It Appears I’ve Gone Soft: Reflections on an Evening with Diana Gabaldon (by Bethany)


Last night, after a quick picnic dinner on the most beautiful community college campus I’ve ever seen, my friend Kate and I went to hear Diana Gabaldon speak about her writing. I’m not especially proud that I read Diana Gabaldon, and there was a time when I would never have admitted on the internet that I do any such thing, but whatever. One of my favorite things about this blog is the fact that both Jill and I are fairly eclectic readers. On any given day you can find us reviewing Anna Karenina or Dead Until Dark, A Breath of Snow and Ashes or The Portrait of a Lady. So yes – I read Diana Gabaldon. I roll my eyes at some of her excesses, but mostly I’m happy to ride along. Her novels are like long drives on rutted dirt roads in pickup trucks without shocks with a tough, wise older woman at the wheel and a half dozen drunk teenage boys in the back, passing a whiskey bottle and a bucket of fried chicken back and forth, occasionally firing a shotgun at the sky.

One of the take-homes from the evening for me was that my vision is deteriorating, fast. Kate and I sat a few rows from the back in a medium-sized theatre, and Gabaldon was mostly a blur. I was a little alarmed by it, to be honest – and yes, an optometrist visit is in my near future, I think. But even as a blur, Gabaldon is a sleek, confident woman who could pass for half of her 62 years. She eschewed the podium and stood center stage. At times her voice was hard to hear (is my hearing going now too? Crap!), and there were a few microphone issues early on. There is a touch of the nerd about her; topics covered over the course of the evening included Doctor Who, Gabaldon’s mid-eighties participation in various Compuserve discussion forums, and the fact that at one time Gabaldon’s job was to sort through a storage room full of data about the contents of bird stomachs. At the same time, the evening was plenty raunchy. She asked if any men in the audience were wearing kilts, and one was. She had him stand up and wave. Then she announced that the reason men in kilts are alluring is the idea that “you could be up against a wall with them in half a second.”

Embarrassed kilted man aside, the audience consisted mostly of women, and Kate and I were on the young side. The room was full of crocheted shawls and long denim skirts and reading glasses on little chains and quilted handbags and grey hair of every conceivable length. When Diana Gabaldon stepped on stage and the crowd leaped to its feet, Kate whispered, “This is like Twilight for older women!” My own thought was that – the few awkward-looking men aside – this was the exact crowd that would have attended one of those getting-to-know-your-clitoris parties that women used to throw in the seventies, the exact crowd one finds in the waiting area of a mammography clinic. Most of the audience members were likely mothers and grandmothers, but when a baby being held by an awkward man in the back row began to cry loudly, heads swung ferociously around, poised not to smile sympathetically but to KILL, and I thought of the final episode of M*A*S*H, when Hawkeye witnesses a woman on a bus suffocate her own crying baby under the pressure of the other passengers on the bus, who are trying to remain silent under threat of attack.

But don’t worry. The baby didn’t die. Everything was fine. Gabaldon was as charming and surprising as her novels, with occasional forays into a certain tough arrogance – at one point, when an audience member asked her whether her editor helped her with a draft, Gabaldon replied, “I don’t write drafts. I was a professional writer for fifteen years before I wrote my first novels. I write polished work or I don’t write at all.” I was a little stunned by this comment, since my education focused so much on the sacredness of process – of the discovery draft, the process of getting feedback from other writers, followed by months or years of rearrangement and experiments in point of view, by letting manuscripts sit until I can view it with an objective eye, and so forth. At first I thought her response was a little obnoxious, but then I realized that on some level I agree with her. I can revise my writing – this skill, along with a whizzbang collection of friends, is probably the most important end result of my MFA in fiction writing – but one some level I feel the way Gabaldon does. If a story or novel doesn’t work, I can revise it (and my training has taught me that I should), but on some level I always want to chuck it and start over with a new idea.

