Life lessons from a CIA operative turned NYT bestselling author

An interview with legendary thriller writer Barry Eisler.

Barry Eisler could be the protagonist of one of his espionage thrillers. With a black belt in Judo and a three-year stint in covert operations at the CIA, I imagine that in between penning novels, he sneaks away from his home in Berkeley to single-handedly take down corrupt governments or trade tidbits of classified intel. Given his articulate and controversial political blog and the deeply-researched real world social issues embedded in his tightly-plotted thrillers, he would be a spy version of Robin Hood, aiding whistle blowers and refugees struggling to survive a rotten system.

Not content to let his backstory end there, Eisler has also worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley. His bestselling books are known for political intrigue, realistic tradecraft and martial arts, exotic settings, and compelling characters. The fast-paced stories often wrestle with topics you’re likely to follow in the news, like human trafficking and government surveillance.
Eisler was generous enough to share some of the most important lessons he’s learned from his various and sundry adventures.

How and why did you start writing novels? What was the first piece of fiction you wrote? How has your creative process evolved over time? What drives you?

I’ve been writing something or other since I was a kid. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore. I would bang out short stories about vampires and werewolves on my grandmother’s typewriter. Glad no records have been kept!

As for my first novel, 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 that Houdini never turned to a life of 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 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 my first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo.

I don’t think my creative process has changed that much since that first book, but it has gotten more efficient. A talent for writing is to writing a novel as a talent for tools is to building a house: necessary, but not sufficient. And probably the first time you try to use your talent with tools to build a house, you’ll make a lot of mistakes you’ll then need to correct. But by the time the house is done, you’ve learned the basics of how to do it, and the next one will go up much more smoothly (and maybe it’ll be even more beautiful, too). That’s what novel writing feels like to me.

What drives me…I’m not really sure. Writing a novel is hard work (not like digging a ditch, but still, deep thinking requires effort and it’s amazing how hard the mind will struggle to do something else), and I don’t know what keeps me at it. I certainly enjoy telling stories for a living more than I ever enjoyed being a lawyer. And I like to think that some of the political or social commentary that fuels some of my stories can raise consciousness on important topics. We should all be striving to leave our campsite better than when we found it and I hope my stories are part of how I can do that.

You’ve assembled an actionable set of resources for new writers, what is the single most critical piece of advice you give to people just starting out?

The single? Believe in yourself. If you don’t have that, nothing else will matter.

But of course “believe in yourself,” while necessary, isn’t sufficient, and I offer some related advice for writers in this short talk I did at TEDx Tokyo in 2009.

You’re a master storyteller who is also very savvy about the publishing business. You’ve worked with the Big Five publishers, Amazon publishing, and self publishing. How is the business model of art changing? What variables are staying the same? What should writers/artists/makers who want to make a living with their work focus on?

Now you’ve gone and done it: for the rest of the day I will torture my wife and daughter by randomly telling them, “Did you know I’m a master storyteller…?” :)

Anyway, this is big topic! But I’ll try to boil it down.

It’s always been true that publishers needed authors. If authors stopped selling publishers publishing rights, it’s hard to see how publishers would survive. Maybe they could scrape by selling previously acquired and public domain works, but that would involve radical restructuring.

And it’s also true that authors needed publishers. Because in a paper world, pretty much the only cost-effective way to reach a mass market of readers was with a distribution partner — AKA a publisher.

Digital has altered this equation. Publishers still need authors to the same extent they always have. But authors no longer need publishers at all. That’s not to say that having a publishing partner can’t be potentially useful to an author — even potentially tremendously useful. But even “tremendously useful” isn’t the same as “need.” When you need something from someone, you have no choice. When you have no choice, you have no power. So the shift from “publishers are necessary” to “publishers are potentially useful” strikes me as pretty significant and important to understand. At a minimum, the change seems upsetting enough to various establishment publishing types to induce some strange and petulant behavior.

What hasn’t changed? Certainly the importance of writing the best story you can. And your ultimate responsibility for your own career. But there are a lot more choices for writers today than there were ten years ago, and new tools for reaching readers, as well.

Not long ago, I had a more detailed discussion on this topic with writer Chris Jane on Jane Friedman’s website. For anyone looking to learn more, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

What role does fiction play in our culture? Why do we love stories? What makes them powerful? What does that mean for writers and readers?

This is a little like asking, “What role does a hammer play in carpentry?” :) The answer, I guess, is: A big one…

The role fiction plays in culture is related to the question of why we love stories: I think because we’re just wired to. We relate more to people than we do to events or other abstractions, and so framing events in the context of human action automatically resonates in our psyche in a way other means of communicating just don’t. So whatever role fiction plays — entertainment, enlightenment, propaganda — it will always be a prominent one.

Have you ever read a book that changed the course of your life?

I think the ratio of books we’re aware had an impact to books we’re unaware had an impact is probably something like one to a hundred. But for one example of the former, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had a huge impact in how I see the world. I don’t think anyone could understand the way the world works nearly as well without concepts like the memory hole, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, the Two-Minutes Hate, and others from the novel. Certainly I couldn’t. And wouldn’t our oligarchical masters prefer that we didn’t have such conceptual and lexical tools at our disposal to analyze their depredations? In fact, the political uses of language is itself a concept straight from the book — the way Ingsoc tried to dumb people down by depriving them of a nuanced vocabulary, replacing words like “abhorrent,” for example, with “double plus ungood,” instead.

As a one-time CIA operative, Silicon Valley executive, and Judo black belt, your own bio resembles one of your protagonists. What are the most important life lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Oh man… so many. Don’t trust the experts. Don’t surrender your own judgment (I guess that’s pretty similar to the first one, but it’s important enough to restate in a slightly different form). Indulge your passions (for more on that one, see the short TEDx Tokyo talk I mentioned above). Try to see others the way you see yourself, and yourself the way others see you. Try to see common patterns more than specific details.

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