In this series on how to become a writer, I wanted to get the views of some experienced and successful authors. So it’s with great pleasure that I can present this interview with Barry Eisler to you. Barry is a bestselling author, best known for his John Rain series, featuring a hit man specializing in natural causes. His latest book Fault Line starts another series and I’m looking forward to see how it evolves. As you’ll be able to tell from some ot the answers, Barry’s a friend of mine and he has a wicked sense of humor.
Don’t forget to check out his site for some more resources for writers and a great forum.
Q: How did you start out writing your first book?
A: 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. 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 that 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 that people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. Anyway, since then I’ve amassed a small and unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects, I spent three years in the CIA, I got pretty into a variety of martial arts…
And then 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 Rain Fall.
Q: When did you decide to write full-time and how did you reach that decision?
A: You remind me of that joke about why dogs lick their genitals… (oops, did I say that out loud)?
I love writing, and had for a long time thought that getting paid to do full time what I love would be wonderful. So as soon as I got my first check, from Sony’s Village Books imprint for the Japanese rights, I left my day job and started concentrating full time on writing. That was in 2001, and it’s been a dream come true ever since.
Sometimes, when they hear this story, people respond by saying, “Wow, you had a lot of courage!” But I don’t see it that way. I feel like if you want to make a go of a new enterprise, whether it’s being an author, or opening a restaurant, or starting a martial arts school, or whatever, your chances of success will be dramatically diminished if you don’t give the undertaking your full attention and all your energies. If I were to fail at being an author, I didn’t want it to be because I didn’t try hard enough. So dropping everything else as soon as doing so was minimally sensible didn’t feel courageous to me; it just felt like what the situation required.
Q: Have you ever had writer’s block and how do you deal with it?
A: I’ve never had it. Not because I’m immune, but because I inoculate myself by feeding my mind. Whatever excites and stimulates you, whatever you’re passionate about, indulge that thing. Feed the furnace of your mind. For me it’s politics and travel, but it’s different for everyone. Regardless, if you don’t feed the furnace, the fire will die down. So for me, writer’s block is like a 27 ninjas scenario. The best way to beat it is to avoid it in the first place.
That said, if I’m having a slow morning, I find a couple things help. Coffee, no doubt, though I don’t like to abuse the wonder drug because by using it infrequently, I maintain its effectiveness for times when I really need it. Talking out loud to myself is also key. “What are you trying to do? Well, the guy knows it’s a set-up, so…”. Asking who, what, where, when, why, and how is always a good method for finding your way.
Q: What does your average day as a writer look like? Do you have a specific routine?
A: The days are all fairly different, depending on how close I am to a deadline (lots of writing), or how close to publication (lots of touring and publicity). I guess if I were to describe an average, it would be something like a thousand words on my PowerBook Pro at a local coffee shop in the morning; a workout around lunchtime/early afternoon; errands in the afternoon; family time around dinner; administrative time in the evening (email, etc.); relaxation (book or movie) before bed. Maybe that’s more of an ideal day than an average, but it seems about right.
Q: Have you experienced negative reactions from people when they know you’re a writer? If so, how do you deal with them?
A: I ask my Sanshou expert friend, who shall remain nameless, to kill them. Brutal, yes, but also emotionally rewarding.
No, no negative reactions (luckily for them!)—mostly the opposite, in fact, because people tend to be intrigued by what it’s like to write books for a living. I’d hate to have to tell people I’m a telemarketer… that would definitely be grounds for a negative reaction.
Q: Is there anything you would do differently in your writing career?
A: Well, if I knew then what I know now, I would have argued strenuously against the silly titles of most of my books. Rain This, Rain That… Assassin This, Assassin That… repetitive, hard to keep track of, and, worst of all, doing little to encapsulate and amplify what really makes the books special. But I didn’t know then what I’ve learned since, and I lacked the confidence and track record I have now to bolster my arguments. The first few covers were weak, too. For anyone interested in any of these ideas, there’s an article on the For Writers page of my website: How to Package a Book.
Q: How do you approach writing the action/fight scenes in your novels?
A: It depends on the kind of scene, I guess. But overall, I definitely draw on my own martial arts and government training and on what I’ve learned from the books I read and the experts I talk to. I’m always going for realism, not just in the moves, but in the mindset, the mentality. I’m fortunate in knowing some people who have really walked the walk I write about—law enforcement, combat vets, street survivors—people who’ve been generous in offering feedback on my manuscripts and helping me tune up the action scenes accordingly. I mean, when Mas Ayoob (took his Lethal Force Institute 1 course and learned a ton) is giving you pre-publication feedback about your firearms scenes, you know you are a very lucky writer.
If it’s a martial arts scene, I love to choreograph it with the help of martial artist friends. For example, Misho Ceko, a BJJ black belt at Ralph Gracie’s academy, really helped me with a BJJ vs. sambo sequence that’s set at Carlinhos Gracie’s Barra academy in Rio, where I trained while researching some scenes in Rain Storm, my third book. Marc MacYoung of NoNonsenseSelfDefense.com has helped me choreograph scenes. The good-looking guy who’s conducting this interview has taught me a few nasty moves that my characters have used to good effect.
I have to admit: I love my job.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects you can talk about?
A: Just finishing up the second round of edits to Inside Out, the Fault Line sequel. Yahoo! The book will be out in May, supposedly, although recently there’s been some talk about July, instead. It’s my most political book yet, dealing with those “destroyed” CIA interrogation videos and what really happened to them, and naturally featuring the most realistic combatives and pistol work I could come up with. And a hot sex scene, too.
Q: What advice could you give beginning writers who want to get their first book published?
- Keep writing. Can’t emphasize this one enough. Every day is ideal, but the goal is to just be as regular as you can. Same as learning a language, or a martial art, etc.
- Reread passages from books you love and ask yourself, what is the author doing here that’s working so well? And if you see something that you think is bad, ask yourself, why is this bad? What could the author have done differently to make it work?
- Read books on writing. Stephen King’s “On Writing” helped me a lot. David Morrell’s “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing” is also terrific. There are many others. But don’t read the how-to books at the expense of your own writing. Whenever you have to choose, practice your writing instead.
- If you’ve got time and you’re serious, a writer’s workshop can be a huge help with motivation, feedback, and discipline. Google “Writer’s workshops” and the name of your city and you’ll probably be able to find a bunch.
- When you think your book is as good as you can possibly get it, it’s time to try to find an agent. The way to do this is to go a library or bookstore and get a book like “The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.” Identify the ones that handle your kind of book and contact them in exactly the manner they request.
- One of your best friends as a writer is what I think of as the “what if” question. “What if someone cloned dinosaurs and planned to open a dinosaur theme park on a remote island?” (“Jurassic Park”). “What if a yuppie drug dealer were about to do a seven-year prison stretch?” (“The 25th Hour”). Etc. If the what-if question interests you enough, it’ll lead you to other questions, all of the who, what, where, when, why, how variety. Follow those questions and you’ll start to find your story.
- Don’t watch television! Unless you’re practicing to write teleplays. For why, again, For Writers on my website.
Special thanks to Barry for taking the time to do this interview.