May 16, 2008

Move over, Allan Quartermain

By: Sean DeButts

Humor and history blend in William Dietrich's latest novel

   The Rosetta Key, a witty, fast-paced historical adventure by Pulitzer winner William Dietrich, has an American who will make Indiana Jones and MacGyver proud.

   Ethan Gage wields no bull whip, but he is a sharpshooter, card shark, womanizer, crack electrician and principled anti-hero with a skill for making enemies and escaping snake pits. He accomplishes this while searching for his lover and a powerful Egyptian book during Napoleon’s 1799 invasion of the Holy Land. This is Gage's second adventure, after his exploits in Napoleon's Pyramids. Works from The Da Vinci Code to George MacDonald adventure novels are heavy influences that Dietrich blends seamlessly.

   Dietrich’s travels in the Middle East provide the worn cities and dusty landsacpes sublime descriptions, and grant psychological realism to a cast of historical figures including Sir Sidney Smith and Josephine Bonaparte. The novel’s only stylistic flaw, and ironically, one of its strengths, is that Gage’s descriptions can be so detailed that he becomes an omniscient narrator. As Gage reluctantly plays the French and English armies off one another and raids a Templar tomb, he carries his story with ingenious electrical weaponry and pithy monologues about Napoleon’s gory sieges meant to spread Western progress to the feuding Middle East.

   After a reading in a bookstore near Seattle, Dietrich answered questions about his creation of The Rosetta Key.

The Inkwell Review: Why did you choose to write about Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Land?

William Dietrich: Especially because of the clash of cultures. Europeans knew nothing about Egypt because they had been cut off from Western visitation since the Arab conquest. The French arrived there absolutely unprepared for the world that they were going to encounter in the desert. Napoleon brought this expedition to reform the Middle East, to understand it, to uncover ancient secrets. My interest quickened by our own American involvement in Iraq. Like the French, we went in with idealistic motives, we won a quick military victory and we were frustrated in our reception after that victory. It was not what we expected, and we have been bogged down in war with Muslim resistance. I thought this echo of modern times might make the book more interesting to Americans.

Audience Question: Did The Da Vinci Code influence you?

WD: Yes, it did. I liked that book, although it got so popular that I think there was a cultural backlash against it. When I was working on Napoleon’s Pyramids, it was accelerating in popularity, and I had already planned to bring mystery into this story … I had some chapters in Napoleon’s Pyramids that talk about mathematics. It’s a curious fact that the dimensions of the Great Pyramid seem designed to match the dimensions of a clam … the golden number, the symbol for pi and so on.

IR: Was Indiana Jones any inspiration?

WD: There’s a whole vein of somewhat heroic but humorous characters in literature such as Indiana Jones, Han Solo and the Three Musketeers. I don’t think Captain Jack Sparrow was out yet. Richard Lester did some movies in the early 1970s in a kind of comic theme. I was aware of all of that, and I always enjoyed that culmination of adventure and a little bit of humor, and I wanted to see if I could duplicate that.

IR: If Gage were adventuring today, would he wear a brown fedora?

WD: [Chuckles] I don’t think so. I think he would blend in a little bit more. He would not be quite as distinctive as Indie. He would be inconspicuous. He’s an everyman who’s tried to make his way in a very complicated, dangerous world, so he doesn’t have the bullwhip and he doesn’t have the Fedora. He does have a rifle.

IR: Well, he invents the sniper rifle.

WD: There’s a little bit of MacGyver, too.

IR: Also, Gage is not a complete anti-hero.

WD: No, hopefully the reader really likes him, and in his own way, he’s really dogged and earnest. He wants to do the right thing, he wants to get the girl and find the treasure, and solve the mystery, and he’ll stick to it until he does it. At the same time, he doesn’t take himself entirely seriously. There’s no suggestion he’s James Bond or the Mission Impossible guy.

IR: One of the most memorable scenes involves a duel with an electrically charged sword. Where did you get the idea?

WD: It's my invention, but I checked its plausibility with curators at a museum of early radio and electricity in Bellingham [in Washington state]. They said it could work. My quest for authenticity did not extend to trying it myself.

IR: How many books did you read in researching The Rosetta Key?

