Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler is the best-selling author of two thriller series, one featuring John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American former soldier turned freelance assassin; and another featuring black ops soldier Ben Treven.
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Barry Eisler is the best-selling author of two thriller series, one featuring John Rain, a half-Japanese, half-American former soldier turned freelance assassin; and another featuring black ops soldier Ben Treven.

After graduating from Cornell Law School, Barry joined the CIA and held a covert position with the Directorate of Operations. After leaving the organization, he worked as a technology attorney and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, and earned a black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center. He began writing full time in 2002 and Rain Fall was the first of his seven-book John Rain series.

His thrillers have won the Barry Award and Gumshoe Award for best thriller of the year and his novels have been translated into nearly 20 languages. Barry made news in 2011 when he turned down a half-million dollar advance from St. Martin's Press and self-published his next novel. This was considered by many a turning point in the self-publishing revolution. He also reacquired the rights to his traditionally published novels and retitled them.

What made a Cornell Law School graduate join the CIA?
When I was in college I became interested in various aspects of foreign policy and international relations. Even as a kid I was interested in what I call loosely speaking, forbidden knowledge. Meaning, all the things the government wants only a few select people to know. So those two interests came together and I thought something with the CIA might be a right fit for me.

Does any of what's described in the John Rain and Ben Treven thrillers reflect your experiences with the CIA?
I should say I was with the CIA for only three years. I worked in the Directorate of Operations which is now called the National Clandestine Service. It's the part of the organization where the spies live. I didn't have much experience beyond the training. That said, all the tactics and mentality you see reflected in the novels derive from my experience in the CIA. Maybe more important is the "macro" stuff. What I'm referring to is that when I was at the CIA, I saw how a vast government intelligence bureaucracy functions, or malfunctions. And it's reflected as realistically as possible in my books.

It's clear from reading the John Rain novels that you're familiar with or have a very vivid imagination when it comes to surveillance, evasion and other operational tactics. These are intimately described in your novels.
I hope that's what gives the novels their verisimilitude beyond the characters, exotic settings, action and steamy sex, all of which I think people want in a good thriller. I also hope people enjoy seeing some of the mechanics of professional tradecraft, including camera surveillance and things of that nature.

Speaking of character, John Rain is a complex and intriguing character. There are very few fictional characters I admire, respect and even fear as I do John Rain. How did you conceptualize him?
It started with the first scene in the first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo, formerly called, Rain Fall. The book opens with John Rain following a guy down a street in Tokyo and causing his target to have a heart attack by interfering electronically with his pacemaker. By the way, a few years ago the New York Times reported that pacemaker hacking is entirely feasible; so it's an example of John Rain being slightly ahead of his time.

It started with this notion of an assassin whose specialty was making people's deaths look like they were due to natural causes rather than foul play. It's the kind of service that would be in demand by various governments. So, from there, I started asking myself the usual series of questions -- who, what, why, where, when and how. I began fleshing out the character based on the answers to those questions. Those are questions every writer should ask if you're writing a story -- especially if you get stuck. Then, you subject the answers you get to the same series of questions. There's no better way to develop a story or character than that.

Would that include John Rain's being half-Japanese and half-American -- an outsider who doesn't fit in?
Yes, that was part of it. I wanted someone who would be of both these worlds, and yet not accepted and comfortable in either one. A number of things flowed from that. Certain things happened in his childhood because of that alienation and made him more interesting, because if you're too deeply immersed in any one culture, I don't think you can see things as clearly as an outsider who becomes familiar with that milieu. It's not a coincidence for instance, that the classic text on American society was written by deToqueville, a Frenchman. I wanted John Rain to have that insider-outsider view for greater clarity and insight.

They say write about what you know. Steve Berry says write about what you love. Do you both know and love the mystique of surveillance, counter-surveillance black ops, and spies?
I guess so. I've loved thrillers and spy stories since I was a kid. It's probably not a bad rule of thumb to write the kinds of stories you love to read. When I was ten, I read a biography of Harry Houdini. There's a line I'll never forget. A cop says, "It's fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life of crime because if he had, he'd have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold." I was struck by the notion that Houdini had acquired knowledge the government doesn't want most people to have, and that in the wrong hands, could be dangerous. Those are the kinds of stories I was drawn to. For instance, David Morrell's First Blood, the book that led to the Rambo films, is about a guy who acquires potentially destructive and deadly skills and comes back from Vietnam and brings the war home to America. Those are the kinds of stories I love and it's not a coincidence that those are the kinds of stories I write.