In Gabaldon’s novels (some of which you can read about here, here, here, and here), the protagonist ages twenty years between the second and third novels, and at times I’ve had trouble finding the older Claire Fraser plausible. For me, the problems occur in the action/adventure scenes in the novel, in particular the many shipwrecks. There is one scene in Voyager in which Claire and Jamie are being chased around a sinking ship by a band of marauding pirates or some such, and at some point Claire (who is close to fifty at this point) shimmies up the ship’s mast and takes refuge there for only a moment until the ship rocks to the side and the mast with Claire on it smashes down into the ocean, and Claire swims for a while and maybe rescues someone – I don’t remember all the details. Are there women in their late forties who could do this? Sure – but these women are likely athletes or people who make their living doing physical labor. Claire spent her ‘30’s and ‘40’s in 20th-century Boston, working long hours as a doctor, raising a child, and living in a passionless marriage. There are other moments like these in the novels, and they’ve annoyed me. At one point last night, an audience member asked Gabaldon if she thinks Claire and Jamie’s vibrant post-fifty sex life (which, in my defense, never bothered me much – it was the shipwrecks and mast-climbing and similar scenes that I question, not the sex) is plausible, and Gabaldon happily announced, “I’m 62, and I recently announced to my husband that I intend to continue having sex for a long, long time, and so does he if he knows what’s good for him.”

I’m known for being hard on women – in literature and in life – and I accept that charge. It’s true. Women frustrate me. But it occurs to me that the event I attended last night could easily have been titled “A Celebration of the Female Life Span,” or something similar, and I wouldn’t have gone within a mile of the place. But that’s what it was, when you think about it, and what really drove the point in was this: When Kate and I became friends in 1997, she had a one year-old. Last week, that one year-old graduated from high school. While we ate dinner before the presentation, we talked about his graduation, about all the drama and struggle involved in being the parent of a young adult. Then I told Kate what was up with me, about the fellowship and Ph.D programs I plan to apply for this fall, and then I said, “And if I get in, I’m going to celebrate by getting pregnant.” This was not an impulsive statement – it’s been part of my plan for a while – but it was the first time I’ve said it out loud, and the combination of my own plans, of Kate’s son’s graduation, and the Steinemfest nature of Gabaldon’s audience struck me as almost beautiful – the way women’s life spans have stretched and expanded over the last fifty years as if made of silly putty, and everything that comes with these changes: freedom of choice and uncertainty and anxiety and the long nights and days spent wondering if we are doing things the right way. Because Gabaldon’s novels place the same woman in two different centuries, and because ultimately Claire manages to gracefully embrace the realities of a woman’s role in both centuries, these novels may be first and foremost about what it means to embrace both the freedom of choice and the received wisdom of tradition and authority. These novels are not literary art by any means, but they matter.

When Gabaldon’s talk ended, it was about 8:45 pm. It was still mostly light out, and I remembered that the summer solstice is just a little over a week away. The campus was tranquil – students gone home, offices shut up, silent except for the hum of sprinklers. Kate and I hugged, said goodbye, made some tentative plans to get together again soon, and headed in opposite directions to our cars. I tucked my car key in my right hand, its etched end protruding between my first and second fingers, the way you do when you’re a woman and you’re walking in a deserted place, and drove home through the eerie and unexpected light.

This entry was posted in Author Talks and Readings, Authors, Book-related personal narratives, Diana Gabaldon, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to It Appears I’ve Gone Soft: Reflections on an Evening with Diana Gabaldon (by Bethany)

  1. Patricia Deany says:

    wonderful review and reflections. These books are a huge guilty pleasure for me and I alternate between laughing my face off and actually experiencing intense pain and anguish for the characters. I think I am going crazy with the reading of them. And Gabaldon — she alternates between brilliance and absolute weirdness. Where does she get all these characters? From whence come these insane vignettes and frenzied plots? The inside of her head must be a frantic crazy place. Well, it is a crazy frantic place, we would all know because these books are testament to it. Anyway, great review and perceptive comments about why all of us old ladies are drawn to these strange books. They are a combination of bodice ripper,romance, soft porn and picaresque — and dozens of other genre– and they are really quite a trip,, in fact sometimes I feel as if I am tripping just reading them.

