Barry Eisler, award-winning author and friend of CHUD, has a new book, Fault Line, that was released today. Mr. Eisler posted a wonderful blog entry about the release which includes an interview he did while on the press tour, and we thought we’d give it a little main page love. – Jeremy
Fault Line is Here!
my first standalone thriller, launches today, so I thought it would be
appropriate to include some thoughts from a recent interview on the
book’s origins and its political milieu. The tour is taking me to
Phoenix/Scottsdale, Los Angeles (Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, LA), San
Diego, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area (Menlo Park and San
Mateo), Houston, Indianapolis (Carmel), Milwaukee, Minneapolis,
Washington DC (Bethesda and Baileys Crossroads), and New York City.
Details and the full schedule here. Enjoy the book – subject of a nice recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal – and hope to see you on the road!
Ben Treven, one of the three main
characters in Fault Line, is also 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 Dox, the former Marine
sniper of the Rain 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 do – 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.
Like many of the Rain books, Fault Line includes some surprisingly graphic sex. Why do you write so much sex?
I’m tempted to paraphrase Blazing Saddles here and just answer, “I like sex.” But let me see if I do better than that…
There are three general ways to get to know someone’s character:
time, stress, and sex. In a novel, you don’t have time, meaning you
need an accelerant, and that leaves you with sex or stress. Violence is
one of the most stressful experiences we humans can face, which is why
violence can be such a powerful tool in stories. But sex is also
enormously revealing, which is why the biblical euphemism that Abraham
“knew” Sarah is so apt. Also, sex can be an incredibly powerful pivot.
Sex changes everything. Remember when John Cusack and Ione Skye finally
make love in Say Anything? Cusack then tries
to pretend that it doesn’t matter that much, and Lili Taylor says to
him something like, “Yes it does! It changes everything. Decades could
go by without you seeing each other… and then, when you’re in your
sixties, you might bump into each other, and you’ll say, ‘Hi, how are
you?’ and she’ll say, ‘Fine, how are you?’, but what you’ll really be
thinking is, ‘We had sex!’”
Which is why I had so much of a blast with the buildup to what
happens in Fault Line and with its culmination. These are characters
caught for a variety of reasons between powerfully conflicting feelings
of antagonism and attraction. They know they shouldn’t, they even tell
themselves they don’t want to… and yet of course they do. What would
happen to two people with feelings like that, pressurized by shared
danger, enhanced by distrust, catalyzed by violence? Not going to tell
you here… you’ll have to read the book to find out.
I’ve heard 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,
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.
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, David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society; second, Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
How did the covert world of spies and
assassins change after 9/11? I recall former Vice President Cheney
talking about the need to “work the dark side,” and it does seem that
in many cases “the gloves came off,” to use another phrase that
frequently crops up in these kinds of discussions.
Ah, the dark side, the same place Darth Vadar went. And what did
Yoda tell Luke about that? The dark side of the force is seductive
because it promises a shortcut… but in the end, delivers nothing. I
guess former Vice President Cheney didn’t see the movie, or if he did,
he drew the wrong lesson from it.
Yes, post 9/11, we took the gloves off and went to the dark side or
whatever other metaphor we might use to describe the abandonment of
intelligent tactics and the embrace of primitive emotion instead.
Because what else could “the dark side” be if not a more primitive,
id-focused, emotionally-based way of reacting to the world? Diplomacy
isn’t the dark side. Dale Carnegie isn’t the dark side. Clausewitz,
Machiavelli, and Sun Tsu aren’t the dark side. Rationality, empiricism,
logic… these are all concepts we associate with the light. You don’t go
to the dark side because it makes sense to go there. You go because
going feels good. You go because you don’t know any better.
Torture, kidnapping, warrantless surveillance… it’s well documented that these policies originated in the White House.
And now the purveyors of the policies find themselves trapped by a kind
of double vision. We have to take the gloves off… but we don’t torture.
Telecoms didn’t break the law in turning over confidential customer
data to the government… but they need retroactive immunity anyway.
