Inside the dark world of human trafficking in Barry Eisler’s ‘Livia Lone’
An interview with NYT bestselling novelist Barry Eisler.
Livia Lone is a disturbing thriller about the shadowy and all-too-real world of human trafficking and modern slavery. Its eponymous protagonist uses her hard-earned street smarts and jujitsu skills to track down rapists and crime lords. But the depth of investigative research Eisler did to inform the novel makes it as thought-provoking as it is un-put-downable. You won’t be able to tear yourself away as the story accelerates into a Tarantino-worthy climax and when you’re left gasping in the wake of its gut-wrenching vigilante justice, you’ll belatedly realize you learned a lot about a social travesty that gets far too little attention. Praised by the New York Times Book Review and highlighted on numerous “Best of 2016” lists, Livia Lone is a harrowing tale with a conscience.
Before setting pen to page, Eisler’s resume already included a black belt in judo and stints as a startup executive, technology lawyer, and covert CIA operative. His espionage thrillers have earned critical acclaim and a large following. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the story behind Livia Lone.
What sparked your interest in focusing this novel on the real-world problem of human trafficking and modern slavery? Where did Livia Lone come from?
Most of the time, I can’t remember exactly what sparked a story idea. Something just comes to me, and I start playing around with it, asking the usual who, what, where, when, and why questions.
But Livia is unusual in the way her origin stands out. I was driving down to Los Angeles with my wife Laura, who’s also my literary agent and collaborator, to meet some television people. I wasn’t happy about some of what they were doing and was ranting, “I mean, the next thing you know, they’re going to take Ben Trevan (my black-ops soldier series character) and turn him into a girl!”
We were quiet for a moment, and then I said, “Which, actually, could be kind of cool. I mean, not La Femme Nikita over-the-top stuff. But a woman who’s a top assassin…where would she come from? What kind of formative experiences would she have had? It’s unusual for a woman to be a hitman, or rather, a hit woman…did she have some kind of traumatic past? Did the government discover and train her?”
At which point, Laura said, “She’s not an assassin. She’s a cop.”
The idea immediately felt right, and for the rest of the drive, we brainstormed about where this woman was from, how she became a cop, why she was killing people if not as a contractor of some kind…all that kind of stuff. By the time we got to LA, I was so juiced about the character that I did something I’ve never done before or since: I set aside the manuscript I was already working on — a story about John Rain, my half-Japanese, half-American “natural causes” assassin — and immediately got to work writing Livia Lone.
You went to considerable effort researching the issues behind the story, what were the most counterintuitive things you discovered? What surprised you most?
In some ways, child abuse is itself counterintuitive because if sufficiently widespread it would be a form of species suicide. But then again, suicide itself seems counterintuitive. As, on a global scale, does inaction in the face of climate change. But still, as much as I already know of the subject from reading the novels of Andrew Vachss and from reading his prosecutor wife Alice Vachss’s awe-inspiring memoir Sex Crimes, I was still horrified to see just how bottomless is the human capacity for cruelty.
And speaking of Sex Crimes, another counterintuitive thing I discovered was how lax some prosecutors can be when dealing with sex offenders, including child rapists. It’s not a coincidence the subtitle of Sex Crimes is My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators. Many of those collaborators, who in another age might have been known as “familiars,” are part of what we comfort ourselves to think of as the “justice system.”
What are the most common public misunderstandings about the realities of human trafficking? What are the most effective levers in the fight against it? What does the world need to know?
Many people think human trafficking means people smuggling. It doesn’t. Generally speaking, smuggling is a crime against borders, not against people, because the people being smuggled have consented to being transported. Human trafficking simply means slavery, and if I had been in charge of choosing the legal nomenclature, I would have used that simpler, better understood term. But I think the drafters of the 2000 federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act were concerned that the popular understanding of slavery is that it ended with the Civil War. It didn’t. Estimates of the number of people enslaved worldwide run as high as 20 million, and the phenomenon exists everywhere — including, needless to say, within the United States.
There are a number of organizations doing good work against human trafficking. Simply raising awareness of the phenomenon is an important step, because if society is unaware of a problem, there will be no political pressure to do something about it. Before 2000, for example, there was no unified federal law against trafficking, while today, in conjunction with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, federal and state law enforcement agencies and various human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations work closely together to combat the evil of modern slavery.
