Interview: March 13, 2009
March 13, 2009
Barry Eisler's seventh book and first stand-alone thriller, FAULT LINE, revolves around two estranged brothers who must join forces when one finds himself caught up in a technology-based conspiracy. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Eisler explains what prompted this foray outside of the John Rain universe and sheds light on the complex relationship shared between the two siblings. He also discusses his motivation for creating strong female characters, recounts his experiences on the set of Rain Fall --- the film based on his first novel that releases in Japan in April --- and heaps praise on one of his latest favorite reads, Charlie Huston's THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH.
Bookreporter.com: Your new novel, FAULT LINE, is a stand-alone title and thus your first work that does not feature John Rain. What inspired this change in direction for you?
Barry Eisler: Nothing terribly conscious --- I'm still fascinated by Rain and the other characters in the Rain books, and can definitely see returning to that universe. FAULT LINE was just a new story that came to me and that I wanted to pursue.
I think the inspiration came partly from 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 an 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 two brothers --- one from the covert world, the other from the high-tech --- who hated each other and hadn’t even spoken in years. 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? What if the two of them were forced to work together just to survive some kind of conspiracy? Would they be able to? 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.
BRC: In FAULT LINE the story is about two estranged brothers. Ben is an extremely capable special operative. Alex is an attorney whose client’s invention indirectly causes a chain reaction that results in a series of murders, ultimately forcing him to call on his brother for help. Their complicated relationship provides a strong subplot to the hide-and-pursuit that is the driving force of the book. Is it by accident or design that FAULT LINE deals with significant interactions between brothers, as opposed to the “loner” element of your previous work? Did this present any challenges that you had not anticipated?
BE: Hmmm... I guess you could call it an accident, though maybe "unconscious design" would be a better way to put it. It's true Rain is a loner, but as the Rain series progresses, he finds himself in relationships that present all sorts of new challenges for him. As a human being, Rain needs some level of companionship; as a certain personality type and freelancer, he needs solitude, and the tension between those two exigencies is part of what propels the series. At a high level, you could say the same sort of tension exists within and between Ben and Alex. They hate each other and want nothing to do with each other... and yet, family is family. What's that expression? "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you." Solitude and community are points on a continuum, and I guess all my characters struggle with conflicting impulses about what part of that continuum they want to inhabit.
BRC: How did you begin developing the personalities, and relationships, of the Treven brothers? Did they ultimately result in the manner in which you had originally conceived them?
BE: At the beginning of the process, I had only a vague idea. The older brother is an operator, the younger brother is a lawyer, they hate each other because of some family trauma, the younger one gets in trouble...now what happens? After that was the usual process of ruthlessly asking all the necessary who, what, where, when, why questions to gain a sufficient understanding of who these characters are. Now that the book is written, I feel like Ben and Alex are true to that initial feeling I had for them. It's nice... it's like I got to watch them grow up and fulfill their potential, and even surprise me along the way.
BRC: While it is somewhat introspective, I thought FAULT LINE was more action-driven than your other novels, something that I would not have thought possible. Was this deliberate as you started writing, or did it change as the story evolved?
BE: It's never really planned, or at least not consciously. I get an idea for a story and if the idea is exciting enough to pursue, it's then a matter of building out from the initial idea. Thrillers are my thing, so naturally there will be a lot of action, but hopefully that (like everything else) is integral to the story and not something particularly deliberate.
I'll tell you something funny, though: a friend of mine who's also a book reviewer told me he was expecting *more* action in the book, that he was surprised there was so much about the relationships. Personally, I think there's a lot of both. On the one hand, without the brothers' damaged relationship, there's no story, so there's a lot about their misunderstanding and resentments and history. But on the other hand, Ben does manage to kill eight or ten people in the book, and there are a few runs at him, Alex, and Sarah, too, so I don't think there was any shortage of violence. Maybe it depends on what an individual reader responds to or is looking for.
BRC: One could almost immediately see that Sarah Hosseini, an associate in Alex Treven’s law firm, would cause some conflict between Alex and Ben, though you add a number of interesting twists to a classic situation. Hosseini is certainly one of the most interesting characters you have created, and hopefully we will see more of her in the future. Is there a “real-world” Hosseini, living in San Francisco, practicing law and breaking hearts by the hour?
