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Interview with William Dietrich, Author of The Dakota Cipher

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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.

What is your favorite historical period and why?

I love the Roman period and set two novels in it, Hadrian’s Wall and The Scourge of God. The reach of the empire that you encounter in Europe, Africa and the Middle East astounds me, and its story defines ‘epic.’ But for color and exuberance I revel in the Napoleonic period. After the trauma of the French Revolution people lived their lives at a fever pitch. Uniforms were glorious, dresses scandalous, ships beautiful, homes grandiose and new ideas were at a boil. It was the start of our modern era. Other historical periods that will draw writers again and again because of their almost unbelievable drama are the American Civil War, the conquest of the West, and World War II. No novelist could invent Hitler.

Do you have plans to write any more modern-day/futuristic thrillers like Getting Back and Dark Winter?

I’ll probably stick with Ethan as long as readers are interested, and I believe I’ve found a niche with the historical thriller. But I’m interested in just about everything — I worked many years as a journalist — and I’m an opportunist just like Gage. If I had a great idea for a contemporary novel, I might make a pitch. I’ve learned that in the writing life, you rule nothing out. I wish I could write books as fast as I can think of (half-baked) ideas for them.

How has your journalism career impacted your fiction writing?

It has helped immensely. It gave me many years to improve my writing skills, instilled discipline — no writing block is allowed in newsrooms — and taught research skills. I’ve got this jumble of odd facts and impressions in my brain from my reporting days that I draw on for my fiction. However, it’s very hard to ‘loosen-up’ to do the invention and attitude necessary for fiction when you’re used to the straight-jacket of trying to provide fair, balanced reporting. The novelistic form is much longer, the pacing is different, and the writer is rewarded for completely different things. Fiction has been a very steep learning curve for me. But what I like about writing is you’re always learning! You never know it all.

Any parting words for our readers?

While the Ethan Gage novels are clearly fiction, they are not as far-fetched as some readers might believe and some of the oddest things in them are actually true. I try to give some guidance on truth and fiction in my historical note at the back of each novel. So: are there still secrets surrounding the Great Pyramid? Could something sacred or powerful been hidden under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Did the Knights Templar discover something that aided their rise to power and precipitated their eventual persecution? Could Norse explorers or refugees have penetrated as far as the middle of North America? And are there real mysteries surrounding the dawn of civilization? My answer to all these would be yes, and it’s the fun of speculating about such questions that help drive the books.

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