The best child-protection initiative I’m aware of has been spearheaded by Andrew Vachss, the novelist I mention above, who has spent a lifetime protecting children (more of my thoughts on Vachss and his work here). It’s called The Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, and anyone who wants to help protect children from the sorts of horrors I depict in Livia Lone can do simply by financing the good work of the LDICP. I’ve done so myself and hope anyone reading this interview will do so, too. For two minutes work and whatever money you can spare, you can help accomplish a lot of good in the world.
Your thrillers often weave in contemporary social, political, and technological themes. Why don’t you write investigate nonfiction that analyses the issues explicitly instead of novels that wrestle with them implicitly? What does fiction bring to the table that other approaches miss?
I’ve always liked the expression, “Non-fiction is fact. Fiction is truth.” An oversimplification, of course, but a thought-provoking conversation starter.
Some issues are dealt with most powerfully by depicting them within a fictional universe. For example, I doubt George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been nearly as widely read or have had nearly the cultural or lexical impact if he’d written it as an essay rather than as a novel. Is it even conceivable that terms and concepts like the memory hole, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, the Two-Minutes Hate, and others from the novel would be as much a part of our framework for understanding reality today if Orwell had merely mused about such things in an essay?
Many of the political issues that concern me I address in posts at my blog, The Heart of the Matter. But when I want to extrapolate and speculate about where these issues are taking us, I find fiction is the route that offers maximal impact. And — depressingly, at times — a lot of what I’ve speculated about in fiction subsequently turns out to be true. I offered some more thoughts on this topic during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in February 2016 while promoting my novel The God’s Eye View.
Can you recommend any favorite novels that excel in entertaining even as they deliver a powerful message?
As I mention above: anything by Andrew Vachss. A few years back, I contributed a chapter for a book about how Vachss drops his fictional characters into real-world settings. Here’s a short excerpt:
“The only thing fictional about Andrew Vachss’s ultrahard-boiled novels is the dark, damaged characters populating them, and even these, it’s clear, are based on people Vachss has known. But the settings — typically the rancid underbelly of New York City — and the plots — typically involving sociopaths who prey on children, and their familiars in the civilian world — are all from the hard path walked by Vachss himself, a former juvenile prison director and lawyer specializing in advocacy for, and protection of, abused children.
“I first heard of Vachss in 1989, when, as a new covert recruit with the CIA, I was reading a lot about crime, violence, and the street. Vachss was mentioned in the bibliography of what remains one of the best self-defense books I’ve ever read, Cheap Shots, Ambushes, and Other Lessons, by Marc “Animal” MacYoung. MacYoung praised Vachss as one of the few novelists who really understood and was able to accurately portray the way the street works: the hits, the scams, the freaks, the whole ugly symbiosis between the criminal world and the civilian. Because MacYoung was clearly a man with his own intimate acquaintance with Vachss’s world, I decided to give Vachss a try…”
What did your creative process look like for Livia Lone? Did you outline the plot in advance? How much did you flesh out the characters, setting, and story before getting started on the rough draft? How did the book evolve along the way?
I tend not to outline too much. Usually I get an idea for a plot, or more often, as in the case of Livia, for a character, and then as I mention above I start asking the usual who, what, where, when, and why questions. I spend a lot of time figuring out who the character is — her formative experiences, her milieu, her hopes and fears, what she thinks she wants, what she really wants… things like that. As I develop the character (really characters, because I don’t think it would be productive or even really possible to flesh out a character in isolation), I’ll usually get an idea for what the screenwriters call “the inciting incident” — the thing that turns the universe of the story upside down, and creates a situation where the hero can only get to the end of the story by going through it. I write that scene, and doing so helps me understand the character better. After that, it’s iterative — writing helping me figure things out; figuring things out helping me write — until about two thirds of the way through, when there’s not much more figuring to do and it’s just straight writing. Which, I have to add, is just an amazing high. You work hard to get to that point where all the obstructions are gone and you can just race unimpeded to the end.
What did you learn writing Livia Lone? Do you have any specific personal or professional takeaways now that the book is out in the world?
One thing I learned I already knew: great stories are about great characters.
And related to that? If a character comes to you as vividly as Livia came to me, drop everything and write her. It’s a gift from the gods and anything else would be worse than ungrateful — it would be a waste, too.
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Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.