Interview with Barry Eisler
You’ve written on your website, www.barryeisler.com, about how the idea for your first novel came to you as a series of images that led you to ask questions about what you were seeing and why. Did Fault Line have a similar origin, or did you set out to write this novel as a conscious change of pace from your novels featuring the assassin John Rain?
It’s funny; unlike the case with Rain Fall, I can’t identify the actual moment Fault Line came to me. But the story certainly has its origins in an interesting pair of jobs I held: first, in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations; second, as an attorney with a high-powered Silicon Valley law firm (and as an executive with a high-tech startup thereafter). Somewhere along the line I started thinking about a pair of brothers, radically different in personality, temperament, and worldview. One would be an undercover soldier, the other a hotshot lawyer. . . . Yeah, I could draw on my own experiences in those two worlds. It felt right, so I kept thinking about it. They’d have to be alienated from each other for some reason. They’re not even on speaking terms. But then one of them, the lawyer, gets into a kind of trouble his otherwise considerable experience and expertise can’t get him out of. The only guy who could help him would be his brother, but they hate each other–but okay, blood is thicker than water, and the older brother reluctantly agrees to help. And what if there were something cranking up the tension between them, bringing their painful, buried history closer to the surface? Maybe a love triangle? Yeah, with a beautiful Iranian-American lawyer, Sarah Hosseini, who the older brother would instantly distrust even as he was drawn to her.
And on and on like that, questions leading to answers that lead to more questions, and eventually you have a story like Fault Line.
Ben Treven, one of the brothers you just mentioned, is an assassin. Based on your own CIA experience, is there a certain personality type that makes an effective assassin? What draws you to these characters as a writer?
I’d say there are a number of necessary elements: intelligence, adaptability, patience, the ability to role-play, game things out, think like the opposition. But probably the most important element is an ability to dissociate. Snipers will tell you they don’t see a man; they see a target, that there’s no difference between hunting a man and hunting a deer. So you have to be able to separate yourself from what you’re doing, separate the target from his own humanity. Either you have to deny the humanity in the target, or deny it in yourself–anything else produces empathy, and as a character in one of my previous books points out, “if it inhabits your mind, it’ll inhibit your trigger finger.”
What draws me to these characters? I’m not sure, exactly. I think it’s that, on the one hand, they’re like you and me. They’re not sociopaths; they’re normal. And yet they’re not normal, because they can perform–and live with–acts that would crush a normal psyche. I guess I’m drawn to the idea that a person can transcend–commit the ultimate transgression, in fact–without being punished for it. An ability like that would be an almost godlike kind of power, wouldn’t it? Raskolnikov without the guilt. Ahab without the catastrophe.
And yet these men aren’t free of consequences–there is a “cost of it,” as a Vietnam vet friend who’s taught me a lot puts it. That cost, and the way these men shoulder it, is something else that fascinates me.
I’m curious about how long the typical assassin–if there even is such a thing–can be effective in the field, either before his or her identity is blown or the psychological effects of the work begin to degrade performance.
This will vary with the individual, but dissociation is hard psychological work, and over time the framework a killer uses to stay functional will start to deteriorate. For more on this fascinating topic, I recommend two books: first, Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society; second, Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
Ben believes, at least initially, that the gloves haven’t come off enough, and the threat to America justifies going beyond the law or even the Constitution. Is this mindset prevalent in the CIA? How does a democracy like America balance its historic respect for individual liberties and its suspicion of government power with its obligation to defend itself and its citizens against those who wish us harm? Don’t we need men and women like Ben–even if we publicly disavow their actions and even their existence?
One of the things I like about Ben is that although his views can be pretty primitive, they’re also refreshingly honest. He doesn’t dress up his behavior in high-minded notions of honor and principle; he thinks America is in a fight, and he knows there’s an advantage to fighting dirty. So hell yeah, he’s going to fight dirty–don’t you want to win?
