Best-selling author – and former CIA covert operative – Barry Eisler talks about Japan, writing and his acclaimed “John Rain” series: steamy and action-packed thrillers featuring Rain – a contract killer with a conscience…
Hello Barry! Welcome on “Veronika asks”! Can you introduce yourself to our readers? If you could describe yourself with three adjectives…
Curious, driven, alive.
Can you tell us more about “The Last Assassin”?
Here’s the introduction from the flap of the book itself, which I really like:Even for an average citizen, a love triangle is dangerous business. For assassin John Rain—“one of the most compelling lead characters in the genre” (USA Today)—it’s going to be downright deadly. The action moves from Barcelona to New York to Tokyo to Wajima on the Japanese coast as Rain tries to protect an old love and their infant son from the danger he’s brought to their doorstep. A great combination of action, exotic locations, fascinating characters, and steamy sex…
You wrote several novels featuring John Rain, a Japanese/American “contract killer with a conscience”. Why a killer and not a lawyer, for instance?
I just like killers better. And I should know… I used to be a lawyer.There’s something so interesting about men who are able to stand outside the moral code in which the rest of us have been inculcated, and who are free to act outside it. Where do such men come from? How do they do what they do, and live with themselves after? Read the Rain books to find out…
You have a passion for Japan. How and when did it start?
When I was in college, I met two Japanese business school students who were both fourth dan judoka from the Kodokan. They were interested in wrestling, which I had done pretty hard core in high school, and I was interested in judo, so we started working out together for a cross-cultural knowledge exchange. I was also training in karate at the time, and from this interest in Japanese budo grew a more general interest in Japanese history and culture. Eventually, I decided that the only way to completely indulge my interest in judo specifically and Japan generally would be to live in the country and train there. I was hoping to get that experience with the CIA, with which I took a job after law school, but that wasn’t working out as quickly as I wanted so I left the government, joined a private firm, and eventually took a leave of absence to work with a Japanese law firm in Tokyo. During that year I trained hard core at the Kodokan five or six days a week, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Some of the world’s best judoka are always traveling to Japan to train at the Kodokan, so you have this constant infusion of fresh blood in addition to the incredible permanent depth of teaching they have there.The more I learned about Japan, the more the country came to interest me. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but there’s something about the place that I just love. I could go on and on about it. The experience of living there has given me more perspective on my own culture than anything else I’ve ever done.After one year, I returned to my US law firm, which promptly asked if I would return to Japan, this time to act as in-house counsel for one of the firm’s big clients, Matsushita Electric Industrial, the parent company of Panasonic. That trip wound up lasting two years, for a total of three, and since returning to the States in 1997 I’ve probably traveled back to Japan at least 50 times, most recently to research and promote the Rain books. I’m thrilled every time I get a chance to go.
Do you speak Japanese?
I studied full time for about a year with the Agency, and kept learning on my own after that. I’m a little rusty these days compared to when I was living there, but can still get by.You were in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and you possess a library of “books on esoteric subjects such as methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy craft, and other areas that the government would prefer only a select few to know” (I quote).
Why is it so interesting to you?
I don’t know, really, but it seems like it’s always been there. When I was a kid I read a biography of Harry Houdini. In the book, a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate Houdini didn’t turn to a life of crime—because if he had, he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I was about ten at the time and fascinated by the notion that Houdini had managed to learn, on his own, things the government didn’t want him to know, and that this knowledge could make a man dangerous.
How did you start writing? Tell us about your “road to publishing”…
I’ve always loved writing and have always been good at it, but it wasn’t until I was in Tokyo that it occurred to me to try writing a novel. While 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’s strange, and probably fortuitous, is that I didn’t move to Japan with intention or even idea of writing a novel there. I actually just went to train in judo at the Kodokan, to learn Japanese, and to experience first-hand a country and culture that I found fascinating. I think what happened is that living in Tokyo, which for me was a love-at-first-sight experience, catalyzed and expanded on a number of notions that were already lurking in my unconscious — among them, my interest in some of those esoteric subjects you mention above.
Will there be another one of Rain’s adventure?
I’m working on #6 right now — “Requiem for an Assassin,” set in Bali, Paris, Saigon, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and Amsterdam.
Why thrillers? What would you advise someone who wants to write thrillers?
It’s hard to say… the stories that come to me seem to be thrillers. Thrillers are the prism through which I see the world.My best advice for anyone who wants to write thrillers is, first make sure you like the genre! If you read a lot of thrillers, that’s a good sign. Next, re-read your favorites, asking yourself what makes them so good. That’s what I call “reading like a writer,” and with the exception of writing itself, it’s the best writing exercise there is. For more tips, check out the For Writers link on my website at http://www.barryeisler.com/writers.php.
How do you work?
Coffee shops, planes, trains, and automobiles for actual writing; long walks to figure out story points. And these days, with an approaching deadline, I’ve rented some quiet office space not far from my house.
What is, for you, the best part of novel-writing? And the worst?
Always the last ten or 20 percent of the book, where everything becomes clear and I write as though possessed by a demon. Also looking at a passage that I love, and being mystified about where it could have come from. Worst memory? None really. I love what I do.
Are there moments when you just can’t complete the puzzle? What do you do in that case?
Anytime I get stuck, I take a walk and ruthlessly focus on who, what, where, when, why, and how. If you know to ask those questions, you can always find your way.
How do you picture your reader?
I don’t think about it too much. The truth is, I write mostly for myself, hoping that others will enjoy what I’ve written, too.
Can we expect to see John Rain on screen?
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, comprises Barrie, two Japanese partners, and one Australian partner. They all know Asia well and are good people, and I think they’re the right group to bring the Rain books to the screen. I’ve adapted the first book into a script and they seem to like it. We’ll see…
Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?
Well, there’s the new Rain book I mentioned. And the screenplay I wrote of the first one, Rain Fall. Plus the political blog I write, called The Heart of the Matter, at http://www.barryeisler.com/blog.html. It’s hard for me to think ahead of that.
Finally, my favorite question: you’ve found 100 $ in your pocket; how will you use that money?
Subsidize an expensive bottle of single malt whiskey by rationalizing, hey, it’s now $100 off!
Mystery author? James Ellroy
Mystery novel? Snow Falling on Ceders
Private investigator? Jack Reacher
Weapon? Hands, knees, and elbows
Place to set up a crime? Tokyo
Place to write? Dining room table, when I have the house to myself
Quote or motto? If I’ve seen farther than others, it’s because there was no television set in front of me.
Thank you, Barry!
Have a look at Barry’s website: http://www.barryeisler.com/