Any attempt to talk with Dan Fesperman about his work—his superb 2009 novel, The Arms Maker of Berlin, or his new release, Unmanned—quickly becomes a discussion of other recent literary thrillers. Fesperman reads voraciously, a habit formed while reporting for the Baltimore Sun from the Mideast, Berlin, and Pakistan. The novelist, in other words, does his homework. That’s why Unmanned is so unsettling: When Air Force drone pilot Darwin Cole breaks down after accidentally killing Afghan children, a group of freelance journalists chasing reports of military misconduct encourages him to follow the trail of how drones are being misused. The novel rings uncomfortably true for anyone on whose behalf drones are doing their work.
Let’s talk about your title.
Unlike, say, an F-16 pilot, who is in the cockpit alone, a drone pilot constantly has someone looking over his shoulder. It’s also about being broken by events—and yes, it could be a woman. Third, it’s about the drones themselves, so eerily without human faces in the cockpit.
You visited Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
I knew before I went that there’s a disconnect between pilot and target. What blew me away was the disconnect between the pilots and their lives. There’s such intensity and intimacy in the hours spent watching a location, waiting for orders. Then, after blasting away people in a different time zone, they go home to dinner.
You juxtapose your protagonist, Darwin Cole, against three journalists.
Their world is all about control and interpretation of information, like his, but in an utterly non-institutional way. They feel untethered from publications. The only way forward is to become contractors.
And warfare becomes a private act, too.
It’s cheaper to let others do things, isn’t it, than to let a government pay for it?
How did you research this book?
I was able to do a lot online, where these people are—on message boards, in forums, blogging. They were very welcoming, which was terrific for me as a writer, and odd.
Did you fly a drone?
I didn’t, but it occurred to me, after seeing how easily they let me in, that someone could come along and say, “Hi, my name’s Osama, and I’d love to learn.”
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.