Barry Eisler’s John Rain novels are the “Tiffany” of assassin-oriented, suspense thrillers. The recently released Graveyard of Memories is a prequel to the other novels in the John Rain series. At the story’s outset, Rain, 20 years old and fresh from Vietnam, is a courier for the CIA. He suddenly finds himself threatened on all sides: he must survive the yakuza (the Japanese mob) and other imminent sources of danger. He falls in love with Sayaka, a beautiful wheelchair-bound young woman. Balancing love and the horror of what he must do to survive, John learns his trade craft to become a master assassin. We witness his unfolding maturity as he attempts to stay alive without totally losing the sensitive, soulful and remorseful aspects of his persona.
Quoting from Graveyard of Memories: “I was too young to know that some memories don’t fade, or age, or die. That the weight of some of what we do accumulates, expands, coheres, solidifies. That life means coming to grips with that ever-present weight, learning how to carry it with you wherever you go.”
This passage sheds so much light on John Rain. Tell us a bit about the man.
Rain, as we know him today, is an expert assassin whose specialty is making it look like the target died of natural causes. He’s half-Japanese, half-Caucasian American. He grew up in both countries but never felt at home in either. He can blend in either one; in fact, blending into a background is one of Rain’s talents. In this novel, he’s young, inexperienced and a bit of a hothead. Youth is on his side, but he realizes he must learn self-control in order to stay alive.
In all the previous books, there have been fragments of his backstory: where he came from; what his formative experiences were; what forged him into who and what he became. I never told the whole story because I didn’t know it myself. So I asked myself if there was a critical event, a crucible that shaped him. As I thought about it, the answers became evident to me and became Graveyard of Memories. So, the novel describes the seminal events leading to John Rain’s evolution into what he has become.
Graveyard of Memories is both plot and character-driven. How important is character in your writing?
All good stories are character-driven. It’s a question of degree. Human beings are wired to care much more about who than about what. In fact, we won’t care at all about what, unless we first care about who. I can illustrate that.
The tsunami that occurred in Asia caused nearly a quarter of a million people to die. When I read about it in the newspaper, I thought ‘This is awful.’ My heart went out to all those affected by this catastrophe. But then, I turned the page. The truth is, those quarter of a million deaths didn’t really impact my day. I wasn’t affected by this cataclysmic event because I didn’t know anyone who died. If we don’t know who, we just don’t care that much about what happens.
But imagine you’re in line at the post office and someone cuts in front of you. You protest, but it has no effect. So you wait. You’ll probably be quite upset about it, and with yourself. It might bother you enormously—what should you have said or done? It’s so trivial and yet you care. Why? Because it happened to the person who’s most important to you—that is you.
Knowing this about human nature means more readers care about who, the less important what becomes. If they care enough about the character, nearly anything that happens in a novel’s plot has meaning. To me, that’s what good storytelling is about.
Maybe the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is an emphasis on what in the former, and on who in the latter. Of course, it’s a relative weight, and some novels have both elements—character and plot. The more you can get the reader to care about your characters, the more emotional impact the story will have.
You seem to prefer writing in the first person. Is there are reason for that?
I’ve never really given it much thought. Writing about John Rain, I like the first person. I gain direct access to his thoughts, his tactical approach and analysis of the precursors of violence, and its aftermath. Everything he thinks about survival, escape and evasion is easily accessible. He’s the only character I write in the first person. All the others are written in third person—close up. But I never thought about it. With John Rain, it’s just driven by my gut.
Might we conclude that you feel closer to John Rain than your other characters?
It’s not impossible. Maybe I need greater distance with the others.
The novel contains some graphic erotic scenes. Unlike many thriller authors, you don’t shy away from writing them.
Yes. I don’t understand why so many thriller writers are shy about depicting sex. I don’t think anyone would dispute that sex is a very important aspect of human experience. Making love with someone is one of the best ways—in various senses—to know that person. A good example is the biblical euphemism where Abraham knew Sarah. (Laughter). Making love with someone is a way to know that person profoundly. Don’t we want our readers to know our characters in various ways?
I like depicting violence in my novels because I believe character is revealed under stress. By putting my characters in violent situations, I can reveal a great deal about them. If this is true for violence, it must be true for sex, as well. Yet, many writers don’t want to go there. A Martian might ask, ‘Why are so many of you Earthling thriller novelists so bold about depicting violence, yet so prudish about depicting sex?’
