Describe your latest book.
That would be An Echo in the Bone (due out September 22). This is the seventh in the main Outlander series, the sequel to A Breath of Snow and Ashes. The U.S. cover is spectacular — black, with an embossed gold caltrop.
Right, what's a caltrop. Well... a caltrop — in case you've not encountered one before — is an ancient but effective item of military hardware. You scatter a handful of them on the ground to deter anything inimical that's coming toward you at a high rate of speed. The Romans used them against opposing cavalry, Tamerlane used them against war elephants when he invaded India, and modern-day highway patrol officers use caltrops in barricades, the spikes being just as efficient on tires as on hooves.
Why is there a caltrop on the cover? Well, it's a stylish wee item, to be sure — but beyond that... you'll notice that it has four spikes. An Echo in the Bone, the seventh — but not the last! — of the main Outlander novels, has four major storylines.
I. Jamie Fraser, erstwhile Jacobite and reluctant rebel, knows three things about the American Revolution: (1) The Americans will win, remote as this possibility seems in 1777; (2) being on the winning side does not guarantee personal survival; and (3) he'd rather die than face his illegitimate son, William (aka the ninth Earl of Ellesmere), across the barrel of a gun. Given the choice, his wife Claire would prefer Jamie to survive, and is prepared to devote her not inconsiderable talents to that end.
II. William himself is a lieutenant in the British Army, vacillating between the excitements of battle and the charms of "intelligencing." His stepfather, Lord John Grey, career soldier and diplomat, is not sure which course is more dangerous.
III. Jamie proposes to avoid door #3 by returning to Scotland to retrieve his printing press (the pen being mightier than the sword, Q.E.D.), in the process keeping his word to his sister by returning his nephew, Young Ian, to their home at Lallybroch. And as he writes to his daughter Brianna, "Only God knows what they will make of each other, Lallybroch and Ian — and God has a most peculiar sense of humor." Ian, though, has his own ideas — and his own destiny to seek.
IV. Roger and Brianna, meanwhile, are at Lallybroch themselves — in 1979. Reading Jamie's and Claire's letters, they are absorbed in the drama of the past — but not so absorbed as not to begin to realize that the Highlands still hold dangerous secrets.
As you can see from a close examination of the caltrop, the thing about it is that whichever way you throw it — one sharp spike is always pointing up. I do hope you'll enjoy the book!
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Well, I used to be a biologist, which means I've had some reasonably offbeat jobs. The strangest was probably the post-doctoral appointment in which my chief occupation was butchering seabirds. (I luckily didn't have to kill them; another investigator hunted them down in Canada, knocked them on the head, froze them, and sent them to me in huge ice-chests.) I'd defrost these things — gannets, eider ducks, petrels, and quail — then reduce them to 15 separate components, which I then analyzed for percentages of water, fat, and protein. (This last step involved incinerating them overnight in a 600-degree Celsius muffle furnace. Came in one morning to find a censorious note from the building manager reading, "I turned this thing off — contents were on FIRE!!!") As a result, I can reduce a gannet — a diving bird with a six-foot wing-span and a skull like concrete (I had to remove the brain with a hammer and chisel) to its components in a little under three hours. Oddly enough, I've never found any particular use for this skill, but I'm sure it will come in handy sometime.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I'd hesitate to tell anyone they "should" read anything in particular; people's tastes are not only highly individual, but vary with their life experiences and personal circumstances. At some points, one of Susan Elizabeth Phillips's contemporary romances might be the perfect thing — emotional engagement, hilarious humor, first-class plotting and characters — while at others, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude would be marvelous. (I just gave this to my younger daughter, who's reveling in it.) Right this minute, I'm reading Phil Rickman's latest, To Dream of the Dead; he writes lovely atmospheric novels that are marketed as mysteries (and they are; they're just a lot of other things, too) — he's an author (one of many, many ) that I'd recommend, and one not well known in the U.S. (Oh, but then there's Ian Rankin, too — Scottish police procedurals, wonderful stuff with terrific style and character...)
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Tell me honestly — you used to be a high-school teacher, didn't you?
I wasn't going to answer this one, because of the time it would take, but I can't resist. I mentioned this question at a small dinner party we had this evening, at which my husband (who's not a writer, but has known me for a looooong time ) and my son (who is a novelist himself) both said instantly, "Yes, of course they are."
"No," I said. "I don't think so." Not good writers, anyway. Because, as I explained — and my son instantly agreed with this — a good story is the truth. The fact that it's "fictional" has nothing to do with its essential truth, but you simply can't write a good story if you don't yourself believe absolutely in what you're writing. So writers are not in fact "liars" at all, by profession.