It would be refreshing if dark side proponents would speak a little
more clearly. Yes, we torture—forget all that “aggressive questioning”
nonsense—and here’s why. Yes, the telecoms broke the law, that’s why
we’re trying to get them off the hook. But I guess the nature of the
dark side is that spending time there impedes clarity of vision. It
certainly impedes clarity of speech.
In your opinion, how have these changes impacted the security of the United States?
They’ve made us less safe. The U.S. brand, often called our “soft
power,” has been badly damaged. When foreigners think of America today,
do they think of the Statue of Liberty, or of Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo? Soft power matters because it creates political conditions
that foster cooperation. If popular hostility causes a European
politician to distance herself from America, that distance trickles
down to the levels of intelligence, security, and law enforcement
cooperation, all of which are critical in combating international
Leave aside questions of morality for the moment, and analyze the
issue in cold-blooded cost/benefit terms. Torture isn’t worth it. Sure,
it might lead to actual intelligence, but it also leads to false
confessions. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? And torture
inhibits the local population from cooperating. People who believe
suspects will be tortured are less likely to inform on them. So an
authority that becomes known for torture cuts itself off from the
source of intelligence it most needs: the local population.
Worst of all, the French experience in Algeria suggests that nothing creates new insurgents faster than torture.
Death in open battle is more forgivable than the complete
powerlessness, pain, and humiliation of being tortured. People don’t
forget it, and the need for revenge after is extreme.
The dark side has also made us lazy. Training interrogators and
linguists is expensive and labor intensive. Why bother with all that if
you believe you can just do what cavemen did ten thousand years ago? Or
perhaps the problem is denial, because what else besides denial could
explain how the Defense Department fired some of its few Arabic linguists for being gay? It’s enough to make you wonder what our priorities really are…
So for the sake of some occasional theoretical benefit, we’ve
adopted a course highly likely to produce false information, that cuts
us off from intelligence produced by local populations, and that is
maximally efficient at creating new enemies. I guess Cheney called it
the dark side because its more accurate name – the dumb side – would
have been a tougher sell.
Ben, the Fault Line assassin,
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 memos, records of meetings among White House and Justice Department officials, and other evidence, that the philosophy was embraced by the Bush White House. I’m concerned it’s now being embraced by Obama, as well.
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. But 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 Ben’s 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,
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. It was interesting for me (and for Ben) to see the way some
of Alex’s 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 whom 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
medium. 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 are strengths, but also
represent 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 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
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.
What about the political potential of
blogs and the Internet? Can they serve as checks on government power
and advocates of policy in the way that the Fourth Estate was meant to
do, and sometimes did . . . before succumbing to corporate ownership?
I hope so. The mainstream media has become so lazy and complicit there’s often no difference between the function of television news coverage in America and the role of Pravda in the Soviet Union.
Most mainstream journalists depend on politicians for access, and
access depends on favorable coverage. This dynamic means our most
celebrated “journalists” – the real Washington insiders, the media
establishment – function primarily as spokesmen issuing press releases,
not as any kind of Fourth Estate “comforting the afflicted and
afflicting the comfortable.” So if you get your news primarily from
television, for the most part you’re being spoon-fed the official
Can blogs remedy this imbalance? I’m not sure, although I must be
optimistic, or I wouldn’t be blogging myself. I will say that I don’t
know anyone writing for the mainstream media – and I read widely – who
is producing the kind of quality opinion pieces turned out every day by
Glenn Greenwald and the other bloggers I mention in Fault Line.
So hopefully, over time, more people will stumble across Glenn and the
others and realize that today’s preeminent journalism exists primarily
in the blogosphere.
The name of your blog is also the
title of a novel by Graham Greene. I take it that you’re an admirer of
his work. If he were alive today, how do you think he’d respond to the
I am indeed an admirer, and although I don’t want to presume to
speak for the man, I can’t imagine him being anything other than
disgusted about the way Republicans cynically exploited 9/11 and the
way Democrats cravenly capitulated to their opponents. But maybe I’m
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. Max’s version is
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
spend timing 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 only been told 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!
To see more of Barry’s Blogs just visit his Blog Section here.