Novelist and Law School alum Eisler: Ask the right questions; don't tease the polygraph operator

If there is a secret to writing best-selling novels -- or to doing well in law school, or in life -- it is simply this: always know what questions to ask.

But if you're looking for self-discipline to accomplish a long-term goal, think of the question you risk facing in the future if you don't put in the work: What would have happened if I had?

"Fear and regret are great motivators," novelist Barry Eisler '86, Law '89, told an audience of law students, faculty (including mentor Walter LaFeber) and thriller fans in Myron Taylor Hall Aug. 28. "Don't put yourself in a position where you have to ask those questions."

Eisler, author of the best-selling assassin John Rain series and a former covert agent in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, made a case for curiosity, persistence, a healthy fear of failure -- and the notion that a law degree can lead to careers far beyond traditional law.

Eisler admitted that he went to law school after college partly as a way to avoid the work world, having no idea what he would do with the degree. With passions that included martial arts, international affairs and all things dark and secretive, he joined the CIA after law school; and found it to be -- well, "a big bureaucracy," he said. "Like the Post Office, but with spies."

Still, it was a valuable training ground for a future thriller writer. (Among its lessons: Useful tips for handling guns and explosives; standard protocol for toppling rogue regimes; and a new appreciation for the sensibilities of the polygraph operators -- "the most humorless creatures on Earth," he said.)

After three years, Eisler moved on to jobs as a technology lawyer in Silicon Valley and Tokyo, all the while amassing a personal library of books with titles like "The 21 Tips of Silent Killing."

"There were certain things I was always passionate about," he said. "If it didn't interest me, I just couldn't give it my attention -- but by indulging my passions, I was building up a kind of kindling for my imagination."

It was in Tokyo that he had the idea that began his first novel: a single image, of a man being followed down the street by two assassins.

He began writing whenever he could. All along the way, "I doubted myself ... [but] at some point I realized, if I never finished the novel I would be ashamed," he said. "What frightened me was not that I might not be published; it was that I might not be published, and it would be my fault."

Eight years later, his first novel of a future series featuring the half-Japanese, half-Caucasian assassin John Rain was a hit -- first in Japan; then in the West.

In retrospect, he said, his time as a lawyer was ideal practice for a career as a storyteller.

"A contract is a story of a relationship that hasn't happened yet," he said. "A legal brief is also a story. Litigation is a story of a relationship that has already happened and that ended badly."

Advice for aspiring novelists? Write the book. "If you don't write the book, I can promise you, you won't get published," he said.

And for life in general?

"If there's something that really interests you, the thing you want to do every day whether you get paid for it or not, do it," he said. "It will make your life worthwhile. And it will lead to bigger things."

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Joe Schwartz