I think there are two reasons. One is, it’s hard to get sex right on the page. One false step and it becomes a laugh line. If you get it wrong, your attempt to depict something loving and lovely can make people snicker. Many writers consider it high risk, and decide not to do it.
The other reason is this: When we write a sex scene, we are almost certainly revealing something very personal about ourselves. If you write a car chase or knife fight scene or any action scene, you’re not revealing anything personal. Readers respond to these scenes with edge-of-the-seat tension. But with erotica, you’re revealing something personal and readers view the writer as having some very personal stake in what’s been written—much more so than with violence.
An example of this is what happened with my friend, M.J. Rose, who in one of her earlier novels wrote a telephone sex scene. She was repeatedly asked if she’d ever had telephone sex. She pointed out there were about nine murders in the novel—by icepick, knife, and other means. She was never asked if she’d killed anyone with an icepick or knife, but was asked about her sexual history.
So in writing those erotic scenes, I’m sure I’m revealing something private about myself. As Stephen King says, ‘The artist’s job is to tell the truth.’ Yes, there’s some cost to that, but as an artist, you must accept that cost and embrace it in the service of your art.
Reviewers have compared the John Rain series to those by John le Carre, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Walter Mosley and Harlan Coben. Are such comparisons valid?
They’re very flattering. I guess comparisons will be valid in some ways and at some levels. I suppose I try to emulate try to emulate some of what those writers have done. To be compared to them makes me feel I’m succeeding. The kind of moral quandaries that John le Carre or Graham Greene do so beautifully are some of what I try to do. So those comparisons are flattering, but it’s really up to readers.
Did writing this prequel suggest the John Rain saga is coming to an end?
He’s getting kind of long in the tooth. At this point he’s 61. Having recently turned 50, I’d like to think 60 is the new 40, and 50 is the new 30. But I may be kidding myself. When I was training in judo in Tokyo, there were 60 year old guys who were phenomenal. They were strong and had tons of cunning from their experiences over a lifetime. But in a novel, I have to deal with it realistically. In a previous novel, The Detachment, I put Rain in a different role. He managed a team. I love taking my characters out of their comfort zones. But Rain is getting older, and what will happen next is an open question.
You’re a prolific writer. Did you love reading as a child?
Oh yes. Have you ever met a writer who didn’t? (Laughter). As a kid, the genre I loved was horror. By the time I was in high school I was reading more political type of thrillers. I’ve always read eclectically—literary fiction and non-fiction. I still love reading.
Do you read other authors in your genre while you’re writing a novel?
I have to be careful, depending on who I’m reading. When I was working on my second novel, I was reading the second book in James Ellroy’s Underworld series, The Cold Six Thousand. Ellroy is such a powerful writer, his books were getting into my head, and into my writing. When I teach writing I tell my students to imitate other writers as an exercise. It’s similar to studying painting when students attempt to duplicate the works of masters. The object is to learn technique, and to then discover your own style. As a writer, the point is to learn and develop, and inform your own voice. But, if your own writing is being infiltrated by another writer’s voice, that’s too much.
When you aren’t writing, how do you spend your time?
When I’m not writing, I feel like I should be.
The writer’s curse?’
Definitely. Daily life gets in the way. There’s judo and I enjoy going for long walks. I read and blog a great deal. I’m pretty obsessed with political issues having to do with the rule of law, the lack of transparency and accountability of our government, the media, the metastases of government power, and those issues.
You mentioned government and the media, so I must ask, have you watched House of Cards?
I’ve heard so many people say I have to watch it, but I haven’t, yet. I have to be careful about getting obsessed with TV shows. I’ve binge-watched The Sopranos. Now, I’m totally obsessed with Game of Thrones. It’s a shame that I’ve never seen The Wire or Breaking Bad. This goes back to your question about reading other writers in my genre while I’m writing. Television really gets into my brain. It’s like taking heroin. Over time, it inhibits your body’s ability to produce its own endorphins. This is of course, a strong comparison, but really good television attaches to my storytelling receptors, it’s my opiate. It can get in the way of my writing.
What’s next for Barry Eisler?
