Sometimes your life changes in funny ways.
For Dan Fesperman, it changed in Sarajevo, during the Bosnian War. The North Carolina native arrived as a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in 1994. By the time he left, he knew he’d write a novel about it. Twenty years and nine international thrillers later, he has left the Sun and now writes fiction full time.
“Lie in the Dark,” that first novel, was about a Bosnian policeman investigating homicides during the war. It won the U.K.’s John Creasey Dagger for best first novel. In 2006, “The Prisoner of Guantanamo” was picked by USA Today as the best mystery/thriller of the year, while also winning the Hammett Award from the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers.
He’ll be at Politics and Prose at 7 tonight to talk about “Unmanned,” his latest. It follows Darwin Cole, a former F-16 fighter pilot who later flew drones, haunted by a mission gone wrong for reasons that aren’t clear. Cole, like his real-life counterparts, served at Creech Air Force Base in the desert about 40 miles outside Las Vegas. The pilots work in trailers, look at computer screens and fly Predator drones in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles and nine time zones away.
“It’s a weird, weird job,” he says. “They have a lots of burnout, depression. The stress to risk is the highest in the military — the stress is enormous, but the only real risk they face is driving home in traffic in Las Vegas.”
Like all of his books, Fesperman builds the narrative by on-the-ground research. He got clearance to the base in 2011, saw the inside of the trailers, watching training missions and interviewed pilots.
“They were completely candid about the eeriness of the job. These guys had two keyboards, three or four video screens, headsets on, there are four or five people looking (virtually) over their shoulder. You’ve got these really tense messages going back and forth, and then somebody gives a command like ‘Take a look at this spot over here’….You wind up, even at that distance, with this weird intimacy with the people and villages you’re surveilling. Then they go back to completely alien lives where they can’t really talk about what they’ve been doing all day.”
The Afghan research he already had down from reporting in the country after 9/11. And while his books are most often set abroad — Germany, Dubai, Afghanistan — he’s starting to explore native ground. “The Double Game,” his previous book, was largely set in Washington. His next — as yet un untitled but the working name is “The Letter Writer” — is set in New York in 1942, with the city aflame with fears of German spies and infiltrators.
“You had German subs sinking ships off the coast, a huge number of New Yorkers were foreign-born, a lot of them immigrants from Germany and Italy. Before the war, you had 22,000 people turn out for a rally by the Bund, who were Nazi sympathizers and supporters, at Madison Square Garden…it was a very paranoid time, and it makes for a lot of good material to write about.”