Monday, April 13, 2015

Susanna Kearsley and Diana Gabaldon at The Poisoned Pen!

If I had to catch a gut-wrenching virus, at least I'd done it and had time to recuperate fully before going to The Poisoned Pen. I hate even the slightest possibility of spreading such nasty germs. It did seem rather strange to be going without Denis, but I was glad he was at work. Historical fiction really isn't the man's style!

Knowing that bookstore owner Barbara Peters was off traveling the world and that Diana Gabaldon was the evening's "celebrity pinch hitter" interviewing Susanna Kearsley, I made certain to get to my favorite bookstore in plenty of time to reserve my seat... and to do a little browse-buy.

The chairs hadn't been put up yet, so I sat at the back to read a bit. i was soon joined by another woman who wanted to reserve a seat before going to a nearby restaurant. The usually well-oiled machine of The Poisoned Pen experienced a slight hitch, and the other woman and I helped the staff get plenty of seats out. Neither of us minded a bit because we had an absolutely wonderful time talking books and Scotland. (Such a wonderful time in fact that we neglected to ask each other's name!)

"What if...?"

L to R: Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley

The bookstore quickly filled with chattering, excited women (and a few men). One couple had come down from Utah especially for the event, and another was from Nova Scotia. We were all a bit stunned when Susanna limped in on crutches, one foot firmly shielded in a protective boot. Never once saying what put her on the disabled list, Kearsley just smiled and said that a "skydiving accident" was tops on the list of guesses.

Diana said she was the choice to fill in for Barbara because "Not only are Susanna and I friends, I also like her books, and her latest book is about the Scottish Jacobites." This raised such a cheer in the room that I think Scotland would've gained its independence if we'd all been allowed to vote last year.

"This book deals with the first unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion," Diana went on to say, "and there's a tall, mysterious Highlander in it, too! There's also a contemporary story that winds in and out of the historical story, and Susanna will tell us a bit about what joins the two."

Susanna Kearsley
"My books aren't written as any sort of series," Susanna said, "but they all inhabit this world I've created, and sometimes you'll see the same characters appear. As part of my research for The Firebird-- the book before A Desperate Fortune-- I was reading a letter book that had originally belonged to Admiral Thomas Gordon, and I came across an old numerical Jacobite cypher. Since it contained drafts of his letters, I could see how he changed the wording in some letters and how he decoded the various letters he received from King James and King James' secretary. 

"I like code-breaking and cypher stories anyway, so I thought I'd like to include some sort of code in this book. Usually I use a light paranormal thread to bind the past and the present together in my books, but this time I wondered... what if there's a journal that needs to be decoded? So this time we have Sara who is deciphering the journal and Mary, the person who wrote it."

Serendipity & Spanking

Diana has long been a fan of Susanna's detailed research-- like the cypher in A Desperate Fortune-- but many times, she's attracted by the objects that Kearsley adds to her stories. Sometimes these objects have a real purpose in the plot; sometimes they don't, but they always add to the verisimilitude. She pointed to the large piece of jewelry Susanna was wearing on her tartan, part of which you can see in the photo above. It is called an "equipage," a collection of articles for personal ornament. 

"It's actually meant to be worn at your waist," Susanna told us. "It would clip on your skirt. It's the earlier version of a chatelaine [a hooklike clasp or a chain for suspending keys, trinkets, scissors, a watch, etc., worn at the waist by women]. This one was made by a local jeweler when they found out about the story I was writing. It's very special to me and is a sort of good luck charm for me while I'm doing this tour."

Diana Gabaldon
After talking for a minute or two about the sort of pencils used in the eighteenth century (very similar to the mechanical pencils of today), Diana asked Kearsley about the cost of an antique chatelaine or equipage. "They cost a lot more than I can afford right now. I just give them to my characters, and I dream!"

"These objects often play a part in the plot, like the watch on Mary's equipage which falls off and breaks, leading to our mysterious Highlander who is a watchmaker's apprentice!" Gabaldon said. "This is one of those woo-woo moments for writers. It's nothing you prepared for, it's nothing you expected, it just happens. Historical serendipity. The more you learn about a time period, the more you learn how the people thought, and the more these types of things can happen.

"It always helps when you have proof in the historical record. That way, if someone tells you something couldn't possibly have happened, you can whip out your proof and tell them, 'Oh yes, it can!' You wouldn't believe how many times I've been asked about spanking in the eighteenth century!" (Slight pause to give us all time to stop laughing and compose ourselves.)

A Desperate Fortune

Available Now!
Putting her latest book in historical context with Gabaldon's bestselling series, Kearsley told us, "A Desperate Fortune takes place during Jamie Fraser's father's generation. I always told myself that I would never never never never never write a Highlander because Diana's already put her stamp on that. When Hugh my Highlander walked in, I said, 'No! He's going to be shorter. He's going to have dark hair. He's going to be a Lowlander...' all the time thinking 'I can't believe I'm writing a Highlander!'

"There's always a lot of research that never makes it into the book, but you need it to create your characters. I went looking into the watchmakers of Inverness at the time, and you can get into the guild books. You can see who was practicing, what the ages of their apprentices were, what sort of life they had, and this is how I created Hugh.

Diana then wanted to know about Sara Thomas, the character in the contemporary storyline who works to crack the code in the Jacobite journal.

"I have a few people in my life who are very close to me, and they have Asperger's," Susanna said. "Asperger's has almost become 'hip' now, but I've wanted to portray a character with this syndrome for a while now. One of the people close to me is female, and one of the things I learned in my research is that Asperger's is harder to diagnose in females because they tend to be much better mimics.