I’m working on a novel set in the bowels of America’s national surveillance system. It’s very topical. My biggest challenge in writing is to stay ahead of the news. A year ago, if I’d laid out a plot like the one I’m now working on, people would have said it was paranoid conspiracy stuff. It’s very hard to keep up with the truth.
It looked like something out of a nightmare—the Fishkill Correctional Facility at Beacon, NY. It was a huge, rambling series of buildings surrounded by chain link fences and concertina wire. I shivered at the thought of spending twenty years in this hellhole—amid society’s castaways, extruded from the world. It reminded me of the ninth level of Dante’s inferno.
I was patted down and wanded. I walked through a metal detector. I removed my shoes, which were examined. I was led by a guard down a long corridor.
Walking deeper into the belly of the beast, the guard and I passed through a series of electronically controlled doors that slid open and shut behind us. Gray cinderblock walls and cement floors added to the sense of dislocation and otherworldliness.
As a forensic psychiatrist, I was asked to evaluate an inmate in the Maximum Security Block. He was doing 25 years for armed robbery. Acting as his own attorney, he’d lodged a civil suit against the State of New York. His legal papers (all hand-written in block print) alleged the prison air contained toxic particulates causing breathing problems. Prison doctors thought he might be clinging to a delusional belief, in addition to being a convicted felon. They also wanted to know if he was competent to represent himself as a pro se plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. Even though he was a prisoner of the state, he was exercising his constitutional right to file a suit in a court of law.
In the Medical Unit—behind a series of more sliding doors and bars, I was escorted to a small room with a table and two chairs. The guard left to bring the plaintiff/inmate for his examination.
Sam, the inmate, was a short, wiry, 30 year old black man. I’d read through his records and legal filings. It was obvious he was your proverbial jailhouse lawyer. He greeted me with a firm handshake. Sitting across the narrow table, he smiled readily, and spoke intelligently. I asked about his breathing; his prison time; his thoughts; feelings; and about prison life. He spoke of the brutality of his childhood days in a series of foster homes, and his later life of crime. He was articulate and obviously intelligent.
His words were spoken in logical, sequential order, and made complete sense. He wasn’t hallucinating. Nor did he think the state was poisoning him, or pumping toxic fumes into his cell. In other words, his lawsuit wasn’t based on some delusional belief. He was perfectly sane and quite able to represent himself in court.
He knew I was interviewing him for the state. Yet, he didn’t relate to me as an adversary. He was an affable guy, and I liked him. And he liked me. He even asked about my life. Though he knew I’d prepare a report about his mental capacity, he talked with me as though I was just another inmate.
At the end of the examination, he said, “So, Doc, what’s your diagnosis? Am I crazy?”
“You know I’m not allowed to divulge my findings.”
“I know. I’m just testin’ ya, Doc. You’re a good guy. I like you.”
“I like you, too.”
“Don’t worry Doc, when this goes to trial, I’ll go easy on cross-examination.”
We both smiled as I gathered my papers. Then I pressed the call-button on the battery-operated unit attached to my belt. A guard appeared, and I was escorted out.
Heading toward my car, I realized if Sam had a different upbringing, he could have become an attorney or an accomplished professional.
Though the case never came to trial—it probably settled out of court—I still think about Sam and the wasted life he was living.
The king goes slowly insane because of his mistakes and his daughters’ perfidy.
(Lear, King Lear)
She was forced to make a choice between two unbearable, unthinkable options.
(Sophie, Sophie’s Choice)
Their marriage, finances and lives were bankrupt; and now he is suspected of her murder.
(Nick and Amy Dunne, Gone Girl)
She could not stop remembering the sound of the spring lambs being slaughtered.
(Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs)
Take the character to hell (either physically or mentally), and if well-drawn, the reader will really care about this person. All of us can relate to the torture of being alive in an indifferent world.
When I think about building a character for a novel, my task is to create someone who inhabits a world where aspects of his personality and life-experiences are the spawning grounds for an emotionally charged and conflicted existence.
Stephen King’s On Writing advises writers to imbue their characters with honest voices, to make them people with faults, passions, weaknesses and strengths. These characteristics make them human. We can relate to them, whether they be a king; concentration camp survivor; detective; duplicitous couple; or sea captain, because their fictional lives intersect with ours and make us connect with them. The link can be one of intense compassion or absolute revulsion, but nonetheless, it is a bond. It relates to the character’s tortured and anguished existence.
