Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guest Hunk Barry Eisler

ROBERTA: Today's special guest on Jungle Red has been a CIA operative, a lawyer, and the bestselling author of seven novels. Welcome Barry! Would you start by telling us about your new thriller, Fault Line, and why you decided to depart from John Rain.

BARRY: Thanks, Roberta, it's a pleasure to be here today with the lovely ladies of Jungle Red.

I feel a little foolish admitting this today, but when I wrote Rain Fall, the first in what became (to date) a six-book series, I thought it was a standalone. I should have known better -- Rain is so conflicted about what he does, indeed, about what he is, that it's embarrassing now to realize I didn't spot the character's great serial potential at the time. But I didn't, and before the novel sold, I had started playing around with a new story: two estranged brothers, one a lawyer, one an undercover soldier, who can't stand each other but are forced to work together to survive a conspiracy. The new story wasn't much past the idea stage when Rain Fall sold in the States and nine other territories. Everyone wanted a sequel, and then more sequels, so I shelved the new standalone and have been having a blast writing Rain ever since.

But at the end of the sixth and most recent Rain book, Requiem for an Assassin, I felt Rain would be busy for a while and I could leave him alone while I did something else. I don't want to give away too much about Requiem, but I'll say that Rain gets pretty messed up psychologically in that story, and that at the end, he's got a lot of work to do to put the pieces back together. While he's been working on all that, I felt free to do something else, and in this case "something else" meant that story about the two brothers. The idea has never stopped exciting me, I think in part because of my odd career path, which took me from being a covert employee with the CIA; to an international lawyer in DC, Silicon Valley, Tokyo, and Osaka; to a high-tech, venture-financed start-up executive in Silicon Valley. Any one of those worlds is a potentially interesting milieu in which to base a story; having insider knowledge of all three is just too rich a story opportunity to pass up.

But maybe all of that is more about the story’s foundation—necessary, but not sufficient; the body, but not the spark of life. What really catalyzed the story was my sense of the two brothers. What would happen if one of them, the lawyer, got in trouble, and called on his big brother, the covert military operator, for help? The younger brother would hate to make that call, maybe even more than the older brother would hate to receive it. What would the older brother do at that point? Would they be able to work together despite their mutual bitterness? Or would distrust and recriminations and spite overwhelm them? What if, even as they were struggling in the face of grave danger with all this mutual hostility, their deep-seated animosity and resentment were brought to a boil by the presence of another lawyer, say, a beautiful Iranian-American woman who both brothers desire but can’t really trust?

The more I thought about these characters and the worlds they came from, the more questions I asked about who they were and what was forcing them together, the more excited I got. I guess that feeling of excitement is the best kind of inspiration a story can ever have.

HANK: Hey, Barry! Congratulations on your wild success. (Rhys told us all the secrets you revealed at Left Coast Crime, but that doesn't scare us.) At a conference recently, someone took me aside and said -- almost sneering, I'm afraid -- "Well, you're in TV so all you have to do is write about what you've done. It's much more difficult to make stuff up." What should I have said?

BARRY: Yes, sometimes people say things so breathtakingly ignorant and stupid that momentary awe can prevent us from immediately responding. To cope with the paralyzingly thoughtless comments people sometimes leave on my blog, I find it's useful to inquire about the basis for the person's opinion. So here, I think it would have been just fine to respond, "Really? What TV shows have you written?" If the answer were, "None," that might be time for a sigh and a, "I wish I could have opinions without any factual basis, too... it must save so much time." If the answer were, "Many," that might be time for a, "That's great that they came so easily to you. I'm sure they were very good."

Of course, that's all with the benefit of hindsight and the calm of the keyboard. But having some general approaches in mind does help me cope with fact-free assertions because over time you'll notice there are categories of stupidity. The one you encountered was the evidence-free opinion (depressingly common). There's also the false binary, often combined with a straw man. For example, recently, there have been quite a few comments on my blog along the lines of, "What are we supposed to do with terrorists if we don't torture them? Offer them tea and crumpets?" For this one, I typically ask, "Really? If we don't torture people, we have to offer them tea? Bob, can you really imagine no other possibilities?"

