Dan Fesperman was already midway into a successful career as a foreign correspondent when, at age 39, the idea for his first novel came to him in a flash during a weekend in Berlin. He was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun at the time, and had just come off a reporting trip to Sarajevo. Though he’d toyed with the thought of writing fiction someday, until that weekend he’d always had other priorities.
“I was having too much fun,” Fesperman says via Zoom from his home office outside of Baltimore. “Then all of a sudden, this one kind of hit me in the face. I was a late starter.”
That first novel, Lie in the Dark, was a critical success when it was published in 1999 and launched him as a novelist. Twelve books later, Fesperman, now 66, has more than made up for his late start. A prolific writer of austere, sophisticated espionage thrillers published every few years by Knopf, Fesperman has the kind of second career most novelists can only dream of having as their first.
In July, Knopf will publish Winter Work, which is set in East Berlin in 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book follows Emil Grimm, a former Stasi officer trying to trade state secrets in exchange for his family’s safe harbor in the wake of the collapse of the Communist government. Winter Work has the shape and propulsive energy of a traditional thriller while also accomplishing something slightly subtler: it uses the tropes of the genre to depict a world changing so quickly that anxiety is ever present. The uncertainty of the time is as much the antagonist of Winter Work as is the Russian thug that Grimm and his compatriots must outsmart.
The book’s tremendous realism is due to Fesperman’s long and successful journalism career. He started out as a general assignment reporter for the Charlotte News—“I was 22 years old. I would often work until one or two in the morning,” he recalls—but he’d always dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. A series of job changes and promotions later, in the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun, he got his chance.
“I volunteered when it looked like the Gulf War was about to start, and they sent me overseas to Jordan, where I stayed for about seven weeks,” Fesperman says. “We set off across the desert on the first day of the ground war and got to Kuwait City just after it was liberated”
He loved the work. “It’s a wonderful job. You’re a long way from your editor and on your own. I would go somewhere like Sarajevo during the siege. They didn’t want daily stories about the body count or the progress of the war. They wanted stories about life there—about how people were getting by, small vignettes that would show you what the bigger picture really meant.”
It was one of those vignettes that made Fesperman realize he could write fiction. “I had done a series of stories on daily life during the siege,” he says, “and one of them was a story about the legal system, and how they were continuing to prosecute crimes and pursue civil suits, which was just bizarre. I thought that this would make a pretty wonderful setting for a novel: a murder mystery in the middle of this besieged city, where murder was happening on a huge industrial scale and the real killers were the ones a detective could never reach.”
Fesperman had entertained the idea of writing fiction for years but was always overwhelmed by the task. “When I started this one,” he explains, “I immediately felt like: okay, this is something that I will finish.”
That first novel, conceived during that weekend in Berlin, became Lie in the Dark. But nearly two decades of experience as a journalist didn’t mean Fesperman’s entry into the world of book publishing was a straight line. The only agent who expressed interest wanted to see a revision, and “being young and stupid,” Fesperman says, “I thought: I don’t need to do that.” Twenty rejections followed before finally, tail between his legs, he asked the first agent what kind of revisions she had in mind. He did them, and a few months later, she sold Lie in the Dark to Soho Press.
“Soho was a wonderful palace,” Fesperman remembers. “But in those days it was basically three people doing miracles.” So he was delighted when he received an offer for the paperback edition from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, then Knopf’s paperback arm. Soon, he was a Knopf author.
“They liked the same thing that made Lie in the Dark such a hard sell,” Fesperman says. “This was old-school publishing, and I think a lot of that had to do with Sonny Mehta. His philosophy of publishing was, if it’s a good book, we want to publish it. He became my editor, and he was just wonderful to work with.”
Fesperman didn’t immediately realize what a rare privilege it was to be edited by the star editor and publisher, who died in 2019. “It was just great to talk to him about books,” he says. “He was such a great reader himself.”
Over the next two decades, Knopf proved to be a good home for Fesperman, who continued to write espionage novels that couldn’t help but be a little subtler, a little more atmospheric, a little more character based than the average thriller. His novels have taken readers to the streets of Sarajevo, to Hamburg, to Dubai, to Guantanamo, and to Berlin. They have won several international prizes for crime fiction, and have allowed Fesperman to do some work writing for television as well.
But Fesperman thinks Winter Work tops them all. In part, this is because he was able to draw heavily from experiences he had when he was a journalist. In the early 1990s, in the tumultuous years after the Berlin Wall came down, he lived and worked in the German capital.
Fesperman says he knew at the time that he was living through a notable period in history. “It still had this atmosphere of rapid change, of people moving in, of a whole system having just collapsed, and this deep breath that everyone was taking before it all transformed. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be witnessing all of that. Which way is East Germany going to go? What is this country? What will this part of the city end up like? What’s going to happen to these people?” His office at the time was in East Berlin, a place that he says has changed tremendously: “Now it’s all cleaned up; it’s very nice. Then, it was still like the Wild West and freewheeling.”
By pitting the Winter Work’s protagonist against the changing tide of history, Fesperman effectively and vividly captures one of those cruxes during which everything is up for grabs—when the mistakes, missteps, and successes committed by human beings trying to navigate a changing world sow the seeds for the political climate of the decades to come. Grimm himself is a complicated hero: a former spy for one of the most feared intelligence agencies in the world, but also a deeply devoted husband who will do anything to protect the ones he loves.
Working against Grimm is a team of Russian thugs, with Vladimir Putin even making a brief cameo. Though Fesperman began writing the book long before the invasion of Ukraine, and saying something about Russia was never explicitly on his mind, he notes that much of who Putin became later has roots in this period. Fesperman is drawn to periods like this one, when the future is being decided. “You don’t know what mistakes you’re making at the time,” he says, “and you’re not going to find out for another 10 or 20 years what your mistakes were.”
Winter Work bears the mark of an author who is watching the world change, but Fesperman claims his intention was never to write a novel about the world today. “I would just like people to read it,” he says.
Like any good journalist—or any good novelist—his first instinct is to tell a riveting story.
Andy Kifer cowrote Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up with Sara Horowitz and is working on a book of narrative nonfiction about America’s secret cities.