A Conversation With William Dietrich

by Claire E. White

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling novelist William Dietrich
Photo of William Dietrich
grew up near Puget Sound in the shadow of Mount Rainier. The dramatic landscapes of Washington State and love of nature that it engendered had a profound effect on him and his work. The influence of the natural environment on people is a theme that is found not only his nonfiction but also his novels, set in Antarctica, the Australian Outback, and the barbarian wilds of pre-Christian Britain.

Born in 1951 in Tacoma, Washington, William Dietrich graduated from Mount Tahoma High School during culturally tumultuous 1969, and attended Fairhaven College, an experimental liberal arts division of Western Washington University. He has always been interested in writing, and this interest led him to major in journalism at Western. His first job was covering agricultural Skagit County for the Bellingham, Washington, Herald. He got his literary start chronicling "Berry- Dairy Days" and other such local events.

He was soon sent to report from the state capital in Olympia and then covered Congress for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. Not exactly enamored of life "inside the beltway," he returned to the Northwest to write for the Vancouver, Washington, Columbian in time to cover the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens next door. In 1982 he took a job at the Seattle Times, where he has worked, on and off, ever since. He presently writes part-time for that paper's Sunday magazine.

The assignments for The Seattle Times provided opportunities to report from the Arctic, the Antarctic, and to circle the globe, covering subjects ranging from the military to the environment. In 1987-88 he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and in 1990 he was part of a four-person team which won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

His first book, The Final Forest, (1992) grew out of his reporting on the spotted owl and old growth forest debate that convulsed the Pacific Northwest. Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (1995) is an environmental and cultural history of the Columbia River inspired by its imperiled salmon runs and epic pioneer past.

To the writer who loved the outdoors, science was the most enjoyable subject he got to cover. A 1994 fellowship to Antarctica from the National Science Foundation and a nasty surprise in the form of cancer (he has fully recovered) prompted the author to take a stab at a lifelong goal of writing a novel by producing the World War II bio-terrorism thriller Ice Reich (1998). His first draft of the book was finished during a second reporting trip to Antarctica aboard an ice breaker. It was his first, breathtaking sight of icebergs that inspired him to finish the book.

He followed this with an Orwellian view of stultifying globalization and wilderness release in the Australian eco-fable Getting Back (2000) and then returned to Antarctica and the South Pole for the claustrophobic murder thriller Dark Winter (2001), that includes scenes from the Cascade Mountains near his home.

Dietrich has loved history since childhood and a 1996 visit to Great Britain led to the ancient Roman fortification across northern England known as Hadrian's Wall. Even before his first novel was published he was determined to write a story about that evocative place. The result is his newest novel, a story of war, intrigue and romance novel set in Roman Britain called Hadrian's Wall (HarperCollins). Hadrian's Wall is a fast-paced adventure set against the backdrop of fourth century Britain, as the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. Kirkus Reviews says Hadrian's Wall is, "page-turning stuff....Lively, authoritative and edifying...the best yet from Dietrich."

Married to his college sweetheart, Dietrich has two grown daughters. When he's not writing or reporting, you might find him out hiking, sailing, watching movies, remodeling his house or waving around the Roman cavalry sword his wife got to inspire him.

He spoke to us about his reporting on the Exxon Valdez spill which won him a Pulitzer and his move from award-winning journalist to novelist. He also talks about his exciting new historical novel, Hadrian's Wall.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

"Traditional independent and family journalism has been mostly taken over by giant corporations. This creates news organizations that are more professional and journalists who are better educated, but it also generates bland, homogenous, and bureaucratic journalism. Much of the fun, flair and eccentricity have disappeared."
Everything, meaning both fiction and non-fiction. My mother would buy me weekly installments of children's encyclopedia sets at Safeway, richly illustrated, and I'd read them cover to cover. But I particularly remember liking fairy tales -- our neighborhood library had a special section of them -- and children's popular history. The Landmark series of children's history books had a big impact on me, creating a love of history that has never gone away. Also influential to me were the children's novels distributed by Weekly Reader: other boomers will remember A Dog on Barkham Street or The Pink Motel books. Those were always on my Christmas and birthday lists, and the very best part of early elementary school was when teachers would read aloud such classics as The Wizard of Oz or Charlotte's Web. By junior high and high school I was devouring science fiction and fantasy and had discovered adult fiction. A sex scene! Gosh, they didn't have that on the other side of the library. Or even in Lord of the Rings, which I found as a Bantam paperback at the rack at the Rexall Drugs -- I'd never heard of it but was intrigued by the weird cover -- and promptly read to tatters.