On the other hand, it could be argued that most writers are reasonably skilled at invention, and at recognizing what is and isn't plausible — and by that token, they may be reasonably adept at the social forms of lying. Whether they're better than the average non-writer at this, I can't say. I used to teach (science classes at the university level) myself, and I can tell you that I've known a lot of non-writers who lied with great virtuosity in terms of invention. Their problem was usually too much invention, though — and therein lies the plausibility factor. How much detail is enough, and how much is a dead giveaway? What kind of detail rings with truth? (The offbeat, weirdly enough. "My dog ate my homework" is plainly a lie, whereas "My idiot dachshund somehow managed to eat about a half-cup of pea-gravel, which I learned when I took him to the vet for X-rays after he barfed through the whole house day before yesterday" is obviously the truth. It is, too. Nitwit dog.)
How do you relax?
I read. And if nobody bothers me, I sleep.
What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, to what sign would you change and why?
I'm a Capricorn. Suits me.
Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Eggs Benedict (with champagne) in bed, with a snowstorm going on outside.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
There are a number of those. Fortunately, my books don't seem to attract dangerous nuts (I did a signing once with Anne Rice in her pre-religious days. That woman attracted nuts), but there are people like the woman who stood in line for four hours in order to be first in line at a booksigning — for the express purpose of whipping off her shoe and sock in order to show me the tattoo of the running-stag brooch (from the cover of one of my books) she'd had done on top of her foot. She then presented me with a photograph of said foot — why, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps so I could prove it to people when telling them this story.
Then there were the Ladies of Lallybroch (well, there still are the Ladies of Lallybroch, come to that). They are a huge online fan group, and at one point a few years back, one of them emailed me to ask a question to help settle a discussion they were having about something in one of my books. I replied that I'd be happy to help, but please ask me again in a week, as I was just finishing a book, and "have only two brain cells left — and one of those is trying to remember to buy toilet paper."
Right. Three days later, a UPS truck pulls up to my house and unloads forty-odd packages of international toilet paper onto my doorstep. Korean toilet paper (with bumble bees on the packaging, heaven knows why), Japanese toilet paper, New Zealand toilet paper — and not a little of the domestic U.S. product, too. It was great — didn't have to buy toilet paper for months!
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books on Herbalism (with the warning that one ought to be careful about self-medicating with herbs...)
When I began writing a perfectly straightforward historical novel, and ran into a woman who wouldn't shut up and talk like an 18th-century person, the book became something else. "Heck if I'm going to fight with you all the way through this book," I said to her. "Nobody's ever going to read this book, it doesn't matter what bizarre thing I do — go ahead and be modern. I'll figure out how you got there later."
Which is how I ended up with a series of books that either have no genre — or all of them — and which I've so far seen sold (with evident success) as fiction, literature, historical fiction, historical nonfiction (really), science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, gay and lesbian fiction, military history (really!), and horror (no, REALLY. ). But when you have a 20th century person in the 18th century, you do have to decide what sort of person they are. So I thought about what particular skills I'd personally like to have, were I to end up 200 years in the past — and I rather thought I'd like to be something in the medical line, if only to raise the odds of survival, for self and any loved ones in the vicinity. Which led me to look into the state of medicine in the 18th century. Which was somewhat rudimentary. The one truly effective part of medical practice in the 18th century was the use of herbs. Consequently, I devoted a good deal of research to herbalism and botanical medicine.
I currently own 70 or 80 herbals, of varying degrees of use and fascination, but below are five of my favorites:
Culpeper's Complete Herbal (Profusely illustrated in colour) by (reasonably enough) Nicholas Culpeper, 1647.
One of the earliest English herbals, as useful (and entertaining) for its language as for its information.
A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with Their Modern Scientific Uses (in Two Volumes) by Mrs. M. Grieve.
This is the Dover reprint edition (1971) of an earlier Harcourt and Brace edition (1931). Excellent source, with chemical analyses (such as was available in 1931) of active principles of various plant parts. Also helpful in giving the geographical range of plants, and information as to whether these are native or introduced.
Peterson Field Guides to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, 1990.
Very useful, with geographical information and color plates, as well as line-drawing illustrations.
The Hamlyn Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe by Edmund Luanert, illustrated by Roger Gorringe and Ann Davies (over 400 species illustrated in colour). Hamlyn, 1981.
The Master Book of Herbalism by Paul Beyerl, illustrations by Diana Green, 1984.
OK. This one's for the magickal practitioner. It has solid notes on the medicinal uses of herbs, and line drawings of same, though only some of the entries are illustrated. It also includes information on religious lore and history of the herbs mentioned (and while it does include all the commonly used medicinal herbs, it's not nearly as comprehensive as the more objective references listed above), notes on the herbalist as a magickal practitioner, creation of incenses, oils, amulets, elixirs, and balms, herbs and their relationships with gemstones, herbal links with astrology and the tarot, and rituals — the use of herbs in seasonal festivals, purifications, etc.