You know, I've been meaning to do a whole post on critical thinking and how to argue. You are inspiring me!

RHYS: Welcome Barry. I think you and I have probably asked each other every possible question in that session of interviewing each other at Left Coast, which I have to say went remarkably smoothly for something so unrehearsed. Even if the photos do look a little like Sonny and Cher. By the way, I asked Barry if he'd ever had to kill anybody, but he fudged around that and said, "Not had to...." so I want to know how strongly you identify with Rain, or with either of the characters Alex or Ben, in your new thriller.

BARRY: Rhys, I miss you! That LCC crime session was so much fun (and for anyone who's missed it, you can catch the video on my website here.

I identify in some way with all my characters, no matter how different they might be from me, no matter how different they might be from each other. I think anytime you create a character, you’re identifying certain elements in your own personality, distilling them out, and then culturing them in someone else, where they manifest themselves in a different way. So while I’m overall a pretty optimistic guy, for example, there are cynical streaks within me, streaks that present themselves more fully, and differently, in a guy like Rain, who doesn’t have my native optimism to balance and contain them. And I have my ruthless, amoral elements, so I can certainly understand Ben's world view. But I've got an idealistic streak, too (otherwise I wouldn't waste my time blogging about politics), so I completely get Sarah. And then there's a part of me that's sometimes tempted to just say, "The hell with it," ignore the world, and worry only about advancing myself.

RHYS: And one last question: do you now carry a mirror in your pocket, just in case you fall through another floor?

ROBERTA: Inside joke alert--inquiring minds want to know what this is all about!

BARRY: Okay, you asked...

In April 2001, while in Tokyo doing some final research for the manuscript that became Rain Fall, I fell nearly 18 feet (17 feet, 7 inches, to be precise; went back a month later with a tape measure) onto bare cement at an unmarked construction site. After about a minute of rolling around on the ground, groaning and swearing (and, incidentally, enormously comforted by the sound of my own voice, I think because I sensed that if I could talk I must still be alive), I managed to get to my feet. By this time I understood what had happened—I’d had a hell of a fall and might be badly hurt. I did a quick systems check: my name is Barry Eisler, my phone number is, my address is... Everything seemed to be working mentally. Still, there was blood on my hands and arms (as it turned out, from just superficial cuts), and I was concerned I might have a concussion or something. I wanted to find a mirror so I could check whether there was blood coming out of my ears, were my pupils dilated, whatever. I looked up and saw two hard-hatted Japanese construction guys staring at me. Their mouths were slightly open; I realize now that, seeing what had just happened, they were in a mild state of shock. But in my own shock and agitation, I naturally enough was completely focused on what was going on in my world and was paying zero attention to how things might look to them. I walked over to them and said in polite Japanese, "Excuse me, where's the restroom?" They didn’t say a word; the only change was that their mouths dropped open a little further. I started to get pissed, thinking, "Good God, can’t you guys give me a hand? Didn’t you see what just happened?" But of course now I realize how it all looked to them: a white guy plunges through a temporary ceiling, burns into the deck in a cloud of dust, then gets up and asks them in Japanese where's the bathroom. I’ll bet they’re still telling the story today, which makes me smile.

Little epilogue to the story: miraculously, no broken bones, but the bruises on my ass, elbows, and heels were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: not purple, but black. Also, I had whiplash consistent with what you’d get if you got hit by another car on the driver’s side of your own. I think what happened was that, in the half-second during which I was falling, my body unconsciously assumed a breakfall position (thank God for all those judo ukemi). All my injuries were consistent with that: my head didn’t even graze the ground (although, again, it did have an uncomfortable meeting with my shoulder, which caused the whiplash).

