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Sun War Correspondent Dan Fesperman Crosses From Fact to Fiction Again With His Latest Crime Novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

By Lizzie Skurnick | Posted 12/24/2003

In November 2001, longtime war correspondent Dan Fesperman was, as usual, in the hot spot. Covering the conflict in Afghanistan for The Sun, he was riding lead in a convoy of journalists traveling on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul when his driver sped past two men waving Kalashnikovs. As he and his companions would not learn until the next day, he was one of the lucky ones. The two cars behind him were successfully pulled over by the hijackers, four of the journalists inside shot dead and left by the roadside, the rest scattered, running, into the hills.

One might assume that a writer whose life contained such drama would simply mine his own experience for what he writes in his off hours. But Fesperman, whose first novel, Lie in the Dark, won Britain's John Creasey Memorial Dagger award for best first crime novel of 1999, has always been "fascinated by the little things people did to get by," he says.

Dark introduced readers to Vlado Petric, a Serbian homicide detective who waits out the sniper fire in his gutted city while his family is sent abroad. Now, Fesperman has come back with the second part of Vlado's story, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, where we find Vlado working construction in Berlin. The conflict in Bosnia is over, but the conflict within Vlado still rages--how to adjust to his new life in Germany, repair the gap rendered by his years-long separation from his family, and, most importantly, react to Calvin Pine, the mysterious war crimes tribunal investigator who appears, one day, at Vlado's door.

The germ of the idea for Sorrows--the title can be found in the Serbian epic poem "The Mountain Wreath," by Petar II Petrovic Njegos--came from a colleague, Tom Hundley, during Fesperman's three-year stint in the Sun's Berlin bureau.

"He'd mentioned something about some great documents he'd found--some ex-State Department employee who'd compiled all this information on this Croatian gold that had been smuggled out at the end of World War II," Fesperman recalls, safely at home in Baltimore, where he lives and works between assignments abroad. "That got me interested in finding out more about the Ustasha priests in Rome, and that whole network."

The network to which Fesperman refers--in which former war criminals were smuggled out of Serbia, then provided with new identities by the nationalist Ustasha government--is lightly lifted from real events, as was Vlado's character, who grew out of a homicide detective that Fesperman put in a request to talk to but never actually met while in Sarajevo covering the war. His drive to interview the detective, Fesperman says, stemmed from his amazement that, amid sniper fire and large-scale executions, the local legal system still ground on.

"I talked to a judge for the criminal court, and I talked to an attorney who was still handling tort cases and lawsuits," Fesperman recalls. "It just hit me that how absurd, but also how interesting, it was that all this would still be going on."

As in his reporting work, Fesperman sees his job as a novelist as "trying to give a window into that culture for people here who really don't understand it." But while a journalist can only point to that window, in a novel, Fesperman says, "you're also trying to show that you've got characters who are dealing with the same kinds of things people are everywhere. No matter who they are, people are going to react to being in the middle of a war the same way."

The novels themselves, Fesperman contends, arise out of the veritable flood of information any wartime reporter receives. "You've got all this great stuff that lends itself to treatment," he says. "You can do justice to it to some degree in a newspaper story, but--I heard someone say once that journalism is truth with a little 't' and novels are truth with a capital 'T.' So that's kind of it."

Fesperman never set out to be novelist. "I was in that generation that was in college when Watergate unfolded, and everyone in journalism school wanted to be a political reporter or an investigative reporter," he says. "The two big books then were All the President's Men and The Boys on the Bus. They made it sound so much like summer camp that you just wanted to do both."

But until he allowed his reporting to seep into his creative work, early efforts at fiction faltered. "For some reason, when I got [the idea for Lie in the Dark], it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, It's compact, it's pretty linear, it's not that ambitious, but it's interesting. . . . If I start it, I think I can finish it. And that made all the difference."

But selling his first novel proved harder than writing it. "Like everybody thinks, I thought, I'll just send it out to an agent and that will be it. I sent to a total of 24 different agents, including one who said, 'Judging from your submission and your query letter, it's obvious that you know little about either querying or novel writing,'" Fesperman recalls, laughing. "But then he said, 'Because of your background, I'd be interested in any of your nonfiction queries for books.' As if I was going to send him anything then!"

Help from then-Sun colleague Laura Lippman, who recommended the book to an agent at a mystery writers' convention at Goucher College, proved key. "Laura was instrumental in getting an agent and thus getting published, and she's always put in a good word. I think mystery writers in particular are not at all backbiting--they're just really collegial and always help each other out."

Soho Press, which published Dark, generously declined Fesperman's current book. "They saw it and liked it, but they said, 'I think you can get more,'" he recalls. Sorrows was published by Borzoi, Knopf's illustrious imprint, edited by Sonny Mehta, that includes works by Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. "They have that whole snob-appeal 'note on the type,'" Fesperman smiles. "And I'd always thought the author picked out the type." (Mehta, in fact, will be personally editing Fesperman's next book.)

The switch from the small--albeit extremely well-respected--Soho Press to the hottest line at Random House has already made a difference in Sorrows' reception.

"If it's got that [Knopf] imprint on it, you're more likely to get reviewed and you don't have to make an extra effort to be taken seriously," Fesperman says. "With a smaller press, it's much harder to get reviewed in the Times."

Fesperman's next work takes a break from Vlado to examine "fixers," the locals upon whom visiting reporters rely in chaotic, war-torn regions to provide transportation, interpreters, and--most importantly--sources.

"There was a woman from Belgrade who had this black book, and she had contacts in every city and every municipal government, so wherever you went, if you needed to know about something, she'd know immediately where to go for it," Fesperman says, discussing a renowned fixer. "They get far too little credit, but it's invaluable, picking the right one. When Arafat was returning for the first time to Jericho, everyone wanted to get a room in Jericho, but there was only one little hotel. So these guys were doing things, lining up rooms in people's houses with a rooftop of view of where he'd be giving a speech."

Fesperman, who took a little more than 20 months off to complete Sorrows, will be returning to his regular at-work writing schedule to complete his next work. "You start writing at 6:15 and you write maybe until 9, and then you go to work and try to clear your head," he says.

With the tragedies he faces on a daily basis, how does he keep his reporting--and his fiction--from becoming numb?

"You don't get accustomed to colleagues being killed, but you get accustomed to interviewing people who, if you gave them the money in your pocket, it would be a lifetime's income," Fesperman says. "You get accustomed to dealing with all that misery, but you don't get numb to it. There's a difference between writing dispassionately--which is good, because I think it's more powerful--and being numb."

The greatest thing a reporter has to get used to while writing fiction, Fesperman says, "is when you've really sketched out some characters and you think, Gee, it would have worked a lot better if he were 40 instead of 30 and had this background." Fesperman laughs. "And then you think, Wait--these guys are made up. I can do anything I want."

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