GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES, the eighth in Barry Eisler’s compelling John Rain series, recounts how a twenty-year-old Rain transforms from jaded yet callow Vietnam War veteran to legendary assassin. Living in 1972 Tokyo, Rain works as a low-level courier for the CIA, delivering cash bribes to corrupt politicians. When a delivery goes terribly wrong—in part because Rain can’t control his propensity for violence—he finds himself the target of Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan.
To survive, Rain strikes a desperate deal with his CIA handler: he’ll assassinate a high- Japanese government official in exchange for the intel he needs to eliminate his would-be yakuza executioners. In carrying out his new role as contract killer and in battling the yakuza, Rain draws on his experience in the killing fields of Southeast Asia, discovering that he’s adept at the art of assassination. But he also falls in love with Sayaka, a tough, beautiful ethnic Korean woman confined to a wheelchair. The demands of Rain’s dark work are at odds with the longings of his heart, and with Sayaka’s life in the balance, he must ultimately make a terrible choice.
A tale of love, war, and betrayal, GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES explores how humans can be capable of great violence, but also, paradoxically, deep love and tenderness.
GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES begins with an epigraph from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” How does that observation inform your novel?
The older I get (I just turned 50, in fact, and am reminded of that Oscar Wilde quote, “I don’t mind getting older, when I consider the alternatives…”), the more I appreciate how many elements of my life I couldn’t adequately understand while they were happening, but that become increasingly coherent and comprehensible with the benefit of hindsight, experience, and, hopefully, a bit of wisdom. There are forks in the road we can’t see from ahead, only once we’ve passed them. I would think this would be even more true for someone like Rain, who has lived longer and suffered more than I have. What formed him—his own choices? His personality? Circumstances? Fate? Was there a particular time, or incident, or a woman, that acted as fulcrum in a way he could perceive only decades later? GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES explores these questions within the life of one highly skilled killer, but of course they apply to all of us.
Your story takes place in 1972 Japan. How are you able to evoke another time and place so accurately? More generally, can you describe your research process?
Part of my writing method has always involved extensive on-site research for all the locales I use, but obviously A GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES presented a challenge in this regard. The challenge was multiplied by my desire to use real places—bars and jazz clubs and coffeehouses—that readers could visit if they wished.
I decided on a threefold solution: use existing places that have been around since at least 1972; concentrate the action in the older parts of Tokyo, chiefly in the east of the city, which have changed less over the decades than those in the more cosmopolitan west; and peruse photo books of 1960s and 1970s Tokyo to get a better feel for what’s different and what is largely unchanged. And I spent a month in the summer living in Tokyo and writing the book. For anyone who wants to see some of the photos I took or check out some of the books and websites I found helpful, there’s much more on my website (Photos and Places) and in the back-matter of the book itself.
Your protagonist, John Rain, is a legendary assassin. Please tell us what motivates him.
You know, I’ve done a good number of interviews, but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. It’s a great question.
On the most banal and horrifying level, he does it because he’s so good at it. There’s a lot more to it than that—his nature, his childhood experiences, his combat experiences, etc., but when there’s a thing you’re great at, a thing you’re the best at, that itself becomes an attraction.
As he ages, though, Rain increasingly comes to question the life he’s led and the terrible things he’s done. As a result, increasingly what motivates him is the hope (perhaps chimeric) of redemption. In fact, in REDEMPTION GAMES, he explicitly wonders, All those lives you’ve taken… do lives saved count against them?
More generally, Rain is a loner who longs to connect; a ronin who longs to be part of something larger than himself; a romantic who wears his cynicism like armor. He’s fully of two worlds—Japan and America—and yet has never been accepted in either. He tells himself those wounds are healed now, nothing but scars, but we know better, don’t we?
In GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES, one of the characters says, “In the end, it’s the limits that separate men from monsters.” What are Rain’s limits?
No women, no children, no acts against non-principals. In Graveyard, we learn the origin of those rules.
Of course, once you set rules for a character, it’s awfully interesting to test the boundries…
As in your earlier novels, the CIA plays a prominent role in GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES. You spent three years with the CIA. Is your depiction of the CIA based on any of your actual experiences?
It is. But I didn’t launch any coups or anything like that; mostly it was just training (paramilitary, spy school, language school). But the whole thing was a great experience for a future thriller novelist: first, at the tactical level, because of the skills I learned; second, in a more general sense, because I learned the way a huge government organization functions (or, more often, malfunctions).
Rain is capable of committing shocking acts of violence, but also shows profound empathy and love for Sayaka, a young woman confined to a wheel chair. How does he reconcile these two aspects of his character? What interests you, as a writer, about this apparent conflict?
Well, the first thing that interests me is that… this duality is present in all of us! I certainly love expressing extremes of these characteristics in my characters, and Rain is absolutely not someone you would want to mess with and his relationship with Sayaka was as you say exceptionally loving, but this duality wouldn’t interest me if they weren’t present in all of us in various ways. The fundamental problem in Graveyard, of course, is that Rain is falling in love with Sayaka, a civilian, at the same time he’s trying to kill his way out of a problem with the yakuza, and his actions in one world come increasingly into conflict with his hopes in the other. That’s another thing that greatly interests me: yes, we all have this duality, but if a person goes too far over to the dark side, can he ever find his way back to the light?
In addition to writing thrillers, you blog about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law. How, if at all, are those concerns reflected in your novels?