I don’t know how prevalent this mindset is in the CIA, but it’s clear from the Yoo torture memo, records of meetings among White House and Justice Department officials, and other evidence, that the philosophy has been embraced by the White House.
How do we balance security and civil liberties? I think the Constitution does a pretty good job of it: the government can exercise certain extraordinarily intrusive powers, including not only the power to search and seize but to imprison and even execute citizens as well, but only with appropriate oversight and only upon a proper showing of evidence. What’s chiefly disturbing about the powers claimed by the Bush administration isn’t that they’re new; it’s that the Bush administration has exercised these powers in secret and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and statutory law. It’s as though the White House has unilaterally determined that oversight is just too burdensome and decided to eschew it. But democracy itself is burdensome–after all, freedom isn’t free.
Do we need men and women like Ben? Ben certainly thinks so. I’m not so sure. When you look at the history of CIA clandestine activities–regime change in Iran, assassination plots against Castro, skullduggery in Latin America–and of their intelligence calls–the condition of the pre-collapse Soviet Union, Pakistani nuclear efforts, Iraqi WMDs–it’s fair to ask how different things might be if the CIA hadn’t existed to begin with. A public corporation would look at all the money we spend on intelligence and ask what we’re getting for it–and whether we can get the same for less. Because in place of an animating profit motive the government is propelled instead by bureaucratic self-interest, these cost-benefit questions aren’t seriously asked, or if they are, the answers are ignored.
Alex Treven, Ben’s younger brother, is in many ways his opposite. As a high-tech patent lawyer, Alex is wary of the government and respectful of the legal, constitutional framework. Yet when his client is murdered and his possession of the cutting-edge Obsidian encryption program puts him at risk from unknown assailants, Alex turns to Ben despite their longstanding differences–just as the United States, post-9/11, turned to “the dark side.” I almost felt as if Ben and Alex stood for a country dangerously split in two: perhaps the “fault line” of your title.
Yes, Alex does work as a bit of a metaphor there, doesn’t he? He would never think of getting mixed up in Ben’s world–until he really needs to. And even then, he tells himself (to Ben’s disgust) that he doesn’t really want to get involved. He wants the benefits without the costs, which, as Ben puts it, is like trying to pick up a turd from the clean end. It can’t be done.
Sarah Hosseini is a young associate at the law firm where Alex works. Why did you make her Iranian?
I wanted her to be something that would create instant conflict with Ben. Here’s a guy who kills Iranians for a living, so what could be more stressful than suddenly having to work with a woman who looks like, sounds like, and comes from a culture Ben thinks of as the enemy? And Sarah, who is both political and idealistic, has her own issues with Ben: she recognizes him as the embodiment of the dark forces she abhors. And yet, of course, there’s an overwhelming physical chemistry between them. Placing characters in conflict like that and seeing what they do is always a blast.
I’ve never worked for the CIA, but I have worked in law firms, and I have to say, you really nail the atmosphere of surface bonhomie masking cut-throat competition. I guess every world has its own assassins.
Yeah, the politics of big-firm life can get pretty tough. You’re talking about a collection of people with out-sized analytical skills and ambition, with a lot of money and prestige at stake and a pyramid structure where only a small percentage can hope to make partner. Which is part of the reason I enjoyed making Alex a player in such an environment. True, he’s a civilian and out of his element in Ben’s world, but on the other hand he’s survived in the shark tank of big-firm life, and it was interesting for me (and for Ben) to see the way some of his skills wound up translating from one arena to another.
I’ve read a lot of thrillers in which the characters are simply mouthpieces for the author, but you step back and allow your characters to possess their own opinions. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wondering whether you identified more with Ben or Alex . . . or even Sarah.
Writing political characters can be dangerous because many readers feel so strongly politically that if they disagree with a character’s views, they’ll immediately impute those views to the author, get angry, and get pulled out of the story. But politics and political stories interest me, so I’m willing to take the chance.
