Dietrich, William 1951-

views updated

Dietrich, William 1951-

(William S. Dietrich)

PERSONAL: Born September 29, 1951, in Tacoma, WA; son of William Richard Dietrich (a painting contractor) and Janice Lenore (Pooler) Anderson; married Holly Susan Roberts (a teacher), December 19, 1970; children: Lisa Nicole, Heidi Renee. Education: Western Washington University, B.A., 1973; attended Harvard University, 1987–88. Politics: "Moderate common sense." Religion: "Theistic, fatalistic, science enthusiast." Hobbies and other interests: Travel, skiing, hiking, history, home improvement.

ADDRESSES: Home—Anacortes, WA. Agent—Kris Dahl, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Bellingham Herald, Bellingham, WA, political reporter, 1973–76; Gannett News Service, Washington, DC, reporter, 1976–78; Vancouver Columbian, Vancouver, WA, reporter and columnist, 1978–82; Seattle Times, Seattle, WA, science reporter, 1982–97; writer, 1997–.

MEMBER: National Association of Science Writers, Newspaper Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Nieman fellow, 1987–88; Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, 1990, for coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; Washington Governor's Writers Award and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, both for The Final Forest; Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory fellow.


The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.

Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1996.

Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder, and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants, drawings by Brenda Cunnigham, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 2003.


Ice Reich, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Getting Back, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2000.

Dark Winter, Warner Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Hadrian's Wall, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.

The Scourge of God, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: William Dietrich often writes on environmental issues. His Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River is part journalistic account, part sociology, part history, and part travelogue, dealing with a contemporary environmental crisis. The book recounts the history of the unruly and powerful Columbia River, America's second-largest river, from its discovery by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 through its current status as the world's most-dammed river system, plagued by pollution and bled by irrigation. The resulting gains for agriculture and industry of this "progress" have negatively impacted some of the world's most prolific salmon and steelhead runs. Northwest Passage explores how mankind has changed the Columbia, and how, in turn, mankind has been changed by it. He touches on such issues as resource economics, Indian rights, and hydroelectric politics.

In 1997 Dietrich left the Seattle Times and began a life as a full-time writer of fiction. Having visited the Antarctic twice, his first novel was set on that frozen continent. Ice Reich is a World War II thriller, based on actual incidents that occurred in 1938 and 1939, when German Nazi leader Hermann Goering sent the seaplane Schwabenland on an expedition to Antarctica in order to lay partial claim to the continent. In this fictional account of a similar mission, the reader is introduced to protagonist Owen Hart, a Montana cowboy turned bush pilot, who has just crash-landed in Alaska, and whose previous personal attempt to cross the South Pole by plane resulted in a humiliating failure. Hart, unaware of the dark side of the Nazi's Third Reich and seeking adventure, heads to Berlin, meets Goering and expedition commander Major Jurgen Drexler of the S.S., and is smitten with brainy and beautiful biologist Greta Heinz, a Garbo-esque femme fatale.

Their ocean voyage by ship to Antarctica is uneventful. However, shortly after their arrival, the German vessel, a small seaplane tender, engages in a battle with a Norwegian whaling ship and is damaged when it rams an ice pack during the hostile engagement. The Nazi ship then harbors on a previously uncharted volcanic island, where Hart stumbles upon the ruin of another Norwegian ship and learns that its crew was decimated by a horrible infectious disease that has no known cure. Just as the German explorers begin to contract this lethal ailment, Owen and Greta miraculously discover an antidote for the disease while exploring the island. Following a tryst in a slime-filled cavern, Greta and Owen become separated from one another—Greta flees the island with Drexler, while Hart returns home with a group of Norwegians. The tale then jumps forward to the close of World War II. The reunited Greta and Owen are racing back to the dangerous island to try to stop Drexler from using the disease as a weapon against the allies. A Kirkus Reviews contributor dubbed the novel a "rousing, Indiana Jones-style debut thriller with scheming Nazis, hair-raising escapes, sweeping scenery, and romance in a volcanic cave." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly described the novel as "a speed-read action adventure in exotic locales with fascinating scientific facts."

