Many words can be used to describe bestselling author Barry Eisler. “Unopinionated” would not be one of them. I have long been a fan of both Barry’s work and his outspoken nature. In this interview for The Thrill Begins, he discusses important topics such as transparency, the pitfalls of the publishing business, and his fabulous hair.
Your website is a gold mine of material for writers. What drives you to assist other writers with their careers?
A lot of people have helped me one way or another in my career and my life—far more, I’m sure, even than I recognize. And while I can’t really pay them back, at least I can pay some of it forward. I think that’s a good thing to do. In a small way, it makes the world a better place, like leaving your campground in better condition than you found it in.
Plus I really hate injustice. And the asymmetrical power between publishers and authors—caused primarily by lots of books chasing very few publishing slots—has led to a system characterized by injustice. Just because you can do something to another person doesn’t mean you ought to, and everyone would be better off—writers, readers, even the publishers who, being human, take advantage of writers simply because they can—if publishers faced real competition for their publishing services. A big part of fostering that kind of competition consists of better-educated authors. So I like to share information and my point of view.
Many writers shy away from pointing out mistakes that were made in their books. On your website, you dedicate an entire section to errors in your novels. Why not just stick your head in the sand and pretend the errors were never made?
Everyone makes mistakes and they can’t be fully prevented (though it makes sense to have good systems in place to minimize the chances of a mistake). All you can really do, then, is acknowledge a mistake when you’ve made one, do what you can to learn from it, and not try to cover it up.
I’m a big fan of transparency in journalism. I don’t expect media outlets to be perfect (how could they be? They’re made of humans), but I do expect them to come clean when they’ve made a mistake, especially one that might have misled readers. So in having a Mistakes page, I’m really just trying to hold myself to the same standard.
I want people to trust me, and I think the best way to do that isn’t to pretend I’m perfect, but rather to honestly and openly grapple with something if I get it wrong.
And the great thing is, readers seem to love it. I get a decent amount of mail from people who say the Mistakes page galvanizes them into pressure-checking my work, which is awesome on so many levels.
You were employed by the CIA and now you write thrillers that delve into the worlds of surveillance, espionage, and assassinations. I know I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement when I was with the Secret Service and I’m sure you signed a similar document. How careful are you to not violate that agreement (or are you currently responding to this question from a computer in the prison library)?
Very careful. I don’t write anything that isn’t available in open sources. And the irony is I’m sure my books are better for it. Among other things, secrecy is a fetish, and the fetishists tend to discount the value of public information and informed insights. As a result, our media has a surfeit of access journalism (really an oxymoron) and we spend too much on intelligence gathering and not nearly enough on thoughtful analysis.
You offer great advice for authors who are just getting started, as well as those who are established and can use guidance with marketing and publication options. What recommendations do you have for writers who may have two or three books out there, but wish to expand their readership and take things to the next level? Asking for a friend.
Good question! In fact, I don’t think the principles are all that different regardless of the size of your current readership. The topic is pretty big—maybe too big for just this interview—but for anyone who wants to delve in deeper, I recommend the For Writers page of my website. And this blog post: Publishing is a Lottery/Publishing is a Carny Game.
You are extremely outspoken on political matters. Do you ever worry about alienating some readers or potential readers who hold differing viewpoints?
I’m sure I have, but no, I don’t worry about it. I care more about issues like torture, metastatic surveillance, gay equality, media propaganda, war as a primary tool of foreign policy, and related topics than I do about making a few more bucks from my books. To put it another way: if someone offered to pay me to censor myself on politics, I’d be a craven to take the money. What’s the difference between that, and self-censoring to sell a few more books?
One of the things I really admire about your writing is your ability to construct a good fight scene and to describe close quarters combat. Has the fact you have a black belt in Judo helped you picture those scenes and convey those images to readers?
It has, but I think the feeling is always more important than the mechanics. Or, as the lawyers might put it, the mechanics are merely necessary, but not sufficient. It’s the feeling you need to make it art.
If you’re doing a love scene, it’s not difficult to describe things in terms of Tab A, Slot B. And yeah, it’s easier to describe those mechanics if you’re not a virgin. But if you depict no more than the mechanics, it’s probably pointless and boring. What you really want to do is bring to life how the act affects the characters, how it makes them feel. And this is as true for violence as it is for love, and for everything else.
As the saying goes, if you want to be a writer, don’t describe the rain; describe the way the rain feels.
This is perhaps doubly important to remember if you have specific expertise you’re drawing on in writing a scene, because the expertise can lead you to get bogged down in the mechanics and forget that the mechanics are only a way to show how the characters feel.
What is the biggest mistake you have made in your writing career? If you don’t have one, I hope you’ll make one up to make the rest of us feel better!
In general, I’d say my biggest mistake was trusting the “experts” early in my career. I sensed I knew better. I’d spent a decade in law and in a technology startup before getting published, so I was no stranger to business, but hey, how could a new author really understand this big, foreign ecosystem? Besides, I was just happy someone wanted to publish me! So even though I did in fact know better, I allowed the experts to saddle my books with sub-optimal covers and titles and to screw up various other aspects of publication. If I could do it over again, I would have started pushing back much sooner.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m jealous of your hair. Have you always kept it long? If you cut it, will you lose your writing powers?
Hah, you are kind. No, when I was wrestling and doing judo and all that, it was always short. Likewise when I was a lawyer and it was useful to look like one. But at 52, I’m not training regularly anymore, and I feel lucky just to have hair. Plus as a writer, I can do anything I want with it. So now I like to wear it long, I guess mostly because I can.
In recent years, a lot of big name authors have attacked Amazon and defended traditional publishers. You seem to have taken the opposite position. Have you noticed any blowback from the author community due to your stance?
I haven’t, though that could be because I haven’t been paying attention. The “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” et al can only say the same fantastically thoughtless things so many times before you respond just by linking to all the other times they’ve been debunked.
Hard-hitting questions: What are your musical tastes? What bands are your favorites?
That’s a tough one. I just finished my new novel, LIVIA LONE, and wrote most of it listening to Ray LaMontagne’s Ouroboros. Oh man, I love that album.
Thanks to Barry for taking the time to answer a few questions.
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.
To learn more about J.J. Hensley’s newest thriller, click on the cover below:
Next: Gwen Florio interviews Dana Stabenow.
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