Barry Eisler: A Grim Future Is Now In '1984' George Orwell's dystopian vision offers such devastating political commentary that it's rarely described as a suspense novel. But author and former CIA operative Barry Eisler says the book simply proves just how powerful a thriller with a message can be.
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Barry Eisler: A Grim Future Is Now In '1984'

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Barry Eisler: A Grim Future Is Now In '1984'

Barry Eisler: A Grim Future Is Now In '1984'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris, and now our continuing summer series, "Thrilled to Death."

Today we spend some time with the writer Barry Eisler, the novelist behind two thriller series that have become international best-sellers.

The first features a half-American, half-Japanese former military man named John Rain, who has turned into a high-paid and highly successful assassin. His second series revolves around the life of Ben Treven, a Black Ops soldier with a wicked sense of humor.

Eisler's latest book "Inside Out," looks at the shadowy world of CIA renditions and the central question of what constitutes torture when dealing with enemy combatants. As a former CIA operative, Eisler is a stickler for authenticity, so much so that if you visit his website,, he has an entire page devoted to mistakes, where he lists all or at least most of the mistakes readers have brought to his attention.

Eisler joins us now to talk about how he researches his books, and welcome to the program.

Mr. BARRY EISLER (Author, "Inside Out"): Thank you, Michele, great to be here.

NORRIS: So the heroes of your books are generally some pretty bad dudes. They know their way around firearms and explosives, hand-to-hand combat. And you also happen to be an accomplished martial artist, and you attend several of these combat-style camps. Is this mainly to help with the authenticity of your books?

Mr. EISLER: Well, it certainly does help with the authenticity of my books, and I've got all these weird books at home on unarmed - techniques of unarmed killing and that sort of thing.

And so I know my wife, if she's listening, is saying please, Barry, just tell them it's research. It's not a real interest. It's just research. But the truth is I've been into this kind of stuff since I was a teenager, and I'm glad to say that it certainly makes the books more realistic. But it's not just research, it's also a lot of fun.

NORRIS: So if I were to visit your home and scan the books in your library, I'd probably see some pretty spooky stuff.

Mr. EISLER: I've got some great titles like "You Are Going to Prison" and "21 Techniques of Silent Killing" and "Breaking and Entry" and "Forging a New Identity." Yeah, they all used to be in a box, and then when I became a published novelist, my wife finally let me put them on the shelves because she can tell people, look, it's just research. He's not really interested in that sort of stuff.

NORRIS: How do you make sure that you get things right? I mean, it goes beyond just reading these books and looking at these manuals. I mean, if someone who is actually in the business, a CIA operative or someone who works in Special Ops, reads one of these books, how do you make sure that they say Barry knows what he's talking about?

Mr. EISLER: I think if I have a talent for this sort of thing, it's mostly in that I'm pretty good at knowing what questions to ask and who to put them to.

And so I've honed a process since I first - since I wrote my first novel almost 10 years ago at this point, and that is I'll start with - could be "Gambling for Dummies" or just something on the Internet and develop some basic knowledge of the area and learn what questions you need to ask. And then you want to start researching it more deeply, particularly by talking to experts now that you have some basic subject matter familiarity.

And then the final step, which I've learned is indispensible, is you have to show the finished product, whether it's the whole book or just a certain scene or sequence, you have to show it to someone who really is an expert in that area. Because no matter how much research you've done up until that point, you'll always make some small mistake that most people wouldn't notice, but an expert will.

And once you've gone through that last step in the process, even the experts will say wow, you really must - for example, you must be a baccarat player. I'm not, but I did this sequence of research, and so yeah, of course, it's passed muster with experts in manuscript form. So now experts find it extremely realistic when they read the novel, as well.

NORRIS: Why did you decide on your website,, to include a page devoted to mistakes?

Mr. EISLER: Well, from the beginning, realism has been really important to me. The kind of experience I've always wanted to provide for my readers is one in which generally speaking, it's almost as though I've created fictional characters and dropped them into non-fictional circumstances.

