Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Interview with Barry Eisler

Author of Rain Fall and Hard Rain

Japanzine:
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?

Barry Eisler: 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 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.

JZ: The idea (for the book)
came to you while commuting to work in 1993.  Rain Fall came out
in 2002.  You were working during this period.  When did you
decide to give up the day job and why?

BE: Ah,
this one reminds me of the joke about why dogs lick their? oops, never
mind.  I love writing, and had for a long time thought that
getting paid to do full time what I love would be wonderful.  So
as soon as I got my first check, from Sony?s Village Books imprint for
the Japanese rights, I left my day job and started concentrating full
time on writing.

JZ: How long did it take you to complete the novel?  Did it go through many rewrites?

BE: I
guess it took nearly eight years, soup to nuts, with more rewrites than
I can count.  It took a long time in part because I had a busy day
job, and in part because at first I didn?t really know what I was
doing, and you learn as you go.

JZ: When you
say that you didn?t really know what you were doing for the first book,
what exactly did you mean?  What do you know now? 

BE: I
think a talent for writing is to writing a novel as a talent for using
tools is to building a house.  I knew how to use the basic tools,
but there were a lot of elements of the craft that I didn?t understand
at first.  The place of back story, for example, or the way to tie
together different elements of the story and characters to create an
emotionally satisfying ending.  Now that I?ve built a few houses,
so to speak, I?ve got much better at planning for these things in
advance, and doing them right from the start rather than having to
correct them later on.

JZ: Once completed, how did you shop it around?  How did you land a publisher?

BE:
My US agent, Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates, had a great idea: he
set up a series of meetings with Japanese publishers and we auctioned
the rights in Japan before offering them anywhere else.  Because
Rain Fall is set in Tokyo, because the protagonist, John Rain, is
half-Japanese, and because I speak Japanese, we got a lot of interest
and a big two-book deal from Japan.  Publisher?s Weekly picked the
story up in the States, and Nat sent the manuscript to about 20 US
publishing houses.  Putnam liked the book so much that they
pre-empted the auction, and bought Rain Fall and a – at that time
unwritten – sequel, which became Hard Rain.

JZ: How did you get an agent? 

BE:
I had received about 50 rejections after sending the Rain Fall
manuscript to as many agents, but some of them offered good
suggestions, so I kept on revising.  Eventually, a friend of a
friend who worked at a publishing house suggested that I send the
manuscript to a few agents with whom she worked, one of whom was Nat
Sobel.  Nat saw promise in the early manuscript but knew it wasn?t
ready for prime time; he offered suggestions for improvement that were
as extensive as they were excellent, and, about two years later, he
judged the manuscript ready to go. 

JZ: Can
you describe your own writing process, how you set up the story, the
chapters, the interludes and events contained therein?  The
details?

BE: Hmm, well, there?s usually a short
outline at the beginning, which describes the new characters and the
general situation in which Rain finds himself.  After that, to
find out what happens I need to write.  Which keeps things fun ?
like any reader, I?m eager to know what happens next, and the only way
I can do that is by writing about it.  It?s like driving a car at
night: the headlights only illuminate a little way up the road; to see
farther, you have continue driving.

JZ: Has having written these books opened doors to the ?people who know??

BE: Very
much so, and this has been a lot of fun for me.  I get email
through my website now from former Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and people
with law enforcement backgrounds.  The range of experts to whom I
can turn for information is amazing.
As one small example, I had a friend who?s a veteran agent of the FBI
review the Rain Storm manuscript.  There?s a shooting scene in the
book, and I described the rounds ricocheting off the concrete floor and
knocking loose chunks of concrete.  My friend said, no, you don?t
get chunks in a situation like that, you get dust.  And I thought,
man, imagine knowing something like that first hand!  Which this
guy does.

JZ: Can you offer any information on what is coming up in future books about John Rain? 

BE: As
I set about writing the third book about a year ago, two post 9/11
trends struck me.  First, the CIA?s rules of engagement had
clearly been loosened, as evidenced by the successful Predator strike
on a jeep in Yemen that was carrying several al-Qaeda operatives. 
Second, the US government is trying to take certain individuals out of
action by imprisoning them as ?enemy combatants? ? for example, Jose
Padilla, the so-called Chicago Dirty Bomber.  I realized from
these trends that, if the USG had a way to make certain players,
perhaps in the terrorist infrastructure, just go to sleep, without the
mess of a Hellfire missile strike or the civil libertarian
complications of imposition of ?enemy combatant? status, the government
would do it.  So what if Uncle Sam found a way to track down John
Rain, the master of death by natural causes?  Who would be the
target?  What would they offer him to get him to take the
work?  Read Rain Storm, and find out?

JZ: The
theme of corruption features largely in both books. Do you really think
that Japan is past the point of reform and that only ?a pain management
approach? is of use?

BE: It?s hard to say. 
Even the experts are divided on this question, and I wouldn?t call
myself an expert.  And the guy who makes the ?pain management?
argument in Hard Rain can?t claim to be objective in the basis for his
conclusions.  I am afraid that Japan isn?t going to do much more
than muddle along for a good long time, with people getting used to
gradually less comfortable circumstances, like the proverbial frog
getting used to the gradually hotter water he has been placed in. 
I?m a bit of a Japanophile, though, and am awfully attached to the
country, so I hope I?m wrong.

JZ: In addition to
writing a really crackling yarn, are there any other larger statements
you?d like to make in your books (besides corruption)?

BE: 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.