Couple interesting physics lessons: a piece of 8x11 paper, folded in quarters, was blown out of the inside breast pocket of my jacket, I assume by the air being compressed violently around it. My Palm handheld, which was in my front pocket (I landed on my back), was crushed by the impact. I didn’t understand how that could be, until an engineer friend of mine pointed out, "Look, you strapped your Palm to a leg for cushioning and threw it over an 18-foot ledge. What did you think would happen?" That I understood.

Physiology follow-up: no bad pain until about twenty minutes afterward, but I felt hugely stunned, for want of a better word, like I’d been hit in the gut all over my body, and hard. As I mentioned, I was interested to note how comforting was the sound of my own voice. Also, as soon as I was able, I got to my feet, which I recognize now was probably not smart (I might have had a spinal injury, although I wasn’t thinking so clearly at the moment). I think this is another thing that makes you feel better—that is, I can’t be hurt that badly; I just stood up! Also, when the temporary ceiling that I mistook for a floor opened up as I stepped on it, I was so surprised that I was not surprised. I perceived what was happening but it was so totally unexpected and incongruous that I couldn’t process it. Because I couldn’t process it, I couldn’t react to it emotionally. I wasn’t scared, or alarmed, or anything. I think this kept me relaxed and might have saved me from much worse. From this I surmised that there is a slight lag between perception and processing, at least when the unexpected occurs.

Oh, and a language follow up: as I lay on my stomach in the emergency room of Jikei University hospital a couple hours later, clutching the bedsheets in agony, a cute young nurse (in the whole fetishistic outfit, done to perfection as only the Japanese can do 'em) came over. She asked me if I though I needed "itamidome." At the time, I didn’t know the word, but reasoned it out: "itami" is pain; "dome" sounded like the vocalized root of "tomeru," to stop. Ah, she’s talking about painkillers... yes, I said, please, bring me some of those. A minute later she was back, with, as she said, "zayaku." Great, I’m thinking through the waves of pain, another new word... "Kusuri no yaku?" I asked—"yaku, as in medicine?" She nodded encouragingly. Now what about that "za"... "Ginza no za?" I asked, in sudden, inspired dread. "Sou desu! Sou desu!" she responded, nodding vigorously and confirming my worst fears: the "za" in Ginza means "seat." She wanted to give me a suppository! And as bad as the pain was, the indignity of being suppositoried by this cute fetishized nurse would have been much worse, and I declined.

I wonder from time to time why she would want to give me a suppository. I asked a doctor friend once; he said, "Were you having trouble holding down liquids?" I answered no. He shrugged and said, "Maybe she like you." Hooo-boy...

Took me almost a year to heal completely, but no permanent damage. I feel exceptionally lucky. I think in a hundred alternative universes where this happened, I was crippled or killed every time. This was the only one where I could have walked away. In addition to the physics, physiology, and linguistics lessons, and the inherent humor value (given that I emerged okay from the whole thing), this was one of those near-death experiences that helps create perspective on the things that matter. I’m probably better off for having gone through it—but wouldn’t recommend trying it at home.

RO: Hi, Barry. My Jungle Red sisters usually ask the serious questions and I'm here for comic relief... I was lucky enough to be at Love is Murder two years ago when you were on the um, Hair panel (or was it the Stud Muffin panel?) moderated by Barb D'Amato. I won't repeat some of the rowdy questions that Barb allowed but... do you and Marcus Sakey really have a hair rivalry, and when you're at the same show do you share styling products?

BARRY: Marcus and I did have a rivalry, but then we realized we could never beat Jason Starr and just gave up. And have you seen Joe Konrath's flowing locks lately? Just posted lots of photos of that and more from April's Romantic Times in Orlando...

Thanks again, everyone, what a pleasure to be a guest here at Jungle Red!

ROBERTA: Thanks for stopping by Barry! And now the floor is open for your comments and questions...


  1. It's always scary to be first...

    Thanks for stopping by today, Barry. I admit I've been living in a hole for...a long time now. Now that I have the John Rain books on my radar, I'm sure I'll get much more familiar with you. In a reading sense. As my husband is a former JAG officer who had some "unofficial" assignments, I'll definitely add Fault Line to the list.

