Thrill-Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers – An Interview with Barry Eisler
It may seem only natural that a person working in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations would find a new career writing thrillers whose protagonist is an assassin. But not all writers possess the ability to finesse their work with the flair and talent of Barry Eisler.
Translated into nearly twenty languages, Eisler’s John Rain books won the Barry and Mystery Ink Gumshoe Awards for Best Thriller of the Year; appear on multiple “Best of” lists, and have been optioned for film.
Barry Eisler began writing short stories as a teenager and then penned a foreign policy column for a local newspaper while in law school. But it wasn’t until Eisler left his job with the government that he began writing Rain Storm, the first of five published novels in the John Rain series, soon to be followed by a sixth which Eisler is currently writing.
Eisler’s background as an attorney and his position with the CIA combined with the time he spent living and traveling in Japan, infuse Eisler’s novels with authenticity. And Eisler’s training in counter surveillance, counter terrorism, hand-to-hand combat and a slew of other skills permeate his writing. Thrilled when his research forces him to travel, Eisler strives to incorporate his experiences into his work. And if you think the plots in his novels are purely fictional, you’re wrong. Eisler states his stories emerge from world happenings and that they “ …happen in real life… right now, if your eyes are open and you’re not afraid to look…”
A self-professed political and news junkie, Barry Eisler writes a non-fiction web blog called “The Heart of the Matter” covering politics and language. In addition, Eisler’s website contains information for writers ranging from craft to marketing. And if you’re looking for a list of top ten single malt scotches, top ten jazz albums you might not have heard of, or mistakes in the John Rain series of books, you need not look further than Eisler’s website where he presents them along with personal safety tips from John Rain and a discussion about martial arts.
When not traveling, Barry Eisler lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
WRR: Most writers describe the novel writing process as beginning with a gem of an idea. Explain the gem that becameRain Fall and how it materialized into a novel.
Barry Eisler: While I was commuting to work one morning in Tokyo, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just led to more questions: Why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and “Rain Fall.” I think that moment and that image would be the gem in question.
WRR: You stated that you received fifty rejections before landing your agent and then it took two additional years before he felt your manuscript was ready to be shopped to publishers. Explain how you felt during this arduous process and what motivated you to continue pursuing your dream of publishing Rain Fall.
Barry Eisler: I think that, in life, there are things you can control and things you can’t (or, to think of the whole thing as a continuum, there are things that are relatively amenable to your influence and things that are relatively unamenable). The things you’re responsible for, and therefore the things that can be the source of legitimate pride or shame, are the ones you can control. If you want to be a writer, the thing you can almost totally control is finishing the book. Finding an agent, getting published . . . that all takes a certain amount of luck and timing and circumstances (although of course your hard work on what you can control will affect these less controllable factors, too). So my attitude was this: I wanted to be published, but if it didn’t happen, I didn’t want it to be my fault. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and say, “Okay, you didn’t manage to get published, but you did everything you could to make it happen; you finished the book, so you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.” That attitude, in a sense, that fear of one day feeling that if I didn’t make it I might think it was my fault, is what kept me going for many years with no external signs of success.
WRR: You have a varied background ranging from work in the CIA to an executive position in a Silicon Valley startup and ultimately to writing. How have these experiences impacted your fictional works?
Barry Eisler: Working with the agency was a hugely valuable experience. In addition to exposure to tools and tactics that have influenced my writing, I came away with an insider’s view of how intelligence really works — how it functions and dis-functions, how decisions filter down to the field, the tension and sometimes the disparity between orders from above and execution far below. I think the Rain books are much richer, and more realistic, as a result. And all the negotiating I used to do as a lawyer and businessman gave me a lot of insight into how to think like the opposition — which is of course part of what makes Rain so effective at what he does.
WRR: You believe that one of your best friends as a writer is the “what if” question — that it leads you to the “who, what, where, when, why, how variety” questions — and that helps you find your story. What if your protagonist, John Rain, were writing a novel about you? How would he describe you and in what type of adventure would you be taking part?
Barry Eisler: He wouldn’t admit it and might not even know it, but he’d be envious that I haven’t had to endure the experiences he has. He’d respect me for taking him seriously despite my shortcomings. And he’d probably tell me to stop giving so much detail about his sexual escapades — it’s no one else’s business, after all.
WRR: John Rain is half-Japanese and half-American and spends a lot of time in Japan. What fascinates you about this country and culture?
Barry Eisler: God, I love the whole feel of the place. Start with Tokyo. I love the size, the density, the incredible variations of locales (where else could you find a teen-caffeinated street like Takeshita-dori cheek by jowl with the elegance of Omotesando?). The city is so damn atmospheric . . . can I quote John Rain by way of illustration?