In all your novels, the descriptions of Tokyo, other Japanese cities and various other locales are richly detailed. Do you visit these places as part of your research, or use Google Earth?
I do both. It's a really good question because there's a lot of misunderstandings about the nature and uses of Internet knowledge. Some people think it's a joke and others think it's fine. It really depends on what you're using it for. The Internet is a limitless library at your fingertips. It's a great place to start with the acquisition of knowledge. My process is to go to a place when I'm writing about it. Nothing captures the essence, feeling and flavor of a place better than when I'm actually there and doing the writing. In fact, I spent a month in Tokyo finishing up a John Rain prequel set in Tokyo in 1972. I could have written the book from memory because I've been to Tokyo so many times, but I knew the writing would be richer if I actually walked in John Rain's footsteps and did it in real time.

But if I'm not that familiar with a place, I don't just jump on a plane and go there. A good place to start is the Internet. I read about it, talk to people who've been there, and buy some travel guides. This preliminary research helps me go deeper -- by deeper, I mean to have more of a knowledge base when I actually go to the locale and start traveling through it for the novel. If you start by developing a body of Internet knowledge, you're much more able to determine what you need to look for. I must say however, I've travelled to and soaked up the atmosphere of every place I've ever written about in my novels. Don't feel sorry for me. I've gotten to go to some pretty cool places: Bangkok, Tokyo, Barcelona, Paris and many others.

What about research into methods of assassination employed by John Rain?

Generally, there are four levels of knowledge. There's research at a library or on the Internet along with books and articles. Then there are interviews to conduct with people who've actually been there. Then, there's your own direct experience, if you have it. The fourth element is your imagination. If you're a novelist you're going to have some imagination.

For instance, that pacemaker scene in the first John Rain novel...I don't know where I got the idea of shorting out a guy's pacemaker. It just came to me. I didn't know much about pacemakers or wireless technology at the time. I'm pretty weak on technology.

You would never know that by reading your books.
That's an example of a process anyone can use to gain the verisimilitude I mentioned. I always want the reader to feel I'm an expert. So if I get an idea, I start doing some research. As far as the pacemaker is concerned, I contacted an old college friend who's now a prominent Harvard cardiologist and we talked about pacemakers. I learned the basics from him. I put these concepts together and came up with the plot device of John Rain using a wireless device -- though there was no Bluetooth technology 20 years ago.

Another example in Winner Take All, are some casino-intensive scenes. Now, I'd never been in a casino in my life. So I Googled Baccarat and then, believe it or not, I read Gambling for Dummies. These helped me develop a certain body of knowledge. Then I visited a casino in Macao and got more information. I wrote those scenes but took one additional step which is important if you want to fool even the experts who may read your book. I found an expert and asked him to read those scenes. In my experience, you'll get really close based on all your research and background efforts, but after giving the scenes to an expert, a little tweak will do the trick. I want the reader to feel that what I write is as accurate as I can possibly make it.

Are there any problems associated with writing a series such as the John Rain novels as opposed to writing stand-alone novels?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you're writing stand-alone novels, you start fresh with each new one. You start with a clean slate and have to build a new foundation. That can be laborious and very time-intensive. And it can be a bit of a challenge. With a series, you get to probe more deeply into the long-term development of a character. I find exploring these things with John Rain to be enormously satisfying. By putting him in different books, over a period of years, he gets to stretch, grow and develop. And those changes in turn, affect the plot trajectory of the novel, and of subsequent stories. There can be a long-term interplay between plot change and character change.

Some authors do it differently. James Bond didn't change at all from book to book. You can read the Ian Fleming's books in any order. Each one can be read as a stand-alone. Any of my novels, can be fully enjoyed on its own, but there's a character arc taking place over a period of time. Part of that arc involves Rain getting older. I know from my own experience in judo and in life, that as you get older, you lose some advantages, but gain others. You may have to find ways to compensate for whatever abilities you begin losing. I love seeing Rain do that. He's definitely not the same person in each book. He's changing physically and emotionally. He gains perspective.

