William Dietrich Home


Napoleon on Napoleon

by bdietrich on April 17, 2014

Napoleon Bonaparte was never shy about sharing his opinions. A pro-revolutionary pamphlet he wrote at 23 helped him wangle his first important army job, command of the artillery at the siege of Toulon.

I’ve been collecting the conqueror’s quotes for a non-fiction project. Some of his sayings have found their way into my Ethan Gage fiction series, as well as many homilies from Benjamin Franklin. The American sage is the master of commonsense, while Napoleon gives us a peek into the mind of the driven Alpha male.

Here’s a Napoleonic sampling. I don’t endorse these, but they illustrate why I find the guy so fascinating.

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” Few people were as obsessed by his afterlife in the history books as Napoleon, who seemed to care more about posterity than happiness.

“History is written by the winners.” Yep, and you lost.

“Great ambition is the passion of a great character.” Which is why Napoleon’s life makes such good reading. And, “Power is my mistress.”

On the fact that nobody’s perfect: “Are there not spots upon the sun?”

Napoleon was aggressive from childhood, and viewed life as struggle. “To live is to suffer, and the honest man is always fighting to be master […]


Exxon Valdez, 25 Years Later

by bdietrich on March 24, 2014

A quarter-century ago today, I got a call in a Portland hotel room where I was working on a story about Oregon land use planning. I was told to go to Alaska instead.

The Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound shortly after midnight and was leaking oil, big-time.

I was the environmental reporter at the Seattle Times, and a couple Washington State smaller spills just prior to this Good Friday disaster had primed the paper’s interest. Managing editor Alex McLeod had commercially fished the Alaska area in his younger days, and that helped open the newsroom money tap as well.

The lack of air connections meant I didn’t arrive in Valdez until the day after the spill, and I still beat most reporters, Exxon officials, and lawyers to the site. The ship itself could only be reach by boat or plane. It was remote.

Smell is a big part of memory, and vivid for me was flying over the wreck with National Geographic photographer Natalie Fobes, a former Times colleague, and being overpowered by the stench rising off the slick when she opened a window to take pictures.

I spent the next six months on and off in […]

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Anniversary in a Last Best Place

A full moon was setting over the San Juan Islands when my wife and I got up this morning.

The path of moonlight seemed like an approving omen. This St. Patrick’s Day is the 16th anniversary of our move into this view home in Anacortes, WA. We’ve enjoyed the water, trees, and storms ever since.

Dry winter, wet spring, sun today, and a blessed escape from the snowstorms that have hammered the eastern half of the country. Snowing in D.C.? Here near Canada the blossoms are out.

It was sunny the day we moved in, too. Trust me, that ain’t normal for these rainy parts in March.

Ours is a comfortable but peculiar house picked after our youngest went off to college, built on a rock bluff so steep that a few feet of the living room is actually cantilevered over the top of the foundation. A deck extends beyond that.

The house has three floors, but instead of being atop each other they step side by side to hug the boulder’s bulges. The 1982 builders who chose the lot were crazy, but in a good way.

The result feels like a tree house, perched on an igneous rock called gabbro that was once on […]

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The Future of Ethan Gage

Ethan Gage and his swashbuckling family are back in May with a thriller that entangles them in the past and allures them with the future. “The Three Emperors” is the series’ seventh adventure.

This story completes the quest for a legendary medieval automaton, the Brazen Head, which began in last year’s “The Barbed Crown.” Ethan finds that the path to reunite with his family leads through the battlefield of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s greatest victory.

For any readers who felt Ethan’s survival of the Battle of Trafalgar in the last book left some loose ends, “The Three Emperors” ties them up.

This is not the first time the Ethan Gage adventures have overlapped. “Napoleon’s Pyramids” set in motion action wrapped up in “The Rosetta Key,” and “The Dakota Cipher” carried over into “The Barbary Pirates.” “The Emerald Storm” set up Ethan’s initial mission in “The Barbed Crown,” which in turn leads to “The Three Emperors.”

Each can be read separately and out of order, since I take pains to explain the characters and what’s going on. But you should obviously read them all!

The Ethan Gage adventures have been told through Ethan’s first-person voice. This is the first book to give some chapters to his wife […]

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Of moss and Seahawks

I live in Washington state near the Canadian border, which means near the 49th parallel, which means as far north as northern Maine, which means only eight hours of daylight in the darkest depths of winter.

Which brings us to January. Washingtonians survive seasonal depression by escaping south, by enjoying the Seahawks in the years they make the playoffs (Cornerback Richard Sherman may briefly be the most notorious local since the Barefoot Bandit, Amanda Knox, and the Green River Killer) or by getting into moss.

It’s always green on the west side of the Evergreen State, but it’s weirdly, wonderfully, electric green in midwinter. Neon green. Leprechaun green. That’s when the leaves are down, moss and ferns are fat and happy with copious rainfall, and the smallest rivulets run full. Moss bloats. Explodes. Colonizes. Smothers. Moss is wonderfully intricate and varied, when you bend down to appreciate it. Feather moss looks like tiny feathers.

I realize that as an author, moss love does not make me as intriguing a literary celebrity as Hemingway’s alcohol, Mailer’s boxing, or Kesey’s acid trips. I don’t pick moss, and I don’t study it. I just like it, so long as it’s not on my roof. I’m not […]

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New Year Resolutions

It’s New Year resolution time again, and the venerable tradition of resolving not to make any resolutions is against the rules, like getting three wishes and using them to wish for more wishes. Technical foul!

