historical novel, had a major female character, had a lot of action scenes, had a complex plotline—hence, needed someone with an eye for fine detail, competence in historical costume, draws women well, does good action/fight scenes, etc.), and…I went home. A week later, they sent me samples of work from 10 artists who a) met our joint criteria, and b) were more or less available for a two-year commitment. (There are 888 separate panels in The Exile, and each one is a fully detailed painting. This takes time.)
I chose Hoang from this sampling, both because he does amazing things with color and light, and because he has a particularly fine and expressive touch with faces.
Did you and Hoang work together to develop the correct looks of the characters? And did you enjoy the collaboration process?
Yes, of course; how else? And yes, I did enjoy the collaboration very much. We began with my supplying Hoang with detailed capsule descriptions of the main characters, from which he produced trial pictures, I gave him feedback (“longer, pointier nose, and not so thick in the neck”—“hair good, but should be much curlier,” etc.), he produced revised sketches, and so on.
Still, as I point out in the book’s afterword, collaboration stops a long way short of telepathy. [Laughs] Also, this is a graphic novel, not a photograph album. The depictions of the characters are great—but they naturally aren’t exactly what’s inside my head. They’re not meant to be accurate figurations; they’re approximations appropriate to the form. (And as I also note, if the readers could see these characters exactly as they appear inside my head, every single one of them would exclaim, “But that’s not what they look like!” )
You’ve had major success with the Outlander series in prose…did you worry about “altering” it in any way by transforming it into this new format?
No. If I worried about what people would think of anything I wrote, I’d never write a decent book. I wrote Outlander for practice, never intending to show it to anyone. Things happened [laughs], and here we are 20 years later*…my, how time flies…but the point is, that book is unique and interesting because I wrote it entirely to please myself, with no thought of what anyone might think of it, whether anyone would like it, etc.
That worked, and consequently, I’ve just kept on doing it. Betsy said to me, “I don’t want just an adaptation of Outlander in graphic form; I want a new Jamie and Claire story, but set within the parameters of Outlander. I thought that would be challenging and fun, so I figured out how to do that.
As for altering the original…well, same reply as to people who crab about a movie of a beloved book “ruining the book.” The book’s right there on the shelf, folks. If you feel that your own imagination can’t deal with two versions of reality, then I reckon you should not go see the movie (or read the graphic novel, or watch the miniseries, or listen to the musical soundtrack**)—because I will guarantee you that whether it’s a great movie or a lousy one, what you see on the screen (or the illustrated page) will NOT be exactly the way it is in the book. It can’t be, nor should it be. Different media have their own requirements for adaptation, their own advantages and drawbacks, and I think people with reasonably flexible minds should be able to enjoy the former, dismiss the latter, and be enriched by the story in all its varieties.
The Exile fills in several blanks in the Outlander series. What are some of the surprises faithful readers will find inside?
Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, now, would it? [Laughs]
But without giving too much away, I can tell you that the original Outlander is called that because it’s told from the point of view of Claire Randall, who is an outlander: an Englishwoman where no Englishwomen ever went, from a time 200 years away, ignorant of language, customs, history—and consequently, she doesn’t see a great many things, doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on around her, and is deliberately kept ignorant of others. So (I said to myself), why not tell that story from the point of view of someone who knew everything Claire didn’t know?
So you’ll see—for instance—what happened to Claire’s underwear [laughs], what happened back at the castle during the witch trial, what was said between the Scots after they rescued her from Fort William, why Jamie acquiesced to his uncle’s plot, who the second time traveler is, and what happened during the Duke’s boar hunt.
Do you plan to do more graphic novels?
If this one sells, sure. [Laughs] So far, so good; it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list since it came out—with three weeks at #1.
What makes you a fan of the format?
Well, as a writer, there are things you can do in this form that you can’t do—or can’t do as easily—in a text novel. Viewpoint is one of those; to change viewpoint in a text novel is a delicate business, and unless you’re really good at handling an omniscient point of view (personally, I can’t do it at all), you’re very limited in how many characters you can effectively give a viewpoint to.
In a graphic novel, by contrast, there’s nothing simpler than changing viewpoint, and you can give a viewpoint to anybody, anytime—because whoever has a speech balloon has a viewpoint, and you can have several of them in one panel (as well as having speech and thought occur simultaneously for several people).
As a reader…hey, I grew up reading comics. Read Walt Disney, Marvel, DC, Archie, Illustrated Classics—and loved them all. I’m a very eclectic reader; will read anything, and enjoy a huge variety of stories, without regard to genre, form, or external badge of merit (as in, I don’t think a book that’s won a Booker prize is necessarily better than one that hasn’t—and I don’t say that merely because I don’t think I’ll ever win one [laughs]). I prefer graphic novels in which the art takes an active hand in the story, rather than the sort where you have stick figures standing still, surrounded by enormous blocks of text. Mind, the dialogue in a graphic novel is important (or should be; I’ve seen beautiful books with really insipid dialogue, and don’t like that, either), but the images should primarily be carrying the story.
Harking back to the question of collaboration—Hoang told me later (when we met for the first time, at the launch party for The Exile) that most of the graphic novelists he works with supply him with a synopsis of their story and leave it to him to select and lay out the images. Having come from a Disney background, that never occurred to me; I gave him a detailed script, in which I’d laid out the pages, specified panel size and orientation, and described the images I wanted in detail, with dialogue beneath. Now, wherever possible, I did leave him leeway—I’d put something like, “Here we have half a page in which Angus Mhor beats the crap out of Jamie—go for it!”—and when I did, Hoang did wonderful things.)
By releasing this book, you’ll be bringing in many people who have never read a graphic novel. And in many ways, The Exile makes for an ideal entry into comics for fans of yours. How do you think they’ll enjoy this format?
Well—going on what I know about the readers in general—about 40 percent of them will love it, read it multiple times, give it to their friends, etc.. Another 40 percent will enjoy it and may pick up another graphic novel sometime. The remaining 20 percent won’t understand it (from what I hear about online comments on Amazon, quite a few had never heard the term “graphic novel,” had no idea what it was, and were grossly offended that it was “a comic book!”) and won’t like it—but will have a wonderful time going online and griping about it. Something for everyone!
* Diana says, "Random House tells me they’re intending to publish a special Twentieth Anniversary edition of Outlander next summer (2011) to commemorate the book’s having stayed in print—in hardcover—since its original publication in 1991."
** There actually is a CD of Outlander: The Musical.

-- John Hogan