A Conversation with Lisa Brackmann

Lisa Brackmann is the author of the novels Rock Paper Tiger, Getaway, and, most recently, Hour of the Rat, a sequel to Rock Paper Tiger. She writes great, funny, sharp books about complicated lady characters thwarting dastardly plots, eluding nefarious villains, and generally getting themselves into--and out of--trouble. I've been a huge fan of her writing since I first read Rock Paper Tiger and fell in love with its glorious mess of a heroine, Iraq vet Ellie McEnroe. Lisa took some time to chat with me about publishing, politics, and writing characters who take you places you don't always want to go.

You've said that it can be extremely difficult for you to "channel" Ellie--she's a character who often goes to difficult and dark places, both literally and emotionally. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to spend so much time with such a complex and sometimes hard-to-write character?

Mostly it’s fun. Ellie’s observations often have an edge of humor, and it’s fun capturing her voice—I always have to think about how Ellie would say things, because she’s not going to use a lot of fancy language to describe something, but her observations are still sharp and on target. I really enjoy depicting China through her eyes. But Ellie is a younger person than I am, and the intensity of her feelings is higher, and trying to put myself in that mindset all the time can be draining.

Hour of the Rat was pretty much just a lot of fun to write, coming as it did a couple of years after Rock Paper Tiger. I’d had some time to think about Ellie and where she was at the end of that book and how her experiences might have changed her and where she should go next.

Jumping right back into her head for the book I’m working on now was more of a struggle. I was going through a lot of my own transitions and I wanted to feel positive and in control, and instead I’m channeling the 27-year old who has some PTSD and a Percocet problem. It’s been especially challenging because I need to wrap up (at least provisionally) some of the threads that have run through the first two books, and I really wrestled with a lot of those decisions. At times it’s felt like I had to be in a negative place myself to know where I needed to go for the book. I don’t necessarily recommend this kind of Method plotting.

With each of your books, you pull off the near-impossible feat of working politics seamlessly into smart and well-plotted thrillers. Why do you think it's important to deal with larger social issues in your fiction? What role--if any--do you think fiction can play in pushing for social change?

I think it’s important for a number of reasons. On a personal level, I have always wanted to understand how things work, how the world is run, so writing books that deal with political issues is a way for me to process these problems and situations and make some sense of them for myself.

When you study and think about these kinds of issues a lot, there’s a point you come to when the understanding can lead to thinking about better ways of doing things, and then, action. But you have to understand the issue first.

That’s where I think fiction can be important. If you embed political issues deeply enough into the narrative so you’re not doing a didactic info-dump, then your characters and story have to carry those ideas. And that can be a way of communicating ideas that isn’t as heavy-handed or maybe off-putting to some readers, because you’re asking them to relate to characters and story more than hot button topics that might have a lot of ideological baggage.

I guess I actually do believe in memes, not just in the Grouchy Cat sense, but as units of ideas and symbols that spread from person to person and through cultures and that eventually transform them. So how are memes transmitted? And you have to conclude that the arts are some of the most effective transmitters we have.

You travel regularly in China--did you always know you'd set a book there? How have your experiences traveling informed your work?

The first time I went to China was in 1979. I was young, and not all that many Americans had been to China in my lifetime. I was there for six months, and sometimes I think of it in dog years, because the experience had an outsized impact on my life. When I came back to the U.S. everybody said I should write about it because at the time a young American who’d lived in China was pretty unusual.

But I really couldn’t. I was too young and too green a writer. I just wasn’t able to digest it all enough to make the kind of sense that I could write about.

When I started going back to China regularly a couple decades later I thought it was to work on speaking Mandarin, which I’d just started studying again. What I realized I was really doing was excavating my own past. It was an answer to the David Byrne lyric in “Once In A Lifetime”—“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” And when I went back to China, I thought, “Oh. This explains a lot.”

It wasn’t until about 2006 or 2007 that it occurred to me I could write fiction set in contemporary China, and that this might interest people.

I’d say that my experiences traveling in China permeate the work—the Ellie books are so much about setting and very specific details of places.

One of my motivations for writing the books is that I want to write about China in a way that helps people visualize it and understand that China is a place like any other place. Yeah, it’s interesting, yeah, it’s weird and surreal at times, but honestly, you can say that about all kinds of places. I mean, I’m a native Californian. I was really surprised when I left the state and found that even a lot of my fellow Americans thought California was really exotic. And, okay, California is objectively pretty damned interesting, but for me it’s where I was born and where I grew up and it’s what seemed normal to me. So I try to approach depicting my settings the same way: Oh yeah, really interesting. Oh yeah, really normal.

We have talked a lot about the joys and perils of making a living as a full time freelancer/writer. What are your favorite parts of being a career writer? What do you find most challenging?