How did you get interested in journalism? How did you get your start?

I got married during college and had to decide in a hurry how I was going to make a living. While I had grown up writing short stories, earning a keep as a novelist seemed improbable at my age. I tried journalism as a more practical means of feeding ourselves as a scrivener. Besides, the fact you could get paid for going to interesting places or meeting interesting people was a revelation. I wrote for the campus paper and was a stringer for local dailies, getting 25 cents an inch from The Everett Herald. You could count the headline when you measured a month's production with a ruler and sent an invoice, so I always hoped the copy editor was excited enough about a story to give the headline a bigger type font. It was my willingness to unsnarl wire service ticker-tape at 5 a.m. -- this was in the era when papers still had linotype machines that set metal type backward, like Ben Franklin -- that got me my first full-time job, at the Bellingham, WA Herald. I covered the rural county where I happen to live now (coming back after a quarter-century hiatus) and worked my way up from there.

What was the most challenging aspect of covering the Exxon Valdez spill?

Cover of Ice Reich by William Dietrich
Our paper won a Pulitzer, I think, because we tried to put the spill, oil production and tanker safety in a broader perspective. This was a story not just about an Exxon screw-up, but modern American civilization. Getting past the "spin" of all sides, from Exxon to environmentalists, was the challenge, and required talking to many different sides and looking at many different documents. And despite the beauty of Prince William Sound, the work was also sometimes cold, wet and disheartening. One of the odd things was that I arrived on the scene so early, and was so cut off from ordinary media -- since Exxon had bought up all the motel rooms I spent the summer in a woman's basement, without TV -- that I didn't realize what a big international story it had become until I returned to Seattle some weeks after the spill. I hadn't seen my own newspaper.

How did winning a Pulitzer affect you? Were you surprised when you won?

Well, as two-time winner Russell Baker remarked, at least you know the lead paragraph of your obituary. In terms of journalism career advancement, I don't think the Pulitzer is that big a springboard for many reporters: the industry keeps it in perspective. I did good work, but I don't regard it as my best. I didn't get a raise for the Pulitzer, and I know a two-time winner who didn't get one even after the second time! (He finally went to a different newspaper.) In terms of self-confidence and serving as an attention-getter, however, a Pulitzer is a great help. It gives you credibility when approaching a publisher. While just one of many journalism contests, it's the one people have heard of. You can worry less about winning contests and more about doing the kind of work you think important. Surprised? I, personally, was, because our approach was as much explanatory as investigative: it didn't fit my Woodward and Bernstein stereotype. The same day we won the Pulitzer, the contract for my first book, the non-fiction The Final Forest, showed up stuck in my screen door. It had been in negotiation for months and my agent was furious I'd given no hint we'd win the prize, because she could have gotten more money. Hey, how was I to know?

How has the profession of journalism changed since you first entered the profession? Has the Internet had a positive or negative effect on journalism?

Traditional independent and family journalism has been mostly taken over by giant corporations. This creates news organizations that are more professional and journalists who are better educated, but it also generates bland, homogenous, and bureaucratic journalism. Much of the fun, flair and eccentricity have disappeared. The number of journalists concerned with packaging, such as graphics and special sections, has grown compared to those concerned with content. Newspapers have become more centrally directed by editors and less directed by reporter interest and whim. And the electronic media have diverged from print, meaning print journalism has tended to get more serious (sometimes boringly so) and electronic journalism has tended to get sillier: if it bleeds, it leads. The Internet is proving to be a breath of fresh air to all this. It has brought back some of the old freedom of the Ben Franklin-type penny press, meaning freedom of the press no longer belongs solely to those who can afford to own one. Competition and diversity have been good. The monolithic media no longer has a monopoly of information. But the Internet sometimes lacks the balance, accuracy, authority and seasoned judgment of the best traditional journalism. With power comes responsibility, and those disseminating information on the Internet have a responsibility to make it as honest as possible.