As for who I identify with, the answer is all three. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but when I’m creating a character, I try to identify some element of my own personality or worldview, distill it out, and then culture it in a new person, where it expresses itself differently than it does in myself because it’s growing in a different environment. There are idealistic aspects of my worldview, so I sympathize with Sarah. I have my ruthless, amoral elements also, so I can understand a guy like Ben. And there are parts of me that don’t want to bother with any of it, that just want to be left alone . . . so then there’s Alex. But I’m not interested in creating mouthpieces–mouthpiecing is what my blog is for. My characters are people. Their purpose isn’t to express viewpoints or change opinions; it’s to evoke an emotional reaction in readers, to illuminate some aspect of being human, to make my readers care. They’re real to me: sympathetic, complex, and three-dimensional. Their opinions are secondary to all that.
What makes Obsidian so dangerous–and valuable? Is there real-world technology similar to Obsidian?
I don’t want to give away too much here, so I’ll just say this: the United States is the most networked country in the world. Our computer-intensive economy and society is a strength, but also represents a potential vulnerability for anyone seeking to do America harm. And yes, there are definitely technologies out there like Obsidian. For more, here’s an excellent book: Adam L. Young and Moti Yung’s Malicious Cryptography: Exposing Cryptovirology.
I couldn’t help noticing that certain peripheral characters in Fault Line bear the names of well-known bloggers. Were you tipping your hat to their work?
You caught me. I’m a huge admirer of various bloggers–Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Hilzoy, Andrew Sullivan, and quite a few others. Even if you don’t agree with them (and I should say I do tend to agree with them), the quality of their argument is peerless.
Remember the end of Three Days of the Condor, when Robert Redford has spilled his story to The New York Times? Or the end of Stephen King’s book Firestarter, when the little girl sneaks past the big newspapers because they’re being watched by government agents and goes to Rolling Stone instead? In Fault Line, the protagonists don’t even pause to consider a newspaper–they recognize that if they go to anyone, it’s going to be a blog. Times have changed.
With your website and blog, The Heart of the Matter, you have a substantial online presence yourself. How has the Internet affected your work as a writer? How do you think it’s changing the nature of the publishing business–and will those changes help aspiring writers?
The most obvious effect of the Internet for a writer like me is in enabling nonstop promotion. It used to be that an author’s promotion efforts were clustered mostly around the launch of a new book, but blogs and social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace make it possible to reach new readers anywhere, anytime–which in fact typically means everywhere, all the time. I have a background in business and law and enjoy interacting with fans, real and potential, so you might say that the rise of the Internet favors my style of play. But it’s also a challenge, because for me creating a story requires a degree of cushioning from the world that promotion doesn’t permit.
So the big change is of a “because you can, you should” variety: you can promote all the time, so you should. Certainly authors are doing an unprecedented amount of promotion themselves. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Either way, it’s a necessary thing, given various aspects of the state of the publishing world, so I don’t think that much about it, I just do what needs to be done. I think aspiring writers should treat the changes the same way published writers should: with realism. Because once you’re selling your art, you’re in business, and to succeed in business you have to be realistic.
The movie version of your first novel, Rain Fall, is coming out in 2009. Were you involved in writing the screenplay?
I adapted the book and Sony Pictures bought my screenplay, which was nice, but the director they brought on board, Max Mannix, had his own vision for the movie and decided to write his own. I’ve read Max’s version and like it a lot. It’s certainly different from mine, but that’s to be expected when two people are repurposing a story for the screen.
Will you be writing more about Sarah Hosseini and the Treven brothers? What about John Rain?
The next book is a sequel centering on Ben. I’m not sure how much Sarah and Alex will be in it, though I find Sarah fascinating and love spending time with her, so I could see her in another book, as well. As for Rain, I see several possibilities there. One is an origin-of-Rain story, because the story of how Rain became who and what he is has so far been told only in fragments. Another is a Dox- or Delilah-centric story, with Rain as a supporting character. I’ll get there . . . but one book at a time!