All of us have felt victimized by the randomness of life. No one has escaped the seemingly unfair punishment brought upon us through pure happenstance. Recent events like the 2001 terrorist attacks or the devastation brought about by storms like Sandy remind us of the tenuous nature of existence.
Worthy fiction draws us into a world where the characters are emotionally driven and tortured. Their mistakes and triumphs must resonate as real. Human nature doesn’t change. That’s why the stories in the Iliad and the collection of works by Shakespeare are as relevant now as they were eons ago.
There’s plenty of advice about developing characters. Guidance ranges from drawing a detailed profile of each one, describing physical appearance and personality traits, to making a timeline charting the character’s history in the context of the novel.
All of this is solid and practical guidance.
But in my opinion, what matters most is this: the character must suffer turmoil and torture, presented in the context of a story that allows the reader to surrender control and enter the fictional but believable world you have created.
To varying degrees, and at different times throughout our lives, we are all tortured souls.
The life of a well-developed, memorable fictional character must be, too.
I got to be friendly with some restaurateurs. One in particular, Jerry, owned a fancy steak house. Jerry was always ready with a handshake and a slap on the back. I was a “regular” who hunkered down on New York strip steak at least twice a week. Jerry usually comped me a glass of wine or an after-dinner drink. You see, Jerry was a great guy—and he was “connected”
Jerry would occasionally sit at my table, and we’d commiserate about the state of the world, or about his business.
One night while I was inhaling a gargantuan slab of prime roast beef with baked potato, Jerry sat down with me.
“Business looks great,” I said.
“Great? I barely make my margins.
“I have forty paid enemies.”
Jerry was referring to his employees: waiters, grill chefs, busboys, janitors, bartenders, and kitchen help. Jerry then gave me an eye-popping education in the myriad ways employees stole from him and ate into his profit margins.
First, Jerry had to watch carefully over the kitchen’s chief porter. He’s the guy who weighs the meat as it comes in from the purveyor. He also weighs the fish and other stuff—including produce. If the weight is overestimated, or if the fish includes water or half-melted ice, the owner is paying for nothing he can sell. He’s blowing money into the wind. If the porter is on the take, the weights on these items are overestimated; the porter signs for the goods, and the restaurant comes out on the short side—even before the food gets into the back door.
Speaking of back doors, there’s another profit-eroding kitchen scam. Steaks come off the truck in vacuum-sealed packs—twelve to a pack. A sneaky porter signs for them and tosses one pack into a black, plastic garbage bag out back. In cold weather, the meat stays perfectly good, and at the shift’s end, the thief makes off with twelve steaks he can use at home or sell.
The bar is the area of greatest profit—and therefore, of greatest potential loss. Jerry once caught a barkeep in a clever scam. The guy brought in bottles of Stoly or Bombay Sapphire from his own private stash. But inside the fancy bottles was booze no better than kerosene. Since the average drinker can’t discern the difference between nectar of the gods and rotgut, patrons knew nothing. When a customer ordered a Stoly vodka or Bombay Sapphire gin, the barkeep would pour from his own stash, and never ring up the sale; he’d pocket the cash. Jerry couldn’t know what was happening because the restaurant’s inventory wasn’t being used. All tallies matched up. Jerry earned nothing on those orders. He discovered what was going on when he made himself a gin and tonic and the stuff tasted like weasel piss.
Dozens of scams can put a restaurant in the red—from waiters giving away free drinks to comping patrons deserts to get more generous tips.
So that night, sitting with Jerry, I learned about the restaurant game. The owner has to be as vigilant as a circling hawk—or else he’ll be eaten alive and out of business.
Crime… petty or otherwise comes in many guises.
Imagine wearing a vest-like device while reading a book, so that when you come upon a scene brimming with heart-racing tension, the vest emits vibrations to increase your heart rate and compresses your ribcage to convey the tightness felt by the protagonist in the throes of his peril.
Sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, but it is not.
An intriguing article http://tinyurl.com/Inauojd described MIT scientists developing a vest with programmable LEDs, so one can experience physical sensations while reading fiction.