Hopefully, we all develop and mature as we go along in life. It's a matter of aggregated life experience that gradually changes our focus. I'm almost 50; I work out and stay in shape but there's no way I'm as quick on the judo mat as I once was. So hopefully, you find a way to compensate. Sort of like the old expression, 'Old age and treachery will beat youth and reflexes.' Those are your tools as you get older -- treachery and trickery. As an example, I'm a better writer now than I was 20 years ago. It's hugely satisfying to improve at your craft and to savor everything leading to that. And I want my character to do that as well.

In 2011, you walked away from a huge advance from St. Martin's Press to go the self-publishing route. Can you tell us what led to that decision?

There's so much going on in the publishing revolution, we'll barely scratch the surface. I should mention that on my website, Barry Eisler.com there's a link called Resources for Indie Writers and there's another called For Writers. Both have articles I've written that go deeply into this topic.

The people at St. Martin's Press are terrific. St. Martin's is as good a legacy publisher as there is. In fact, they're better than most. So it wasn't that I walked away from St. Martin's Press specifically. If at the time I'd wanted to do a legacy deal, they would have been the one's I'd have done it with, for sure.

But, I decided I would ultimately be happier and would make more money in the long term, by self-publishing the book I was writing. It subsequently came out as The Detachment. I talked about this extensively in an online book I did based on conversations with my friend, Joe Konrath. It's called Be the Monkey: A Conversation about the New World of Publishing. It's available as a free download from my website.

There's no one-size fits-all answer to this issue. If you want to be a successful commercial writer, you have to find the path that works for you. Different paths work for different people. That's important to understand because we're still in the early stages of this publishing revolution. There's a great deal of either/or thinking about this. We don't live in an either/or world. For writers, we're living in a hybrid world.

Let me back up a little. It used to be that if you wanted to reach a mass market audience with a book, you could only do so with paper. Paper was the only cost-effective distribution means for books. If you were a writer who wanted to reach a large audience, you needed a paper distribution partner. You could theoretically do this by going to Kinkos or using a vanity press and then drive around the country distributing books. But you wouldn't reach a mass audience.

Paper distribution partners are known as publishers. They offer a bundle of publishing services: editing, line editing, copy editing, proof reading, cover design, jacket copy, marketing and promotion. All these are value-added services bundled along with distribution by those entities we call publishers. They're important services. You couldn't successfully reach a mass audience if no one was performing these services. These are all important, but the most fundamental of all has been the distribution of paper books. When I say these things it can make legacy publishers and agents foam at the mouth. I don't know why, but it does. Anyway, that was then.

In 2007 the Kindle came along. We all know what that is, and we all know what it means. It meant, and still does, there's another way to distribute books to reach a mass market of readers. There's not just paper anymore. Now you can do it digitally. Digital distribution of books changes everything. It does so because as an author, I no longer need a distribution partner to reach a mass market. This has been proven by self-publishing. You can now have the infrastructure to publish a book independent of publishers.

I sometimes say that in the digital age, a publisher offering an author distribution services is like someone offering me air. I don't need to buy it. I already have it. If you don't like the air analogy, maybe a better one is water. Through Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, these distribution services take a 30 percent cut. So it's not like air; it's not free. But anyone who wants to distribute a book can pay 30 percent to have a book distributed -- digitally. It's really like water. Water is ubiquitous. I can fill my glass at the sink. It's not free...I have to pay some sort of municipal water charge, but it's not expensive and I can have all the water I want. So I don't need to buy water if someone comes along and offers to sell it to me.

Likewise, I don't need publishers' distribution services anymore. And the publishing world is having a difficult time getting its head around the notion of going from having been a necessary service for authors, to a merely desirable service. That's an uncomfortable transition for anyone who, up until now, has had a world view and business practices orbiting around the idea that they were necessary -- even, essential. Now, they're only potentially useful or optional.

Let's go back to my decision to self-publish. My paper sales had been shrinking for a while. At the same time, my digital sales were exploding. If I publish a book with a legacy publisher, I will receive only 17.5 percent of the retail price of that book in digital royalties. If I self-publish the book, I'll receive 70 percent. That means I'm making four times more per unit if I self-publish than if I go with a legacy publisher. So, I looked at this and wondered, Can a legacy publisher move four times the number of books I can move on my own? I looked at my sales history and determined the answer was No.

