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An Interview With Ethan Gage Creator William Dietrich

Yesterday I published a review of William Dietrich's book The Three Emperors, the latest installment in his Ethan Gage series. I messaged Dietrich soon after and got a cordial reply. Now here is the result - an interview with Dietrich himself about his book series, his career and his influences. Enjoy and remember to donate! Be sure also to check out his website.

As I have said many times here, blogging is not free. I like the unique platform I have here - I am able to write about what I want and feel it's not a waste. I have been blessed with donations from readers and friends, as well as a small income from the paid advertising. Life is demanding however and, if you like what you read, please contribute so that I can keep doing this.

I was struck by the fact that you're from Seattle. There's another writer, Jim French, who created the character Harry Nile for radio dramas he produced and that were then aired locally. French lived in Kirkland most of his career and moved the character from Chicago to Los Angeles and eventually to Seattle. Are you familiar with him at all? Do you see any similarities with his character and yours?

I did work many years for the Seattle Times but now live north of the city in Anacortes, about midway between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. French or his character, but I no doubt would enjoy both. One inspiration for my Napoleonic hero Ethan Gage was the rascal Victorian adventurer Harry Flashman, in a series by George MacDonald Fraser of Scotland. I tend to like cheeky, irreverent protagonists with a hint of the anti-hero: Odysseus, Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, Tom Sawyer, James Bond, Hans Solo, Indiana Jones, and so on: swashbucklers with a hint of humor and the ability to get themselves into trouble - and out of it.

What possessed to create the character of Ethan Gage?

I’ve written about the Roman and Nazi eras, and was fascinated by the Napoleonic period. Since there were British series heroes such as Hornblower, Aubry and Sharpe, I thought it would be fun to have an apolitical American who could rattle about between all sides. My initial idea was to make Ethan a reluctant agent of the English, but the first book, “Napoleon’s Pyramids,” worked much better when I linked him to Bonaparte. I wanted Gage to intersect with real historical events but have the freedom to explore the scientific and mystical issues of the period. He has evolved, over the course of eight books, from a bachelor scamp to a doggedly determined family man with a brilliant wife and precocious son. Because Ethan is an outsider to the French, British, or other nationalities he collides with, and because he is a wry observer of famous people and grandiose schemes, he’s inspired by many journalists I’ve known. He also never lives happily ever after, because he needs a quest for the next novel!

What also possessed you to set him in the setting of nineteenth century Europe and America?

I’m fascinated by the beauty and horror of the period. Ships were lovely, uniforms splendid, gowns scandalous, palaces ornate, security absent, cruelty extreme, and so on - everything at that time was over the top. It was also the birth of our modern age. The political, scientific and industrial revolutions were getting underway in Ethan Gage’s lifetime, and so he’s witnessing the birth of what we live with today: shameless propaganda, mass armies, the relentless competition that comes from promotion by merit instead of birth, political upheaval, philosophic tumult, and so on. The time is gorgeous and catastrophic, and I call self-made Napoleon the first modern man.

I read your article about Ethan Gage and ISIS. What similarities do you see between ISIS and the situation of radical Islamism now?

My point was that radical Islamic fundamentalism has roots that go back centuries, and particularly to Ethan Gage’s day when decaying Islamic empires began to be conquered and colonized by Europeans. The French invaded Egypt. The British invaded Mughal India. The Americans fought the Barbary Pirates in modern-day Libya. The reaction to this, about 1800, what the radically conservative Wahhabi sect that arose in Saudi Arabia and still influences both the Saudi royal family and movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS. This is a “clash of civilizations” that has been going on more than two hundred years. My blog can be read at my website,

There was a great deal of Jewish folklore in The Three Emperors, part of why I liked it. What sort of sources did you research for the book?

I read some wonky historical books, such as “Napoleon and the Jews” by Kobler. Napoleon was both a reactionary and a progressive, and early in his conquests he threw open the gates of ghettos and tried to persuade the Jewish Sanhedrin to interegrate Jews more fully into European life. He mused about a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Jewish leaders resisted, because they feared the loss of cultural and religious identity if they left the ghettos and were absorbed into the dominant Christian-based culture. It’s fascinating to speculate that the Holocaust might never have happened if Napoleon’s idea for integration had succeeded. But I was also interested in Jewish life and legends. I visited historic Jewish towns and synagogues in Prague and the Czech Republic, where much of “The Three Emperors" takes place. I was fascinated in the legend of the Golem, which can be seen inspiring stories such as Frankenstein. There is also a mystical-religious thread to Judaism that works well with Ethan’s quests for antique objects and which has turned up in a couple of the novels. I’m not Jewish, by the way, and don’t pretend to any special knowledge.

What audience do you strive for with your novels?

The biggest possible, like all authors! But my audience is adventure story enthusiasts who enjoy learning some history and geography in the course of a swashbuckling yarn. I look for readers who are curious, have a sense of humor, and like treasure hunting derring-do. This is often male terrain, but I also seek female readers. Gage initially was a Bond-like bachelor, but he quickly met a woman who turned out to the love of his life and he matures in the books to appreciate Astiza and other women for their intellect and courage. It’s actual difficult to weave wife and child in a thriller set against war and politics, and I think involving Ethan’s entire family makes the recent novels in the series somewhat unique. I plan to publish the eighth volume, “The Trojan Icon,” early in 2016, and Ethan’s wife and child play even more important roles. The result is a book less ribald but deeper, i think, in exploring the yearnings and values all of us have.

I read "The Three Emperors" after reading Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy. His books are set in India and China during the opium wars while yours are set in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. Both sets of books were really similar though - you both had a lot of fun writing about sex in nineteenth century language, both had appearances by Napoleon himself in your book and both of you depicted the wars of the various periods in stark detail. Have you read his books? How would you explain such similarities?

I just ran across mention of this trilogy because I’m thinking of sending Ethan to India, and so I hope to read it. The similarities are not really surprising. Most historical fiction revolves around wars or similar struggles because conflict is central to all good stories. Most feature famous people like Napoleon because we’re fascinated by them just as we’re fascinated by celebrities today. I actually think the language and tone of my books is quite deliberately modern - there’s a huge difference between the style of an Ethan Gage book and a Jane Austen novel written in that era - but historical thrillers also inevitably pick up the tone of the period they are set in. I read memoirs, histories, and travelogues written by people of that time, for example. I do try to have Ethan use some of the slang and phrasing of the period, but it’s actually quite difficult to avoid using words that were invented later. An example is that a scientist in Ethan’s day was called a savant in France, ‘scientist’ had yet to be invented - but I’ve used both just for clarity with my modern reader in mind. The Ethan Gage novels are a time machine transporting contemporary readers - so I have to keep the perspective of a typical 21st Century explorer of the Napoleonic era.


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About Radical Second Things

Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

Eva Gnostiquette is an artist, programmer, "future scientist," bi-trans girl and graphic designer. She voluntarily helped to create the first print issue Radical Second Things and designed our beautiful banners. Thanks so much, Eva!

Jordan Denato is a professional artist based out of Iowa. He took the initiative to illustrate both Jennifer Reimer's story and Michael Orion's Oscar Romero work. He has his own art studio, Tar and Feather Studios, and is a critical part of Radical Second Things.

Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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