Bill Dietrich, assistant professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, shares “The Rosetta Key,” the sequel to “Napoleon’s Pyramids,” continuing the adventures of Ethan Gage, who’s now in the Holy Land in dogged pursuit of the magical “Book of Thoth” during Napoleon’s 1799 invasion of Israel that will climax at the epic siege of Acre.
Question: For those who may not have read “Napoleon’s Pyramids,” what should readers know about Ethan Gage, the hero of these two novels, in particular his (seeming) attitude that life is a gamble, one “plays the cards” and “takes the risks.” (I am also curious whether this is your attitude toward life?)
Answer: Ethan is my alter ego, not autobiographical! I don’t gamble, I’m a family man instead of a womanizer, a writer instead of a warrior, and judicious instead of impulsive. Ethan and I are alike, however, in a belief in destiny and opportunity; that while we’re responsible for our choices, our fate is not entirely in our own hands. Napoleon felt the same way.
Q: In this novel, there is much philosophizing and religious commentary/intrigue on “the philosopher’s stone,” the Rosetta Stone, the philosophy of truth, the nature of love, sacrifice and personal integrity. How do you blend the various voices and themes into a historical novel and still have Ethan relevant to today?
A: Ethan is deliberately modern in his outlook, so that readers can relate, and I’ve called Napoleon “the first modern man” because he was self-made, opportunistic, idealistic, optimistic, and yet also cynical, ruthless and narcissistic. These are characters I think today’s readers can relate to: they reflect our jumble of traits. “The Rosetta Key” weaves together the story of Napoleon’s 1799 invasion of the Holy Land, intriguing speculation about ancient mysteries and the Knights Templar that are not original with me, and fictional characters swept up in war and adventure.
Just as we feel somewhat helpless in the face of events like recession or 9/11, my heroes and heroines are ordinary mortals doing their best to prevail in a hostile, unpredictable world. This was the period of the Enlightenment and revolution, fledgling industry and science, and yet a mystical counter-reaction because people longed for religious mystery. It’s a rich period in which to speculate about life.
Q: What are some of the comparisons of the holy war in Napoleon’s time to today’s political situation?
A: Napoleon wanted to reform the Middle East. (Sound familiar?) The French Revolution had thrown out Christianity and yet he tried to portray himself friendly to the Koran. Muslims would have none of it, and resisted fiercely. Meanwhile, like today, you had cults, sects and philosophies that dabbled in philosophy and mysticism, like the (then-somewhat-secret) Freemasons, Jewish mystics, and others convinced there were ancient secrets to be rediscovered. Their golden age was the past, not the future. The Knights Templar, a Crusader sect, was rumored to have discovered fantastic treasures beneath Jerusalem.
Q: How did Napoleon change the way the world viewed Egypt, and if Ethan really existed, what impact would he have had?
A: The scientists who accompanied Napoleon started the science of Egyptology; up to that time almost nothing was known about the ancient world. French soldiers unearthed the Rosetta Stone, which was key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The conceit of my novel is that wayward Ethan plays a role in such events. A real American, jumping between armies, would probably have been executed many times over.
Q: What were some of your experiences as you traveled the Middle East doing research for this novel?
A: It’s unfortunate conflict dissuades tourism there, because the ruins are the most moving that I’ve seen. The depth of time is palpable. I was with an archeologist tour in Egypt that allowed us to squirm into some unusual places — at one we were literally crawling on our bellies into an old tomb — and the ruins of Petra in Jordan that play a role in “The Rosetta Key” are almost unbelievable: huge temple facades carved into towering rose sandstone cliffs.
I sweated a lot, but the closest I came to peril were the indefatigable souvenir sellers and the driving habits in Egypt! In Israel, a lone American mumbling about doing “research” did draw attention: security personnel examined every digital photo I had taken.
Q: Your female characters are really intriguing. How do they keep moving your plot forward? How do you “get to know” them?
A: I try to make my characters distinctive and fun, and sometimes humorous. My women tend to be smart and they keep Ethan grounded, a male-female partnership I’ve observed in real life. I try to make the women courageous partners, not witless ninnies screaming in a corner. Because my stories are thrillers dependent on plot, I have to keep tight rein on their actions, but their personalities emerge as the writing goes on. I end up liking them, even the villains.
Q: Any movie offers?
A: Interest, but no offers yet: these are expensive stories to film. My fiction has frequently been described as cinematic, but apparently the right people in Hollywood haven’t read those reviews.
Q: What’s the deal between Bill Dietrich the journalist, Bill Dietrich the professor, Bill Dietrich the novelist, and Bill Dietrich the family man?
A: It may seem an odd combination, but they’re all aspects of what is basically a curious, somewhat earnest personality. I’ve liked history and adventure since I was a child, I feel I can do the most for the environment through writing and teaching, and the stability I’ve gotten from wife and children has allowed me to do and try a lot of things. I get winded sometimes … but life is short!
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