So the settings are real places. All the coffee shops and the dojos, the streets, the whiskey bars, the jazz clubs, they're all as I have found them. The characters are as real as I can make them from my own experiences, from interviews with experts. Everything is as real as I can make it.

But nonetheless, sometimes something does sneak through. And I want my readers to trust that realism experience I'm trying to provide them, and I think I can gain their trust not just through accuracy but on those hopefully rare instances where something gets by me, by telling them, hey, that thing that I wrote about in whatever, it turns out that that was off, and you can read about it on my webpage.

NORRIS: I'm looking at this right now as I talk to you, and I hope we can spend some time now talking about the mistakes that the readers have found. In some cases, they're mistakes that you point out yourself.

In "Rain Storm," in part of your series about the half-American, half-Japanese character named John Rain, you note that the stun gun Rain uses on a character named Crawley in Chapter 9 of "Rain Storm" would have left marks, and you say: I know this because I took a fan's advice after the fact and zapped myself with a stun gun.

Mr. EISLER: Yeah, a fan wrote me and said that - love the book. And by the way, most of the people who bring these mistakes to my attention, the letters are so nice. Like, oh my God, I love the book. I love this, this and this. One thing you've got wrong - in this case, the one thing you got wrong is that a stun gun really does leave marks. And I have one, and I can send it to you if you'd like, you can give it a try and just send it back to me. So I said yeah, sure. And for sure, a stun gun does leave marks.

NORRIS: Okay, so describe for me how you zapped yourself with a stun gun.

Mr. EISLER: Well, for what it's worth, I did try to be as careful as I could be. I've got wrestling mats in the garage and jammed the stun gun into my midsection, and it was very painful, attention-getting, and I only zapped myself for, I don't know, a second. But I had two red welts at the electrical contact points. So from that, I realized okay, got that wrong in the book: It does leave marks.

NORRIS: Now some of this very simple. Like, they're pointing out that in some places, whiskey is spelled with an E, and sometimes it's not.

Mr. EISLER: Yeah, you know, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know that when I first started because I love single malt whisky, and it's some of the most fun research I get to do. Irish whiskey is spelled with an EY at the end. Scotch whisky is typically spelled with just a Y at the end. There are some exceptions, but that would be the norm.

And I didn't know it; apparently the copy editor didn't know it. But legions of my fans know it, and now that's on my mistakes page.

NORRIS: And the difference between an ex-Marine and a former Marine?

Mr. EISLER: Yeah, that was another one. I can't believe it because I have so many former military people reading the manuscripts. An ex-Marine is one who was dishonorably discharged. A former Marine is just a Marine who served and then honorably left the service. So a former Marine never wants to be called an ex-Marine, and I didn't know that, but now I do.

NORRIS: And now I do, too. That's actually good to know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: How does the industry respond to this? Do they applaud your mistakes page or do they think you're crazy?

Mr. EISLER: Probably both. I got some nice mention, actually, in the Sunday New York Times book review a few years ago. The guy who wrote the column was really impressed that I did this.

And I have to say, I'm proud that I do it, too. Regardless of what anyone in the industry might think, since I think accuracy is important, if a mistake comes to my attention, then I think it's the right thing for me to do to acknowledge the mistake publicly so that people can learn from it.

And so I'm sure that some people think it's a little crazy or masochistic or something like that, but it makes me feel good, and I think people will trust me because of it.

NORRIS: Barry Eisler, thank you very much. It's been great talking to you.

Mr. EISLER: Thank you, Michele. So good talking to you.

NORRIS: That's Barry Eisler. His latest book is called "Inside Out." NPR is assembling a list of the most pulse-quickening suspenseful novels ever written, and we want your opinion. You can vote on the books you think deserve to be on our Killer Thrillers Top 100 List. Just go to the summer books section of

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