BE: LOL! People are always asking me if I know Delilah's number and I have a feeling I'm going to get that with Sarah, too. I love writing women as strong as those two, and I'm really pleased with how Sarah developed. I know this is a big generalization and will probably land me in some kind of reeducation camp, but I think men and women are strong in different ways. Male strength can have a certain brittle quality to it because men tend not to be as in touch with themselves as women are, and there's something about female strength that's more honest to me, and perhaps therefore, paradoxically, more vulnerable. I'm thinking here of Joan Allen's character in Searching for Bobby Fisher: honest; vulnerable because of that honesty; and yet fearless and indomitable. Or, for another example, Jenna Elfman's character in Keeping the Faith. Or the wife of one of the Spartans in Steven Pressfield's phenomenal GATES OF FIRE, who more than holds her own in front of a council of grizzled warriors and does so without bombast or pretense or posturing. That's a kind of strength I aspire to myself, and I find it incredibly moving when it's portrayed in stories.
BRC: One of the most impressive elements of FAULT LINE is its pacing; at times I almost felt as if I was “reading a song,” if you will, one with a strong sense of dynamics. I never got the sense that you were rushing toward any one point or climax, yet I was constantly on edge while I read it. How did you infuse the book with this quality? Did you read it aloud to yourself? Did you have others reading your work in progress? And, considering the rhythm of the narrative, do you listen to music while you write? If so, to what and to whom?
BE: Well, thanks for the kind words. Pacing isn't something I think a lot about, and in fact I think what often feels like "pacing" is just the writer doing his job of making sure every scene turns or advances the story. When there's a lot going on in a scene --- whether it takes the form of action, sex, character development, foreshadowing, or (ideally) some combination of things --- the scene is absorbing.
That said, I guess I'm aware that you can't just have nonstop action in a story -- action turns the story in certain ways, but it has to turn in others, too. So in my books you'll have an intense sequence of violence that turns the story, but then we have to deal with the aftereffects of that violence, which will turn the story in another way.
I do listen to music when I write (though I need silence when I'm editing). I'm pretty eclectic and it depends on my mood and on the mood I'm going for in the scene I'm writing. Some recent favorites include Robbie Robertson's “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”... just so haunting and hypnotic, it feels like a restless summer night dream. Really like Sean Lennon's Friendly Fire, the whole album. Seal's a perennial favorite. Coldplay. Royksopp. The The. The soundtrack to Collateral, the soundtrack to Lust, Caution, and always the soundtrack to Blade Runner (the latter is especially good if you're trying to capture some aspect of Tokyo). Also a lot of J pop and jazz, including the terrific Frank Morgan, who I learned about from Michael Connelly.
BRC: You have a background as a technology attorney and a startup exec in the tech sectors, as well as experience as a covert operative in the CIA. The tech scene has been volatile over the last two decades with moments of feast and famine, as well as a changing landscape on what software and hardware is "hot." As you were writing, was this in the back of your mind as you mentioned companies and technologies?
BE: Somewhat. Certainly in writing FAULT LINE I was drawing on my own experience in the world of technology law and venture finance. But my main concern for the technology everybody's willing to kill for in FAULT LINE was that it be interesting and realistic. Hopefully Obsidian, which I came up with after a lot of reading and consulting with a number of computer security experts, is both.
BRC: Your previous novels have been set in Asia, but FAULT LINE makes a dramatic change of scene to Northern California with a great deal of the story taking place in the tech hub of Menlo Park. What prompted your literary change of scene?
BE: Again, it wasn't really planned; probably it was just a natural effect of living in the Bay Area. Looking back at my books, I realize that whatever was most engaging me at the time winds up in the stories. I started RAIN FALL when I was first living in Tokyo, and it's no coincidence that the Tokyo jazz scene and Kodokan judo are a big part of the story. Also no coincidence that, of all my books, RAIN FALL is the most detailed about surveillance and countersurveillance, because I started writing it only a year after I left the CIA. There's more of a political background in FAULT LINE than in my other books, and that, I'm sure, is a reflection of my news and blogging habits.
BRC: At the same time, you and your family are spending a year in Japan this year. What prompted that, and how has your year been going?