Getting Back takes some of Dietrich's concerns for the environment and uses them to paint a chilling picture of the mid-twenty-first century. In this world, Earth has doubled its population, and advances in technology have made even scaling Mount Everest safe and easy in an adventureless society run by the all-controlling United Corporations. It is a world where wilderness only exists in old movies. Protagonist Daniel Dyson is a mid-level programmer who lives in Cubicle 17 of an immense, shimmering, dehumanizing pyramid, dreaming of love and escape from his humdrum existence while, in petty ways, trying to subvert the orderly routines of his programmed life. Then he meets the seductive Raven, who, after tempting him into a subterranean escapade, introduces him to a well-hidden secret. On a heavily encrypted Web site, Dyson learns of Outback Adventure, a secret tourist organization that, for a full year's salary, will ar-range a forbidden, survivalist trek across the Australian desert wasteland—a continent whose entire population had been killed off by a genetically-engineered plague. In addition to its high cost, the trek's other catch is that one must complete the cross-continent trip to return to the safety of society—otherwise, the adventurers will remain trapped in this savage wasteland. Raven disappears, but Daniel signs up for the adventure, only to find that, in addition to the natural dangers that face him and his two dozen trek-mates, they must survive a vicious pack of killer convicts who are pursuing them. When Raven reappears to save Dyson and his companions from dying of thirst, they learn their "outlaw" adventure is merely another trick of United Corporations to control the dissatisfied and potentially rebellious. "Eluding Big Brother to return to the wild may be a familiar theme, but Dietrich's campy cinematic treatment makes it fresh again," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Donna Seaman of Booklist wrote that Dietrich's "vivid prose is topnotch," creating a "well-crafted and compelling futuristic thriller."

The murder thriller Dark Winter includes scenes based in the Cascade Mountains near the author's home. This time, Dietrich tells the story of geologist Jed Lewis and an Antarctic Support Team composed of twenty-six scientists, who one by one are found to have suffered horrific and mysterious deaths. As an outsider to the group, Lewis is a prime suspect. On his home Web page, the author called the story "my intrigue about the social communities that field scientists create."

The author provides a fictional account of life during the Roman Empire in the novel Hadrian's Wall. The wall, which stretched across present-day England, marked the outer edges of civilization at the time. The author uses it as the focal point in a story featuring the conflict between the Romans and the Northern Celtic tribes. The plot revolves around Valeria, a Roman Senator's daughter who is kidnapped to be married off to a treacherous soldier. Jane Baird, writing in the Library Journal, called the characters "intriguing." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "lively, authoritative, and edifying." Writing in Booklist, Margaret Flanagan noted that the author "realistically re-creates the tumult and the confusion that characterized Rome's last-gasp." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Dietrich is in top form with this rousing tale."

In The Scourge of God, the author returns to the Roman Empire, now in its final decline, as he tells the story of Attila the Hun's efforts to conquer Europe. Dietrich recounts Attila's march west as he tells of the romance between a scribe and a beautiful Roman slave. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "the story unfolds swiftly and satisfyingly." Jane Baird, writing in the Library Journal, commented that the battle scenes "are so vivid that one can almost taste the dust in the air and hear the clash of sword." In a review in Booklist, Michele Leber wrote that Dietrich "vividly describes treachery, betrayals, assassination attempts, executions, and battles." A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted: "As always, Dietrich … has a firm grip on setting."

Dietrich once told CA: "As a native of the Pacific Northwest, much of my writing is influenced by the epic landscape of its region and the enormous changes that have resulted from rapid growth. As a journalist and author, I write to organize my own thinking and feeling, to educate myself, to communicate my concerns and passions and, of course, to earn a living. The tone and structure of my books were heavily influenced by my years as a newspaper journalist, which has introduced me to thousands of people and a diversity of cultures, occupations, and viewpoints. The degree to which humans share values and differ in opinion is one of the subjects that fascinates me.

