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Interview: May 25, 2007

May 25, 2007

Barry Eisler's new novel, REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, is the sixth book in the acclaimed John Rain series, which features a half-American, half-Japanese assassin attempting to leave the killing business behind. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Eisler attempts to shed light on his character's actions in this latest installment and explains the steps he takes to plot each book.

He also discusses the travel involved to both accurately capture the series' exotic settings and realistically portray the mindset of Rain, reveals details about a prequel in the works and shares with readers some of his favorite authors and writing influences. Each of your John Rain novels has been distinguishable from the others, and your latest is no exception. Much of REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN deals with Rain's struggle to leave behind his dark side to rescue Dox. What spurred you to have Rain take this path? Did you have any qualms about some of the actions Rain was involved with in this book?

Barry Eisler: Rain's inner conflicts --- his struggle between nihilism and attachment, solitude and society, the exigencies of his job and his longing for something more --- are the heart of the books for me, and I'm always looking for a way to bring those conflicts into dramatic relief. A year or so ago I was talking to a friend, Marc MacYoung, about his own struggle to get out of the life, and that conversation got me thinking...what would happen if the poles of Rain's personality were to separate even more widely? What if, just as he's making the most strides ever to get out of the life --- living in a new place, his relationship with Delilah deepening, the killing business largely behind him --- something were to happen that would force him back in more deeply than ever? Say, his friend and partner, former Marine sniper Dox, getting kidnapped and used as a hostage to force Rain to do three jobs? What would Rain do? And more importantly, what would the situation do to him?

Did I have any qualms about what Rain does in the book? Not really. Sometimes a reader will be horrified at what Rain is capable of, but my job is less to worry about that and more to write the character as honestly and accurately as I can. Sure, in various respects Rain is a likable and sympathetic character, but you have to remember that by instinct, training and long experience, this man is a killer. He's comfortable and capable with violence in a way few people are, so of course, he acts accordingly when the situation calls for it --- which, given the life he's led, can be fairly often.

BRC: In REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, Rain is a world beater. He crosses the globe --- maybe twice --- in this novel, revisiting significant episodes of his past along the way. It gives readers an opportunity to watch Rain confront his past even as he is considering his future. Will you continue to reveal events from Rain's past in upcoming books?

BE: Recently I agreed to write a John Rain short story for Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press and for my Dutch publisher, and the idea that grabbed me for the story was, where did Rain get his inhibitions about killing women? After all, the guy's an extraordinary killer, but he wasn't born with his rules of engagement... so where did they come from? The answers that started coming as I ruminated on this question excited me, and in short order, I realized that the "origins" story I was coming up with was much more than a short story. So now, I think I'll write this story as a novel-length John Rain prequel, with a chapter excerpted as a short story.

BRC: One of the most memorable vignettes in REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN takes place about halfway through the novel in New York, beginning on Christopher Street and ending at the Sheridan Square subway entrance, and involves a sighting of Koichiro, Rain's child. It felt like a pivotal scene in the book, almost as if the entire novel was written around it. How did this scene evolve? Have you had it in mind since THE LAST ASSASSIN, when Rain discovered he had a child?

BE: You're right, the scene is pivotal, but I'm not sure where it came from --- one of those instances of the unconscious at work, I think, urging me in directions I'm not consciously aware of. I don't want to say too much about the scene, lest I spoil it for someone who hasn't read it yet, but I'll say this much. As Rain is being pulled apart by the relationships he's built and the violence required to save his friend, the question arises: how far will he go? How out of control is he? How much has he surrendered to the killer inside him? The question fascinated me, and that scene became a way of dramatizing it.

BRC: While REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN is the latest in the John Rain series, it works as well on its own as it does as a series title. When you are writing, do you set out to do this? If so, can you nail the storyline with an effective supporting back story where details are revealed to readers on a first pass, or is it something you hone during the editing process?

BE: Absolutely, I design each book to function both as a stand-alone and as a satisfying installment of an ongoing series with a long dramatic arc. At a craft level, I'm acutely conscious of doing so all the way from the beginning, and it gets honed through editing, as well. I try to have a feel for what information people need to enjoy the current story, and give them that. But the information also needs to be stated in a fresh way, a way that illuminates new areas, so readers who've already read the books won't feel like I'm repeating myself.

BRC: Rain is usually pretty much a lone wolf out of necessity, but in parts of REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, he actually works as part of a team. Are there any plans to have Rain utilize additional personnel resources in the future, or do you see him returning to lone-wolf status?

BE: Strangely enough, I never plan those aspects; they seem to evolve organically. I will say that I so enjoyed getting to know Boaz, one of the Israelis with whom Rain develops an alliance of convenience in REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, that I could see him getting more involved in future stories. And of course Kanezaki, Rain's contact in the CIA's Tokyo Station, has become an increasingly formidable player as the series has progressed, so I think we could see more of him, too.

BRC: Perhaps there is no significance to it, but the first four titles of the John Rain series were linked --- at least in the States --- by using the word "Rain" in the title, while the two most recent ones, THE LAST ASSASSIN and REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, have the word "Assassin" in common in the titles. Happenstance, coincidence, or significance?

BE: My publisher likes to repeat words in the titles, I think. I thought we'd gotten away from that after the first four books, but apparently I was mistaken! I think we could do better, title-wise, and hope I'll have more input on future books.

