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Author, Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

About Barry Eisler

An Interview with Barry Eisler

More About Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations. After leaving the CIA, he lived and worked in Japan, where he earned his black belt from the Kodokan International Judo Center. The Rain books-Rain Fall, Hard Rain, Rain Storm, and Killing Rain-have won the Barry and Gumshoe awards, been translated into nearly twenty languages, and been optioned for film by Barrie Osborne, the Oscar-winning producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Barry Eisler on The Last Assassin

You can’t imagine the impact of knowing that the most precious thing over which you have full control – your own life – is useless as barter or bribe to save the life of your child.

Thus does John Rain learn at the end of One Last Kill, the fourth book in the award-winning series about the half-American, half-Japanese freelance assassin, that he fathered a son during his brief and doomed relationship with Japanese jazz pianist Midori Kawamura.  Midori and the child are living in New York City, and are being watched by Yamaoto, a powerful enemy of Rain's from earlier in the series, who is hoping to use them to gain access to Rain.

The news throws Rain's world into turmoil.  Does the existence of a child mean some slim chance for reconciliation with Midori, whose father Rain killed in the opening pages of Rain Fall?  How can he see them if they're being watched by Yamaoto, and does he dare take the chance?  And what does the news portend for Rain's relationship with Delilah, the beautiful Mossad agent he met in Choke Point, the third book in the series, with whom he has since been drawing closer and closer despite their sometimes conflicting professional affiliations?

I suppose it was inevitable that issues of parenthood would creep into the series; after all, it wasn't so long ago that I became a parent myself.  I found myself wondering what Rain would do if he learned he had a child, and even more so how far he would go if the child were in danger.  But not just any danger.  It had to be danger of Rain's own making.

Why?  First, because one of the themes of the book, indeed of the series, is the inevitability of the continuing consequences of violence.  Second, because the plot would be tighter and more satisfying if Rain caused the problem he now has to solve.  Finally, and most importantly, because the stakes are dramatically higher if the situation is Rain's fault.

In the first four Rain books, the stakes, generally speaking, are Rain's life.  In The Last Assassin, Rain's life, although in constant danger, hardly matters to him -- in fact, he would gladly trade it to protect his child.  And the harder Rain tries, the worse the threat to the child becomes, such that you can think of the plot line of the book as a series of increasingly desperate double-or-nothing bets Rain is forced to gamble, with his son's life and his own soul the stakes of the game.

My interest in those stakes and what a parent would do if forced to play for them became first the backbone, and finally the heart of the new book.  The flesh, as ever, is suspense and action; realistic tradecraft and other operator tactics; evocative locations, in this case Barcelona, New York, Tokyo, and Wajima (yes, I had to do all the on-site research again, but I try not to complain... anything for my art, you know); steamy sex; most of all, a fascinating ensemble of characters led by Rain himself, a "multifaceted killer with the soul of a poet" (Mystery Ink Online).

The Rain who will take you through this book isn't the same man we met (seemingly so long ago!) in Rain Fall.  Rain is aging, for one thing, and as he does so his priorities begin to shift.  His outlook changes, too, in reaction to the loves he's known and losses he's endured throughout the series.  Most of all, Rain isn't the loner he was, nor does he want to be.  But building a clan -- his lover Delilah, his partner and friend, former Marine sniper Dox -- presents its own dangers to a man used to freedom of maneuver.  As Rain notes in the opening of the book when he reconnoiters Barcelona before meeting Delilah there, "Barcelona was unfamiliar, but the real territory I was trying to navigate isn't marked on any map."  That new territory, and Rain's attempt to find his way safely through it, is the story of The Last Assassin.  I hope you'll enjoy it.

Barry Eisler thinks his career has downsized over the years, and we’re very happy that it has. In our exclusive interview Barry talks about John Rain, where he got the idea for the death by ‘natural causes’ theme from and why Rain seems to appeal to the women.

What was the genesis of the character of John Rain?
I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things that the government wants only a few select individuals to know. When I was a kid I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things that people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. Anyway, since then I’ve amassed a small and unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects. I think a lot of this must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. While I was there commuting to work one morning, 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 let 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.

What do you think it is it about a grim, friendless loner with no sense of humor who happens to be a cold blooded killer that appeals to readers?
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 Lechter, 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 quotidian annoyances of daily life can’t help but feel that “damn, that would be kind of nice...”

Your books tend to be pretty hard on rogue characters within the CIA. Have 9/11 and its aftermath had any influence on the themes or contents of your works?
Although I’ve known some outstanding individuals and units within the US government (chiefly military or paramilitary), I’ve also known a good number of incompetents and seat-warmers. Some of the latter have influenced my characters, I’m sure, but hopefully some of the former make their presence known, as well. The events of 9/11 have indeed had in influence — more on this below.

What kinds of books do you enjoy reading yourself? Who were some of the works, or writers, who inspired you, and from what age?
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 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.

