Barry Eisler on self-publishing and the politics of liberty

Barry Eisler is well known for his spy thrillers, but his liberty-oriented political views are every bit as interesting. He explains about these as well as the self-publishing industry, how aspiring writers might find success, and much more.

FLORIDA, November 15, 2012 — What is it like writing two distinct series of novels?  For most of us, this would surely be a most difficult undertaking. 

Not for Barry Eisler, however.

Over the last several years, he has become a leading author of espionage fiction. Despite the fact that his books are anything but conventional spy thrillers, they have found an exponentially large audience. Whether the leading character is John Rain or Ben Treven, the anti-hero appeal of Eisler’s books has resonated with readers the world over.

In this second part of a candid interview, Eisler tells us about his recent entry into the self-publishing industry, how he defines his political philosophy, whether or not there is a moral message conveyed through his novels, and much more. 


Joseph F. Cotto: How do you find writing two distinct series? Is this difficult, or quite the opposite?

Barry Eisler: I haven’t found it difficult at all — the opposite, as you say, and the results are evident in The Detachment, which has been called the assassin equivalent of The Avengers. It’s a pleasure to put a bunch of conflicted, lone-wolf, alpha-male killers in a room together and watch what happens.

Cotto: Recently, you ventured into the field of self-publishing. How has this worked out so far?

Eisler: It’s been better even than I’d hoped. I’ve self-published four short works, all of which have done well, along with a new novel (The Detachment) and a new short story (The Khmer Kill) with Amazon.

What a lot of people are still catching on to is that publishing is not an either/or proposition. The choices writers have are not mutually exclusive.  I’m a pretty good example of the hybrid approach: I have eight legacy-published novels, four self-published works, an Amazon-published novel, and an Amazon-published short story (we did it as a Kindle Single). The main thing is that, for the first time, we writers have choices about how to publish our books!

I could go on and on about this, and often do, but maybe I should just say that for anyone who wants to learn more about my decision specifically and what’s going on in publishing generally, novelist J.A. Konrath and I have coauthored a free downloadable book called Be The Monkey: A Conversation About the New World of Publishing.  I think it’s pretty informative and entertaining. Just don’t click on the monkey/frog video…

Cotto: In a summary sense, how would you describe your political philosophy?

Eisler: I don’t know what to call it. Mostly it’s about the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution, topics to which everyone pays lip service but which are increasingly misunderstood among Americans. People don’t know, for example, that the president isn’t “our” Commander In Chief — not unless “we” are active duty military. Or that the president can’t just have people killed on his say-so — not as long as we have the Fifth Amendment, which forbids the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Or that the government can’t torture people or otherwise break the law because they believe torture “works.” 

These days, for many people the phrase “rule of law” really means “the suggestion of guideline,” and I think this degradation of our basic understanding of civics should be of enormous concern to everyone regardless of whether they hew right and left. In fact, I think the omnipresent right/left prism through which the establishment media filters everything is itself an enormous problem in America.

Fundamentally, I distrust government. In this sense, I’d say I’m very much in line with the founding fathers, who created a whole system of checks and balances, insisted on a Bill of Rights, and wrote extensively of their fear of government in the Federalist Papers. But I don’t see this attitude widely at work in America today. Judging from the comments I get on my blog, my Facebook page, and my Twitter feed, I think that deep down, the majority of Americans would rather be subjects than citizens, and that they don’t even really know the difference.

My major political influences are probably Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and Glenn Greenwald, a political writer with The Guardian who’s also written several superb books on the way the media works and on the nature of power in America.

Cotto: Generally speaking, is there a moral message that you try to convey through your novels?

Eisler: I’d put it this way.

Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been much discussion in the thriller world about whether the thriller, at least the contemporary version, is still a viable form. Despite then Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey’s admonition that “We have slain a mighty dragon, but now find ourselves in a jungle filled with snakes,” villains seemed scarce during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton administration. Nine-eleven and the explosion of al Qaeda in the popular consciousness, of course, changed all that, and Islamic fundamentalism provided a new treasure trove of contemporary villains and plotlines.

For thriller writers interested in realism, though, the familiar “Islamic Terrorist Villain” plotline has a serious shortcoming: terrorism, of whatever stripe, poses far less danger to America than does America’s own overreaction to the fear of terrorism. To put it another way, America has a significantly greater capacity for national suicide than any non-state actor has for national murder. If thrillers are built on large-scale danger, therefore, and if a thriller novelist wants to convincingly portray the largest dangers possible, the novelist has to grapple not so much with the possibility of a terror attack, as with the reality of the massive, unaccountable national security state that has metastasized in response to that possibility.

This is of course a challenge, because unaccountable bureaucracies—what Hannah Arendt called “Rule by Nobody” — make for less obvious villains than do lone, bearded zealots seeking to destroy the Great Satan, etc., etc. The trick, I think, is to create an antagonist who is part of the ruling power structure but who also maintains an outsider’s perspective — who personifies and animates an entity that, destructive and oppressive though it is, is itself is too large and cumbersome to ever really be sentient. This is Colonel Horton, probably the most ambiguous villain I’ve ever created (and therefore probably the most compelling).

These ideas are all at work in The Detachment: a small team of lone wolf, deniable irregulars, each with ambiguous motives and conflicting loyalties, pitted against the relentless, pervasive, grinding force of an American national security state gone mad.  It’s real, it’s timely, and it’s built on an unnervingly possible premise. 

So not a moral message necessarily, but perhaps, in describing things as they really are, a useful backdrop to what are otherwise what Graham Greene called “entertainments.”

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, do you have any advice for the aspiring novelists who might be reading this? 

Eisler: Believe in yourself and don’t give up. Success always involves a lot of luck, and our job is to keep trying and trying again until we get lucky. That is, to control all the things we can control and influence all the things we can influence to make ourselves as susceptible as possible to good luck and mitigate our exposure to bad.

And embrace the new world of publishing! We have choices now where before we had none. This isn’t a burden, it’s a blessing, and smart writers will educate themselves about the pros and cons of the new possibilities so they can make the best decisions for themselves. I mentioned Be The Monkey: A Conversation About the New World of Publishing above — it’s not a bad place to start. Keep at it and don’t give up.

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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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