In my other life, I studied Early Modern European history with an emphasis on the Age of Fighting Sail. So I felt my heart beat a little faster when the opportunity came to interview William Dietrich on his latest historical adventure novel, The Barbary Pirates. Dietrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and prolific novelist. His bestselling Ethan Gage series is part Indiana Jones, part Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s books, with a smattering of ancient mysteries and hilarious asides; this confection is all wrapped up in the delicious sweep of history.
His latest novel, The Barbary Pirates, reintroduces the reader to adventuring rogue Ethan Gage, who has a talent for getting himself into trouble. Set at the turn of the 19th century when Europe is convulsed in war, Gage negotiates with Bonaparte, falls afoul of pirates, and a woman scorned. Somewhere along the way, he reunites with the love of his life, who presents him with the son he never knew he had. And this is for starters. Dietrich knows how to keep the reader on their toes, and The Barbary Pirates is a wonderful brew of storytelling from a deft master of the art.
Please enjoy part one of our two part interview with William Dietrich.
Q: You had a long career as a highly-regarded journalist, covering high-profile stories and earning a Pulitzer Prize. Why did you decide to turn your craft toward historical novels?
WD: The decision combined a childhood dream to write fiction, midlife restlessness, and opportunity. I went to Antarctica at age 43 after a bout with testicular cancer and musings about mortality, and was entranced by the place. When my book agent was unenthused about non-fiction there (I’d already written other non-fiction books about my native Pacific Northwest) I wrote a novel called “Ice Reich” based on a real-life Nazi expedition to Antarctica. To everyone’s surprise it sold and did rather well. My agent said, “Don’t quit your day job!” I did anyway, but actually wrote journalism part-time for ten more years, and I teach it now. I still love journalism. Historical fiction, however, gives me freedom to follow my curiosity and have fun with my writing.
Q: How did a career in journalism prepare you for the often harsh industry of commercial fiction?
WD: Journalism teaches research skills, writing on deadline, competition with other reporters, dealing with editors, and reader reaction. It doesn’t quite prepare you, however, for the occasional snarky review, trying to promote you book to a crowd of two, or the fierce competition of a crowded book marketplace. Commercial fiction is as humbling as it is rewarding, and a real learning curve. I have enormous respect for the authors at the top of their game, and at the top of the lists.
Q: For a former graduate student who studies the Age of Fighting Sail and the Napoleonic Era in college (me!) THE BARBARY PIRATES is like historical fiction crack. What drew you to this era for your series?
WD: Life was over the top. Uniforms were gorgeous, gowns seductive, ships majestic, charges valiant, conversations witty, scheming venal, and stakes high. In Napoleonic France or frontier America you could rise from the bottom, but you could also lose it all in a single miscalculation. There was no social security! Even the furnishings were feverish, like an opera set. This was also the dawn of the scientific, industrial, and political revolutions: the Napoleonic era set the template for all that has come after.
Q: Your (anti)hero protagonist, Ethan Gage, is a bit of a rogue, given to acts of cowardice and hubris, and he comes out of his dire situations smelling like a rose. Did you intend for this character to be so rascally, or was this the way he wanted his story to be told? What should writers be mindful of when they are creating characters complex enough to sustain a series?
WD: I find superheroes kind of dull, so Ethan was meant to be imperfect from the start. I am also a fan of comic adventure like the “Flashman” series of George MacDonald Fraser. But Ethan evolved with the telling, becoming useful as a wry observer – the modern reader’s surrogate – of the history that was going on. He did acquire a voice that quite usefully took over – books aren’t born complete, they grow and evolve as you write them. And a series is actually quite challenging. The writer must find not only a character who will be good companionship over many books but one who can somehow grow and develop. If possible, map out their age and direction and reward readers who come back with something new about them each time.
Q: I also love your secondary characters, especially the real-life ones: the “savants” Georges Cuvier, Robert Fulton and William Smith, who have a significant role in the plot, as well as people like Bonaparte and Fouche (I actually swooned with historical glee over this bit). How should a novelist approach using real characters in their books?
WD: You have to persuade the reader your portrait is reasonably accurate (by reading the biographies) and harness their real character to further the plot. Fulton is inventive, Smith dogged, Cuvier skeptical, and so on. At the same time, they can’t be wax figures from a history book. Have fun making them human by at times making them brave, cranky, mischievious, confused and so on that all of us are. The more you know about them, the more comfortable you are being inventive at key points.
Read part 2 of the interview HERE, when William continues discussing his approach to crafting novels and reveals what inspires him as a writer.
The Barbary Pirates is out now at booksellers everywhere.
Please click HERE for part two of our interview with William.