From war coverage to thrillers
Baltimore-area spy novelist, Dan Fesperman, worked for 21 years at the Baltimore Sun as a reporter. During those years, he mostly covered Europe and the Middle East, traveling to 30 countries and covering three wars.
He retired in 2005, after “I did all I wanted to do” in journalism, he told the Beacon, and turned his full-time attention to writing novels of intrigue and suspense.
And not just any novels. Fesperman’s 2018 book, Safe Houses, is “the best suspense/spy novel I’ve read since (John) Le Carré,” said Stephen King, who knows suspense thrillers when he reads, and writes, them.
No doubt Fesperman’s years in journalism gave him many experiences with which to illuminate his novels. He reported on the Persian Gulf War, including Operation Desert Storm; the Bosnian and Serbian War, “maybe a dozen trips, some to besieged Sarajevo,” and the Afghanistan conflict in 2001.
“What you learn mostly in covering war,” he said, “is the way human beings act when placed under the stresses and dangers of war — an experience that tends to bring out either the best or the worst in people.”
He added: “It’s all wasteful and often pointless, and it’s usually the people who have the least to do with the war — women, children, front-line cannon fodder — who suffer the most.”
But his works do more than incorporate elements of real life. Fesperman said journalism “allows the reporter to tell the truth with a small ‘t,’ [while] novel-writing offers the writer the opportunity to get to the truth with a capital ‘T.’”
“In journalistic reporting, you can’t always give your impression, even if you have a pretty good idea of what is going on,” Fesperman said. “In fiction writing, I can at least make a stab at telling a few larger truths.”
New book just published
Fesperman’s latest spy novel, Winter Work, is a “well-paced thriller,” according to The New York Times.
Of the same book, Kirkus Reviews said “Fesperman builds his story around the inner lives of his characters, an approach that transforms typical espionage tropes into universal human drama.”
The novel is based on experiences Fesperman had in the early 1990s, just after the Berlin Wall came down, when he lived and worked in the German capital. He had an inkling then of what everyone knows now — this was a crucial time in 20th century world history.
“I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be witnessing all of that,” he said. “Which way is East Germany going to go? What will this part of the city (East Berlin) end up like? What’s going to happen to these people?”
Winter Works looks at the Cold War in what critics agree are deeply human terms.
“Most Cold War spy novels focus on the Manichaean ideological struggle between East and West,” said the Times in reviewing the book. “This one successfully explores a grayer era, when neither side in the conflict understood quite what was happening, and the old rules of the game evaporated in a matter of weeks. The trade in truth and lies was booming, and nothing was as it seemed.”
13 novels and counting
Fesperman, 66, has written 13 novels, 10 of which have been published since he retired from the Sun. The first three works were completed while he was still a foreign correspondent for the newspaper.
His writing days, he noted, begin at about 8 a.m. He can put in an eight-hour day at the keyboard “when things are going good.”
“I enjoy writing books,” Fesperman added. “I like to tell a story. I try to write the kind of book I would like to read.
“And I get to tell a story on my own terms, in a world of my own creation that — just maybe — makes a little more sense than the one I used to cover as a reporter.”
His novels have won, among other citations, two UK Crime Writers Association awards, a Dashiell Hammett prize from the Crime Writers Association, and a selection as the year’s best mystery/thriller by USA Today.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Fesperman lives with his wife, Liz Bowie, in Baltimore County, near Lake Roland. They have lived in the area since 1984, raising two children here.
Bowie, who was also a veteran reporter at the Sun, has gone over to the Baltimore Banner, a recent start-up “digital news source that’s focusing in on the Baltimore region,” according to its online blurb.
Despite its inner-city rep of crime and harsh police punishment, Fesperman said he remains attracted to Baltimore and its surroundings.
“I like living in the Baltimore area because it’s a place that feels grounded, even if it seems it can be a little insular,” he said. “I guess that’s also part of its charm.”
Fesperman was asked what makes a person into a writer. He told the Beacon that what he said in an interview about a decade ago still holds true today:
“Write every day. Make it a habit, not a diversion. Once you’ve made it a habit, turn it into an obsession.
“Then, when you reach the point that it’s the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning, and the last thing you think of as you fall asleep, you’ll know you’ve become a writer.”
Novels by Dan Fesperman:
Lie in the Dark, 1999
The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, 2003
The Warlord’s Son, 2004
The Prisoner of Guantanamo, 2006
The Amateur Spy, 2007
The Arms Maker of Berlin, 2009
Layover in Dubai, 2010
The Double Game, 2012
The Letter Writer, 2016
Safe Houses, 2018
The Cover Wife, 2021
Winter Work, 2022