William Dietrich


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June's featured author, William Dietrich, Pulitzer-winning journalist and historical fiction writer, brings us some fascinating insights into his historical series featuring Ethan Gage!




Titles from the Ethan Gage series:

The Dakota Cipher             The Rosetta Key                   Napoleon's Pyramids



Interview with Scott D. Parker:

S. Parker:  Ethan Gage is certainly one of the more colorful characters Iíve encountered recently.  When it came time to write Napoleonís Pyramids, did you create Gage first or did you have a story and needed someone of Gageís talents?

W. Dietrich:  I thought Napoleonís 1798 invasion of Egypt would make an epic novel that was timely given our rush into Iraq, and then had the idea of incorporating pyramid mysteries into the tale to inject mystery and treasure-hunting intrigue. But who would be the protagonist? Iíd long had an idea for an imperfect hero who could be placed in any number of periods (one idea was World War II) and who was inspired by the mix of derring-do and humor found in any number of sources, including the Flashman novels, DíArtagnan, Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, etc. Making my hero American would give him an outsiderís perspective similar to what Iíve had as a journalist, and making him a likeable rascal would makes his fictional impact on history that much more fun.


S. Parker:  Tell us more about your creation of  Ethan Gage.  Were you reading certain history books about the time period (The Early Republic) that influenced your thoughts about Ethan Gage and, if so, what were they?

W. Dietrich:  Ethan is actually more consciously modern in his outlook than real people of that period who Ė if you read their writings Ė were sophisticated and erudite but did not have the wry skepticism and the assumption of being able to move between classes that we take for granted. My balancing act is to make him a man of his time and yet one to which 21st Century readers can relate: heís much less stiff than a Washington, or even a fictional Hornblower or Aubry. However, the American and especially the French revolutions had introduced radical change, including in the latter case a brief elevation in the status of women, emancipation of French slaves, decriminalization of homosexuality, and so on. This experimentation influences my depiction of Gage as a man curious, provocative, earnest, dogged, and yet overpowered at times by the flood of events.


S. Parker:  Magnus Bloodhammer is a character so large, he practically walks out of the book. What kind of research did you do to create him?

W. Dietrich:  Magnus created himself, starting out as a somewhat comic player to move the plot and evolving into eccentric idealist with a core of tragedy, who dresses like the Norse god Odin and half-lives in the world of myth. The ability of fictional characters to take over their own development and grow on the page, seemingly out of control of the author, was something Iíd heard about but didnít quite believe until I began writing fiction myself. Thereís a lot of subconscious work in any creative endeavor that frequently takes a story or project in new directions. I did research Scandinavian history in the period and the Norse myths, which cast a mood on the story, and Magnus grew out of that.


S. Parker:  You have an incredible amount of period detail in The Dakota Cipher, both when Gage is in Europe and over here in America. I particularly enjoyed your descriptions of New York in the fall of 1800. As a writer, how did you conduct your research and how did you determine what to put in the book and what to leave out?

W. Dietrich:  I usually read and consult several dozen non-fiction books and biographies to produce a historical novel, and I particularly look for books describing the details of everyday life that can make fiction feel authentic. I looked at books and maps depicting New York in that period and delighted in reading about oddball occurrences, such as an actual riot over whether the new century began in 1800 or 1801, or the churchyard that became a hangout for prostitutes. Real life is always more interesting than what I could invent. The trick, however, is to leave 90 percent of what you learn out, so it doesnít slow down the story. My first responsibility is to tell a good yarn.


S. Parker:  As a degreed historian, I often lament the publicís lack of historical knowledge usually on embarrassing display on such places like Jay Lenoís Jaywalking segment. Iíll come out and say it: history textbooks can be boring. When I wrote my first historical novel, I fully intended to educate the reader along the way. As you were writing the three Gage adventures, did you think that your readers would be learning history despite themselves?

