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Between the pages, Past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins

An Interview with Barry Eisler

      Barry Eisler just may be the fastest rising star in the world of mystery authors. His John Rain series about a half Japanese, half American freelance assassin hit the market with a splash and is still gaining strength after five books.

I first met Barry at a writer’s conference in Chicago about three or four years ago and we’ve had the chance to chat a time or two since then. After reading his The Last Assassin, I wrote to Barry and asked if he’d be willing to do an interview for and he immediately agreed.

You can read a lot more about Barry at

Dennis Collins: You led an interesting life prior to writing your John Rain novels. How did it help you prepare for a career as an author?

Barry: From 1989 to 1992, I held a covert position in the other CIA– the Central Intelligence Agency. It was a fascinating experience and certainly key background for the Rain books. I only recently received the necessary “change of status” that enables me to publicly acknowledge it. I also have a background in martial arts, and lived in Japan for three years. And I love jazz and good single malt whisky… all of informs my writing today, from the tradecraft to the sense of place to the combat sequences to the research I have to do on Scotch… ;-)


Dennis: Why an assassin as a protagonist?

Barry: Why not?

I guess I just like assassins… something must be wrong with me…

But seriously, you’ve keyed on an important point here, because it certainly is a challenge to make a killer like Rain sympathetic and (dare I say it?) even likeable! First, when we experience a character in a novel, we experience him or her not in isolation, but rather by reference to his or her surroundings. So Rain may be a bad man, but within the corrupt, duplicitous world in which he finds himself, he’s actually pretty good. He has a code (no women or children, no acts against non-principals); he has a conscience (he’s troubled by some of what he does); he’s good to his few friends (Harry and Tatsu). This relativity allows us to like Rain. By the way, I think the best example of this way of making a bad guy into the good guy is Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” where the Don comes across as the most admirable character in the book. Sure, he’s an organized crime boss and murderer, but within the book’s overall setting that’s all just a given. What really matters is that the Don is a family man, is straight-laced about sex, won’t sell drugs, and is relied on and trusted by his community. In a sense, Puzo turns upside down the ordinary moral universe that we take for granted – an amazing case of authorial slight of hand.

Also, at times you get a peek at Rain’s past – his initial killing experience in Vietnam, for example – which makes him much more real to the reader. Real means understandable, and understandable means, possibly, sympathetic. You come to understand not only the events that have shaped Rain; you also are privy to his thoughts and feelings about these events – his guilt, his remorse, his regret. Hopefully one comes away from this with a sense that, despite the exterior dissimilarities, Rain is not so different from you or I. After all, he has a conscience, he’s troubled by things he’s done, he’s lonely, he wants to be part of something larger than himself but doesn’t know how – feelings common to all of us, in which we recognize our common humanity.

In addition to these elements, killers like Rain are appealing because they fulfill (in a safe, fictional environment) certain anti-social wishes that all of us possess. Thank about a character like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who’s so enthralling that by his third appearance, in Hannibal, we’re cheering him on! In part, our enthusiasm for Hannibal is a function, again, of the degraded moral universe in which Harris places him (corrupt, incompetent FBI agents; venal, scheming prison administrators; depraved, vicious pursuers); partly, again, it’s a function of Hannibal’s (admittedly minimal) code of conduct (by his third novelistic appearance he’s pretty much only eating the rude or otherwise had-it-coming-to-them). But there’s something else going on here, I think: we like Hannibal because we want to be like him. Not that we want to be cannibals, but at some level we do wish we could free ourselves from the rules with which society has surrounded us, we wish we could just do as we please and the hell with the consequences. Wish-fulfillment is part of the allure of evil characters like Hannibal, and there’s some of this going on with Rain, too. If you cross Rain, he’s doesn’t complain about it, he doesn’t sue you, he doesn’t check into an anger management program. He kills you. Anyone who’s ever dealt with irritating coworkers, rude drivers, or any of the thousands of other annoyances of daily life can’t help but feel that “damn, that would be kind of nice...”.


Dennis: Do any of the situations parallel true life experiences?