"Newspaper work is a blessing and a curse for any serious writer. It teaches one to write under difficult conditions, imposes a necessary deadline, and is good training for brevity, clarity, simplicity, speed, information gathering, and accuracy. It is a passport to meet people who might otherwise be inaccessible, and to visit places a writer could not visit any other way. I have been to the South Pole, for example, and to Eskimo villages in the Arctic. Journalism also forces a writer to interview, with sympathy, people of opposite points of view.

"Newspaper writing is very different from book writing, however. Books put a premium on the author's own thoughts and perceptions and demand a higher level of style, organization, and flow. Accordingly, I have found books to be both challenging and liberating. The long time it takes to produce a book and its expected 'shelf life' also require a very different approach to research and writing than journalism does. I am fortunate in having had the opportunity to use both forms of writing.

"As a journalist, I am more interested in informing than persuading. I prefer to show by concrete example than to tell by polemic. I am aware of the complex relationships in society and prefer to bring many voices into my books.

"The biggest handicap facing a daily journalist with a book opportunity is time. Journalism is enormously demanding, and husbanding the energy to write books is difficult. I try to stay disciplined and organized. I start with research but begin writing before the research is complete. I have found that organizing the writing suggests additional information that must be gathered. I try to write a quick first draft of a chapter, and then to revise it substantially. I have taken leaves from my newspaper to work on both my books, and I try to cram as much work as possible into these brief respites. Like Pavlov's dog, I tend to be very conscious of deadlines and time; too much so, sometimes, for my own good.

"Because the world's population has nearly tripled in the past seventy-five years and continues to soar, I believe achieving some kind of sustainable balance between our civilization and the environment will prove to be the foremost problem of the twenty-first century. My own region has proven to be an apt microcosm of this planetary challenge. We have witnessed disastrous losses of virgin forest, salmon, and prairie, and we have experienced some of the worst radioactive, mining, and industrial pollution to be found anywhere. At the same time, the region has an environmentally minded population searching for solutions, enormous scenic beauty, and more time and space than most places in which to achieve balance. This race between exploitation and reform makes the story of the Pacific Northwest a parable of global significance, and it has a history both heroic and venal. Moreover, the place itself—the rains, the peaks, the deep forests, the crystalline rivers—tends to inspire a writer's imagination."



Booklist, December 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Getting Back, p. 756; February 1, 2004, Margaret Flanagan, review of Hadrian's Wall, p. 949; March 1, 2005, Michele Leber, review of The Scourge of God, p. 1140.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1998, review of Ice Reich; January 15, 2004, review of Hadrian's Wall, p. 50; February 1, 2005, review of The Scourge of God, p. 134.

Library Journal, January, 2004, Jane Baird, review of Hadrian's Wall, p. 152; February 15, 2005, Janie Baird, review of The Scourge of God, p. 114.

Oregonian, November 21, 1998, Ellen Emry Heltzel, "A Career on Ice, with a Twist."

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1998, review of Ice Reich, p. 46; December 13, 1999, review of Getting Back, p. 64; February 9, 2004, review of Hadrian's Wall, p. 56; February 7, 2005, review of The Scourge of God, p. 41.


AllReaders.com (February 19, 2006), Harriet Klausner, reviews of Hadrian's Wall and Getting Back., (February 19, 2006), Sarah Rachel Egelman, review of Hadrian's Wall.

Brothers Judd, (February 19, 2006), review of Hadrian's Wall.

William Dietrich Home Page, (February 19, 2006).

Writer's Write, (February 19, 2006), Claire E. White, "A Conversation with William Dietrich."

About this article

Dietrich, William 1951-

Updated About content Print Article Share Article