    As I'm unfamiliar (at the moment anyway) with your work, this may be a stupid question, but what the hell. How much "truth" do you put in your books? Do you gloss over actual procedures and policies or do you spell them out?

    Reds, thanks so much for adding additional books to my Must Have list. *mutter* ;)

  2. And SJ, we thank YOU for taking the plunge!

  3. Hi, this is your guest hunk, Barry...

    (no one told me I was going to be a guest hunk. Trying to live up to it)

    Silver, thanks for checking out the books and I hope you'll enjoy them. As for truth, everything I write is as real and accurate as I can make it: the places, all of which I visit for research; the tactics, which I learned with the government; the sex, which... ;)

    Well, anyway, yes, I spell things out.


  4. Hi Barry,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. Personally, I love conflicted characters, and have a hard time understanding books where the protaganist is too cool to have a response to the havoc around him. But the fact that you are a former CIA operative, and my husband hasn't yet read your books --that's gravy. I now know what to get for both his birthday and Father's Day, next month. (the fact that I get to read them, too, doesn't negate the whole gift thing, does it?)

  5. OOPs, sorry Barry, I should have warned you about the hunk thing--but you're doing very well so far:)

    What about the family part of the new book? Can you say something about how you developed the model for those relationships?

  6. Ah ha, Barry. In other words, we're dealing with that old cliche, "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you..." when it comes to the truth in your novels. Gotcha. I'll be on the lookout after I read them to make sure nobody wearing a nondescript black suit driving a nodescript black sedan (Feds and spooks only drive really cool SUVs in Hollywood) pulls up.

    As for the sex.... Hey, you are the hunk du jour...

    I really need to get these books now. *plots trip to book store*

  7. Barry, as always, you've thoroughly entertained me. For those of you who haven't yet read Fault Line, I strongly recommend the book. I'm still crushin' on Ben, by the way, but I suppose I should get over my infatuation and start in on the Rain series.

    Elle Amery

  8. Thanks, Jan, and I hope you both enjoy it.

    Roberta, the family stuff... well, the story wouldn't have worked without the backstory of Alex and Ben's broken family, and in fact what happened to them, and whether they can survive it, for me was more the point of the story than whether they could survive the conspiracy that's trying to kill them. And it was cruel to make everything worse for them by putting drop-dead lawyer Sarah Hosseini into the mix, creating a love triangle dynamic in addition to all their other problems. But no one said things should be easy for your characters...

    How did I develop all this? I started with a few things about my own family and then made them much worse. If the thing that had happened to me had been much worse, and if I were a different kind of person in different circumstances, how would it have affected me? Etc. That's how it usually goes for me when I'm developing characters: I start with something I recognize in myself and then develop it as the way it would have developed in another person, under different circumstances. I'd love to hear from some of the JR ladies on how this process is for you.

    And many thanks, Elle!

  9. Barry, that sounds about right for how I create characters too. For example, I'm writing about a police detective whose wife has died and left him with a very difficult teenage stepdaughter. I have plenty of experience with a stepdaughter (much, much improved over time:), but I could take the kernel of that and juice it up, upping the ante for him, as you describe with your characters.

    I wonder if writers who've done many, many books are still drawing on their own lives or have moved on?

  10. Having heard Lee Goldberg at LCC giving you, Barry, a hard time about that fall and your "Excuse me, where's the restroom?" reaction, I was struck by the fact that Rain, in RAIN FALL, does almost exactly the same thing: gets seriously roughed up and then asks two nearby construction workers where to find the nearest restroom. Do you tend to work your research into your stories that smoothly all the time?

    Liked FAULT LINE a lot. Like the RAIN books a lot. Keep writing.

  11. Hi Roberta, here's hoping we find out! And Sal, yes, that passage was my little homage to my real-life equivalent.