How has being a father affected you as a writer and a journalist? Did fatherhood change your outlook on anything or how you saw a story?

Kids keep things in perspective. They are great bullshit detectors. Their own egos dwarf any sense of self-importance a parent might have. They put your priorities where they belong and push you to work hard, not for transient things such as fame, but for real things such as family. Children extended my view of the future, making me more interested in long-range issues of science and environment. And I suspect re-reading children's literature with your own children taught me a lot about telling a story.

I'd like to talk about your latest novel, Hadrian's Wall. What drew you to this project?

Cover of Hadrian's Wall by William Dietrich
I'd heard of this barrier across northern England separating Romans from the free Celts, but knew little about it until my wife and I stumbled on it during a driving tour of Britain in 1996. It is little more than a stump today, but the wall's antiquity, its remoteness from Rome, the arrogant line it draws between England and Scotland, and its dramatic windswept heights are all evocative. I love history, and immediately wanted to write a book about this place. When my wife insisted it have a woman in it I began to imagine a Roman senator's daughter journeying to Hadrian's Wall for an arranged marriage. What would it have been like for Valeria to come to the Roman frontier? From that followed the love, blood and thunder.

How did you approach the historical research necessary of writing a book of this scope? What was the strangest thing that happened to you while you were working on the book?

I wound up using about forty history texts on the Romans and Celts as my primary basis of information. My wife and I returned to Britain in 2001 specifically to research this novel and visited Roman and Celtic archaeological sites and museums from England's south coast to Scotland. I also interviewed an historical re-enactor who has fought mock battles in Roman armor and let me try some of it on. What I recall was a bizarre but strangely appropriate trip. It was March and cold enough that it snowed at Hadrian's Wall, giving a better feel of what it must have been like to be stationed there, and we happened to coincidentally be staying in the village of Corbridge the same night a history professor, Lindsay Allason-Jones, was giving a lecture about "Women on Hadrian's Wall." It seemed a sign from the gods. This was also the height of foot and mouth disease and the countryside was unusually deserted. There were great pyres of animals that had been slaughtered to prevent the spread of the disease, sending columns of smoke into the air. This was atmosphere with a capital "A."

The book utilizes an interesting device to tell the story: Imperial Inspector Draco is investigating what happened at a bloody battle which occurred at Hadrian's Wall. At first, the reader doesn't know what happened, but as he interviews witnesses and pieces together evidence the story unfolds. What went into you decision to utilize Draco as the device to tell the story?

"Kids keep things in perspective. They are great bullshit detectors. Their own egos dwarf any sense of self-importance a parent might have. They put your priorities where they belong and push you to work hard, not for transient things such as fame, but for real things such as family."
Draco serves several functions. First, as an inspector, he foreshadows what is to come and establishes an air of mystery. Second, his first-person ruminations let me insert a great deal of information about Britain and the Roman Empire in a quick and painless way. Third, his age and weariness is a parallel to the age and weariness of wall and empire. And fourth, he becomes a primary character in his own right, a man who is changed by the story he hears. He softens from the rigid, arrogant and certain interrogator who begins the novel.

Draco reminds me a bit of an investigative journalist. Is there any of William Dietrich in his method or opinions?

Of course. Draco is curious, not as immune from emotion as he pretends, and has the same undeniably voyeuristic instincts of any good journalist. He is also an outsider, far from Rome and a threat to those he interviews, who has disdained friends and families and now realizes he is lonely. That sense of being an outside observer, of a subculture you can visit but never really join, is one I've had many times. Being a journalist is a little bit like being a cop or a priest -- people stiffen when you're on duty. It's also armor. You can dip into a situation but not have to commit to it.

The heroine of the story is Valeria, the daughter of a Roman senator who is sent to marry a garrison commander in the provinces, near Hadrian's Wall. What was the greatest challenge writing Valeria? Were there any traits you were particularly trying to avoid with her?

