Monday, May 30, 2016

Alex Grecian & Dan Fesperman at The Poisoned Pen!

Thursday, May 19, saw me jumping into the Jeep once again to head to my favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen. This time I was going to see CWA Dagger Award winner Dan Fesperman and Alex Grecian, author of the Murder Squad books (one of my favorite series). Although owner Barbara Peters did stop by the bookstore, she didn't stay long. Dana Stabenow was with her, and I have a feeling that they had dinner plans. Tonight would be Patrick Millikin's turn to interview the authors.

L to R: Dan Fesperman, Alex Grecian, Patrick Millikin

Dan's latest book is The Letter Writer which takes place in New York City shortly after Pearl Harbor. Alex's books are about the beginnings of forensic science and the formation of the Murder Squad in London shortly after the Jack the Ripper murders. They also show how Jack the Ripper has influenced our current culture.

"Lost and Gone Forever is the third book in what I call my Ripper trilogy," Grecian said. "I've seen the back of Jack, and now I'm done with him!"

"And we get to see the beginnings of a Hammersmith detective agency," Millikin said. "We were talking a bit in the back about where the private detective entered history. Roughly at the same time as your book, we had the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States."

"Yes, in this latest book there are two bounty hunters who were originally going to be Pinkerton agents," Alex said.

L to R: Dan Fesperman, Alex Grecian

"I ask many people who write historicals... how do you get the cadences of everyday speech? How do you bring the reader into that era and bring it alive?" Patrick asked.

"I read a lot of diaries," Grecian replied. "They don't explain anything; they're just talking about their everyday lives. Of course that often leads me down other rabbit holes of research!"

"Alex doesn't have recourse to this, but I find watching movies of the period to be a tremendous help," Fesperman said. "Another thing that was a fantastic resource-- since I have police characters-- is the monthly magazine published by the New York City Police Department. It's called Spring 3100 after their old telephone number. It's full of precinct gossip, police slang, and you really get a feel for their social lives."

Dan Fesperman
When asked for a brief description of The Letter Writer, Fesperman told us of Little Deutschland in New York City, a place that showed Nazi propaganda films to packed houses. Where Brown Shirt rallies were very well attended. Even though all of this activity stopped when the United States entered World War II, the sentiments were still there, and those people were still there. There was panic on the waterfront. The Navy was extremely nervous. And in the midst of all this is Danziger, a man who speaks five languages and writes letters for illiterate immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Danziger is "a steadfast practitioner of concealing and forgetting" for his clients-- and he has a seemingly boundless knowledge of the city and its inhabitants.

Fesperman's basis for the character of Danziger was a little vignette done by a woman who wrote Talk of the Town in the 1930s. As he read those few paragraphs, he realized what a repository of information and secrets a letter writer would be, that such a person would have access to better and more reliable information than the State Department about what was really going on in Europe as Hitler's armies advanced.  The only other real source material he found for this book was a memoir called My Mother and I about a Jewish girl who wrote letters for immigrants.

Alex Grecian
When asked about their backgrounds, Fesperman told us that he had been a journalist, while Grecian was in advertising.  Millikin asked Grecian about his approach to Jack the Ripper in his last three books.

"I made a very conscious decision that I wasn't going to bring in any female characters who were going to be victims. This led me to treat Jack the Ripper in a very different way."

Fesperman has written ten books and admitted that the time he spent in Dubai doing research for a book were "the dreariest three weeks of my life."

As a journalist, Dan traveled all over the world covering the news. "I made pizzas during that time," Grecian quipped, which made us all laugh. Another story that made us smile was one told by Dan about a TV repairman in Afghanistan who had to live like a spy because it was illegal under the Taliban to have a television set-- "the undercover TV repairman."

Right after that Patrick wanted to know more about Alex Grecian's earlier years as "the young pizza repairman"  and there we were, laughing again.

Available Now!
Alex is proof that "write what you know" doesn't always work. He knew his subject for his first book, and it took five months to write. It didn't sell. He knew the subject of his second book. It took nine months to write, and it didn't sell either. His third book-- The Yard, Murder Squad #1-- took a year and a half to write, and it was the one that sold. 

Alex wrote The Yard as a standalone, but when the book was in the process of being sold, he was asked, "Do you have book two?" He didn't, but replied, "Sure!" The reply to that was, "In thirty minutes can you give me three paragraphs [about the plot of non-existent book two]?"  Yikes!

What Grecian had to do was take the character of Walter Day, break him down, and build him back up again in order to make him rounder and more complex.

When Patrick mentioned the old "write what you know" again (ironically), Dan Fesperman quickly responded, "Write what you want to write, and if you don't know it, go find out!"  

Dan's work in progress takes place half in the present day and half in 1979 in Berlin, Germany, where a woman administers four safe houses. It's involved a lot of research into the CIA. He's also working on a television series with the BBC, HBO and two people responsible for The Wire. The drama series will begin with VE Day and concerns the early days of the CIA. Season one should cover VE Day to the Berlin Airlift. 

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Grecian is working on a new series that begins in 1951 and works its way to the present. It involves the Ratlines (Nazi escape routes at the end of World War II) and a former camp administrator who made his way to South America. This  man then moves to Kansas, sets up a church with tax dodges, legal loopholes, etc. 

As the conversation delved into Germans who fled Europe for Central and South America, Fesperman mentioned a New York Times article he'd read recently about a town in the heart of Brazil with a strong (American) Confederate history. "And what many people don't know is that yes, Ellis Island was the gateway for immigrants to the United States, but during World War II, it was a detention center for deportation," Dan said.

Lots of interesting conversation about little known history... the hour flew by. If you'd like to watch the entire event, I urge you to go to Livestream!


  1. You always have the best PP stories, Cathy! I really enjoy your 'debriefs.' And this one's a good reminder that I need to feature one of Grecian's novels on one of my spotlights.

  2. So interesting, and I bet there was a bit of wit all around.

    Everyone who can get to the PP for these sessions is so lucky. There is nothing like that in the Big Apple (she says, green with envy).

    1. And we have Barbara Peters to thank-- the person who started it all with a question: "How hard can it be?"

  3. Alex must not have worn special shoes this time.;-) The cover Lost and Gone Forever still gives me the willies!

    1. LOL! No, the first thing he said when he saw me was, "Sorry, I went for comfort over fashion this time!"

  4. Ha ha to the last comment.

    Another reason to hail superwoman Barbara Peters. She should write a memoir. It would exhaust us all, but would be fascinating.

    She reminds me of a friend of mine who was 76 in February. She has more energy than people half her age, does everything and we watch in amazement.

    1. You and I are on the same wavelength. I wish Peters would write a memoir, too. Or have it ghostwritten. She has many friends who are wonderful writers.


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