BE: It's been great! Our fourth-grade daughter has developed a strong interest in Japan, and we told her we thought it would be great if the three of us spent a year living here. For me, living abroad has been one of the most satisfying, enriching, mind-expanding experiences of my life, and I hoped my little girl would be game now, when she's young and learning a language is so much easier. To her great credit, she was --- and here we are.
BRC: On a related note, what was your work schedule like while you were writing FAULT LINE? Did it change or differ in any way from when you were writing the Rain novels? And do your writing practices differ significantly when you are writing in Japan or California?
BE: FAULT LINE was pretty much the same as for the previous novels --- try not to get distracted by all the promotion and business, and find a way to write the book. I have to say, living in Tokyo when you're writing a novel set somewhere else is a challenge. The city is insidious and overwhelming, and blocking it out isn't easy. I keep hearing John Rain, but the next book is a sequel to FAULT LINE. Well, I'll just have to come back to Tokyo when I'm ready to come back to Rain.
BRC: Your extremely brief allusion to John Rain in FAULT LINE was quite entertaining, easy to miss for the reader who is not paying close attention and most rewarding for the reader who is. Do you have any plans for John Rain at this point? Will he cross paths with one or both of the Treven brothers at some future point?
BE: Hah! There were actually two allusions... ;)
I could definitely see returning to Rain's universe. Whether he would cross paths with the Trevens, or whether Dox or Delilah would, I'm not sure yet.
BRC: On a related note, I understand that your next novel will be a sequel of sorts to FAULT LINE and primarily involve Ben Treven. What can you share with readers about that? Will Alex be involved as well? And what of Sarah Hosseini?
BE: The next book is mostly Ben's. All three characters went through a lot of changes in FAULT LINE, but the changes Ben is grappling now are the most compelling to me. But there's so much to Sarah... I think you can expect to see more of her, too.
BRC: In April, RAIN FALL is due to be released as a film in Japan starring Gary Oldman. What can you share with readers about the movie? Were you on the set for any of the shooting?
BE: I did get to visit the set and it was cool to watch the movie getting made. The movie is very different from the book, so I think it's best to approach it as an interpretation of or as something inspired by the novel, not as the same story found in the novel.
BRC: If you were not writing full time, what do you see yourself doing for a living?
BE: Ideally, something that would represent the intersection of politics and marketing, both of which are passions of mine.
BRC: What books/authors have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
BE: Here's what I had to say about Charlie Huston's new book, THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH:
If you haven't heard of Charlie Huston yet, you're about to. And not just from me --- from everyone.
Charlie is the author of the acclaimed Joe Pitt vampire detective series and Hank Thompson crime novels. Last year, I read his first stand-alone, THE SHOTGUN RULE, and loved it. I just finished his new stand-alone, the awesomely entitled THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH, and loved it even more.
Charlie is not for everyone: he's no fan of quotation marks (but neither is Cormac McCarthy, and McCarthy won a Pulitzer and got invited on "Oprah"); his characters use lots of bad words (but always in hilariously creative ways); and the milieus he creates give you that dizzying feeling of having fallen down a rabbit hole into some slightly off-kilter version of the reality you previously took for granted (anyone who used to spend quality time with the late, great Loompanics Unlimited book catalogue --- "the lunatic fringe of the libertarian movement" --- will know this feeling well). But even if you're one of the people for whom such qualities are bugs rather than features, I can't imagine that you wouldn't love MYSTIC ARTS. The characters are fascinating despite their outward efforts not to be; the dialogue is a kind of slacker stiletto I've never read anywhere else; and the story -- involving a company that cleans the blood and bits left over at trauma sites, truck hijackers, a whacky femme fatale who's laughing when you think she's crying, and a damaged protagonist groping for a way to fix himself --- just rocks.
Oh, and the title. I thought it was great before I read the book. It's even better, even more fitting, afterward. But that's all I'm saying for now.
Stephen King thinks the book rocks. So does Janet Maslin of The New York Times. So does Publishers Weekly, which gave MYSTIC ARTS a rare starred review. Here are some links:
THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH and a note from Stephen King on Amazon.com
Janet Maslin's article on NYTimes.com
I think it's his stunning originality and f**k-you fearlessness that have made Charlie probably the best writer you might not have heard of. But okay, you've heard of him now. And I think you're going to love him.
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