Hadrian's Wall, Great Britain
Hadrian's Wall, Great Britain
Photo by William Dietrich
Writing convincingly from the viewpoint of the other gender is hard. My wife, daughter and my agent at the time, who was a woman, all urged me to develop her more. In early drafts she was always talked about but stayed offstage, because I was reluctant to tackle her. She became more central the longer I worked on the book. I'd ask women for advice on how she'd react to various situations. The answers were always helpful and sometimes surprising. To make her real and appealing, I wanted her to avoid the screaming ninny or super-heroine stereotype of the movies: a woman who is young and naïve, but also smart, brave and persuasively female in her physical abilities. I envisioned her as a bold young woman who asserts independence, but was also very much a product of the patriarchal Roman Empire. Nobody had heard of women's lib in 367 A.D., but all modern readers will view her through that prism. Making her both capable and vulnerable was a constant tightrope to walk.

The men in the story are all very different: Draco, the logical investigator, Galba, the provincial soldier and brilliant tactician who hides his hatred for aristocratic Roman society, Marcus Flavius, Valeria's bookish husband, and Arden Caratacus, the free-spirited barbarian king. Let's talk about Galba. He is a complex character. At first, you don't really know whether to like him or not, but his choices throughout the book make him less likeable, but perhaps more interesting. How did you create the character of Galba?

Cover of Getting Back by William Dietrich
It is said that Satan steals the show in Paradise Lost, and certainly a sympathetic villain is more interesting than a monster. Galba worsens not just because of his character but because of frustrating circumstances, and who cannot relate to that? He is highly competent, but passed over for promotion because of politics and favors among the upper class. So I wanted a man who was intimidating and ruthless, but also understandable and convincing. None of these characters are black and white. When Valeria finally flees with her lover, she takes his hand. It is not until the last line of that section that we learn what he is carrying in his other hand. I want the reader to come away not just thrilled but disquieted, and not just satisfied, but curious.

How much do we really know about the Celts of this time period? I understand the culture was mostly passed on by oral tradition, that there is a paucity of written records?

Because the Celts didn't have a written language, all the accounts we have of them are written by their enemies, the Romans. While the Romans admired their courage, they also depicted them as "barbarians," or outsiders. Subsequent archaeological investigation has revealed that the Celts, who at one time ranged from the Black Sea to Spain and on up to Ireland, were sophisticated artisans, skilled craftsmen, and superb farmers. The oral literature that has survived reveals lyrical story-telling skill and a complex pantheon of gods. They fought Rome for eight centuries and their culture is so compelling that "Celtic" music and art is with us to this day. Authors range from portraying the Celts as brutal purveyors of human sacrifice to romanticized nature worshipers and noble savages. I tried to strike a middle ground.

Can you give us a sneak peek behind your next novel? I understand you're taking on Attila the Hun? Will it be a sequel to Hadrian's Wall?

Hadrian's Wall takes place in the Fourth Century, or 367 A.D., when the Roman Empire was weakening but still staving off barbarian invasion. It is when the thunderheads were forming. The storm broke in the Fifth Century when barbarians overran the western empire, and while not strictly a sequel, the next novel takes place about eighty years after the events in Hadrian's Wall when Attila was at the height of his power and threatened Europe. He is a primary character, but the story is really told through the eyes of lesser-ranking people who react to him. This was a crucial period of history. It was the Huns who essentially pushed the Germanic people so hard that they spilled across the Rhine, eventually dooming the Empire but laying the foundations for our modern world. And it was the defeat of the Huns at the Battle of Chalons, or Maurica, that allowed shreds of civilization to survive in the West.

I'd like you to talk about the practical aspects of being a writer. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

Cover of The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest
by William Dietrich
Journalism helps keep me disciplined. I typically rise between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. and am at work by 8 a.m. I work half-time for the Seattle Times' Sunday magazine, so on some days I concentrate on that. On others, I focus on my books. I like having a deadline because it keeps me focused and lets me evaluate progress. For book writing, the first draft is the toughest. I compare it to constructing a house. My method is to write a detailed outline to walk me through the plot, which is the framing lumber. Then a first draft as quickly as possible, which is the wallboard. Then comes the more enjoyable rewriting, which expands on character, place, dialogue, and period detail. This is the taping, sanding and painting. Can you tell I've recently done some remodeling? My daily pattern has changed from book to book; sometimes I've written hard through early afternoon and stopped, other times I tend to take a mid-day break and come back in the afternoon. Sometimes I'll read for research late in the day. I'm not a workaholic but I work hard, and often write part of the day on weekends and holidays just to keep the flow going.

