Science, Fiction

The dust jackets of Diana Gabaldon's novels inform us that she "holds a master's degree in Marine Biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, none of which has anything whatever to do with her books." True enough. Virile Scotsmen romancing spirited heroines, exhaustive historical detail and time-travel fantasy -- that's the stuff that Gabaldon's dreams are made of, to judge by her wildly popular fiction. But that's not the topic of our conversation. I want to know about those graduate studies, so over lunch at Jacqueline's Marketplace & Café in Scottsdale, she's telling me about evicting hermit crabs from their shells and making baby birds vomit.

Well, I did ask.

While working on her master's at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Gabaldon focused her studies on "agonistic behavior" between hermit crabs -- that is, the fighting they do with each other over new shells when the ones they're wearing grow too tight. "Hermit crabs can be stressed," Gabaldon tells me, "in any of various ways besides just finding that their shells are too small. They can be short of food, they can want to mate, something like that. What we were saying was, if you had a hermit crab that was under some other kind of stress, being deprived of food for several days, for instance, would his incidence of shell-fighting go up, too? Would he just be in a really crabby mood" -- she says without cracking a smile -- "so he'd take it out this way?"

In order to create baseline studies from which to find the answer to this eternal question, Gabaldon had to give inadequate housing to captive crabs. "I had a number of snail shells that I'd measure for capacity," she recalls, "and we'd offer them to a hermit crab so we'd know what size he liked, and then we'd force him to get out of it, and into a much smaller one."

She's not kidding? She forced them out of their shells?

"Yeah, with a soldering iron to the back of the shell," she says. "They'd start waving their feelers, and jump out and look very offended." She begins to giggle, sheepishly and infectiously.

Jacqueline's, a sunny, bustling lunch place situated at Buckboard and Indian School, serves a delectable curried chicken sandwich, with chunks of spiced meat on flimsy, lightly toasted bread. That's what I'm enjoying, along with a side of asiago salad, as I listen to Gabaldon's tales. As she speaks, the dark-haired, witchily attractive author is picking at her turkey on a croissant with a side of coleslaw, but she says she likes it.

She'd have some grounds to know good cooking. Before she'd published some half-dozen fat historical-fantasy-romance novels, even before she'd started playing crustacean mind games in grad school, she was the daughter of a noted cook. Her late father was Arizona state senator Tony Gabaldon, a "Hubert Humphrey Democrat" who earlier in his career had been a professional chef. "He always financed his campaigns by cooking," remembers Gabaldon fondly. "He would throw these enormous barbecues and Mexican food fiestas where he would do all the cooking, so he'd sort of be the centerpiece." His daughter would later include a couple of her own recipes in The Outlandish Companion, the tongue-in-cheek 1999 companion volume to her novels.

Short-sheeting hermit crabs wouldn't prove a lifelong passion for her, as it turned out. For her Ph.D., she decided to return to Arizona, where she had grown up, and where her boyfriend Doug was (he's now her husband, and divides his time between professional drag racing and investing in and renovating used commercial properties).

Her Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology at Northern Arizona University concerned "nest-site selection in pinyon jays, which Doug said should be called 'Why birds build nests where they do, and who cares anyway?'" Gabaldon cared. Her hypothesis for why pinyon jays prefer to build their nests near roads -- that the drainage ditches result in a higher concentration of insects to feed their chicks -- could only be proven by establishing what those chicks ate. So, sure enough, she actually performed "gullet studies, flushing out the gullets of the nestlings, which is not as horrible as it sounds; you just pick one up, and you take a little syringe of water, and you squirt it down their throats and they go ack! and you get back the water and everything that was in their gullets."

I ask her if, all the while she was engaged in this weird science, she was secretly dreaming of Scotsmen. "No, that was totally an accident," she says. "I enjoyed science, and I was good at it, it's just that I wanted to write books. But I had no idea what sort of book to write, or how to begin." Though she had written scripts for Disney comic books, she lacked confidence where novels were concerned.

She finally decided she would "write something for practice. I thought, 'I'm never gonna show it to anyone, so it doesn't matter if it's good or not, it's just for me to learn on. What's the easiest kind of book for me to write for practice?' Well, one thing I have is the university library, and I was a research professor; I did know how to look things up. So I said I think maybe a historical novel would be the right thing, because a historical novel has no genre constraints as such -- it can be a political thriller, a historical crime story, a historical romance."

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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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead