I AM LISTENING to an audio version of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991 novel, Outlander, massive first novel of a series. It has been described as “genre-bending,” conflating elements of historical fiction, romance, fantasy and science-fiction. Gabaldon notes on her website that if you can read any three pages and then put it down she will give you a dollar.
“What I used to say to people who saw me sitting outside a store with a pile of books and asked (reasonably enough), “What sort of book is this?”, was, “I tell you what. Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read three pages. If you can put it down again, I’ll pay you a dollar.”
I’ve never lost any money on that bet.” (Diana Gabaldon)
I almost won that bet from her. Roughly two years ago, I downloaded the audio version of Outlander to which I am currently listening, tried several times to get through it, and finally stopped trying. Despite Davina Porter’s fabulous voice, I quickly grew distracted with all the characters, the oddball story line of a 1946 setting devolving to 1743 after a nurse, Claire Randall, slips through an open door in time via a standing stone in the Scottish highlands, and there you are, smack dab in the middle of clans and castles. Not my usual cuppa.
Since then, I’ve learned that if I am to enjoy an audio novel, I have to give it the same serious attention — especially at the beginning — that I would a work I am reading. That is, yes, I may wash and slice strawberries while I listen ,however I cannot check out articles at the New York Times online or answer email. This may seem self-evident, but (sigh) I had to learn it for myself. Conversely, of course, the plain fact is that I cannot slice strawberries while reading without risking yet another trip to the emergency room after risky behavior with kitchen knives.
And so, armed with this newly found understanding, I decided to give Outlander another try. This time, it’s not only understandable, but fun. Frankly, I still can’t imagine reading the print version, but with the remarkable narrating prowess of Davina Porter, the story is a delight.
If you’d like to learn more about how the narration process works, here’s an enjoyable 2009 Ageless TV interview with Davina Porter and her husband, Gus. There are only some nods and no more than a word or two from Gus, but he makes a rather adorable sidekick with his good looks and mobile face.
One more note. Most writers have favorite words that creep into their manuscripts multiple times. Now that I have copy-edited a full novel manuscript (Buck’s), my ears prickle at these repeats, especially when they are somewhat unusual words. In Gabaldon’s Outlander, I have heard “declivity” and “exegesis” several times and, while I am only twelve hours into the thirty-three hour and eight minute listen, I expect to find these mellifluous words again. I don’t consider that a flaw, merely a sort of writer’s tell. I’m sure that some decade when I complete my own novel, I will have found a way to work the word ineluctable in there more than once.