Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Where in the World Is Dan Fesperman?

I first became aware of Dan Fesperman in 1999, when his debut novel, Lie in the Dark, won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s (CWA) John Creasey Award (now the New Blood Dagger). After doing a little research, I realized that Fesperman’s debut was so illuminating because he’d been an international correspondent, and had put in many years writing for The Baltimore Sun. What I enjoy most about Fesperman’s fiction is how he intertwines and breathes life into his characters, who are backdropped by the stresses and strains of geopolitical situations. He tackles big issues, using his characters’ lives and deaths to show how people interact amid the tensions of war. And he has a keen eye for the little details that make his books thrilling as well as compassionate.

His second novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (2003), was, like its predecessor, set against the Balkan conflict, and it too was highly regarded by the CWA, which presented Fesperman with the 2003 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Small Boat beat Robert Littell’s mammoth spy history, The Company--no mean feat for a relative newcomer such as Fesperman (shown above with Lizzie Hayes of Mystery Women).

I first met Fesperman during Boucheron 2003, held in Las Vegas. He actually came to England the following year in order to receive his commendation during the Dagger Awards ceremony in London. And he was again present at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in 2004. Since then, his novels have been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic, and he’s tackled story locations all over the globe. The action in The Warlord’s Son (2004), for instance, takes place in Afghanistan, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo (2006) is set at the highly controversial U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. This author’s storytelling abilities led Deadly Pleasures magazine’s Larry Gandle to gush of The Warlord’s Son:
Sweeping in grandeur like Doctor Zhivago, yet intimate enough to be reminiscent of a Graham Greene and as a thriller intelligent enough to be in the same ranks of John le Carré. However, I predict Dan Fesperman will ultimately equal them in fame writing his own type of stylistic war novels. This one is a masterpiece.
Again, during last summer’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, I had the chance to share a beer and chat with Fesperman, on this occasion about his latest work, The Amateur Spy (currently available in hardcover in the UK, and making its debut in the States from Alfred A. Knopf on March 4). We also toasted The Prisoner of Guantánamo’s winning the 2006 Dashiell Hammett Award. Since then, I’ve had the chance to ask Fesperman a bit about The Amateur Spy and his interest in geopolitics.

Ali Karim: For those who haven’t yet had a chance to see your new novel, tell us something about its story.

Dan Fesperman: Well, it features a UN aid worker, Freeman Lockhart, who thinks he’s about to retire nicely on some [possibly] ill-gotten gains. And he’s confronted by a gentleman from the intelligence services who wants him to work for them, to spy on an old Palestinian friend of [Lockhart’s]. [Our hero] worked with this friend during the Intafada. The friend runs an aid agency that the security services think may be funneling money to the wrong places. [Lockhart]’s dubious, but the security services have certain leverage over him about his past. He therefore has little choice but to work for them in Jordan.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, there is an Arab-American couple [Aliyah and Abbas Rahim] who lost a daughter due to some terrible circumstances overseas, and Abbas [a well-respected surgeon] is having a mental breakdown. Abbas blames the U.S. government [for his troubles], due to the post-9/11 paranoia in the U.S. administration that caused ripples both domestically as well as in terms of foreign policy. His wife, Aliyah, is concerned that his depression is moving him into his own brand of radicalism--not a religious brand of radicalism, but his own personal radicalism. She is worried that it might have just as disastrous consequences, so she’s moving to stop him without alerting the authorities, and as result she winds up in Jordan. That’s when her path will cross [that of] the other amateur spy, Freeman Lockhart, and we see these two amateurs involved in a “game” that only the professionals play. That’s basically the set-up for the new book.

AK: I recall when we last spoke that you had visited Guantánamo Bay, which gave your last book such an authentic feel. Did you visit Jordan on behalf of The Amateur Spy?

DF: I did, and in fact I have over the years spent a lot of time in Jordan, visiting six or seven times before. And so, in preparation for The Amateur Spy, I went back to Jordan to get myself back up-to-date, in terms of the state of play in politics [and] social aspects. Jordan’s an interesting place, in that it’s a very progressive monarchy which has a parliament that doesn’t have any real power, but it is allowed to vent the opinions of the street. A lot of people consider the regime benign, [and think] that you can say anything you want, but it’s not quite like that. [Yet] it’s very unlike Syria and Saudi Arabia and places that are more repressive toward their people.

AK: What is it about geopolitics that interests you so much, and provides a backdrop for your fiction?

DF: Just the whole meddling of the “great powers” trying to make the wheels turn in different countries, flexing their muscles. I also like to observe the things that happen in those countries and the way the great powers exert their influence in regions that have inherent instability, and [see] the effect on people living and working there.

AK: So, are you still practicing your journalism, or has your fiction-writing taken over your life completely?

DF: [Laughing] Well, actually I’ve quit my day-job for good--two months ago [April 2007]. I took a long leave, and finally at the end of that I decided that I want to concentrate on writing books. I have some new contracts with publishers, so I feel OK about severing my ties to journalism.

AK: So, Dan, what have you been reading lately?

DF: Mainly fiction, as I only read non-fiction for research. I recently read The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, speaking about Americans having misadventures in places they know nothing about; and I’ve just started The Rotters Club, by Jonathan Coe.

AK: Can I assume that you’re currently working on another geopolitical thriller?

DF: That’s correct. [Laughs] Yes, geopolitics again, but the new book is a little bit of a departure--half of [it] is set in Switzerland during the Second World War, involving the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] and intelligence agencies and the interplay between them. The other half is set in the present, with someone tracking something that went missing from that time.

* * *
If you would like to sample a bit of The Amateur Spy, click here for the first chapter. And believe me, if you’ve not yet read Dan Fesperman’s work, it’s high time to pull out the blue helmet and Kevlar vest and head off to one of his war-zones.

No comments: