Shots: The Crime & Mystery Ezine

Dan Fesperman speaks to Ayo Onatade for Shots Ezine

© Ayo Onatade

Dan Fesperman Dan Fesperman is a journalist with the Baltimore Sun. He has served in its Berlin Bureau, covering the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, which has provided an authentic background to his two books featuring homicide investigator Vlado Petric in war torn Sarajevo. He currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. This interview took place at the second Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, 22nd to 25th July 2004.
 

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Ayo:

In 1999 your first novel Lie in the Dark won the John Creasey Memorial Award Dagger. How did you feel when you heard about it?

Dan:

I was ecstatic. They announced it at Dead on Deansgate when I was at home and I got an email. I just leapt up in the air. I was very happy about that.

Ayo:

What made you decide to enter the competition in the first place?

Dan:

Book Jacket, Lie In The DarkThe publisher entered it. It was No Exit Press and I didnít even know it had been entered. Then I heard that it had been short-listed, so I was very pleased about that and just had no expectation to win at all. Then I was very happy when it did. I came over for the presentation which was at the Dagger Dinner; I was one of the few people in the room that knew that they had won. So I got to enjoy lunch while all the other nominees got to sweat it out for the Gold and Silver Daggers. That was when Robert Wilson won the Gold Dagger and it was the first time I shook his hand. It has been fun seeing him again here. So I ran out and immediately bought his book.

Ayo:

Which one? The Bruce Medway series?

Dan:

It was The Small Death in Lisbon and I have also read some of the Bruce Medways.

Ayo:

I started off by reading the Bruce Medway series and now I understand that they are doing really well in the States.

Dan:

They have reprinted them and now they are doing much better. They are very nicely done.

Ayo:

Your second book, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, then went on to win the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award in 2003. It does appear that UK readers have a lot of affinity with your books as you have won two awards for your first two books. How do you feel about this?

Dan:

Itís nice, itís a surprise. Itís odd though. I had it remarked to me by someone at Transworld when they first read it that they were certain I was British or European; I took that in a good way, but I am not sure what it means stylistically. I guess it means that there is something in the style that makes them think that. I am not quite sure what it is. I am not quite sure if itís something in the take I have on the region or what. But obviously I have a certain affinity that doesnít seem like they wouldnít peg me right away as an American writer. So I donít know what that is but Iím taking it as a positive.

Ayo:

It was only after I read the first book and then read the bio that I realised you were American, but I like books set in foreign climes.

Dan:

I think maybe it is because they donít expect an American to want to set books in those places.

Ayo:

Are you still a journalist?

Dan:

I am, I am still working the day job, and I am now based back in the States.

Ayo:

How do you manage to combine the two?

Dan:

It is very hard. Before it didnít seem that hard and I would write in the morning. Book Jacket, Small Boat of Great SorrowsI would get up about 6:00am and I would work till around 9 - 9:30 in the morning and then I would take twenty minutes to decompress and get ready for work and go into the newsroom to work a full day. At the time it seemed reasonably sane and then when I got back from Afghanistan a few months after that I took almost two years off to finish Small Boat, write The Warlordís Son and get through most of the revisions. Then I went back to work last October (2003) at the newspaper and having had all that freedom itís hard, very hard going back to doing both because I discovered that when I had the freedom to write only the book there was no clutter in my mind. I would go to sleep thinking about the book, I would wake up with new stuff in my head and now you donít get that. I wake up and Iím just as likely to have something about the newspaper story in my head and it really crowds it out so itís much harder to free up the space to work on the book.

Ayo:

I was talking to a fellow crime writer this afternoon that also used to work on the Baltimore Sun.

Dan:

Laura Lippman!

Ayo:

She said that you gave her the first part of your book to read and that she was incredibly impressed with it. It seems that the Baltimore Sun have a lot of crime writers.

Dan:

Quite a few - yes, Sujata Massey, Stephen Hunter who writes quite good thrillers. And itís true, there was this little cell of us there. It was like a sleeper cell of crime writers who have suddenly come out and just started writing. Laura and my desk for a while, we were back to back to each other.

Ayo:

Was it you she used to share a computer with?

