Local award-winning author and BCPL card holder Dan Fesperman has come out with a new thriller available on August 12, and gave Between the Covers the inside scoop. In his latest psychological military thriller Unmanned, Fesperman explores the domain of drone warfare.
Darwin Cole served his country as an accomplished pilot until he was sequestered to operate drones. As a pilot Cole found himself slightly removed from the tangible repercussions of war and was surprised to learn that the opposite is true with manning a drone. It’s this aspect that tears him apart when a crucial mission goes amiss and innocent people die, but who can be blamed for the error when the truth is camouflaged? Cole teams up with unlikely allies to find out what actually happened on that infamous day.
Read on to find out more about Dan Fesperman and his latest novel.
Between the Covers: Drone technology plays a major role in Unmanned. I imagine you did a lot of research on the subject. How much of what is in the book is the military actually using? What is your personal opinion about how drones are used by the military?
Dan Fesperman: Well, all of the military drones I mention – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – they’re out there and flying. As for the experimental drones that pop up later in the book – the ones the size of insects, flying in swarms; the ultra-fast models; the ones with huge wingspans – I do know that drones like those have been tested by the military. If anything, I’ve probably underestimated their capabilities, if only because the technology is advancing at such a dizzying rate. I don’t object, per se, to the use of drones in warfare. Hey, in some cases they actually reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and there’s no doubt that their reconnaissance capabilities have saved plenty of soldiers’ lives. But it does make me a little queasy to think that we might be embracing certain applications of drone technology without fully thinking them through, which is always a dangerous proposition. Also, the more that you turn combat into a remote-control exercise, the more you tend to dehumanize it, for both predator and prey.
BTC: There is a large focus on the military and government agencies; did you work with any military personnel for authenticity?
DF: I interviewed several Air Force pilots, sensors and other officers associated with drone squadrons out at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. One pilot-sensor team was particularly helpful, especially in describing what an eerie job it could be, peering down at a small village for hours and even days on end, and then, possibly, having to target one of the houses. They established a degree of intimacy and familiarity with these places which soldiers almost never do. It personalized their potential targets even as the technological nature of the relationship – they were 7,000 miles and nine time zones apart! – made the relationship oddly impersonal. As for the intelligence side, I’ve talked with plenty of ex-CIA people in the course of my research for other projects, so I already had a feel for the way those jobs work.
BTC: Cole and Barbara are struggling with some of the things they saw while working in war-torn countries. Did your own travels in similar situations prompt you to include this aspect in the novel?
DF: Yes. Those kinds of places – Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East – always leave you with vivid and sometimes haunting memories. They pop up later in your dreams, and at unexpected moments. And while I’ve never experienced anything quite as traumatic as what Barb endured, I got enough of a taste of it, as did many of my colleagues, to be able to write about it with some authenticity.
BTC: You picked Maryland as the setting for a large portion of the book. Is this because you reside in Maryland or because of its proximity to D.C.?
DF: Both, really. And it was fun, for a change, to write from a few settings on my home turf. In writing and researching my other books, I’d often worked hard to establish enough comfort with a foreign setting to be able to write about it with any authority. In the Baltimore and Maryland scenes, that came easier.
BTC: Was it a difficult transition to go from journalist to novelist?
DF: Not really. The hardest part was getting used to the idea that you’re in command of this world you’ve created, instead of being chained to the “facts” gleaned from interviews and observations. You have to grow accustomed to the idea of that, instead of checking and double-checking your notebook. You can control even the smallest of details. If you’re setting your book in an actual time and place you still want to be true to the spirit of that time and place, but the characters belong to you. In journalism it never works that way.
BTC: Several of your books are award winners in the area of crime writing and thrillers. Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
DF: The bounds of those genres have been stretched so far and wide by now that I’ve never felt the least bit restricted or confined. You can pretty much write about any era, in any location, with any assortment of characters. And when you get right down to it, genre or non-genre, any fiction is going to concern itself mostly with conflict and personality, identity and betrayal. My only rule of thumb is to try and write the kind of book that I’d like to read.
BTC: What book would you recommend to a reader who just finished Unmanned and loved it?
DF: Odd as it might sound, the first work of a kindred spirit that comes to mind is a wonderful German film from 2006, The Lives of Others. Essentially it’s a spy film about an extended and careful surveillance of a single suspect, but what it’s really about is how that sort of invasive and prying work affects those who do it for a living. It’s beautifully and artfully crafted, with some brilliant writing. Of my own books, I’d recommend The Warlord’s Son, mostly because its setting in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region gives you a much more intimate look at the insular little worlds that all those drone pilots can only watch from afar.