William Dietrich e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (February, 2007)
William Dietrich is a novelist, Pulitzer-winning journalist, historian and naturalist, and a professor at Western Washington University. His non-fiction (Natural Grace, Final Forest, Northwest Passage) has been widely used in university classes and his fiction (Hadrian’s Wall, Scourge of God, Dark Winter, etc.) has been sold into twenty-one languages. A frequent contributor to the Seattle Times' Sunday magazine, Pacific Northwest, Dietrich is currently working on a sequel to his new novel, Napoleon's Pyramids. He lives in Washington State.
Q: The first of your books that I read was Dark Winter, set in Antarctica. Did you visit Antarctica, and if so, are you a member of the Three Hundred Degree Club?
A: I visited Antarctica twice, as a Seattle Times journalist with fellowships from the National Science Foundation. But it was summer, thank goodness! It was 55 degrees below zero at the South Pole when I arrived, but that's still balmy compared to the 100-below required for the winter-time, real-life naked race to the South Pole marker as described in Dark Winter. In mid-winter, when it is dark 24 hours a day, Polies crank their sauna to 200 degrees above, cook themselves until they can't stand it, and then sprint outside in the snow for a 300-degree-difference temperature shock. It's risky: for both males and females, the parts that stick out are apt to frostbite first. Even in summer I kept bundled and was still dazed by the Polar cold. The Antarctic coast is not as harsh. A highlight there was descending a tube in the icepack and watching penguins dive through the crystal-clear Antarctic ocean, trailing lines of silver bubbles.
Q: I enjoyed Hadrian's Wall (set in Roman Britain) very much, for its balanced view of the cultures on either side. Is that perspective influenced by your background in journalism?
A: Yes. We're required to talk to all sides, and over time it tends to moderate your views. You also learn that people are more alike than they are different, despite their strong opinions. My narrator in Hadrian's Wall, a Roman inspector named Draco, reflects the combination of undeserved self-importance, confusion, and outsider-dom that comes from being a journalist. Both he and the heroine, Valeria, struggle to understand alien cultures - the barbarian as well as the Roman - in much the same way journalists do. Who is civilized and who is not?
Q: You get into a clash of civilizations - and cultural misunderstandings - once more in The Scourge of God, about the Roman Empire's decline across Europe under attack by Attila the Hun. Does writing of such past conflicts make you compare with the state of the world today?
A: So many parallels! I've always loved history, and with experience I've seen patterns repeat themselves. (Right now I feel like I'm listening to a re-run of all the arguments, justifications and hesitations I remember from the Vietnam War.) Attila's era was a period of huge uncertainty and change, and I think the world is in such an era again, caused by an explosive increase in population and technology. Instead of barbarian migrations across the borders of the Roman Empire, we have Third World migrations of people displaced by war, drought, and environmental collapse. Instead of a weakened empire rallying to fight the Huns, we have a wealthy and insulated one struggling to deal with radical idealism, extemism and terrorism, as billions of people try to find meaning in an ever-accelerating world. Instead of Attila waving a rusty sword and promising it is magic, we have leaks, spin, blogs, and comedians, all trying to control our thinking. In Napoleon's Pyramids, Bonaparte's experience in Egypt of quick military victory, followed by Egyptian indifference to French reform and continued guerilla resistance, is reminscent of our frustrating experience in Iraq.
Q: Your style range is broader than that of most writers - from chilly thrillers set in frozen regions to exciting historicals (and one science fiction story I haven't read), and now Napoleon's Pyramids, set in a fascinating era - a historical that's an adventurous romp which stretches the reader to suspend disbelief. Will you continue to experiment with genres and styles?
A: If I ever have that huge bestseller, then maybe I'll try to figure out what I did right, and stick to it for a while! But I'm blessed and cursed by being interested in everything. Such a trait is a great asset to a journalist, but it's probably indulgent for an author trying to stake out an identity. One problem is that I enjoy all kinds of books - non-fiction as well as novels, and thrillers, mysteries, science fiction and literary fiction as well as historical fiction: and I'm always writing the kind of book I want to read. In retrospect, however, there're some common threads in my fiction despite the variety of eras and settings. All have a strong sense of place, a belief that geography affects character. All have heroes and heroines who are ordinary people caught up in big events. In all of them, the characters are trying to adapt to new and exotic settings. (That journalist influence again.) And all my books try to be informative as well as entertaining. I enjoy learning, and passing on interesting facts to readers.
Q: This is the first of your works that flows into a sequel. Will Ethan Gage's adventures end there or continue in further episodes?
A: Ask the bean counters - so much of a writer's opportunities are controlled by commercial performance today. That said, I find Ethan Gage great company and he's going to survive to possibly continue exploring the world and its ancient secrets during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. That era is one of those periods - like the American Civil War or World War II - that is so dramatic and colorful that authors are drawn to it again and again. It was a time not just of great struggle in Europe, but the period when our own nation was forging its identity and when the last corners of the globe were being explored.
Q: Your novels all give the impression of very solid research. How long do you usually spend researching, do you plan a trip to Jerusalem to work on the sequel to Napoleon's Pyramids, and when can we expect to read it?
