Barry Eisler, if he so chose, could probably kill me in a dozen different ways. He’s had a multitude of different careers ranging from the spy section of the CIA to Silicon Valley, and his latest is as a novelist of the brilliant John Rain series. Rain is an assassin who is incredibly paranoid and has a specialty in making the hits look natural. In the course of five books, John has become conflicted and somehow let people back into his life again. As the series goes on, his jobs have become more personal, and a desperate way to redeem himself by going after the really bad guys. I had a chat with Barry about Jazz, writing, the morals of John Rain, the redemption of America, and alcohol. He’s also a good looking bastard as well as a fantastic writer of the most intelligent noir (And they are most definitely noir) thrillers in bookstores today. Check out his fantastic website where you can get scotch reccomendations, jazz artist info, and oodles of helpful information about writing, from marketing to finding an agent to the actual part of sitting down and doing it.
Q: You’ve had quite the change of careers, from CIA agent, to attorney in an international law firm; in-house counsel at the Osaka headquarters of Matsushita Electric; and executive in a Silicon Valley technology startup. Why turn to writing thrillers?
Eisler: Notice how the size of my workforce gets smaller as I’ve gone along? Starting in the government and now working for myself… that’s what I call progress.
I’ve always enjoyed writing and have always been good at it, and I’ve always loved to read. I think I had a lot of material building up inside me based on my experiences, and then, when I was living in Tokyo in 1993-94, the city ignited it all in the form of an image of two men following another one down a Tokyo street. The image felt like a story, so I started to write… and eight years later, sold the rights to Rain Fall.
Q: What was your job in the CIA?
Eisler: I was in the Directorate of Operations (DO), which is where the spies live. There’s also the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), which is the analysts. And the Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T), where the techs make James Bond gizmos. And the Directorate of Administration (DA), which is support. I was trained in a variety of paramilitary tools and tactics, as well as the full range of spy skills.
Q: Was the jump to writer difficult?
Eisler: Best jump I’ve ever made.
Q: What’s an average day of writing like for you?
Eisler: The days are all fairly different, depending on how close I am to a deadline (lots of writing), or how close to publication (lots of touring and publicity). I guess if I were to describe an average, it would be something like a thousand words on my 17-inch Mac PowerBook Pro at a local coffee shop in the morning; a workout around lunchtime/early afternoon; errands in the afternoon; family time around dinner; administrative time in the evening (email, etc.); relaxation (book or movie) before bed. Maybe that’s more of an ideal day than an average, but it seems about right.
Q: John Rain, your protagonist, is an assassin. He has a moral code, but initially it’s still hard to root for him. Why did you choose that profession for Rain?
Eisler: I didn’t really choose. Give me a neutral tableau and I’ll interpret it to involve killing. It’s like failing an inkblot test…
Q: Rain isn’t a young man and while his experience and skills lets him win (sometimes just barely), I would think it’s only a matter of time before someone younger will get the drop on him. Do you have a planned ending for the series?
Eisler: Read the sixth book and find out…
But don’t worry, Rain isn’t going to die. The question that plagues him is, is there some hope for redemption after the things he’s done? Or is he damned? If he dies he avoids the answer. It would be a disappointment for him and a copout for me.
Q: Can you tell us about the next book?
Eisler: The sixth Rain book is likely to be the last. It’s personal, in that Rain isn’t in it for the money; he’s forced to act by circumstances. And the story will bring Rain’s character full circle, answering questions that have been raised in the previous books, including the possibility of redemption… and of damnation for the things he’s done.
Q: Your plots often take things that have actually happened, like the missile smuggling in RAIN STORM. Have certain…people…ever tapped you on the shoulder about that? I read that the CIA didn’t like their symbol being on the books.
Eisler: I’ve heard from some people in the know that I’m getting things right, which is gratifying.
Q: One thing I like about the series is the international flavor, from Japan to Thailand to Barcelona and several other places. How much research do you put into different cities and countries?
Eisler: A lot. I visit every place I write about, and when I do I walk in John Rain’s footsteps. I imagine I’m in town for the same reasons he is, I try to live in his head and see things through his eyes. Ideally, I like to take two trips: the first, just to get the overall feel of a place, to try to figure out what makes it tick; the second, to scout out and describe the specific locations and sequences that will appear in the book. Each trip typically lasts anywhere from two days to a week, depending on what I’m looking for.
Q: John Rain and you both drink Single Malt scotches, so what are you drinking these days?
Eisler: My wife and I have developed an evil summer habit. We pick some lemons from the Meyer lemon tree in the yard, squeeze them, mix 1/3 juice with 1/3 simple syrup and 1/3 frozen vodka in a frozen glass over ice. Dangerously delicious…
Q: John Rain is a lover of music and your contemporaries Michael Connelly and John Connolly have included CD’s of music that represent their character’s worlds. Do you have something like that in the works?