St. Martin's offered a big advance and I would have received more money up-front, but over time, by self-publishing at 70 percent return, I would come away with more money than I would with a royalty of 17.5 percent. That's the money-side of the issue.

Then, there's the issue of happiness. I wouldn't divorce money from happiness. Most people would be happy making more money than less. But my happiness quotient wasn't driven entirely by financial considerations.

Because of my personality and business experience, I found it very frustrating to have to entrust business decisions to people whose thinking, work process and conclusions I didn't necessarily agree with or respect. I've had publishers make terrible business decisions for my books. I found it painful and frustrating to have to live with those decisions. I find it much more satisfying to be responsible for and in charge of those decisions. That's what drove much of my happiness quotient. There's a cost and benefit in maintaining control over your business if you're a business person. I didn't like outsourcing business decisions concerning my books.

There's another reason to consider self-publishing. When I write a book and it's done -- it's been line edited, copy edited, proof read, formatted, the jacket copy is done, the flap copy is finished -- and the book is ready to be bought and enjoyed by readers, I want the book to be available to anyone who wants to buy it. I don't want to wait six months or longer for it to be in book stores. This is where my philosophy and business strategy and those of legacy publishers begin to diverge.

Legacy publishers are very uncomfortable when these issues are brought up. I would love them to have an opportunity to respond. Unfortunately, many people who represent the legacy publishing world such as Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, say nothing. In my view, the Authors Guild does not truly represent authors. It represents a publishing ecosystem that works for certain authors. The Authors Guild defends the interests of the establishment players, the most successful players in the current system. I feel badly when the Guild puts out information that could be potentially damaging to authors' interests. I feel it's personally my responsibility to put information out there so people can make better decisions about self-publishing versus legacy publishing. Some years ago, Stephen King wrote an article in Entertainment Weekly excoriating legacy publishers for their incompetence in marketing books.

But if a writer is comfortable outsourcing these decisions, then by all means he or she should do it. One thing I think all writers need to understand is this: if paper is where you want to make it big, you probably want to go with a legacy publisher. That's where the primary paper game is played. There's nothing wrong with that. But writers should recognize that legacy or traditional publishers -- the Big Five -- depend on paper. Paper has been the source of their anti-competitive posture.

Paper represents a significant barrier to anyone who wants to become a publisher. You need an enormous amount of infrastructure to publish paper books: printing presses; trucks; warehouses; and relationships with thousands of points of sale. They all represent an extreme barrier for anyone wanting to become a publisher. If you're one of the big five, you can set up a cartel-like system. And this is exactly what's happened. I've been talking about this for a long time -- long before the Department of Justice brought a successful suit against price fixing collusion in the publishing industry.

What you must remember is this: big paper publishers are doing everything they can to preserve the position of paper and retard the growth of digital publishing. That's the key to their current strategy. But I think it's a bad strategy and one that's ultimately self-defeating. What an author must remember is that if sales are bigger in digital and you're making more money per unit with digital, you want to hit the market faster without going through the infrastructure of paper publishing which can take six months or longer. This means an author's interests and the paper publisher's business interests diverge.

Something totally unrelated, if you could have dinner with any five writers or historical figures, living or dead, who would they be?
The people I'd want to have dinner with are busy doing some very important things, but since this is hypothetical, I can invite them. It would be a real honor for me to have a chance to meet and thank Edward Snowden. He's done America and liberty across the word an enormous service through his whistleblowing. He's got a lot on his plate and I wouldn't want to bother him, but this is just fantasy. It would be very satisfying to have a chance to chat with him. I'm awed by what he's accomplished at enormous risk to himself. To be 29 years old and to have his level of courage, clarity and conviction, and to act on it, makes him one in millions.

The journalist who's most responsible for bringing Snowden's revelations to the attention of the public, Glen Greenwald, is another guy I'd love to have a chance to talk with. He's at the center of a storm and is doing such important work.

