Everybody Loves a Rogue: A Chat with Bill Dietrich
Everybody loves a rogue, at least a little. Readers flocked to the late George Macdonald Fraser’s English anti-hero Harry Flashman, who gallivanted throughout the 19th century from one adventure to the next, always seeming to pop up smelling of roses. But now Americans have their very own scoundrel to cheer – Ethan Gage, the creation of author William Dietrich.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Bill about Gage and the publication of his sixth Ethan Gage novel – The Barbed Crown.
WD: I’ve always enjoyed swashbuckling heroes with a sense of raffish humor, from Robin Hood to Indiana Jones, and thought it would be fun to plunk one into the Napoleonic period that has always fascinated me. I made him American not just to connect with U.S. readers, but to allow him to plausibly bounce from the French to the British/Allied side, so that he could look at the conflict and society from all perspectives. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman was a particular influence, but he’s got a dash of McGyver, D’Artagnan, Sharpe, you name it.
TH: You mention that the Napoleonic era has always fascinated you. Why?
WD: I never lost the interest in military history I had as a boy and the Napoleonic era always seemed the most colorful, operatic, over-the-top era. War was still pretty, at least until the shooting started. So were women, ships, mansions, and landscapes not yet industrialized. People rose from nothing, took huge risks, were embroiled in juicy sexual scandals, had tragic ends,, and then wrote memoirs about it all. What’s not to like?
TH: Portraying actual historical figures on the fictional page is a task fraught with challenges. How do you handle that?
WD: The historical novelist has difficult decisions in making characters accessible to modern readers. Ethan Gage relates events in the first person, which has its own advantages and disadvantages. Beyond that, you have to decide how much to modernize voices. Jane Austen novels, which take place in the same period as mine, have a period voice more historical than I’ve chosen for my own books. My humor is more contemporary and I veer away from unfamiliar slang and obsolete terms. All this is deliberate in an effort to put story first and the style seamless. Other authors use a more anachronistic style and speech to capture their eras. There are no rules except the one you mention, that the characters must “live.” Fortunately, the Napoleonic era was quite witty and I can sometimes insert direct quotes from Napoleon and his contemporaries in my fictional conversations. One hopes the result is convincing.
TH: Speaking of direct quotes, what are your favorite research sources? Do you have favorite sources that you go back to over and over?
WD: I have standard Napoleonic biographies and histories by Asprey, Schom, Hibbert, Adkin, Adkins, Elting, Lee, Pocock, Robiquet, Jones, McLynn, and so on. An early inspiration was Napoleon in Egypt by Christopher Herrold, 1962: Herrold catches the color of the era in a number of books.
What’s odd about the Ethan Gage series is that I combine the standard stuff with wayward quests and historical mysteries. So I’ve got books on pyramid mysteries, Knights Templar, gambling, alchemy, early electricity, and so on. Most useful and most challenging are finding accounts of everyday life and everyday people, particularly women and ethnicities outside the mainstream, such as Egyptian memoirs for Napoleon’s Pyramids, Native American life for The Dakota Cipher, or white slavery for The Barbary Pirates. Each book has been a different research adventure.
TH: One of the long-running discussions among historical novelists is the value (or lack thereof) of visiting the locations where your novels are set. How do you stand on that?
WD: As a former journalist, I want to get it right. I travel to the book locales to visit not just museums and palaces but to get a sense of climate, terrain, color, scent, and sky. There are always serendipitous discoveries that find their way into the novel, and obstacles. Hadrian’s Wall was closed to walkers when I visited for a Roman novel of that name because of hoof and mouth disease in farm animals, but the desertion of the area, the poor weather, and the pyres of burning victims added atmosphere I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. Lying in the sarcophagus of the Great Pyramid or exploring the bowels of Nelson’s flagship “Victory” gave texture to Ethan’s adventures I otherwise wouldn’t have.
TH: And finally, the question that everybody in the publishing world has been asking themselves for the last few years. With the state of the economy and the explosion of eBooks, how do you see the future of publishing?
WD: I’d be richer if I knew that! We seem to be settling into a balance between paper and electronic books, a stabilization of independent bookstores after decades of losses, and reasonable health for publishers. On the other hand, there’s been a tsunami of self-published books putting price pressure on the old model. There’s a shift from retail store sales to home delivery via Internet, and an ever-growing variety of entertainment competing for people’s attention. I think the future is going to be challenging for authors, just as musicians have been challenged by digitization of that industry.
A big thanks to Bill Dietrich for sharing his thoughts with us. You can check out the HNR review of The Barbed Crown here.