By Nate Kenyon
The fifth adventure of Ethan Gage starts with our hero attempting to rescue a black revolutionary from a Napoleonic alpine prison and continues with a search for lost Aztec treasure and the secret of flight in the 1803 Caribbean. Ethan marries his longtime love Astiza but the couple’s young son Harry is kidnapped and they are in a desperate race to rescue him. The hunt embroils Gage in the slave revolt in Haiti and with a corrupt French policeman. Battles, escapes, a hurricane! Many characters are taken from history.
William Dietrich recently answered a few questions about his career and upcoming novel:
Your career has been remarkable: from prize-winning journalist to professor to non-fiction author to novelist. The common thread through everything seems to be the written word. What is it about the craft of writing that has inspired you throughout your life?
Like all writers I loved to read when growing up, and writing was something I could succeed at, as opposed to hitting a baseball or contributing to astronomical physics. My personality was quiet, so writing was a way of saying stuff without being interrupted by loudmouths. I also think sharing thought is what sets us apart as a species, and why good writing is so powerful. There’s something magical about connecting with a reader at any level, an act of communication and communion that feels important and right. I assume composers, artists, and actors feel the same way.
Your latest, THE EMERALD STORM, is the fifth adventure for your most popular hero, Ethan Gage. What do you find the most interesting about writing a recurring character?
I didn’t write the first Ethan adventure with a series in mind, but jumped at the opportunity as it developed because creating good heroes is so hard. Why not recycle! But that repetition is also the challenge, isn’t it? Characters usually grow, so how do you sustain interest in book after book? While James Bond is fairly ageless and predictable, historical characters tend to age and, in my case, grow up a bit. In THE EMERALD STORM Ethan gets married, but that raises the issue of sustaining romantic tension and retaining the dash of a domesticated hero. Now there’s a child. I found it challenging and fun to deal with this in the latest book, and left it a cliffhanger to keep readers wondering what happens next.
Do you ever feel as if you’ve reached an end with Gage, or is there more to tell?
Without quite planning it, this series has evolved into my personal Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I’ve become more and more invested in exploring an era that was the start and cause of our modern world. In this latest novel the Napoleonic Wars still have a dozen years to play out, there’s lots of room for Ethan to grow, and a whole world to explore. If I can keep readers interested, I’ll be at it for some time – I’m already under contract for two more Gage books.
Is Ethan Gage anything like you?
Alas, I’m more earnest and serious. Nor do I have as much fun! So Gage is my alter ego. But he reflects my journalism background in his role as curious commentator on the colorful people he meets, and represents a 21st Century Everyman in his struggle as a relatively powerless person swimming in the tides of history. I think most of us can identify with Ethan’s struggles, be they moral, political, romantic, or financial.
Most of your work is infused with a rich sense of history. Are you a history buff? How do you do your research, which brings a real sense of place to days and times long past?
I’ve just returned from a research trip to France and England with a suitcase full of books. I’ve loved history since I was a kid, so the research is no hardship. The challenge, however, is finding the everyday details beyond world events that make the past come alive. I scour history for oddball facts, and was disappointed the new Napoleon Wing of the Army Museum in Paris is so formal and dry. Come on, curators! History is greed, lust, ambition, treachery, glory, sacrifice, romance!
Gage encounters many real-life famous people during his adventures (Napoleon, for example.) Do you find it difficult – or perhaps freeing – to blend these historical figures with fiction? How do you line up your fictional people and events with true historical accounts of actual lives?
Ethan Gage must weave through real history and plausibly affect it even though he is fictional. First, I create a timeline of what happened and thread him through it. Then, I research the real personalities involved and devise ways he could interact with them. Fortunately, people such as Napoleon, the black slave general Dessalines, or his French opponent Rochambeau are more colorful than anything I could imagine. Real people provide wonderful foils for Ethan to bounce off of.
In another interview you recall how you were inspired to finish ICE REICH while witnessing your first icebergs on a trip to Antarctica. Do you often write your novels during your travels, or do you other routines or rituals when you’re working?
Each book is different, depending on real-life circumstances. I do visit the locales for each one, but sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes near the end, and each has its advantages. I don’t do much writing when abroad because it’s expensive to travel and I feel the time is better spent researching, but it’s always research with a particular scene or chapter in mind. I don’t have a rigid routine at home except to keep at it, virtually every day, and to take a break when the words aren’t coming. Journalism gave me a sense of looming deadlines.
Do you have a personal favorite of your own works? Why, or why not?
That’s like asking if you have a favorite child. Each book represents a chapter of my life. Some have more meaning for me than others, but not because of literary merit. Nor am I very good at predicting what works; I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the success of some books and disappointed at the relative indifference to others. Like most authors my “favorite” is my latest book, because that’s the one I’m trying to sell. The only thing that seems to work for me, career-wise, is to keep at it.
You’ve traveled all over the place, but you always come back to Skagit County and Washington State. What is it about the area that appeals to you so deeply?
From the summit of a small mountain in the town where I live, Anacortes, you can see three national parks on a clear day, plus the San Juan archipelago, plus glaciered volcanoes, plus lush farmland that has a tulip festival each spring. It’s gorgeous! You can go from rain forest to desert in a few hours. It’s also brooding, gloomy, and wet, a place for introspection and a warm computer. I grew up here and the drama of the landscape infected my view of the world. So a vivid environment infuses all my books because I live in what seems like one of those 19th Century romantic paintings. (Albeit a painting that also contains oil refineries, strip malls, and airplane factories.) My books are exterior, outdoor sagas for a reason, and frankly some critics obsessed with interior mental angst just don’t get it. They grew up indoors.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on an Ethan Gage novel that returns from the Caribbean to Europe and climaxes at the Battle of Trafalgar. I’m also trying to complete a young adult novel set in prehistoric Africa. There are many things I’d like to write, but find it best to take things one day, and one page, at a time.
William Dietrich is the NY Times bestselling author of 16 books, translated into more than 30 languages. He is also a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has worked as a professor of environmental journalism. He lives in Anacortes, WA.
To learn more about William, please visit his website.