CIA spy now a novelist
Barry Eisler is a former technology attorney who parlayed his three years as a covert CIA operative into novels filled with action.

MENLO PARK, Calif. - Barry Eisler had pedaled his bicycle to the crowded Cafe Borrone here, arriving shortly before the lunchtime rush. The chic outdoor cafe is one of several public places where he likes to sit undisturbed and anonymous, pecking away on his laptop, fleshing out another best-selling thriller.

"Psychologically, it helps me to be someplace where nobody knows where to find me," he said. "I also like libraries and coffee shops. They're quiet, solitary, and nobody knows what I'm doing."

On this day, Eisler was dressed in shorts, loose-fitting shirt, tennis shoes, backpack. He has a habit of pushing his thick brown hair off his forehead.

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Eisler is a novelist who's licensed to thrill. A certain degree of stealth is part of his persona ("Sorry to be so paranoid") and a theme that runs through his six-book series featuring assassin-for-hire John Rain.

It's also in his more recent second series, starring black-ops military assassin Ben Treven. "Inside Out" is the second title in that series (the first book was "Fault Line").

Eisler, 46, is a former technology attorney who parlayed his three years as a covert CIA operative into novels filled with action, intrigue, world travel and politics. Also front and center is his expertise in martial arts, firearms and electronics.

We sat at a quiet table in a far corner of the Cafe Borrone patio.

Just what was his job in the CIA?

"I never saw an assassination or a coup, so I wouldn't describe myself as having been there and done that," he said, hedging a little. "I took training and served domestically, never at a post overseas.

"I came away (from the CIA) with a healthy respect for the way operators look at the world, the way living that life affects a person's outlook and behavior. All these things are reflected in my books."

The CIA weaves in and out of his story lines, but not in the most positive ways.

"You can't spend three years in a government institution without gaining insight into just how inept the bureaucracy can be, despite the presence of some outstanding individuals," he said. "The CIA, the post office, the DMV - they're all subject to the same laws of bureaucratic inertia. I do draw on that, as well as bureaucratic infighting, siloing - where the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing - and professional jealousy among the intelligence organizations."

Is it ironic that average Americans have a different perspective?

"They think of the CIA as something they've seen on '24' or in the Jason Bourne movies - as a ruthlessly competent organization that's safeguarding their freedoms and their lives.

"I don't mean to be too hard on the CIA, but it's not alone as a brand that's become divorced from reality. America probably would be safer if it had never existed."

"Inside Out" is loosely based on true events. In it, a rogue agent is blackmailing the federal government with stolen videotapes of White House-sanctioned CIA torture sessions. His price: $100 million in uncut diamonds. Ben Treven's mission: Find the agent and recover the tapes. The twist: Other groups are also interested in the tapes.

Because authenticity of place (as well as spycraft) is key to Eisler's novels, his research takes him to countries around the world. For "Inside Out," he traveled to the Philippines and Costa Rica.

His writing process is arduous and all-consuming, especially toward the close of a project.

"The outside world becomes almost an impediment to the story," he said. "As I finish a book, I get increasingly not so much fun to be around."

Typically, Eisler will start a book with an idea or concept, and then "take a lot of long walks and ask myself, 'Who, what, where, when, why and how?' I tease the concept into the skeleton of a story, then I start taking notes. Call it an outline, but it's really more of a proposal. Research is involved: 'Will this location work? Will that idea work?'"

After writing the first several chapters, "I'll have a much clearer idea of what additional plotting and on-site and other research I'll need to do. I'll go back and forth between writing and research."

But that's an oversimplification."

For the third book in the new series, due next summer ("I'll keep the title to myself for now," he said), Eisler figures on Tokyo for the opening sequences.

"But I'm thinking Moscow is the right place for the initial hit that's going to take place. So I'll go to Moscow and map out that sequence the way I did with the Costa Rican sequence in 'Inside Out.' I spent two years in Tokyo and know it pretty well, so I may not have to go there."

The 2011 book involves a coup that's taking shape in the United States.

"Someone is trying to stop it and needs a team of people who can work completely off the books in completely deniable fashion."

And, yes, for fans who are wondering: John Rain and Ben Treven will work together, alongside two other Eisler characters who may come as a surprise.

A few days before Eisler and I met, I phoned his wife of 21 years and asked what it's like to share life with her intense, acutely intellectual husband. Laura Rennert is a literary agent and children's book author.

"An adventure, always," she said. "There were times I felt I was living with John Rain or, more recently, Ben Treven. Barry doesn't do the things they do, but they're very much present in conversation."

I couldn't resist asking about the household pet, a barky yet affectionate Chihuahua. Rennert laughed.

"In a moment of weakness, Barry agreed that our daughter could have a dog. It's very funny to see this guy who has all this (arms and martial arts) training, and who writes violent thrillers, working in his office with a Chihuahua occasionally lying on his lap."

Eisler's comment was brief: "My wife and daughter take care of the Chihuahua."

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