In Tokyo this month to promote his latest work and research story ideas, Barry Eisler shares his thoughts on the art of fiction — and martial arts.
Barry Eisler, a native of New Jersey currently residing in the San Francisco Bay area, spent three years living in Tokyo and Osaka in the mid-1990s and has made “innumerable trips back and forth since then.” Even before his departure from Japan, Eisler had begun moving toward writing. His first novel, “Rain Fall,” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, reviewed on this page Jan. 26) was published in July 2002. That work was well received, and an action-packed sequel, “Hard Rain,” appeared this past summer.
Eisler’s books bring a hard-boiled fiction series back to Japan for the first time in well over a decade. His protagonist, John Rain, is a half-American, half-Japanese assassin for hire, a Vietnam veteran who combines deadly martial arts skills with a variety of esoteric, high-tech weaponry. If the mayhem that Rain metes out to his adversaries seems authentic, it’s no doubt because his creator took some real thumps and bruises learning the trade: Eisler is an experienced practitioner of Greco-Roman wrestling and judo, and has also dabbled in karate, tae kwan do and boxing.
What do you think makes Japan a good locale for spy novels and other intrigues? Is there really a dark underside to this country that’s as tense and primal as the way you depict it?
There’s an awful lot of corruption in Japanese business and politics, corruption of the sort that can make for great background for a spy story. For example, I got the idea for Rain’s specialty — death by “natural causes” — from an article by Forbes Tokyo Bureau Chief Benjamin Fulford, in which Fulford mentioned rumors about a squad of yakuza killers who were adept in killing people and making the deaths look like accidents, suicide or other nonmurderous causes. In fact, Fulford’s reporting, as well the extensive insights into Japanese corruption in Alex Kerr’s book “Dogs and Demons,” provided a wonderful back story for both “Rain Fall” and “Hard Rain.”
Using these accounts, I was able to create a realistic, even factual, setting, into which I injected fictional characters. In a sense, in the Rain books I proposed a fictional explanation for real-life events, again, a trick to which Japan, with all its Byzantine corruption, nicely lends itself. So I think that the “tense and primal” dark underside is quite real, and I have tried to depict it accordingly.
There’s also the feeling, the life force, of Tokyo itself — the size, the density, the incredible variations of locales (where else could you find a teen-caffeinated street like Takeshita-dori cheek by jowl with the elegance of Omotesando?). The city is so damn atmospheric . . .
At what point did you realize you had the makings of a novel forming in your mind?
Oddly enough, I didn’t realize it until I was well into the writing. I was on my way to work one morning in Tokyo, riding the Hibiya line as usual, when a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka 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. These led 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, and I’ve always liked to write, so I put pen to paper and the more I wrote, the more I got interested in the story and the characters, and at some point I realized I might have a novel on my hands.
I didn’t move to Japan with any intention or even idea of writing a novel; I actually just went to train in judo at the Kodokan, to learn Japanese, and to experience firsthand a country and culture that I found fascinating. I think what happened is that living in Tokyo, which for me was a love-at-first-sight experience, catalyzed and expanded on a number of notions that were already lurking in my subconscious. I say “catalyzed” because 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 that the government wants only a few select individuals to know.
What is it about Rain — a grim, friendless loner with no sense of humor — that readers find so appealing?
It certainly is a challenge to make a killer like Rain sympathetic and — dare I say it? — even likable! First, when we experience a character in a novel, we experience him or her not in isolation, but rather by reference to his or her surroundings. So Rain may be a bad man, but within the corrupt, duplicitous world in which he finds himself, he’s actually pretty good. He has a code (no women or children, no acts against nonprincipals); he has a conscience (he’s troubled by some of what he does); he’s good to his few friends. This relativity allows us to like Rain. I think the best literary example of making a bad guy into the good guy is in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” where Don Corleone comes across as the most admirable character in the book. Puzo turns upside down the ordinary moral universe that we take for granted — an amazing case of authorial slight of hand.
Killers like Rain are appealing because they fulfill (in a safe, fictional environment) certain antisocial wishes that all of us possess. Think about a character like Thomas Harris’ 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, again, of the degraded moral universe in which Harris places him (corrupt, incompetent FBI agents; venal, scheming prison administrators; depraved, vicious pursuers). Partly, again, it’s a function of Hannibal’s (admittedly minimal) code of conduct (by his third novelistic appearance he’s pretty much eating only 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’s 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 irritating coworkers, rude drivers, or any of the thousands of other quotidian annoyances of daily life can’t help but feel that “damn, that would be kind of nice.”
Why did you make Rain half American as opposed to “pure” Japanese?
Although it’s true that Rain is half Japanese, half American, in some ways this construction is a misnomer because in fact he’s completely each. If you met him in the States, other than his Japanese features (which he inherited from his father and had augmented with plastic surgery to make it easier to blend in Japan), you’d assume he was born and bred in America. His English is idiomatic, his accent native, and his range of cultural references is complete.
Likewise for your reaction if you met him in Japan: You’d never guess that he was other than just another local. But making Rain bicultural also felt right because in his case the experience is paradoxically alienating: He’s fully both, yet feels truly neither. This personal tragedy is part of what has formed his character and drives the Rain stories forward. And I think his alienation actually makes the samurai elements of the stories more poignant, because Rain has searched for his cause on both sides of the Pacific, so far to no avail.
I understand Chinese film star Jet Li has taken an option to your first novel. Is there any chance you might be involved in the script or as an adviser to the shooting?
Yes, Li has an 18-month option to the “Rain Fall” film rights. I’m new to the world of Hollywood, so I don’t really know what happens next. Writing a script would be a new challenge for me. If I felt I could fit it in with my writing schedule, I would consider it, but I don’t know whom Li and his people have in mind for the job. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime I just signed with Putnam for two additional Rain books, so more Rain is on the way.