    • bedstrom says:

      Yes to just about everything you’ve said here – Gabaldon’s world is so rich and weird. I also find them infuriatingly boring at times too – almost all of The Fiery Cross, most of Echo in the Bone, etc. She has a Ph.D in zoology with a specialty in studying the precise nature of the places where birds choose to build their nests – so I suppose she just developed a habit for looking at the world in great detail. Thanks for reading!

  2. Jacy says:

    New to your site but enjoying your candid insights/opinions on Gabaldon’s books, and your other reviews. Was glad to know that you had a bit of change of heart on your views of women from attending the her presentation; recognizing that while many of the female gender can be boxed in by social conventions and expectations (even today in the 21st century), we also, I believe, are the stronger gender and have an incredible range of abilities.

    I’m muddling through The Fiery Cross now and could barely escape my urge to skim over much of the parts about The Gathering (shivering misery), and other sections where Diana goes a bit off the deep end with excruciating detail. Her ability to write so intricately on so many topics down to the tiniest nuances seem to embody what is both the best and, the worst, of D.G.’s writing skills.

    Finally, thank you for your comments about Claire and her unnatural ability to avoid aging! I worked for many years as a leader in women’s wellness; fitness, nutrition, athletic training, physical rehab, eating disorders, and body image. (Wrote columns and articles and spoke on these topics as well). And, as an avid reader and, someone who truly understands the physical abilities of a woman’s body, and how age, stress, bad food, air, and water (to name a few) can greatly reduce the strengths of our youth; I too, find Claire’s long term youthful assets a difficult pill to swallow. It also bothers me that such a large number of her fans just spoon this stuff in – no questions asked.

    I agree that Diana looks great for her age but from working with many female clients of all ages over 25 years, (as well as a dozen or more plastic surgeons as my clients), I have to say that at 60 something, she has an unnaturally youthful face. Typically someone who looks much younger than their age (naturally) will not only have good genes but exercise and eat healthy on a regular basis. In all of the interviews I’ve seen, and photos of Diana, she does not have that fit, toned body so I would suspect a partial facelift, some facial fillers, and perhaps even a chin implant. Either way, she DOES look great for her age but Claire (being born in 1918) would not have had access to ‘procedures,’ nor did she ever seem to exercise during those 20 years working as a doctor in the 20th Century. Add the stress that traveling through the stones puts on a person, the stress of being a military field nurse in numerous battles/wars (both past and present), and the simple hardships of enduring the elements without electricity and running (purified) water; by any realistic standards Claire in her late 50’s and early 60’s would not have the youthful appearance that D.G. has. Yet, men in the late 1700’s were STILL spellbound by her beauty, when more likely they would have viewed her as an old woman.

    It’s late and I was already bleary eyed from writing the past 3 hours and, doing online work so forgive the rambling of this “Rain Woman” – as my husband affectionately, humorously, and accurately, refers to me at times! I DO need and greatly rely on editors, copy editors, copy proofers, etc., But I will add one more thought; that the age defying ability seems to occur with Jamie as well. Even with the best Nordic genes; having been flogged just short of death (twice), raped and hideously tortured, then living in the cold and damp outdoors (cave), and 7 more years in a prison being malnourished and again, exposed to damp cold, mold, “wee beasties,” etc., and, the many injuries and life threatening wounds would see this once exquisite warrior somewhat bent over from inflammation and joint stiffness alone by the time he turns 50.

    But then, creating characters who are virtually super human is one of the luxuries of writing (and I suppose reading) fiction.

    Thanks again for your candid and interesting reviews and this blog!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s