AUTHORNOMICS Interview with William Dietrich

With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.

AUTHORNOMICS Interview with author William Dietrich

William Dietrich is the author of sixteen books, eleven of them novels. His best-selling Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures have been sold into 30 languages. He was a career journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill while at the Seattle Times. His nonfiction work on Northwest environmental history has won regional awards. He has taught environmental journalism as an assistant professor at Western Washington University and speaks frequently on writing. His latest novel is “The Emerald Storm.” Its sequel, “The Barbed Crown,” will appear May 1st.

As a NY Times bestselling author and a Pulitzer Prize winner, can you share with our readers some of the valuable lessons you have learned about writing and publishing on your journey to success?

Tell a story. Whether covering the city council or writing a Napoleonic swashbuckler, you need to find heart and drama. That often means finding a central character who is in some way compelling, a clear problem or obstacle that stands in his or her path, and a satisfying triumph. It’s obviously easier to do this in fiction than nonfiction, but even in journalism you can dramatize an issue by using a key player to illustrate it. To quote Josef Stalin: “One person’s death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

How did you get started in the journalism field? What role does your journalism background play in your novels?

Coming from a working class family, the idea of being to write for a living thrilled me. Journalism was the most practical way to start, so it was my major in college. (I had encouraging creative writing teachers, by the way, but also some who discouraged me from ever trying fiction. Believe in yourself.) I followed the classic newspaper career track of starting at smaller publications and working up to larger ones, with the opportunity of covering a state legislature and Congress coming at a very young age. I didn’t always know what I was doing, but I learned a lot. My novels have historical and environmental detail that results from research, reading, and writing skills I developed as a journalist. My first book, the nonfiction The Final Forest, came directly from my work as the Seattle Times environmental reporter. Two early novels, Ice Reich and Dark Winter, were inspired by my experiences in Antarctica as a journalist.

Do you prefer writing nonfiction or fiction? How do both genres challenge and satisfy you as a writer?

It may be a tie. Fiction gives me more freedom because I’m not tied to events, interviews, and so on; I’m not waiting for callbacks and am the creator of my own fictional world. The story arc is more satisfying. In real life, issues drag on and aren’t neatly resolved, whereas in fiction you can amp up the narrative drama and come to a satisfying conclusion. Yet I always enjoy writing the nonfiction narrative note at the end of my novels. The truth is so bizarre, so colorful, and so revealing! I also enjoy learning about the world, and passing on that learning. So I keep returning to nonfiction projects as well, usually about the Pacific Northwest environment.

In what ways do you feel your nonfiction writing influences your fiction? Does you ever reuse nonfiction research for your novels?

You can’t escape yourself as an author. Writing reflects our past, our personalities, and our assumptions, even at our most wildly inventive. Because of this I see continuity between my nonfiction and fiction in terms of my love of oddball information, of exotic geography, and of historical characters with mixed motives. My view of humans as fallible, inconsistent, and egotistical comes from covering them as a journalist. I have the journalistic drive to inform, so you learn a lot in my fiction – though I hope it comes across as a romp, not a lecture! I already mentioned the inspiration of Antarctica. Some fictional characters and incidents are loosely inspired by my experiences as a reporter. For example, in the Ethan Gage adventure The Barbary Pirates, the idea of making real-life historic scientists as Ethan’s partners in adventure grew out of my visits at scientific field camps, where curiosity pushes researchers to attempt difficult, dangerous things.

Where did you get the inspiration for your complex and engaging character of Ethan Gage? If any of the Ethan Gage books were made into a movie, who would you like to see play Ethan?

I’ve always liked swashbuckling heroes with a sense of humor, wit, and fallibility, from Odysseus to Indiana Jones. Superheroes like Achilles, Hercules, Conan, or Superman are less interesting to me. So Ethan is inspired by Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, Flashman, Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man,” Hans Solo, the quips of James Bond, and so on. Ethan is tall, dark, handsome, and fit, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The Harrison Ford of thirty years ago would be ideal, while Sean Connery or Daniel Craig are too ruggedly cruel. The wise-guy insouciance of Robert Downey Jr. or David Niven is not tough enough. Johnny Depp would bring a fascinating interpretation, but is too physically slight. Female readers have suggested Australian Hugh Jackman. Irish actor Colin Ferrell has displayed the humor I have in mind. Clive Owen or Eric Bana might  work; would Ben Affleck have the flair? Tom Cruise is intriguing, but would be an even more perfect Napoleon because of his intensity. Best of all might be an unknown who makes the Ethan role his own.