George Carlin is a guy I always hugely admired. I felt his death a few years ago was a terrible loss to the country, not just because he was hilarious and laughing that hard is a blessing. The nature of his comedy was so political and his ability to expose hypocrisy was piercing. He was just amazing.

A novelist I would love talking with is Isabel Allende. I've enjoyed several of her books, Daughter of Fortune, among them. I'd probably ask her stupid questions, like the ones she's been asked a hundred times, like, Where do you get your ideas?

It's the same question you get asked.
Yes. Among writers, we joke about those questions because they're clichés. Some writers pretend to be horrified by that question. They're clichés only in the sense that they're frequently asked. But when you think about it, the reason Where do you get your ideas is so frequently asked is because it's a legitimate and understandable source of curiosity. If you grow accustomed to getting ideas for a novel it may seem like it's no big deal; you take it for granted. You tend to forget how astonishing it must be to someone else.

I'm reading the George R. Martin series, A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically, A Game of Thrones. As I'm reading this book, I'm constantly wondering how this guy thought of all this. It's like he's writing a history of some other world. How could he possibly make all this up? It's astonishing to me. He's probably been asked that question a million times. If I ever got to meet a composer...I'm always curious about this: How do you write a song? Where does a song come from? It's so alien to me. But I think those questions are perfectly understandable and writers should have a little empathy for the people who ask that question. Because you're used to the process and probably take it for granted, you don't want to be asked that same question...but if you put yourself in the shoes of the person fascinated and curious about that process, the question makes perfect sense. Yes, I would probably bother Isabel Allende a bit by asking her questions she's been asked and answered hundreds of times.

Speaking of where ideas come from, do you ever feel you might at some point, begin struggling for a new idea?
No. I find that as a thriller writer the U.S. government is extraordinarily generous in giving me more material than I can possibly use. I sometimes joke that what's bad for America is good for thriller writers. It's true. If after the cold war we really had relatively good, honest, non-corrupt government of, by, and for the people, I'm not sure there would be much to write about. This is something many thriller writers forget. It's a shame on an entertainment level and on the level of potential service to society.

The shame is this: many thriller writers reach reflexively for the cartoonish plot involving scary, brown-skinned Islamists who hate us for our freedom and who must be destroyed. That's a cliché. The shame, the loss, is that they could have written a better and more compelling story and stayed away from the cartoon. It's such a waste.

There's also an opportunity in a small way to do a public service by writing a thriller reflective of some aspect of reality. Right now, there's a certain amount of damage that Al Qaeda or some other non-state actor could possibly do to the United States, but it's limited. The high-water mark was 9-11 which of course, was a terrible tragedy. But in the scheme of things regarding the survival and long-term health of the nation, it was nothing. 9-ll did not affect our national security. The nation was secure.

What really threatens America are not stateless acts of terror themselves, but rather, America's over-reaction to those acts. To me, it's axiomatic: who is more powerful -- Al Qaeda or the nuclear-armed, 350 million population America? Al Qaeda is a flea compared to American might and power. If we turn that power on ourselves, that is a national security threat. The only way any stateless actor can really threaten our national security is by tricking or persuading America to turn its own might against itself. And that's what's been happening since 9-11. As much as a cold virus is not lethal, if the body's defenses to that little pathogen causes it to run a fever of 107 trying to destroy it, the body might kill itself. America's response has been exactly like that -- a spectacular over-reaction. The only entity able to really hurt America today is America itself. And if you want to write a great thriller -- one with the highest and most realistic stakes -- that's the thriller to write. Not some cartoonish one. I forgot how we got into this.

We got into this after I asked if you ever worry about running out of ideas.
That's right. No, I'll never run out of ideas. What the government does every day and what gets reported in the news is just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much to work with over the course of two administrations -- Bush and Obama -- that no thriller writer will ever be able to keep up with it.

What's coming next from Barry Eisler?
It's called A Graveyard of Memories. It's a prequel of John Rain's story. It's set in Tokyo in 1972. Rain is 20 years old. He's fresh from combat in Vietnam. He's a dangerous character, but he's quite different from the one we've come to know in the previous books. He's young and inexperienced in urban environments or spy-craft. He's not nearly as worldly as he is in the other novels and he's significantly more testosterone-poisoned as most men are at that age. He's not nearly as in control of himself as he is later on.

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