BRC: When you first started writing RAIN FALL, the book that introduced John Rain to the world, did you foresee that it would lead to a series?

BE: Strangely enough, I didn't write the book to be part of a series --- I started it as a stand-alone. But Putnam and all the other publishers who bought the rights to the manuscript insisted on a sequel, and one thing led to another. Looking back, I'm almost chagrined that I didn't spot the series potential. Rain is such a fascinating and three-dimensional character that one book wouldn't have been nearly enough to explore his world.

BRC: Could you walk us through how the writing of a John Rain novel unfolds? Do you walk with him, hopping planes, staying in hotels and creeping down alleys? Do you rely on memory? Do you do other research? Or do you use some combination of the three?

BE: It usually starts with a "what if" question like the one I mentioned above: "What if, just as Rain were on the verge of leaving the life behind him, something pulled him back in deeper than ever?" Which, if the question resonates in my mind, leads to a series of follow-ups: "What would that event be? What would be going on in his world at the time?" Etc.

As some of the elements begin to fall into place, I like to travel to where the story will take place. Sometimes, this is more to block out a specific sequence, like the assassin vs. assassin surveillance and combat sequence that opens RAIN STORM in Macau. Other times, it's more to get inside the character, to understand what Rain has been feeling, what's going on in his head --- which is why I spent five days in Paris a year ago, where Rain has been living with Delilah as the book opens (really, honest, that was the only reason...).

I love these trips, and not just because they've taken me to some fascinating places. From the moment I get off the plane, I'm in Rain's head, almost pretending I'm him, arriving in Manila or Barcelona or wherever, for the same reasons he is and looking at the world through his eyes. It's an exhilarating feeling to channel a character this way --- not so different from what I imagine an actor doing to prepare for a role --- and some of the best writing in the books has come out of those moments of communion with John Rain.

BRC: I understand you began writing as a teenager and that you completed several short stories. Have you ever considered revisiting those stories and perhaps, after some rewriting, publishing them?

BE: I was more like nine or ten, actually, and no, I wouldn't consider revisiting them, even if they were still around, which, thankfully, they're not! They were great (albeit not consciously planned) training for a future life as a storyteller, but I didn't really find my own mind and voice until I was somewhere in my thirties, so I don't think whatever came before would be terribly useful or relevant now.

BRC: You have indicated elsewhere that at least a part of the genesis of John Rain occurred as the result of your reading a biography of Harry Houdini and learning of Houdini's penchant for acquiring what you refer to as "forbidden knowledge," which you have used extensively in the Rain novels. What other literary works and/or authors have influenced your literary career, either stylistically or with respect to your characterizations?

BE: Probably more than I can remember, or am even aware of, at any given moment. I read pretty eclectically --- fiction, nonfiction and poetry --- and I've been inspired and influenced by a number of writers. I love Trevanian, whose killers, Nicolai Hel (in SHIBUMI) and Jonathan Hemlock (in THE EIGER SANCTION and THE LOO SANCTION), are sympathetic in part because they are superior human beings --- superior in intellect, taste and culture. Andrew Vachss, with his dark, gritty Burke novels and hard-boiled atmosphere, has also been an influence. Pat Conroy and Dave Gutterson have inspired me with the lyricism of their prose. The cadences and imagery of T. S. Eliot and Cormac McCarthy are certainly influences, as well. Stephen King has inspired me with his humor and honesty, and his admonition that the author's job is to tell the truth. I saw him at the Edgars recently, and I think he might be the coolest man in the world --- interesting, insightful, unpretentious, totally at ease with himself.

BRC: You recently have acknowledged that for a time you held a covert position in the CIA. How much of Barry Eisler is reflected in John Rain?

BE: Well, I used to be a lawyer, which a lot of people say is like being an assassin…

There are some similarities. We both love jazz and judo, and quality single malt whisky and other aesthetic experiences. But the differences might be more telling. Rain has had experiences I haven't, chiefly war, combat and killing. As a result, he's far more capable with violence than I, and also a good deal more cynical.

BRC: Did you find that you went through a gradual catharsis when you left your prior occupation? What problems, in general, did you encounter readjusting to civilian life?

BE: It wasn't that hard a transition for me. For the most part, I kept the habits I wanted to keep, and shed the ones I wanted to shed. Breaking cover, which I received permission to do about two years ago, was weird after so many years of secrecy, but I'm used to it now.

BRC: What are you working on now? And while we are on that subject, do you have any novels --- completed, outlined, half-finished --- that are outside of the John Rain mythos, or at most are only tangentially connected to Rain? And do you have any desire or motivation to dabble in another genre?

BE: My next book will be a stand-alone thriller, something I had started when I first sold the rights to RAIN FALL and that I'm thrilled to finally get back to. After that, I think I'll do that prequel I mentioned above. Dabbling in another genre... it's hard to say. For me, it's all about the story. Right now, when a story comes to me, it tends to be a thriller. But I can see where that could change, and if it does, I'll follow the stories wherever they take me.

BRC: Last of all, this has been nagging at me since I finished REQUIEM FOR AN ASSASSIN, and I want to ask without giving anything away: At the conclusion of the book, was it…sister? Or bomb?

BE: LOL! I wish I knew...