As a writer, I consider that my job is to learn stuff, think about things and write about it all. It’s telling a story in an interesting and human way. It’s playing with language to get the effects that you want. All of this is exercise for nearly every part of your brain, and anything that’s so challenging is also really engaging. And finishing a book, it feels like a real and substantial accomplishment. You don’t get that level of challenge and engagement and satisfaction with most things you do in this world, at least, I don’t. So that’s definitely one of the best parts.

Another is meeting other writers, and publishing professionals, and book store owners and librarians, and of course, readers. When I was first published and started having these kinds of interactions, it felt like I’d finally found my tribe.

Going to China as a legitimate tax write-off, hard to beat!

Most challenging?

Money. Most of the downsides are around money.

There are very few novelists these days who make a living from their books. You’re either working other jobs or you have a supportive mate or an independent income. Yet you’re working very hard at a profession that requires a lot of skill and commitment and time.

Publishing has undergone all kinds of seismic shifts, as has the economy in general, and advances not only haven’t kept up with the cost of living, we’re seeing the same kind of disparity that you see in society at large, where there’s a very few authors making very big advances--and getting the big marketing and promotion budgets behind their books—with the great majority on the other end earning zero to small advances. You see the shrinking midlist and even some people who got the big advances who don’t get the marketing because the house has moved on to other priorities. Authors are responsible for more and more of their own promotion and are expected to do a lot of work that didn’t used to be part of the job description. I think most of us accept that this is the modern market and are willing to pull our weight. But these are things that take time and for which we are in general not directly compensated. If you’re working other jobs or if you have family responsibilities, the question becomes when, exactly, are you supposed to do all these things and still be writing books?

And sleep. I’m really fond of sleeping.

I’m very fortunate in that my publisher and my agency are extremely responsible partners when it comes to me getting paid (and promptly!), but I hear plenty of stories, and it amazes me how long it can take with some companies for contracts to be negotiated and checks to be cut. And there are structural issues in the industry that work against authors and for which I don’t think there’s much justification. Why are royalties only paid twice a year? Surely we could switch to quarterly at least. And the consensus is that authors are greatly undercompensated when it comes to e-book royalties. These aren’t global issues where there’s still a lot of flux and uncertainty; these are concrete, fixable problems.

I know we’re supposed to be writing books because we love to write or we have to write and to some extent this is true, but I feel like the demands on writers and other creative professionals can be pretty heavy. Trying to figure out how to do good work, to do the other stuff that comes with being a published author (the business and promotion and appearances), publish regularly and support myself has been a challenge. And in our society, there’s this attitude of, “You’re lucky to be published,” which I know is true, and “I want to read your book but I don’t want to pay much if anything for it,” and along with that, a sort of notion that maybe writers don’t deserve to be paid all that much.

And I get that a lot of people are struggling--it’s one of the reasons I am so happy that my books are in libraries, because I want people to be able to read them, and books, especially hardbacks, are simply out of a lot of folks’ budgets.

But there comes a point, namely, “I’m exhausted and stressed out all the time, and I think I’m getting too old for this,” where it’s hard to do good work. Because for all that I’ve tried to treat writing books like I’d treat any other job, it’s still a creative process, and sometimes you can’t just be creative on demand. In the rush for authors to act more like businesspeople and manage their careers and promote their work, I feel like we’ve almost lost sight of that.

What's next for Ellie? And Getaway's Michelle?

As mentioned, there are some unresolved issues that Ellie has to deal with. I don’t want to reveal too much, because if you haven’t read the books, I don’t want to post spoilers. For those who have read the books, I promise that some of your longer-running questions will be answered!

In the new book (I’m calling it “Dragon Day” for now), Ellie finds herself as usual in a situation that’s way above her pay grade. This time she’s reluctantly sucked into the orbits of some very rich and very powerful people, the Fu Er Dai and the Hong Er Dai in China, meaning “Second Generation Rich” and “Second Generation Red,” and some of these folks are extremely corrupt and not terribly nice. Ellie has to decide how many compromises she’s willing to make to protect her position in China, but in a lot of ways, she’s in another “damned if you do,” and “damned if you don’t” situation. There are a couple of murders that Ellie has to solve, so it’s a more classic crime novel in that sense, but a crime novel with Chinese characteristics, as it were.

As for Michelle, when we meet her again, she’s a very different person than the woman who drank all those margaritas on a Puerto Vallarta beach. She’s managed to build a new life for herself when an old nemesis re-enters the picture and threatens everything she cares about, and once again she finds herself playing a role in a very dangerous game. The difference is that this time, she knows what she’s getting into, and she’s a lot better prepared to do what she needs to do to survive. As in Getaway, the drug trade is involved, but also the prison-industrial complex and the relationship between the two. You know, the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world, and the reasons for this are both complicated and appalling. So I’m really excited to be digging into these issues and serving them up with a lot of danger, a few chase scenes and a good dose of mayhem.