Do you have more Rain books planned? Can you give a “sneak preview” of his next adventure?
I’ve signed with Penguin Putnam for two additional Rain books, so more Rain is on the way. As for the sneak preview, as I mentioned above, I try to find inspiration for a setting in real life events of the day — in other words, I try to place fictional characters in a non-fictional world. In this case, I’ve been struck by the confluence of two post-9/11 developments. First, it’s clear to me that the CIA has gotten the green light on assassinations, regardless of what euphemism is used in place of that uncomfortable word. For example, a few months ago, a CIA-controlled Predator drone blew up a bunch of Al Quaeda operatives in Yemen — an act that would have been politically infeasible before 9/11. Second, the government is classifying certain American citizens like Jose Padillo, the “dirty bomber” from Chicago, as “enemy combatants” and trying them in military tribunals — essentially stripping them of their traditional rights of due process as US citizens.

But not everyone the government wants to move against is an Al Quaeda operative abroad, reachable by Hellfire missile, or a sufficiently guilty-seeming US citizen at home, reachable by military tribunal. There is of course a third class, a class that the government would like to see removed but would have to remove less obtrusively, more deniably, then by the methods that have reached the papers thus far. I ask myself, if today the US government had access to a guy like John Rain, would they use him? If so, how? Who would they want him to go after? What would get Rain to play ball? Follow these questions, and you’ll see the structure of the next Rain book taking form...

Any word on a movie? If a film is made, is there any chance you be involved in the script or shooting?
I optioned the movie rights to a guy named Barrie Osborne, who won an Oscar for producing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His production company, Three Dogs & A Pony, is comprised by Barrie, two Japanese partners, and one Australian partner. They all know Asia well and are good people, and I think they're just the right group to bring the Rain books to the screen. I’m new to the world of Hollywood, so I don’t really know what happens next. If I felt I could fit it in with my schedule and it would help get the movie made, I would consider it. The main thing, though, is to find the right screenwriter to get the movie made

Have you ever had the opportunity to talk to a real professional killer? If the answer is yes, was it before or after you have written Rain Falls? How was it?
I’ve never talked with a real professional killer (at least as far as I know). I have, however, had many opportunities to talk with war veterans about their killing experiences, and some of these discussions have provided my with a deeper understanding of Rain’s character, background, and worldview. I’ve also read (among many others) an excellent book on the subject: On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dave Grossman. Grossman’s book is a startlingly original and eye-opening examination of its subject.

Why did you choose the 21st century Japan as the scene of a noir novel?
There’s an awful lot of corruption in Japanese business and politics, corruption of the sort that can make for great setting for a spy story. For example, I got the idea for Rain’s specialty — death by “natural causes” — from an article by Forbes Tokyo Bureau Chief Benjamin Fulford (who also was the inspiration for Rain Fall’s Franklin Bulfinch, by the way) in which Fulford mentioned rumors about a squad of yakuza killers who were adept in killing people and making the deaths look like accidents, suicide, or other non-murderous causes. In fact, Fulford’s reporting, as well the extensive insights into Japanese corruption in Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons, provided wonderful back-story for both Rain Fall and Hard Rain. Using these accounts, I was able to create a realistic, even factual, setting, into which I injected fictional characters. In a sense, in the Rain books I proposed a fictional explanation for real life events, again, a trick to which Japan, with all its Byzantine corruption, nicely lends itself. So I think that the “tense and primal” dark underside is quite real, and I have tried to depict it accordingly.

There’s also the feeling, the life force, of Tokyo itself — 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.'

You worked for three years for the Foreign Service. What did you do, where did you go, and why did you ultimately decide to leave? How has this influenced your writing?
During the three years I spent with the US government, I worked mostly at the Japan desk, where I had the opportunity to study the fundamentals of the language. I left partly because it was taking too long to get sent overseas, which was what I really wanted; partly because I found the USG to be a frustratingly bureaucratic place to work. I’ve noticed in retrospect that my subsequent career history looks like the story of non-stop downsizing: first, the swollen mass of the USG; next, a 600 lawyer private law firm; then a small Silicon Valley start-up; and, eventually, my arrival as a “solo practitioner” writer.

To the extent the government experience affects my writing, I would say it’s because I came away from my time with Uncle Sam with a notion of the government’s limitations and its dysfunctions. A lot of thrillers are predicated on the idea of some sort of grand conspiracy, which can make for fun fiction, but which in my experience is probably unrealistic. Most governments just aren’t competent enough to launch and maintain a good conspiracy. So the plots of the Rain books tend to focus on the actions of smaller groups, not on government-wide actors. Likewise, some of the plot complications in the Rain books occur because the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, which is a much more common problem in governments than most people realize.

Can you please explain the research you do for the novels, other than walking around the areas?
I read a lot – current events, of course, but also on more offbeat subjects like breaking and entry, and, um, how to dispose of a body (for example). I also love to interview experts on all sorts of subjects: forensic medicine, close quarters combat, small arms, explosive ordinance disposal, and, of course, all aspects of Japan.