Although this device in its current form is crude and unwieldy, the quest to produce such a gadget says plenty about our culture’s attempt to harness technology and enhance human experience.
Is this a worthwhile pursuit?
Through powerful writing, good fiction creates both emotional and physical reactions. Words provide images in the reader’s mind, which are transformed into feeling states ranging from revulsion, rage and despair, to empathy, nostalgia and love.
Haven’t we all experienced physical sensations triggered by the imagination’s link to the written word? While reading the terrible choice Sophie was forced to make in the death-camps (Sophie’s Choice), did we need an external contraption to feel tears or a lump in our throats? To feel aroused while reading Fifty Shades of Grey, did we need a strap-on device to experience sexual tinglings?
The human mind is pre-programmed to provide physical and emotional reactions to the word-pictures found on a page.
As a psychiatrist, I know the amygdala within the brain’s limbic system regulates memory and emotion, processing everything conveyed by the written word.
As a novelist, I know my task is to provide the reader with a richly textured story to evoke many feelings.
Must we further enhance fictional experience with technology? Do we want to feel a jolt of searing pain when a character is stabbed or shot; and do we wish to double-up in agony when Jack Reacher is on the receiving end of a solid punch to the gut?
I don’t think so.
This MIT project raises other questions.
Is the increasing digitalization of our world altering our humanity? Must we don a vest or implant a subcutaneous chip to experience our natural sensations and feelings? Will we someday have programmable emotions because our capacities have atrophied to the point of unresponsiveness? Is this emblematic of the numbing-down of our specie?
I’m not a troglodyte, but I think the very technologies meant to enhance communication are paradoxically diminishing real interaction. We text rather than talk. We e-mail instead of telephoning. Some people live virtual lives—they’ve become avatars—meeting and having sex online. Are these “real” relationships?
As for boosted reading—augmenting sensations and emotions—I’ll rely on my imagination to see, hear, feel, smell and appreciate the sights, sounds, and feeling states an author is conveying. I neither want nor need technologic enhancement to experience fully the magical world of a well-written novel.
Tales from the Couch
Seeing the patient from psychiatry’s perspective
It was 5:00 PM on a cold winter evening. I’d testified at a Workers’ Compensation hearing and was walking toward my car with an attorney. We were the only two people on a lonely, narrow street. The stores were shuttered. The neighborhood was in a devastated section of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Suddenly, coming from across the street and down the block, we heard the cracks of two shots from a small-caliber pistol.
People rushed from their apartments toward a store—the source of the shots. The once-deserted street was now filled with people milling about. The police and an ambulance arrived. We learned that two men in the store had been shot—one fatally.
A year later, I was scheduled to examine a Workers’ Compensation claimant who could no longer work. Reading the records sent a chill through me. While working at a dry goods store, Ari had been shot during a holdup attempt.
Entering my office, Ari looked like a tough customer. About 6 feet tall, he was built like a bulldozer. He was unshaven, disheveled, and looked depressed.
He described having been working with his father-in-law in their dry goods store in Bridgeport. It was on the very street I’d been on the day of the shooting. At 5:00, two men entered the store with pistols drawn. They threatened and demanded the money in the register. Ari’s father-in-law handed over the cash. One gunman, for no reason, shot the older man in the chest. He died instantly. He then fired at Ari, hitting him in the groin. The gunmen fled.
It was the shooting I’d heard that frigid evening.
Ari was taken to the hospital and underwent surgery. However, he was left impotent and infertile by the injury.
This rugged 29 year-old former Israeli paratrooper, married less than a year, became profoundly depressed. He was plagued by recurrent dreams of his wife’s father being shot to death before his eyes. He had intrusive thoughts and recollections of the robbery and shooting. He shook violently whenever he heard sirens—from police cars, ambulances, or fire engines. He could no longer enter the store where the shootings occurred. The very streets of the city signaled danger, and he became increasingly homebound by anxiety.
Ari and his wife had been planning to have a baby, but that dream died on that fateful day. Ari had developed the classic signs and symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder along with profound depression—complicated by survivor’s guilt for having committed the “sin” of living while his father-in-law died.
Ari’s psychiatric disorder was caused by this horrific work-related incident, and he was entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits because of his physical and psychiatric state.