Eisler: The closest I’ve come is a top ten of Jazz CDs you might not have heard of but are likely to love, in the Extras section of my website. I did learn of two jazz artists I love from Michael Connelly: Frank Morgan and George Cables.
Q: You have given John a small family in Delilah, a Mossad Honey trap spy, and Dox, a raunchy but utterly professional sniper. Have you known people in these professions that are like them?
Eisler: Dox is based on one of my CIA paramilitary instructors. Delilah… mmmmm, I wish I’d known her…
Q: You have a political blog where you talk about Bush’s decisions and the war in Iraq. What can the U.S. do in your eyes to regain their reputation?
Eisler: We need to do a few things that would dramatically improve our civilization’s chances of surviving the growing threat of Islamofascism. Most important, a gradually implemented carbon tax that would at least double the cost of gasoline at the pump so we stop funding Islamofascist inculcation and groups through Saudi Arabia. Second, end drug prohibition so we stop funding antidemocratic groups in Afghanistan and Latin America.
America is addicted to petrol and drugs. We deal with the first with artificial subsidies and the second with prohibition. Both policies create massive geopolitical distortions and need to end.
As a bonus, we could abolish the income tax in favor of a national sales tax. Without the costs of income tax implementation and compliance, US productivity would skyrocket. Also, without the tax code to fiddle with, Congress wouldn’t have much to do, and that would be a positive development in itself. Ending agricultural subsidies and tariffs so foreign farmers could make a profit growing something other than poppy wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
Finally, congressional districts should be redrawn by independent commissions. Right now, districts are so gerrymandered that 98% of Congressional elections are won by incumbents. That’s a higher rate than the English House of Lords. It’s higher than the North Korean politburo. If we want to be a democracy in more than just name this situation needs to be corrected.
I’m not optimistic about any of this. Much more likely we’ll be a case study in a future book on why civilizations die.
Q: Is Rain political at all? I don’t think he’s ever shared which way he leans. Is he just too jaded and seen too much?
Eisler: Rain is a cynic, in that sense of "that quality of seeing things as they really are is called cynicism by those who have not got it." He’s got opinions, but doesn’t want to admit that he cares about the world, not even to himself.
Q: Rain seems to be slipping up more and more, freezing at hits and the situations he gets into are largely his fault. Does John subconsciously have a death wish?
Eisler: Rain’s recent tactical problems are partly the result of age, partly of his emergence from his solitary existence in "the life" and into a real life with real relationships. He’s now got one foot in the secret world and one in the daylight world, and the straddle is playing havoc with his instincts. As for a death wish, it’s not that so much as an angry desire to provoke God to show himself — "If you’re really there, you wouldn’t let me get away with this, would you? You’d strike me down. Well do it! I’m right here!"
Q: Do you think Dox and Delilah have the same moral dilemmas as John?
Eisler: Of the "Killer D’s," I think Delilah is closer to Rain in her awareness of the gray moral zone in which she has to operate. Dox, although in his way as deadly a man as Rain, is much more comfortable with his own nature and with his place in the world.
Q: Do you have any other novel ideas in the works?
Eisler: I had started a standalone when we sold the rights to Rain Fall and a sequel, but I had only written about 50 pages at that point. It was a thriller set in Silicon Valley and involving Asia, and I really liked the characters. It was hard to set aside. I hope to get back to it — maybe after the next Rain book.
Q: Who are you reading these days? Who deserves to be bigger these days? I just finished The Night Gardener and it was the best novel this year, so my vote for deserving to be bigger is Pelecanos.
Eisler: In the genre, I’m reading Lee Child, Joseph Finder, and Daniel Silva and they’re all excellent. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Pelecanos and particularly good things about The Night Gardner, but haven’t read him yet.
Q: Who/what has inspired your writing?
Eisler: I read pretty eclectically – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry – and I’ve been inspired and influenced by a number of writers. I love Trevanian, whose killers Nicolai Hel (in “Shibumi”) and Jonathan Hemlock (in “The Eiger Sanction” and “The Loo Sanction”) are sympathetic in part because they are superior human beings – superior in intellect, taste, and culture. Andrew Vachss, with his dark, gritty Burke novels and hard-boiled atmosphere, has also been an influence. Pat Conroy and Dave Gutterson have inspired me with the lyricism of their prose. The cadences and imagery of T.S. Eliot and Cormac McCarthy are certainly influences, as well. Stephen King has inspired me with his humor and honesty, and his admonition that the author’s job is to tell the truth.
Now that I’m writing full time, I read less fiction than I used to, which is the only downside of the job I can think of. One I read recently and loved was “Thud,” by Terry Pratchett.
Q: What’s the best advice you can give to an aspiring writer?
Eisler: Don’t watch television. Read like a writer. Believe in yourself. For more, check out the "For Writers" link on my website, www.barryeisler.com.