W. Dietrich:  I hope so. Americans ignore history to our peril (Iraq and Afghanistan again) because school textbooks teach us it is dull. Instead of emphasizing how curious and constant human nature has been all through history, and entertaining us with people stories better than anyone could make up, it is reduced to dates, treaties and the results of dry, bloodless war. Itís like turning People magazine into an almanac! Historical fiction can enthrall readers who would never read ordinary history, and while my novels have fantastic elements, I try to make the real history as instructive as it is fun. If you finish one and enjoy having learned something, without feeling youíve had a history lesson, Iíve succeeded. Real history is real life: ambition, failure, sex, greed, idealism, tragedy Ė over and over again, from the beginning of time.


S. Parker:  When it came time for Gage to interact with some early Americans, Thomas Jefferson was an obvious choice. Were there any other members of the Founding generation you wanted Gage to meet but didnít?

W. Dietrich:  Benjamin Franklin is a kind of ghost in the books, the aging mentor of a wayward Ethan who has passed away when the books begin but who is an unending source of homilies and conscious. Other real figures that Ethan meets Ė and there are many of them Ė are dictated by when and where he is. Some have cameos, and some are more fully developed, but again Iím often reducing a biography to a few paragraphs so as not to stop the story. Ethan is a full generation after the American Revolution, so some of those founders have retired or died. Others remain human: Burr impatiently brooding at Jeffersonís inauguration, Adams sneaking out of town before dawn, Oliver Ellsworth, an early chief justice, negotiating a treaty in France. These are figures still living their lives, and unaware of their ultimate historical role.


S. Parker:  The Dakota Cipher is my first Ethan Gage adventure and Iíll be picking up the previous two installments. With the War of 1812 is only eleven years after the events of the Dakota Cipher, how far into Americaís history do you foresee Gageís adventures taking him?

W. Dietrich:  Given the fact that Ethan is caught up with Napoleon, he could follow other literary heroes and ultimately conclude with Waterloo, in 1815. In Gageís case, I think weíd have to include the Battle of New Orleans that same year as well! Certainly the end of the Napoleonic wars is a logical turning point in world history, but a writerís life has enough twists and turns that Iím taking it one book at a time. I do like the idea of visiting parts of the world outside of Europe and the United States to broaden our understanding of the early 19th Century. Readers have suggested Ethan on the Northwest Coast. Ethan in China. Ethan in Africa.


S. Parker:  Youíre interest in the ancient world led you to study and write about events that took place in 1798. Has your study of early American history yielded any new interests or insights into the other eras of American history?

W. Dietrich:  One of the problems about writing books, instead of just reading them, is that your reading is more directed and confined to the period youíre writing about. But yes, theories about Norse explorers preceding Columbus has led me to more research on pre-Columbian contacts between the continents. Some understanding of the economics and technology of the time has made me better understand seemingly nonsensical developments such as American slavery, which seems so inefficient. What really comes through is how captive we all are to the assumptions and prejudices of the era in which we live: itís really the rare individual who can judge events in their own time with any kind of historical objectivity. People spend their lives trying to sustain beliefs or economies that no longer make sense because thatís human nature. We evolved to be skeptical of change.


S. Parker:  What is your typical day like when youíre working on a novel? Do you outline? Do you use quill-and-ink as Gage would have or do you prefer a computer? How long does it take for you to develop a first draft?

W. Dietrich:  I begin in the morning, usually about 8 a.m., and hang in there as long as endurance or my schedule permits. Sometimes the juices donít really flow until late in the day Ė writing is hard! Because historical thrillers are plot-dependent, I develop an outline and work from it, but it evolves with the book. The computer has saved years of my labor by allowing easy and constant revision, and my current method is to plunge ahead on the first draft as long as I can stand it but then go back and revise when Iím stuck. Iím guessing a first draft consumes about six months, with time ahead of that on research and outlining, and time after on revision. My novels have taken between one and two years each, the pace often dictated by publishersí schedules. A contract deadline concentrates the mind in the same way as a hanging.


S. Parker:  So what's next for Ethan Gage?

W. Dietrich: I'm working on the next Ethan Gage adventure, called "The Barbary Pirates." Ethan is in the Mediterranean during America's war with Tripoli and has several surprise reunions.


Thanks, William, from all of us here at New Mystery Reader!  For more info on William Dietrich, please visit:  http://www.williamdietrich.com


For a review of The Dakota Cipher