A: I spend months on research, interspersing it with the writing. I visited Israel and Jordan last year to begin work on the sequel, which I hope will appear in 2008. It was odd, because I was impressed by how "normal" that troubled part of the world seemed to be. Then a month or two later war broke out in Lebanon and Hezbollah missiles were raining down on what had seemed like pleasant Israeli tourist towns when I visited. I did research in Jerusualem and found it absolutely fascinating. Pious pilgrims, armed soldiers, ancient walls and tunnels, religions uneasily cheek-to-jowel, and all of it quite beautifully set in a city of honeyed limestone under a lovely sky. No place has been besieged, sacked and destroyed more than Jerusalem and yet there it still is, center of the world and fuse for Armageddon. It's an evocative city in which to set a novel.
Q: What in particular drew you to this rather odd Napoleonic venture into Egypt as the backdrop to your novel?
A: Its oddness. I first read about the 1798 invasion a quarter-century ago. The drama of it - this French army in Alpine woolen uniforms landing in Egypt without canteens on the First of July - fascinated me. Europeans knew almost nothing about Egypt, or about its ruins, so Napoleon included 167 "savants," or scientists and engineers, in his army to investigate. They gave birth to the science of Egyptology. A Napoleonic battle is exciting enough, but a Napoleonic battle in the shadow of the pyramids - followed by investigation of those wonders by Bonaparte himself - was irresistible. When the opportunity came, I wanted to write a book about it.
Q: Did Napoleon really have a chance to make it to India at the time, and did the British seriously fear a French incursion there?
A: One thing you learn as a journalist is that important people like politicians and generals tend to make things up as they go along, just like the rest of us. So yes, Napoleon really did have a scheme to seize Egypt and use it as a base, a springboard, to march on through Asia to India and wrest control of that country from the British. The French had an ally in India, Tippoo Sahib, and taking India away from England would have been as effective in beating it as invading across the English Channel. But exactly how all this was supposed to happen was never clearly planned. The French simply landed, and hoped for the best. Bonaparte was an opportunist, whose invasion of the Holy Land is the subject of my sequel. But Nelson's destruction of the French fleet meant Napoleon eventually concluded the real opportunity was back in Europe, not Asia.
Q: Were there many real life American adventurers on the fringes of the French revolution and its aftermath?
A: Ethan Gage is my invention, not based on a real person, but Americans did have a close and complex relationship with France. Several of the founding fathers served as ambassadors there. The French helped us win our independence with the British, but then after the French Revolution we fought an undeclared naval war with their ships. Americans admired the idealism of the Revolution and were horrified by the excesses of the Terror. So yes, there were Americans on the fringes. John Ledyard, for example, tried to set up a fur partnership with John Paul Jones in Paris before the French Revolution, and later was sent by Jefferson east across Russia with the idea of crossing Siberia to Alaska and exploring North America from the opposite direction of Lewis and Clark. He was arrested en route by Catherine the Great. Real life is full of wonderful models for fiction.
Q: Did the success of The Da Vinci Code influence you to incorporate the Masonic Order, mysteries of the Great Pyramid, and ancient, powerful secrets in Napoleon's Pyramids?
A: The Da Vinci Code took off when I was well into the plotting of my book, which had come out of my readings into Egyptology and the Great Pyramid. But you can bet I was mindful of reader interest in these kinds of puzzles and mysteries as I worked on mine! The Freemasons found their way into my story on their own because they were so interested in Egyptian secrets and were very powerful in that era. I was interested in the period's fascination with mysticism and the occult as a reaction against the Age of Reason, and when I read that the con-man-alchemist Cagliostro had founded a heretical offshoot called the Egyptian Rite, I knew I had a good source of villains. I do admire The Da Vinci Code as an ingenious and enormously fun work of plotting and puzzles - I liked the movie, too. I'm hoping fans of that book will enjoy mine.
Q: Have you ever been up in a balloon – as Ethan Gage is in his adventure - and if so, where?
A: Egypt! It was a tourist flight at dawn near the Valley of the Kings and was quite lovely, especially when the gas jets were shut off and we just drifted. What a marvelous way to travel! We could see the shadow of our balloon as we skirted across the ruins, a few hundred feet high, and the ascent and descent were very gentle. It was over too quickly. When possible, I do try to sample the things I write about.
Q: Your website author information playfully tells us that 'he fully intends that his books and articles will save the world'. Seriously, do you believe fiction can make a difference in areas like cross-cultural understanding?
A: Yes. I suppose if I really figured out the meaning and secret of life I'd simply put it on the front page - I am a journalist, after all - but fiction teaches us things that newspapers can't: the heart, as well as the head. Life is an exercise in trying to understand ourselves and each other and literacy and communication is creating, I think, a global empathy in which the idea of slaughtering each other over differences strikes more and more people as absurd. From what I've read of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, neither read fiction or traveled much outside their own culture. By report, George Bush isn't much of a reader either. Reading deepens you, and connects you to other minds. Any book is not a sermon but a conversation, in which the author's world is going to be imagined slightly differently by each reader who experiences it. I like to think we humans have a global mind as well as individual ones, and each book, story, website or program contributes to its evolution and (hopefully!) our maturity and collective wisdom. Otherwise, why be a writer?Find out more about the author and his works, read excerpts and interviews, and watch a Napoleon's Pyramids video at WilliamDietrich.com.
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