“Tokyo is so vast, and can be so cruelly impersonal, that the succor provided by its occasional oasis is sweeter than that of any other place I’ve known. There is the quiet of shrines like Hikawa, inducing a somber sort of reflection that for me has always been the same pitch as the reverberation of a temple chime; the solace of tiny nomiya, neighborhood watering holes, with only two or perhaps four seats facing a bar less than half the length of a door, presided over by an ageless mama-san, who can be soothing or stern, depending on the needs of her customer, an arrangement that dispenses more comfort and understanding than any psychiatrist’s couch; the strangely anonymous camaraderie of yatai and tachinomi, the outdoor eating stalls that serve beer in large mugs and grilled food on skewers, stalls that sprout like wild mushrooms on dark corners and in the shadows of elevated train tracks, the laughter of their patrons diffusing into the night air like little pockets of light against the darkness without.”
I also admire the culture. Not an easy thing to sum up a millennia-old culture in a few words, but I’ll try: In the language and behavior, there is restraint; in art, there is a search for the essence of things by a paring away what is nonessential; in philosophy and aesthetics, there is something called mono no aware, which I like to think of as “the sadness of being human.” The women are beautiful, too. I’ve heard.
WRR: Story realism is very important to you and results from extensive research. Why is this a necessary part of your fictional works?
Barry Eisler: Part of what sets the Rain series apart is realism. You can think about it as part of the series’ brand, part of the bond of trust I have with my readers. I want people to know that they can trust me to get it right — that essentially I’m dropping fictional characters into nonfictional places and circumstances. So all the locales in the books — Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, Manila, Osaka, Phuket, Rio, Tokyo — are either cities I’ve lived in or that I’ve visited specifically for research. The martial arts sequences in the books are based on my own training, including the black belt I earned in judo at the Kodokan in Tokyo. The backstory in each book is taken from the headlines. The tradecraft is government-certified. Most of all, there’s John Rain himself, a complicated, three-dimensional man, a killer with a conscience whose views and outlook will help many readers understand where people like Rain really come from.
Despite all the research and expert review, though, the occasional mistake does slip through. When a reader catches one, I post it on my website — again, so my readers can trust me.
WRR: You have extensive training in the military and martial arts. Explain how these skills have impacted your writing.
Barry Eisler: I don’t really have that much military training — just seven weeks of paramilitary training at the Farm. And although I’ve been playing around with martial arts since I was a teenager, I’m no expert. If I have a knack, I think it’s for asking the right questions of the right people and then getting it right on the page based on what I learn. John Rain knows a hell of a lot more than I do.
WRR: Rain Storm won the Barry Award and the Mystery Ink Gumshoe Award and your books have been translated into many languages and optioned for film. Has the reality of your success as a writer lived up to your expectations? Explain.
Barry Eisler: Writing full time is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I love every aspect: the research, the writing itself, the marketing and publicity. I don’t have any complaints — I’d like to just keep doing it, and develop a bigger and bigger audience for the books.
WRR: Your web blog, “The Heart of the Matter,” covers politics and language. That’s a far cry from thrillers. What aspects of politics and language do you find most fascinating and why?
Barry Eisler: I’m fascinated by the way language shapes our view of reality. If you don’t understand this power of language, you’ll be easily manipulated by Madison Avenue and worse, by the government.
WRR: You attend a lot of writing conventions. If you were in charge of the guest list and could invite ten people of your choosing, who would they be and why?
Barry Eisler: Wow, that’s a tough one… there are so many. I’d start with William Buckley, Tom Friedman, and Frank Rich, and build from there.
WRR: Who are you reading right now?
Barry Eisler: I’ve been on the road for almost nine weeks promoting “The Last Assassin,” so everything I’m reading is on tape. I just finished Lee Child’s The Hard Way and completely enjoyed it. Now I’m listening to David Sedaris read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim; he’s fantastic. Next up is Daniel Silva’s The Messenger. I haven’t read Silva but I’ve heard good things. The one I’m reading that’s not on tape is Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, his memoir of his walk across wartime Afghanistan, which the New York Times describes as a “flat out masterpiece.” So far, I’d have to say they’re right.
WRR: What’s next for John Rain? Any hints about the next book?
Barry Eisler: I’ve outlined #6 and love the story. But I think it’ll be time for Rain to take a break after this one. The way his character has developed and the series has progressed, I feel like it’ll be perfectly told when the sixth one is done, and I don’t want to ruin it by grafting on a seventh if it doesn’t add to what’s happened already.
WRR: You’re a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. Explain the difference between a mystery and a thriller.
Barry Eisler: God, better minds than mine have tried to tackle this one! I guess it’s like obscenity — you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke: Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright
Jonathan Maberry, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Editor at Wild River Review in 2007, has been a professional writer for thirty years and has sold over a dozen nonfiction books, three novels (including Ghost Road Blues, June 2006, Pinnacle), and over 900 articles, as well as short stories, poetry, plays, video scripts, song lyrics, and more. He is a book doctor and writing teacher, and is a frequent lecturer at writers’ conferences.
Works by Jonathan Mayberry
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
An Interview with Barry Eisler
An Interview with Bill Kent
An Interview with David Housewright