I’d put it this way.
Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been much discussion in the thriller world about whether the thriller, at least the contemporary version, is still a viable form. Despite then Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey’s admonition that “We have slain a mighty dragon, but now find ourselves in a jungle filled with snakes,” villains seemed scarce during the “peace dividend” years of the Clinton administration. Nine-eleven and the explosion of al Qaeda in the popular consciousness, of course, changed all that, and Islamic fundamentalism provided a new treasure trove of contemporary villains and plotlines.
For thriller writers interested in realism, though, the familiar “Islamic Terrorist Villain” plotline has a serious shortcoming: terrorism, of whatever stripe, poses far less danger to America than does America’s own overreaction to the fear of terrorism. To put it another way, America has a significantly greater capacity for national suicide than any non-state actor has for national murder. If thrillers are built on large-scale danger, therefore, and if a thriller novelist wants to convincingly portray the largest dangers possible, the novelist has to grapple not so much with the possibility of a terror attack, as with the reality of the massive, unaccountable national security state that has metastasized in response to that possibility.
This is of course a challenge, because unaccountable bureaucracies—what Hannah Arendt called “Rule by Nobody”—make for less obvious villains than do lone, bearded zealots seeking to destroy the Great Satan, etc., etc. The trick, I think, is to create an antagonist who is part of the ruling power structure but who also maintains an outsider’s perspective—who personifies and animates an entity that, destructive and oppressive though it is, is itself is too large and cumbersome to ever really be sentient.
“They hate us for our freedoms” is as inane a viewpoint in a thriller as it is in the annals of domestic propaganda. A writer who wants to grapple with the real causes and consequences of hatred of America would do better grappling with the blowback resulting from our new permanent state of war (on this topic, I highly recommend Jeremy Scahill’s DIRTY WARS, both the film and the book). Because I like my thrillers realistic, these are the issues that animate them, not self-pleasuring cartoon fantasies about how America is purely benevolent and good and beset by crazed brown-skinned people motivated by nothing more than irrational hatred of our freedoms.
Anyway, if The Terrorists really did hate us for our freedoms, wouldn’t they hate us a lot less now? After all, since 9/11 we’ve given up so much freedom. Or do we just have to give up even more?
Who are some of your favorite writers? Can you include one or two NON-thriller/mystery writers among them?
For political stuff, Amy Davidson, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Jonathan Schwartz, Marcy Wheeler. For general fiction, maybe Isabel Allende (especially paired with Blair Brown on the audio). For supernatural, Anne Rice. For political thrillers, too many to mention, though Ken Follett is hard to beat.
The clichéd piece of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know.” In GRAVEYARD OF MEMORIES, you write about Japanese organized crime, Cold War politics, the Vietnam War, locksmithing, 1972 Tokyo’s jazz scene, and the most effective means of carrying out an assassination. Would you describe that as “writing what you know?” More generally, could you describe your writing process?
Well sure, doesn’t everyone know about this stuff?
I read a lot—current events, of course, but also on more offbeat subjects like breaking and entry, and, um, how to dispose of a body (for example). I also love to interview experts on all sorts of subjects: forensic medicine, close quarters combat, small arms, explosive ordinance disposal, and, of course, all aspects of Japan and the other places where the books are set. Most of all, I travel to all the places I write about and make sure to do a lot of “walking in Rain’s shoes” so I can describe things from his perspective.
I think the “write what you know thing” is easy to overstate. Of course, if you have first-hand experience with something, that’s great, and having lived in Japan, and trained in judo at the Kodokan, and spent time in a covert position with the CIA, has all been helpful to me given the kinds of books I write. But for anything you don’t know through direct experience, there’s a workaround, popularly known as “imagination.” And the way to feed and guide your imagination is by reading and talking to people who’ve really been there. The notion of “Internet knowledge” has something of a bad rap, but I think this is unfair. The Internet is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used correctly or incorrectly. In general, the correct use of Internet knowledge is to develop the basis for knowing what questions to ask. Once you know what questions to ask, you can figure out who can help answer them. And once you’re asking the right questions of the right people, you can learn a huge amount about almost anything. That knowledge, combined with your imagination, can be every bit as effective in writing a story as first-hand experience.
Please tell us about your next project.
A big novel set in the bowels of the national surveillance state! Assuming I can stay ahead of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Thriller writers have seen a lot of life imitating art of late…
“Eisler combines the insouciance of Ian Fleming, the realistic detail of Tom Clancy, the ennui of Graham Greene and the prose power of John le Carré.” —NEWS-PRESS
“In his superb thriller series featuring charismatic Japanese-American assassin John Rain, author Barry Eisler serves up steamy foreign locales, stunning action and enough high tech weaponry to make for an A-plus read.” —NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
“Furious and creative… Rain’s combination of quirks and proficiency is the stuff great characters are made of.” —ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
“No one is writing a better thriller series today than Barry Eisler. He has quickly jumped into my top ten best American mystery/thriller writers, along with Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Walter Mosley, and Harlan Coben… Rating: A.” —DEADLY PLEASURES
“Written with a delightfully soft touch and a powerful blend of excitement, exotica and what (ever since John le Carré) readers have known to call tradecraft.” —THE ECONOMIST
Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler’s bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous “Best Of” lists, have been translated into nearly twenty languages, and include the #1 bestseller THE DETACHMENT. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he’s not writing novels, blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law.
To learn more about Barry, please visit his website.