Science, Fiction

Historical romance novelist finds mystery in biology and literature, too.

The muse finally touched Gabaldon through the television. "I began casting around looking for a time and a place to set this book," she says, "and while doing this, I happened to see a Dr. Who rerun on public television, and it was one of the really old ones with Patrick Troughton, in which he had picked up an earthling companion, a young Scotsman, a 17-, 18-year-old kid who appeared in his kilt. So I was sitting in church the next day, still thinking about this, and I thought, 'You want to write a book. It doesn't matter where you set it. The important thing is to pick a place and get started.' So I said, 'Fine, Scotland, 18th century.' So I went out, after Mass, dug a piece of paper out from under the front seat of my car, and that's where I began to write . . . with no plot, no characters, just a time and a place and this vague image of a Scotsman in kilts."

The result was 1991's Outlander, in which a WWII-era English nurse somehow goes back in time, inadvertently, to 18th-century Scotland. There she gets caught up in the Jacobite rebellions and also finds love. Gabaldon shared a passage of this "practice" work, describing pregnancy, with online acquaintances on a writer's forum, who liked it, asked for more, and eventually put her in touch with an agent. Her cult of fans has been clamoring for more ever since. She's close to completing the fifth novel in the series, called The Fiery Cross, and is also at work on her first attempt at a contemporary mystery.

I ask Gabaldon if she has any trouble reconciling her scientific background with the fanciful, metaphysical interests she displays in her yarns. "Not at all," she says. "No, I've always wondered at people who do. It seems rather limiting to the notion of God. Science has its very well-mapped territory, and it has excellent tools for certain kinds of questions, but other kinds of questions simply can't be answered in a scientific context. . . . I'm a practicing Roman Catholic; it comes with the territory . . . Catholicism is a religion which is predicated on the notion of mystery."

I've kept her talking too long; half of her turkey sandwich is still sitting on her plate. She asks for a box to take it home. I don't need one. Stories of bird-purgings notwithstanding, my plate is clean.

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