An Interview with
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 Myshelf.com
and he immediately agreed.
You can read
a lot more about Barry at www.barryeisler.com
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
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
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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