How do you appreciate the editing process? Do you allow anyone else to read your book before it's finished? Do you ever discuss your projects with your wife?

Although this writer has been tempted at times to have all editors taken out and shot, they're actually quite necessary to a good book, and surprisingly varied in their advice. I can honestly say I've learned something from every editor I've had (no matter how moronic) and, from the good ones, a great deal. I've been saved from my own foolishness and ignorance many times. I can also say that some of what they impose is personal taste, not objective rule, and so it is important to weigh their instincts with your own. Always listen, often agree, and every once in a while stick to your guns. I still regret changes made to the early chapters of my first novel to allegedly pick up the pace, and yet that same editor taught me an enormous amount. My wife is my first editor, and a very astute one, and my grown daughters give me insight from another generation. I like to hear from ordinary readers far removed from the tastes of mid-town Manhattan. Most valuable is feedback from readers and critics that isn't just thumbs up or thumbs down, but thoughtful analysis of why something worked for them or didn't.

How has your career as a journalist affected you as a novelist?

"There are no great writers, only great re-writers. Listen to your critics, but believe in yourself. Commit to a lifetime. Don't give up. Work hard. Nourish joy."
I've learned and experienced things I'd otherwise have never been exposed to, and much of that finds its way into my novels in many ways. Theme, setting, bits of dialogue, character thoughts, motivation and background information are all often the product of what I've seen as a reporter. Journalism is also helpful in developing discipline, speed, and research skills. I'm not afraid to approach strangers for information. It is, however, so disciplined a form of writing that it can be difficult to open up in the ways novelists must to make their stories compelling. Journalism speaks to the head, fiction to the heart. It takes a while to make the transition from one to the other.

I understand that you donated royalties from your nonfiction book Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants, to the North Cascades Institute, Skagit Land Trust and Anacortes Forest Lands. Why are those particular causes important to you?

I live in Northwest Washington and these groups are trying to preserve the spectacular natural landscape or educate people about it. I've served on their boards or talked to their memberships and so am familiar with what they're trying to do. The true heroes are the unsung people in such organizations who work tirelessly, year after year, often for no money, to keep our planet sustainable. They've also helped me in my research many, many times. Having ground up plenty of trees with my writing over the years, I'd like to give a little back.

If you were forced to somehow travel back in time to live for one year in any historical period, which period would you choose to visit and why?

Cover of Natural Grace: The
Charm, Wonder and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants
by William Dietrich
The nice thing about being a writer is that you can time travel without having to choose, flitting in your research and imagination from period to period. Still…I know it's a cliché, but certainly Judea at the time of Jesus. It would be interesting to meet him (judging for myself) and tour Roman society at its height. I'd take ship for Rome. The other period would be the Napoleonic wars, that epic time of great fleets, colorful uniforms, heroic charges and low-cut dresses. I'd check out Europe at what I view as the dawn of our modern era, and then scoot over to North America and head west to see what this country really looked like before it was spoiled.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

The bean counters who have invaded the world of publishing and journalism, but who don't really understand magic and the creative process. The crass values celebrated in today's pop culture. The greed that is threatening to destabilize society by widening the gap between rich and poor. The childish narcissism and empty goals of terrorism. The negativity of American political discourse. The needless frenetic anxiety of modern life. The…oh, never mind.

Cover of Dark Winter by William Dietrich
What is your advice to aspiring writers?

There are no great writers, only great re-writers. Listen to your critics, but believe in yourself. Commit to a lifetime. Don't give up. Work hard. Nourish joy.

What is your advice to aspiring journalists?

Much the same. Plus, don't wait for opportunity, invent it. Go beyond what is expected. And check those spellings and facts: don't make the dumb mistakes I do! Oh yeah -- and have fun. It will show up in your stories.

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