William Dietrich, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning journalist, has carved out a niche for himself in fiction with best-sellers like Hadrian's Wall, Napoleon's Pyramids, and the forthcoming The Dakota Cipher, which will be released March 24. Dietrich took time to talk with us about his writing, and particularly lovable rogue Ethan Gage, the hero of Dietrich's three most recent novels.
Any discussion of your recent work has to begin with Ethan Gage. Tell us a little about him.
Ethan is the hero of my last three novels, Napoleon’s Pyramids, The Rosetta Key, and The Dakota Cipher. He’s an American adventurer caught up with Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, and other characters from that era, and he relies on his wits and a sensible instinct for self-preservation to get him through battles and perils. He was an assistant to the late Benjamin Franklin and knows something of the infant science of electricity, and is a crack shot to boot, but he’s also a gambler, would-be womanizer (his luck is mixed), treasure hunter and amateur savant, or scientist. Ethan is always falling short of living up to Franklin’s homilies, but he means well in a turbulent, sometimes wicked world. Circumstance presses him into service in some of the great campaigns and adventures of the time, from the core of the Great Pyramid to the wilderness of the Great Lakes. He finds himself helping move history along. I’ve written three novels about him, with a fourth underway, because I like him -- and his imperfections -- so much.
Are you and he very much alike?
Not at all. I’m a non-gambling family man chained to a computer, though I do have a hankering for a longrifle. Ethan is my alter ego. We are alike in enjoying travel and being curious. And Ethan, with his wry commentary, sometimes reflects my view of the world.
I can't decide if Ethan is lucky or unlucky, good guy or scoundrel. When writing, do you sometimes have a difficult time deciding how Ethan will respond to a given set of circumstances?
Ethan is above all human, meaning he strives for reform but falls short, is never entirely consistent, often makes poor judgments about other people, and is easily tempted by opportunity. He’s a bit of a rascal, but a rascal readers can identify with. He shares my confusion in sometimes having a hard time even figuring out who the good guys and bad guys are – we live in a world of gray, not black and white. So I ask myself how an occasional wastrel with a big heart and good instincts would react to a set of circumstances. He might prevail, but be afraid along the way. He may take advantage, but put it in service of a greater cause. And as the books progress, so does his character – though that might not be entirely obvious in The Dakota Cipher!
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where Ethan has done something inconsistent with history, and you've had to go back and correct?