Period Powerhouse

'Outlander' author Diana Gabaldon comes to town for a library fundraiser

The first frequently asked question on best-selling writer Diana Gabaldon's homepage is: "How is Gabaldon pronounced?" (For Anglos, "GAB-al-dohn" will do. It more or less rhymes with "cobblestone.")

The second question is: "Are you Scottish or English?" The answer is that her last name comes from her Mexican-American father, while her mother's family emigrated from England to Flagstaff (yes, Arizona) in the 1800s. So there is some English blood there. No Scottish inheritance that she knows of, though.

People ask, because the first three of her six compulsively readable Outlander novels--historical adventures starring a high-spirited 20th-century heroine and her scrumptious young hunk of an 18th-century husband--are so convincingly set in the Highlands of the 1745 Jacobite Rising that the reader naturally assumes that the Gabaldons must be an old Scottish clan.

It's a reasonable assumption. While Gabaldon's earthy, sexy, fast-moving and very violent take on the time and place is a long way from Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (a Bonnie Prince Charlie-centered romance that was the first smash best-seller), the you-are-there quality of her books is nothing short of dazzling.

But not only is Gabaldon not Scottish. She wrote Outlander while living in Scottsdale (few Scots, no dale) and had never set foot in Scotland before she sold the manuscript. (Outlander was published in 1991. Gabaldon still lives in Scottsdale with her husband and children, but refers to it as "the horizontal inferno.") A biologist, writer and editor with a doctorate in quantitative behavioral ecology, she wrote the first book in her spare time, "for practice," working up the setting and period in the library. After she sold the manuscript, she did, however, use the advance money to go see the country she'd been writing about.

"It was (luckily!) just as I'd been imagining it," Gabaldon says on her Web site.

Next Thursday, Oct. 26, Gabaldon will be at the Jewish Community Center to give a talk, answer questions and sign books at the Circle of Book Clubs' major fundraiser of the year. The afternoon event will also feature a silent auction of book-related paraphernalia and art objects from local artists and craftspeople, and proceeds will go to the Tucson-Pima Library Foundation, which supports programs at local libraries. Refreshments will be served.

"It's going to be huge," says Circle of Book Clubs committee member Judy Ranzer. "It's a big room, and we think Diana will fill it."

The 2-year-old foundation has done nicely in Tucson's competitive fundraising environment by appealing to readers, largely through the area's previously uncharted book clubs.

"The foundation started out by sending a meeting notice to every book club anyone knew about. We asked each one to send somebody. We planned for 30 and thought that was probably optimistic. More than 70 people showed up," Ranzer says.

The circle raises money for the library system with events of interest to book people. Last year, they had three "salons" with local writers. They'll be doing more of these intimate events after the first of the year.

"The salons did very well. But we got to thinking about what we might do for a big event, and the librarians in the group said, 'Well, why not get someone whose books are always checked out?' Diana Gabaldon's name came up, and then we found out she was an Arizonan. We e-mailed her, and she got back to us the same day to say she'd be delighted."

Ranzer, who says her only vices are books and shoes, belongs to a "very serious" book group, but has now read three of the six Outlander books. Her husband has read them all.

Gabaldon's racy, meticulously researched novels, which have evolved to include a series of mysteries starring one of her most appealing characters, lovelorn gay English army officer Lord John Grey, celebrate and reinterpret the historical action-romance in surprising and satisfying ways. As many readers have noticed, her heroine, Claire, smashes the romance's helpless-ninny mold--she's a highly competent World War II army nurse who's whirled back to an earlier age while on vacation in the Highlands. Adapting with gusto to 18th-century life, she repeatedly rescues and patches up her perpetually imperiled second husband (she left another, less-interesting one behind in the 20th century, without much apparent regret), thereby reversing the classic gender roles of the romance.

In fact, it's unfair to stick Gabaldon with the genre-writer label. Like Anne Rice or Scott Turow, she's a born storyteller who's happiest exploiting genre conventions in sophisticated and original ways. And she's doing rather well at it. To date, Gabaldon's books have sold more than 5 million copies in the United States alone.

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