WD: I’m guessing both of those books, Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Rosetta Key, 50 books each. With some of those books I need specific information, and so I don’t read the whole thing, but others, about general histories and cultural histories, I’ll read everything looking for things to use.

IR: Did you research any mystical tomes? I notice Count Alessandro Silano, Gage’s nemesis, seems to talk in Gnosticism.

WD: I have some books by Manly Hall [author of The Secret Teachings of All Ages], and he had all sorts of theories about the Masons and the Templars. I read about them in straight histories, of course, and I read a biography of a guy who’s in Napoleon’s Pyramids, called Cagliostro, an 18th century conman who pretended to be a sorcerer. I could base a bit of Silano on him. I brought all different threads into creating that fictional character, but Silano, of course, believes he’s after the real thing.

Audience Question: Why did you decide to do first a person narrative, and what problems did you face in trying to fit a lot of nonfiction history into this kind of story?

WD: The advantage of doing a first-person story is that you can get in the main characters head at all times and it gives the reader a definite point of view. You’re seeing through Ethan’s eyes, and after a while you get to know how he thinks, his perception of the world … A first-person narrative provides intimacy. The disadvantage is the restricted point of view. Everything has to happen where Ethan is. You can’t switch the main character to give back story about what is going on. The story has to unfold at that pace that Ethan learns, and in historical fiction your fictional character has to line up with what really happened. I take some liberties, but they’re pretty minor.
      Essentially, what happens in the books is what really happened in history in terms of the military campaign, many of the things Napoleon is portrayed as saying he actually said at some point in his career … My tactic is to construct a timeline and look at it for odd activities for fictional characters. What could I have Ethan do that would at least be a little bit plausible that would nudge the story one way or another? You still have to ultimately end up where history ended up. I can’t write an alternate ending … but I can show how Ethan maybe nudged Napoleon one way or another.

IR: What kind of schedule did you follow writing The Rosetta Key?

WD: I try to write every day. I try to be as consistent as I can. I do an outline first. I have sort of an idea of where I’m going, but I do write for The Seattle Times, and I do teach at Western Washington University, and so the time of my days is broken up doing other things. Before I came down tonight I had a few clear hours, so I stopped at the library with my laptop and worked on the next book a little bit.

IR: Which of the sites you visited in your travels in the Holy Land made the greatest impact upon you?

WD: In the Holy Land, probably Petra, the ruins, because they’re quite spectacular and very unusual. The rock formations are gorgeous. It’s like the American Southwest, then having these temples and castles carved into them. The city of Acre is evocative because it hasn’t changed that much and you can go to and get a sense of what it looked like back in 1799.

SD: Who was the inspiration for Astiza [Ethan's lover and a Priestess of Isis]?

WD: I sort of invented her. I wanted a woman, and I wanted her to have an Egyptian connection, but the real Egyptian women at that time tended to be dependent. They were slaves or they were wives confined inside their homes. I had to create someone more interesting than that … She was actually difficult, in trying to define to what degree she would be dependent and defenseless or courageous and self-sufficient. In many ways she’s wiser than Ethan about what’s going on. She’s his moral backbone … I’ll also say that creating villains is also great fun. Writing about Silano and, in this new book, and Najac. Bad guys are easily more fun than good guys.

IR: What’s next in the Gage saga? Can you give us a sneak peak?

WD: The next book begins in France, where The Rosetta Key ends. Eventually he finds his way to America. He’s got a mission there, he’s going to meet Thomas Jefferson, have dinner with him, and then explore some of the American frontier. So it will be what America was like in 1801.

IR: Are you a gambling man?

WD: Nope, I never gamble.

IR: No? Why not?

WD: I lose! I’m not a good poker player. I tried the slots in Vegas once and lost 25 dollars in 15 minutes. If I had any more success, I would be more excited, but I’ve never had a winning lottery ticket or anything like that. Ethan is my alter ego. He gets to things I can’t. I’m the suburban family guy and he’s the single, womanizing, gambler, sharpshooter type.

IR: Good luck writing Gage's next adventures in the American frontier. I suspect Gage and his tomahawk will play some integral role in the Louisiana Purchase.

WD: My pleasure.

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