Barry Eisler on John Rain, Ben Treven, and the appeal of anti-heroes

Barry Eisler is one of today's leading writers of espionage fiction. He explains why people identify with anti-heroes, how he developed the character of John Rain, and much more.

GEORGIA, November 14, 2012 — Many of us find few things to be more captivating than a good novel.

Over the last several years, Barry Eisler has established himself as one of our time’s foremost espionage fiction writers. His books do not fit the mold of traditional spy thrillers, but nonetheless have proven to be a stellar success. Whether the leading character is John Rain or Ben Treven, there can be little doubt that readers enjoy rooting for the anti-hero every step of the way.

In this first part of a candid interview, Eisler explains about the appeal of protagonists who fall far short of moral perfection, what inspires him to write about espionage, why John Rain has found such popularity, and much more.

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Joseph F. Cotto: Your novels typically feature an anti-hero in the leading role. In your opinion, do readers find anti-heroes to be more interesting than typical protagonists?

Barry Eisler: I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to heroes who do bad things and to villains who think they’re the good guys, but I do find that moral ambiguity and conflict makes for great characters. The books are doing reasonably well, so all the killing and other anti-heroism seems not to be turning people off. This must mean either that the public is exceptionally depraved, or that I’m writing my characters in a way that makes them engaging despite what they do.

And that’s the key, I think — no matter what kind of characters you’re writing, the reader has to care. If the reader cares, I don’t think it matters so much whether your hero is in fact an anti-hero.

Cotto: What inspires you to write about espionage?

 Eisler: I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock-picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things the government wants only a few select individuals to know. When I was a kid, I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate Houdini never turned to a life a crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power.

Anyway, since then I’ve amassed an unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects, I got into a variety of martial arts, and I spent three years in a covert position with the CIA. I’d say that last one is both the result of my interest in espionage but also acted to fuel it. So when I think of a story, somehow it just always seems to come out involving spooks and spies and government skullduggery. I guess it’s how I’m wired — give the same story elements to another writer and you’re probably equally likely to get science fiction, or a western, or a romance, or whatever.

Cotto: Since he first appeared in 2002’s “Rain Fall”, John Rain has become a very popular character. Why do you suppose that he has found such enduring appeal?

Eisler: People really seem to like assassins, don’t they? Bond, Bourne, Rain… if I might include my character amid such august company. I think killers like Rain are appealing in part because they fulfill (in a safe, fictional environment) certain antisocial wishes all of us possess. Think about a character like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who’s so enthralling that by his third appearance, in Hannibal, we’re cheering him on! In part, our enthusiasm for Hannibal is a function of the degraded moral universe in which Harris places him (corrupt, incompetent FBI agents; venal, scheming prison administrators; depraved, vicious pursuers); partly it’s a function of Hannibal’s (admittedly minimal) code of conduct (by his third novelistic appearance he’s pretty much only eating the rude or otherwise had-it-coming-to-them).

But there’s something else going on here, I think: we like Hannibal because we want to be like him. Not that we want to be cannibals, but at some level we do wish we could free ourselves from the rules with which society has surrounded us, we wish we could just do as we please and the hell with the consequences. Wish-fulfillment is part of the allure of evil characters like Hannibal, and there’s some of this going on with Rain, too. If you cross Rain, he doesn’t complain about it, he doesn’t sue you, he doesn’t check into an anger management program. He kills you. Anyone who’s ever dealt with telemarketers, people who talk on cell phones in elevators, or any of the thousands of other annoyances of daily life can’t help but feel, “Damn, that would be kind of nice.”

And Rain’s good at things a lot of us would like to be good at: violence, of course, but he also knows music, wine, whisky, and culture. If he wasn’t after you, he’s the kind of person you might want to spend time with. After all, he’s of two worlds — Japan and the west — and so has an unusual perspective. He’s exceptionally thoughtful, and honest about what he does. And he’s sufficiently conflicted inside about the choices he’s made and the things he’s done that you’d find him sympathetic in spite of his strengths.

Plus he’s been involved with some pretty spectacular women in some pretty steamy scenes. That never hurts a character’s appeal.

Cotto: How did you develop the character of John Rain?

Eisler: I guess it started with some of the “forbidden knowledge” pursuits I mention above.

And then in 1993, I moved to Tokyo to train in judo. I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. Because while I was there 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 my first book, Rain Fall.

One thing that was always important to me in developing Rain — indeed, that’s always been important to me for all my characters — is realism. I didn’t just say, Okay, he’s an assassin. I asked, How did he become an assassin? What was his personality, what were his formative experiences, what was the catalyzing event? Killing is not a joke in the Rain books. Violence has serious consequences, not just for the person being targeted but also for the person carrying out the attack, and there’s a heavy cost to taking a human life.

In this regard, I’m indebted to former Ranger and current author Dave Grossman for his book On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. I’m particularly indebted to two Vietnam veterans I’m honored to count as friends — one who was a Ranger and LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol), the other an intelligence officer and Silver Star winner. These guys have killed at close range and they live with the consequences every day. It’s important to me that, in their eyes at least, I’m getting it right, and that’s what I shoot for.

Cotto: During 2009, Ben Treven was introduced in “Fault Line”. Why did you choose to create another series?

Eisler: 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. So it was natural that I might come up with something involving a black ops soldier and a Silicon Valley lawyer…

But maybe all 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 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.

So overall, I wouldn’t say it was a conscious choice so much as an idea I really liked and decided to pursue. I wrote a sequel to Fault Line, Inside Out, which I also loved, and then I got to have an absolute blast combining the Rain and Treven universes in last year’s The Detachment. I think they might all cross paths again.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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