Dan:

Thatís right, we would share a computer, swivel it around. I would see messages on there for her and she would see messages on there for me. But we would sign each other off. Yeah, itís pretty unusual they way itís worked out, though. Particularly Laura whoís very supportive about everyone who has come along and wanted to find a publisher or an agent - sheís so helpful to all of us.

Ayo:

Are there certain events that trigger your thought process when it comes to writing your books or thinking about plots?

Dan:

There are, and there are people that I have run into who I have thought that I would like to borrow some of their traits for a character, or even the way they looked for a character but there is no one type of thing that sets me off. Itís mostly a combination; Iíll be thinking in the middle of the night sometimes and I will get an idea for a scene, or a character, or a plot element and Iíll get up and write it down. But itís everything that triggers it really.

Ayo:

Characterisation or plot: or do you believe you need to have a bit off both?

Dan:

A bit of both. I think that what you need to start with is one character and build from there with characters they know, they are related to and then you start building the plot. You should be building both at the same time, you might modify a character before you start writing the way you want him depending on the way you want the plot to head and then vice versa. You think you want the character to be a little more this way than that so you have to adapt the plot to that. But it sort of comes along simultaneous.

Ayo:

So how do you feel once you have finished writing your books? Do you breathe this massive sigh of relief or start worrying about how they are going to be received?

Dan:

One followed quickly by the other! You have the massive sigh of relief and then quickly your thinking, all right what needs to be changed, whatís the reaction going to be. Itís interesting when you get the feedback from your editors about what needs to be changed, generally itís the thing you were thinking was weakest or what you were worried about most and it confirms your instincts that youíve got good editors and it also confirms that you were right.

Ayo:

This is your first time at this conference - how are you enjoying it so far?

Dan:

Yes, itís wonderful. My family are with me and as weíve never been to Scotland we are going up there on Sunday, so itís a nice opportunity to see a lot of Britain that we hadnít before. I have been very impressed by the quality of the panels. I havenít been to one yet that wasnít a dud and you go to something like Bouchercon and there are a lot of duds.

Ayo:

Bouchercon is also massive and they run multi panels.

Dan:

And you miss good ones while you are at ones that donít pan out and this is very nice. One at a time, I think they are very selective, not so much about who sells, whoís top. They are very good at picking who work well together, getting people who turn out to make interesting panels. Itís been real nice.

Ayo:

If you were marooned on a desert island and could take a luxury item what would you take with you?

Dan:

A luxury item? Um, a satellite phone I guess. A satellite phone with a very good battery. That would be my luxury item.

Ayo:

How do you spend your free time?

Dan:

I am terribly addicted to college basketball, so I watch that. I also sign on to an internet message board group about the North Carolina Tar Heels, totally stupid. I read something like Fever Pitch and I understand it perfectly because I have the same psychosis, just with a different sport. I do that. I run when I can and play some basketball. Spend time with my kids and go out in the woods, we like to get outdoors.

Ayo:

If you could have a dinner party and could invite five characters, not specifically crime characters, who would you choose?

Dan:

Five fictional characters! Well, thatís an interesting idea. George Smiley would be one. I would like to talk to him; I would let him wipe his glasses on his tie all he wanted. Book Jacket, The Warlords Son Um, actually what I would like to do is have the characters and their authors both in the room at the same time. I would like to have Smiley and Le Carrť or Cornwell there and see their interplay. Boy, you have so much to choose from, man. That is a very tough one. Thatís something I would have to sit down for about an hour because I would be afraid I would leave out one and think later I want him, I want her. Those are the two I know I would have to have. Probably Graham Greene for sure. Thatís one thatís very hard because I am torn in about twenty directions at once. Those are the only three that I am certain about. The other two I would probably want to have a selection process and interview them which would be unfair and totally unreasonable. But if I can have that dinner then I want to do it right. Those are the only three that I know for sure.

Ayo:

Thank you very much indeed.

Dan:

Oh, thank you.


Book Jacket, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

Books by Dan Fesperman:-

Lie in the Dark
The Small Boat of Great Sorrows
The Warlordís Son


 

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