Your latest book, The Emerald Storm, is an exciting treasure hunt in the Caribbean featuring Ethan Gage. What inspired you to write this book?

The Ethan Gage series moves forward in real time, starting with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. By The Emerald Storm it’s 1803 and so I hunted for an exciting episode to which I could send my hero and his family. The slave revolt in Haiti was coming to its climax, and provided an exotic Caribbean locale. I’m interested in the difficulty we have in being politically consistent, be it Thomas Jefferson owning slaves or the French Revolution failing to free the blacks in its colonies. To this I added speculation about Aztec knowledge of flight, war between France and England, and a rock off Martinique that the British seized and christened as a warship.

What are the challenges of writing historical fiction? What is rewarding, for you, as an author in this genre?

The challenge and the reward are the same: it’s real. I’ve made life difficult for myself by writing historical fiction that doesn’t rely primarily on real characters, like a Hilary Mantel novel, but instead weaves a fictional hero with famous people. That means Ethan Gage has to plausibly intersect with and affect actual history while remaining a peripheral figure to the great. This is tricky, because I want to immerse the reader in real events instead of writing fantasy or alternative history. The reward, however, is that the real world was more peculiar than anything I could invent. I (and the reader) learn about the real life of that time through the viewpoint of a wry character who turns the marble statues of the principals into flesh-and-blood human beings. Ethan is my time machine. I was delighted to study David’s gigantic canvas of Napoleon’s coronation in the Louvre and discover, in the crowd of onlookers on the painting, a figure who could indeed be Ethan Gage.

What is your process for research when working with historical topics? How long does it usually take before you feel ready to start writing?

At present, HarperCollins has me on a schedule of a book a year. That typically means a couple months of preliminary research, preparation of an outline, and then writing and research that go hand in hand as I progress through the novel. If possible, I travel to the locale I’m writing about. I visit museums, pick up maps, brochures, books, and take pictures. I make notes on the weather, smells, mood, plants, and animals. I’m after two things: an understanding of the thrust of history and key characters, and oddities of everyday life or history that gives readers something they didn’t know before. I want the tale to be both suspenseful and informative.

 Do you have any warnings for those beginning historical research? How should a writer avoid becoming overwhelmed by the research process? Do you use any specific software for keeping your research organized?

I suggest reading general histories of the period first, to construct a timeline used for plotting. Can Ethan plausibly get from Point A to Point B by this date in history? Then biographies of individuals who would be interesting to drop into the story. Memoirs and books on everyday life provide a sense of time and place. I have books on the history of gambling, infantry tactics, and canoe building, to mention a few examples. I recommend a story outline early on, so your research is serving the plot instead of the plot chasing the research. For the same reason, get started on the writing because your characters will teach you what you need to know. Set a deadline. As for software, I find the search function of Word adequate, and work from manila folders with notes scribbled on yellow legal pads. Yes, I’m a dinosaur. I’m sure there’s more sophisticated stuff, but the best filing system is your brain.

 Is it difficult to find the right balance between historical detail and original material in your historical novels?

Throw out 90 percent of what you learn, because it bogs down the story. Use the best 10 percent as spice. You can be a wonk, but don’t let your text get wonkish. Remember you’re writing fiction, not history. Getting stuff flat wrong annoys readers, but the occasional liberty is forgiven in a taut story. That means you’re going to pretend to know what great people were thinking, or, in my own case, describe Napoleon in his bath or Jefferson at dinner, with authority. Again, don’t write a novel to show off your knowledge of history. Use history to help the reader “suspend disbelief” and enter your fictional universe.

 Do you have any projects or events that we can look out for in the coming months?

The Barbed Crown, an Ethan Gage novel with a twist at the very beginning for readers of The Emerald Storm, comes out May 1. It involves Napoleon’s attempts to invade England, his coronation as emperor in 1804, and the naval battle of Trafalgar in 1805, as well as spies, conspiracies, a temptress, a steamboat, and early rockets and torpedoes. Great fun, and a book that takes Ethan’s world in a new direction.


Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.

Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal. She has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.


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