Hard Rain is very au courant about recent scandals and stories in the news. How do you stay on top of these?
Again, by reading a lot – the Asahi Shinbun; the Economist; Forbes; the Wall Street Journal; Dogs and Demons, by Alex Kerr – and by interviewing people who know.

In addition to writing a really cracking yarn, are there any other larger statements you’d like to make in your books (besides corruption)?
I think there are a number of truths about human nature, or perhaps the human condition, to be found in John Rain’s conflicted character. The messiness of a bad guy trying to do the right thing, the pain of regret and self-recrimination, the struggle between logic and emotion, the hope for redemption. You don’t have to be a half-Japanese, half-American freelance assassin to be familiar with and touched by these.

I read in an interview that John Rain is very popular with the ladies (readers, that is). How do you know this? Is this something you intentionally sought when developing the character?
Well, I haven’t done a scientific study; I’m just judging from the email I get through my website, much of which comes from women who seem to really like Rain. I didn’t plan to make the character appealing or unappealing to any particular class of readers; I just wrote him as he came to me. But women do seem to like him, maybe because he’s a good listener, he’s a bit mysterious, he’s cultured, and, let’s face it, he’s a bad boy, and there’s usually something sexy about that.

Barry Eisler talks to Penguin.co.uk

All your novels feature John Rain - any plans for a stand alone novel?
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 one day, but I just signed for two more Rain books. The way I conceive the Rain story arc at this point, I think six is going to be the right place to stop.

What’s your favourite part of writing the John Rain novels? (Research, writing certain scenes, sense of satisfaction when it’s done?)
That’s a tough one because there are so many. Writing full time is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I love every aspect: the research, including reading, travel, and interviews with experts; the writing itself; the revising and polishing. And I love the business aspects, too. I’m the CEO of my own company, and my product line consists of my books – the best products I’ve ever had an opportunity to sell.

Are any of your books based on true events/stories?
They all are. The corruption I describe in Japan in the first two books, Rain Fall and Blood from Blood, is all real, down to many of the names and incidents described. The backstory in Choke Point is based on post-9/11 events in the United States, where the rules of engagement for overseas assassinations have clearly changed. And I’ve mentioned the background for One Last Kill below.

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.

You, like Rain, are an ex-CIA operative. Do you draw on your own experiences to write the novels or do you use artistic license?
Yes, from 1989 to 1992, I held a covert position in the CIA. 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: small arms, long arms, hand-to-hand, improvised explosive devices, small water craft, air drops to friendly forces, surveillance, countersurveillance, counter terrorism, agent recruitment and management, interrogation, manipulation techniques. Much of the training finds its way into the books, as well as the perspective I took away on the way governments and intelligence organizations work or fail to work.

Have any authors influenced your writing – plots, characters or style?
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 humour 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 author I’ve recently fallen in love with is Terry Pratchett. His Discworld novels are brilliant, and I don’t use that word lightly.

Barry Eisler on One Last Kill

Tell us a bit about One Last Kill (without giving away any crucial plot points!)
In One Last Kill, Rain is struggling with the emotional consequences of trust, a new, or rather reawakened, emotion for him (I don’t want to say more lest I spoil some surprises in the previous book). For a guy like Rain, the possibility of trust creates a new set of dangers; in this case, the effect is a screwed-up hit that leads to a lot of different players wanting him dead. Rain has more people at his disposal in this book than he has before – he’s got a team, even a burgeoning clan. So you learn more about him from the way he interacts with these people. And the novel is told not just in first person from his perspective, as the others were, but also from the perspectives from some of the other characters. The action takes place in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, and Phuket.

What was your inspiration for One Last Kill?
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 One Last Kill.

And there’s some history involved, as well. At the end of the book, the antagonist, Jim 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.

Rain often travels to exotic places, in this book, Manila. Do you visit all the places you write about for research? Which is your favourite?
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 (I try not to complain). I make sure to do a lot of “walking in Rain’s shoes” so I can describe things from his perspective. In fact, the San Jose Mercury News said you could use the Rain books as travel guides to offbeat jazz clubs and whiskey bars, and it’s true, you can: check out my website at http://www.barryeisler.com/nl/johnrain.htm for the locations of all John Rain’s haunts. As for a favourite, that’s really hard… I certainly love Japan, where I lived for three years and which now feels like a second home, but I’ve also completely enjoyed all the other places I’ve travelled to for the books. If I’m not interested in a place, I wouldn’t be inclined to write about it.

Up until One Last Kill, you’ve always written in the first person. But this time you use third person, too. Why?
I’ve never really thought that much about the point of view I’m using; I just go with what feels right. In OLK, I became so interested in Delilah, Rain’s love interest, and in Jim Hilger, the bad guy, that it felt like they needed to come across directly, not just through Rain’s eyes. And that’s what happened. I think the supporting characters are richer as a result, and the switch also creates new opportunities for suspense, because the reader is aware of things that Rain doesn’t know about.

What are your best and worst things about being a writer?
The best are all above. Plus the flexible hours. The worst? There really aren’t any. For me it’s a dream come true.

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