I decided against telling Ari I was half a block away on that fateful night, but I’ll never forget hearing the shots that changed his life forever.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” retired forensic psychiatrist Mark Rubinstein told Westport Sunrise Rotary last Friday. “People were telling me stories all the time … that’s partially why I went into psychiatry.”
Now he’s the storyteller, enjoying his second career, recalling 42 years of “listening to people’s tales of woe,” and working on his fifth novel.
Storytelling, he said, “makes us who we are … the novelist seeks to capture the reader, to take him from his prosaic world to one that gives him an experience he couldn’t hope to have in his daily life.”
Rubinstein spoke to his audience about his practice, about his genre, thrillers, and about writing.
As a forensic psychiatrist he often served as an expert witness, for criminal and civil cases, from the mundane to “some of the most horrific of human behaviors.” He evaluated and treated over 300 survivors of 9/11 — people fleeing, seeing dead bodies carried down the stairs, and firemen rushing up into billowing smoke, and “knowing, retrospectively, that these men never survived.” He helped survivors of air crashes from 32,000 feet (yes, “there are survivors”), of concentration camps and from the Vietnam War, as well as victims of rape and false arrest.
He mentioned divorces in which both sides told him the other was an unfit parent. “It makes it difficult to believe that these people were married, were in love, had children, made a life together. The accusations they hurl at each other are beyond anger, beyond rage, they qualify as hatred bordering on murderous impulses.”
This took him to “the thin line between love, obsession, hate and even murder … love is a state of mind with which we are all familiar. Obsession is something else, but there’s only a thin line separating them,” as we learned from the recent Jodi Arias case and the older one of Herman Tarnow and Jean Harris. Obsession became “love gone awry.”
He moved on, talking about his genre. “I write thrillers!” Thrillers are different from mysteries, Rubinstein said. Mysteries are “who done its,“ thrillers keep the protagonist in imminent danger and the reader on the edge of his seat in the well written ones.
Popular culture is rife with thrillers, with depictions of murder — of love turning to obsession, then murder, as in movies including “Fatal Attraction and “Misery,’” and novels like “Sophie’s Choice,” “a horrible kind of story about the most inhumane and inhuman things that can happen to people, beautifully written in the gorgeous style of William Styron.”
While thrillers get a bad rap, as “fluff,” he noted that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were thrillers — “You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
He brought his newest novel, “Love Gone Mad,” a story about a young doctor and a nurse who met casually, fell in love, then were put in danger by their personal baggage. It is their downward spiral that puts the reader in suspense, takes him out of his everyday life, and keeps him turning the page. But it’s not a mystery, Rubinstein said, because it’s obvious early on who did it. But, sorry, no spoiler. Buy the book to learn what happens.
Talking about writing, Rubinstein said, “The only way a book can hold me is that I have to keep wondering what’s going to happen next … it has to have some element of suspense, where is this story going — where is the human tug?”
He added that as a psychiatrist he “turned the meter off as soon as I went out the door of my office … however as a novelist my meter never goes off.”
I admit, I initially picked this book to read thinking it would serve as an “easy” read in-between all the non-fiction on my reading list. I’m a bit of a war fanatic in the sense that I appreciate reading war materials, come from a military family that has served in several wars, and have worked with veterans. Still, I’ve never been in a war. So when I come across something like Mark Rubinstein’s “The Foot Soldier,” where he is able to take the reader inside of a war, inside of a humid jungle full of mosquitoes and predators and booby traps and probably most of all fear, I’m beyond captivated. Though it was a short read–less than an hour–I felt the pain of young Costa every step of the way, especially to the heart-breaking decision at the end. There are choices we have to make in our lives that are so mind-blowing, we can’t even comprehend them at that second. I think no one knows the meaning of that sentence better than the men serving in our forces, the ones who make hard choices every single day. So–was this the best book about war I’ve ever read? No. Was the ending the best it could have been? Not really. But did it grip me emotionally? Absolutely. I nearly choked trying to hold back tears while reading certain passages. My body tensed up subconsciously as I read with a fast pace about Costa’s journey serving “point.”I’m done with the book and my nerves are frayed, my thoughts are scattered, and I’m anything but calm. That’s what makes a good story.
Net Galley Reviewer