"All the Aspys in my life like The Big Bang Theory, but they don't like the fact that Sheldon Cooper is always the punchline. I wanted to portray a much more realistic picture of people with Asperger's syndrome."

"Well, Sam, you can..."

After Kearsley mentioned that she sees "a book like a film in my mind while I'm writing," Diana remarked that A Desperate Fortune is "a very deeply emotional book, but you don't realize it until you get to the end."

"I like to use real people whenever possible in my books," Susanna said, "but I'm more interested in the common people because they're the ones who really made the history. There's a quote at the end of Henry V-- and I'll probably start crying-- where Henry is brought the news of the victory at Agincourt, and he asks for the names of the dead. Three or four lords' names are given, but [catch in her voice] those aren't the names Henry wants. He wants the names of the common soldiers who fought and died.

Susanna Kearsley
"I love to be able to bring these voices back. I feel a great responsibility to these forgotten voices-- to make them right."

The only historical character Susanna feels a deep connection to is James VIII of Scotland (James III of England, Bonnie Prince Charlie's father) because she's been writing about him since he was fifteen. "I have watched him age, and I have read all his letters. He was a phenomenal man, a great soul. He has been so maligned by historians that I get very angry. When I write him, I use his own words."

It was wonderful to see how knowledgeable Kearlsey is about the history of the time and how much it matters to her. A couple of minutes later, Diana Gabaldon had her own catch-in-the-throat moment in telling us about her then fifteen-year-old son Sam who at that age read fantasy exclusively. Diana was busy at her keyboard when Sam looked up from his book and rather wistfully said, "I wish I could really do magic, Mom." Diana stopped typing, looked over at him and said, "Well, Sam, you can. It's just much harder than most people think." Wise words spoken by a woman who creates magic at her keyboard.

The Writing Life

Both writers agreed that good-bye scenes are the hardest to write. Kearlsey told us of one such scene she was writing. When her husband came home, he discovered her at her keyboard, her neck wet because she'd been crying so much. Without missing a beat, he called out to the children, "Come on, kids, we're going to McDonald's!"

Both women also tend to write in a more or less linear fashion-- from the beginning to the end-- unless "something's broken." Kearsley said, "I'm a former museum curator, so I'm used to working linearly. And music has started playing a part in my writing when it never has before. I also don't think I'm through with Hugh and Mary [two main characters in A Desperate Fortune] yet!"

Diana Gabaldon
Diana told Susanna that she's often been asked what her writing space looks like. "I don't have a writing space," Gabaldon said. "It's all inside my head. What about yours?"

"I do love organization, but my writing space looks like an episode of Hoarders," Kearsley admitted to much  sympathetic laughter in the audience.

She continued, "I also find that I need the physical things around me-- like rocks from various castles that I've written about." Looking at us all, "Don't tell Customs!"

Diana laughed and said, "If the beagles can't smell it, you can bring it in!" (Which made me wonder if beagles were going to out me in the fall when I return from Scotland with a bunch of sea shells....)

As a museum curator, Kearlsey was involved in the repatriation of many Native American artifacts, and as she spoke, I realized that I could listen to her talk about this one facet of her life for hours.

Both women are passionate about the accuracy that can be found in historical fiction. "History is not what happened. It's what was written down," Gabaldon said. Kearsley nodded in agreement, saying, "Historical fiction writers are just as careful-- if not more so-- than historians."

When asked what inspired them to write about the Jacobites, Gabaldon said that "It was a really old Dr. Who episode where the doctor picked up a young Jacobite in a kilt." When we all stopped laughing, Susanna told us that it was a true history book, Playing the Scottish Card by John S. Gibson.

As the evening drew to a reluctant close, one fan told Kearsley how much she'd enjoyed one of her books because she was completely thrown by the twists and turns of the plot. Did Kearsley always know how the story was going to turn out before she started writing?

"No, I really didn't know how that book was going to turn out," Kearsley admitted, "which horrifies my engineer father. How can you write a mystery and not know who the villain is? Oh well, you know, Dad.... I had a book once where I thought I knew the bad guy, but the dog liked him, so I knew that wasn't going to work!"

What a fantastic evening! Although I tried to include as many of the best bits that I possibly could, I didn't want to write something the size of War and Peace, so please head on over to Livestream if you'd like to watch the entire event!


  1. This sounds great, and since I'm interested in the history of Scotland, even more fascinating. They both sound like terrific women, not only writers. (And I love the equipage.)

    So glad you were up to going to this event at PP and that you even found some books to buy.

    1. It's usually harder for me NOT to find books to buy-- especially at The Poisoned Pen, Kathy!

  2. WOWOWOW sounds like an amazing event.

  3. What a great event, Cathy! And so glad you felt well enough to go. :-) - I like historical fiction and fiction that touches on history, so this definitely interests me...

    1. Same here. I could listen to these two for hours!

  4. If I lived near the PP, I'd be bankrupt soon. I'd have to hide the credit card before leaving the house at various events.

    And, by the way, I like that cover of A Desperate Fortune. It is the only cover I've seen so far that I like even though it shows the back of a woman. The beautiful scarf and hairdo with flowers call attention to the woman and make her interesting, not just an observer.

    1. I have to agree with you about the cover, Kathy, and Kearsley's book covers are usually good ones.

  5. I loved reading your recap of the evening. I have A Desperate Fortune and now really look forward to diving into the book.

    1. I'm looking forward to diving into my copy, too!


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