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?
My novels walk a tightrope between historical accuracy that is carefully researched and mystical speculation that is pure invention. Accordingly, to get readers to accept the more fantastic elements I work hard to make the real history as accurate as possible – not just major events like battles and elections but the details of everyday life. Ethan fits into a timeline of the early Napoleonic period, and operates in its real geography. There have been times in the writing process where I’ll learn something new and have to correct or improve some scene in the book, but I start with the history and build the plot around that, rather than vice versa.
My favorite novel overlaps the Napoleonic period, in which you are currently setting your books, so I have to ask: Are you a fan of the The Count of Monte Cristo?
Yes, as well as The Three Musketeers, which is also by Alexandre Dumas. In Napoleon’s Pyramids, one of my characters is the author’s father, mulatto general Alexandre Dumas, who really did accompany Napoleon to Egypt: putting him in a key scene was a tribute to those French classics. In terms of tone, Richard Lester’s comic movie version of The Three Musketeers from the early 1970s influenced me, as has George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. I’m trying to given Ethan a viewpoint on the Napoleonic period distinctly American and modern in its skepticism to set him apart from some other literary heroes of that period.