It does help that most of us forget about any resolutions we made by, say, January 17. Takes the pressure off. So here goes:

Resolved: To not go back to 2013. Not a bad year, necessarily, but in my case it had an unusual number of uppy-ups and downer-downs which fit the potent number of thirteen. I don’t care if my wife’s birthday does fall on the 13th. Let’s move on.

Resolved: To get Younger Next Year. This is the title of a recommended health book aimed at guy boomers by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge. Their advice for the over-50 crowd is to exercise vigorously six days a week (seriously) and “stop eating crap.” (Roughly defined as all the stuff that tastes good.) They’re right, which means I’ll have to read it again on January 18.

Resolved: Write better. I’ve had this one for forty-plus years now. You be the judge.

Resolved: Cope with frustration when passed over again for a MacArthur Genius Grant, Nobel Prize, or People […]

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Mount St. Helens and Reid

I’ve never felt nostalgic about remembering my coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. A photographer colleague, Reid Blackburn, died in the blast.

What had been a newsroom lark at the Vancouver Columbian where I worked – an international story for a small daily! – turned into newsroom tragedy on May 18, 1980, as hours and then days ticked by with no word from Reid. He was perched on a ridge to photograph the big boom that geologists were expecting.

The landslide and eruption were later calculated to have the force of multiple atomic bombs (sources vary widely on how many) and killed fifty-six other people, a number that would have been far higher had it not been Sunday morning. Loggers and cabin owners were kept out of the woods.

Memories came back today thanks to the recent Columbian discovery of a role of film Reid shot while we flew the volcano in April. Its development is detailed in a story by Tom Vogt at this link: http://www.columbian.com/news/2013/dec/26/mount-st-helens-eruption-blackburn-lost-roll-film/

I don’t recall that particular flight. We reporters and photographers were up in airplanes a lot after the snow-capped volcano began preliminary eruptions in March – again, exotic spending for a small daily – […]

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Heaven and Help

In the last two weeks I’ve had the whiplash experience of visiting the happiest and unhappiest places on earth, and come away grateful for life all over again.

The happiest, of course, is Disneyland. I know so because the amusement park makes exactly that claim, and my grandchildren back it up. The youngest was goggle-eyed at her first glimpse of a greeting Goofy, and things just got better from there.

The unhappiest was the emergency room at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where my mother was helicoptered after problems following a fall. Her experience was excellent – heck, she was floating on morphine in the trauma center – but around us were the broken, the wounded, and the drug over-dosed. Harborview collects some of the worst cases of the Pacific Northwest.

I’d never visited, even as a newspaper reporter, so was intrigued by the vast warren of rooms and  urgent, professional calm. No shouting like in the movies. Just swift, deliberate intervention to save life after life.

My mother was in a room with six beds, partitioned by curtains. Tile, brittle lighting, medicinal smells, stainless steel cabinets, tubes dangling like worms, and real triage. As long as the monitors beeped reassuringly, Mom could wait: she […]

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Congress Imitates Cable

What’s wrong with this story?

No heroes.

I’m referring first to Congress, where legislative leaders seem to shrink in stature by the day, unable to act, unable to articulate, and unable to cooperate. The first government shutdown in seventeen years is the inevitable conclusion of myopic ambition, intellectual paralysis, and ideology as a substitute for reason.

But enough about the Tea Party.

This is also a case of life imitating art.

Television has never been more skilled in storytelling, but my vague disquiet with favorite series, especially on cable, has found its reflection in Congress. No more heroes. Everyone is on the take. Venality triumphs.

Call it the True Blood syndrome, in which all the good guys become monsters. Unlike politics, the infected vampires, werewolves, fairies, and witches all dissolve in righteous gore when struck through the heart. Like politics, a distinct shortage of real human beings has developed as the series has progressed.

The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, The White Queen, Shameless, Ray Donovan, Dexter, House of Lies, House of Cards, Californication, The Wire, Veep, Deadwood, Girls, Eastbound & Down, Entourage, Spartacus, Magic City, and Boss could also seem short in the humanity department. Where are the good guys? It’s Fifty Shades of […]

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Back To The USSR

Winston Churchill said that, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

That seemed to fit the Soviet Union, a weird combination of economic idealism harnessed to totalitarian brutality that cast a shadow on the world for seventy years.

But I’ve just returned from a research/tourist trip to Russia that upended all my Cold War stereotypes. Today’s Russia is patriotic pride, burdened by colossal historical sorrow, and leavened by hope.

The big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are bastions of go-go capitalism that has whiplashed the lives of ordinary Russians. People have gained freedom and opportunity at the cost of security and predictability. The result is a forest of construction cranes, monumental traffic jams, oligarchs to rival the age of the czars, and ordinary Russians struggling to keep up.

The country seems magnificently grand and frustratingly inefficient, newly prosperous and unevenly balanced. Moscow is the nation’s golden black hole, doubling since communist times to 15 million people and holding the bulk of the nation’s wealth. Rural areas, “the real Russia,” according to our guides, are more backward but charming, distant planets orbiting around this central sun.

Our visit in the first half of September was unexpectedly timely. The G-20 Summit began […]

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