Barry: They all do. The corruption I describe in Japan in the first two books, Rain Fall and Hard Rain, is all real, down to many of the names and incidents described. The backstory in Rain Storm is based on post-9/11 events in the United States, where the rules of engagement for overseas assassinations have clearly changed. For Killing Rain, some of what’s going on in Iraq and particularly in Afghanistan got me thinking in the right direction. The U.S. government has a $25 million bounty on Osama bin Laden, and similar significant bounties on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorist figures. When you put that much bounty in play, what do you get? A lot of bounty hunters. So in Afghanistan and Iraq there is a huge private effort to track down and capture or kill these targets. Who are these privateers working for? Who are they responsible to? How are they coordinating with official efforts? It can be hard to say. A case-in-point is a guy named Jack Idema. About a year and a half ago, Idema was picked up in a safe house he had set up outside Kabul where he was torturing a number of Afghani prisoners. A former soldier, he claimed to be working for Special Forces and said he was close to capturing bin Laden. The U.S. military called him a whacko and disavowed him. Idema responded along the lines of, “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Reading about this and similar events, I started to wonder: Who’s in charge when these things happen? Is it a private op, a government op that’s been set up for deniability, or a government op being carried out “off the reservation?” These are the questions that form the backstory of Killing Rain.

And there’s some history involved, as well. If you remember at the end of the book, Hilger reflects on Edwin Wilson, the real-life CIA operative who was supposedly fired by the Agency in the late 1970s and convicted a few years later of gunrunning, selling explosives to Libya, and several other charges. He was jailed in 1983. Wilson’s defense was that he was carrying out a CIA-sanctioned operation: he claimed that, as part of his cover, arrangements were made so that it looked like he had been fired and had turned mercenary after. That’s how he gained entrée to the Libyans. But he couldn’t prove his contentions in court. No one knows the truth, except, I suppose, Wilson himself and certain higher-ups in the CIA (although documents have surfaced since then that support aspects of Wilson’s story.) You have to admit it would have been a logical strategy… to get close to Gadhafi, Wilson had to be in a position where Gadhafi would trust his motivations. I think the same principles hold true today. Hilger’s operation is an example.

In fact, the kind of novel I’m trying to write is one in which I drop fictional characters into non-fictional circumstances and see what happens to them.


Dennis: What made you want to start writing?

Barry: I’ve liked writing ever since I was a kid, although the manuscript that became Rain Fall was my first attempt at a novel. And even for that one, I felt like I was just playing around with a story and some characters until I was pretty far into it. Being a lawyer probably impeded my progress as a novelist just because it was such a busy day job, but being into martial arts was a big help. First, having a martial arts background made it easy and natural for me to imagine an assassin who was also an expert judoka. Second, oddly enough, the process of writing a book is similar to the process of progressing in a martial art. You just have to keep at it every day (or as regularly as possible) for a long time until you really show results. Anyone who’s ever acquired a foreign language, or learned to play a musical instrument, or earned a black belt in a martial art will recognize what I’m talking about here. While other people are watching television (or whatever), you’re devoting an hour a day, two hours, or however much time you can spare to that skill you’re trying to obtain. Those daily hours add up over the course of years, and when you look back, you can see that you’ve accomplished something significant.

So my best advice to aspiring novelists and martial artists is: instead of watching TV, write and train! If you’re passionate about something, stay focused on it, don’t give up, and, eventually, you will show results.

Be disciplined. Novels get written an hour at a time (the same way television gets watched... something to think about, if you’re serious about writing that book). Set aside the time every day and stick with it. Don’t get seduced by what Stephen King calls “The Glass Teat.”


Dennis: Was there a particular author who inspired you? Someone you emulate?

Barry: 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.


Dennis: The Last Assassin, hints that it will be the final book in the John Rain series but you left the door open just a crack for a return. Can we expect more?

Barry: There will definitely be at least one more Rain book after TLA, but after that I think John Rain’s story will largely have been told and it’ll be time for something else.


Dennis: What other plans do you have?

Barry: I’ve adapted Rain Fall into a screenplay and completely enjoyed the process. And I love writing for my blog The Heart of the Matter, on language and politics. All that and writing novels will keep me happy for a long time to come.


Dennis: This is your space to talk about whatever you wish.

Barry: I think you’ve covered it all. Many thanks!


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