Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann (Soho Crime; 371 pages; $25.95).
Ellie McEnroe returns in the sequel to the critically acclaimed New York Times and USA Today best-seller, ROCK PAPER TIGER.
Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang’s mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has her in the sights of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving. But things really get complicated when Ellie’s search for an Army buddy’s missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China’s most beautiful and most surreal places.
Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Lisa, for letting me ask you these questions. I’ve always been a huge fan of yours from your Rock Paper Tiger days and Hour of the Rat is a clever, taut sequel. You have worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, as an issues researcher for a presidential campaign, and as a singer/songwriter/bassist in a rock band. What made you want to write novels?
Lisa Brackmann: I really wanted to write fiction before I did any of those other things you mention above. I’ve told the story before, but I tried to write my first novel at the age of five. It was to be an epic adventure about cats who went camping. Unfortunately I did not know how to spell “tent.” This is a true story. I wrote fiction on and off when I was young, and none of it was very good, but I did have an idea how to construct a narrative, and writing was something that I was very passionate about.
I studied writing briefly in college – one of my professors was Lydia Davis, who just won the Man Booker Prize and who had a tremendous influence on me. She helped teach me how to see the world with greater precision. But I got to a point where writing felt like I was constantly living my life as source material rather than actually living it, so I took a break and got into music. Later, I worked in the film industry, and like just about everyone in Los Angeles, I wrote a couple screenplays and a bunch of teleplays. I really enjoyed those projects, but they aren’t finished until someone decides to produce them – and given the weirdness of what I tended to write, the odds of that happening weren’t great.
I decided to write a novel for fun while I came up with that high concept screenplay idea that was going to make me rich. I never did come up with the high concept screenplay, but I found that I really enjoyed writing novels. Even if I didn’t sell them, they were complete in themselves. I found that really satisfying.
JB: Your first novel, Rock Paper Tiger, was selected by Amazon as one of its Top 100 books of 2010 and a Top 10 pick in the
mystery/thriller category. It was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel. What was that experience like?
LB: I’m friends with a bunch of writers, and in one of the groups I’m in, we call it “The Emo-Coaster.” When you’re a working author, you have tremendous highs, and crashing lows, regardless of how hard you try to stay balanced. It’s just very weird to have something you worked so hard on, that is such a personal expression, out there in the world being judged. This is especially true for debuts, I think – it’s all a new experience.
I really didn’t expect much to happen with Rock Paper Tiger – I was happy to be published, but I knew something about the reality of the lifecycle of most books. So when the book ended up doing pretty well, I was surprised. I remember at one point, feeling this weird rushing sensation – like, whoa, this is actually kind of taking off. Maybe I have a career doing this after all. At the same time that it was unexpected, I also felt like I’d really found my tribe, for the first time – that being a writer, being around other writers and around people who really care about books – this was where I belonged.
JB: Getaway, your second novel, is a standalone book. Was it good to get back to the characters and setting of your debut?
LB: I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel to Rock Paper Tiger, but realized that there were still more stories that I wanted to tell about Ellie McEnroe and about China. I never find writing novels to be easy, but writing Hour of the Rat was definitely less hard than others. A lot of the groundwork is already done; you know who these people are and what they tend to want. As for the setting, I’d felt that I’d barely scratched the surface of the richness and complexity that is today’s China. My formative experience in China was in 1979, and though I’d been back at least a half a dozen times before writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d kept going back after, and felt that I could bring a little more depth and insight into a new book than I’d been able to bring to the first. So it was great to return to China and to Ellie. I really had a lot of fun with it.
JB: What attracts you to writing existential thrillers?
LB: I like to think of myself as a realist. I’m very interested in big issues, but the reality is, unlike superhero or James Bond movies, the ability of one person to have a significant impact on global conspiracies, you know, the typical stuff of thrillers, is pretty limited. For most people, if you care about things, you have to learn how to deal with a world that doesn’t really care about you. You’re up against institutions and individuals that are extremely powerful, and all the weapons, both real and metaphoric, are on their side. Realistically, you don’t get to defeat those villains. Mostly, you just have to try and do your best and figure out how you’re going to live with that reality.
I’m interested in “ordinary” people as opposed to superheroes, who not only have to survive whatever perils they’ve been placed in, but who are trying to figure out how to live in the world.
JB: How would you describe Hour of the Rat?
LB: A romp through environmental apocalypse in China with accidental Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe.
JB: What provided the inspiration for Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe, the lead character in both Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat? Is she based on anyone in real life?
LB: The years before I started writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d been following the news about the Iraq War and the War on Terror pretty closely. I was fascinated by figures like Jessica Lynch, who’d joined the National Guard to get some extra money–there were no jobs at Wal-Mart, and she wanted to go to school and study to be a teacher—and then when she was captured by Iraqi forces, she became a symbol of the war in a way that she never wanted to be. On the flipside, you had Lynndie England, brought up in a trailer park in Appalachia in an abusive family and who was implicated in the torture at Abu Ghraib–one of the few individuals actually prosecuted for this, along with other low-level soldiers – none of the architects of the abuses were ever punished.
I wanted to deal with the Iraq War and the War on Terror in [Rock Paper Tiger], so I came up with the character of Ellie McEnroe, an accidental war vet who’d joined the National Guard to get health insurance and maybe some money for college, and ended up in a situation way above her pay grade. Unlike say, a Lynndie England, Ellie has a strong sense of right and wrong and also, of guilt.
I just sort of imagined her background and her experiences, and channeled who she would be, if that makes any sense.
JB: Ellie or “Yili” was born in the Year of the Rat. According to a website that explains the Chinese zodiac, “The Rat is quick-witted. Most rats get more accomplished in 24 hours than the rest of us do in as many days. They are confident and usually have good instincts. Stubborn as they are, they prefer to live by their own rules rather than those of others.” Is this why you chose that sign for Ellie? And why you chose Hour of the Rat as your title?
LB: I think, actually, that I chose her sign sort of backwards – I needed her to be a certain age in Rock Paper Tiger, and the birth-date I picked for her landed her in the year of the Rat. I thought that the Rat sounded like a good sign for Ellie – stubborn and quick-witted and living by her own rules – though she must have some other influences that undermine that whole “good instincts” part, because even when she knows that it’s a bad idea to do something, she tends to go ahead and do it anyway!
Since Rock Paper Tiger came out in the Year of the Tiger – which, by the way, was totally unplanned, it just happened that way – I thought maybe carrying over the Chinese astrology theme for the title would be cool. As Ellie explains in the book, Chinese astrology, like Western astrology, has rising signs, based on the time of day you’re born. Each “Hour” is actually two, and the Hour of the Rat is between 11 PM and 1 AM. I was actually born in the Hour of the Rat, and I don’t know, I just liked the way it sounded and the images that it conjured up.
JB: How different were earlier versions of Hour of the Rat compared to the final copy?
LB: Not very. One of my beta readers made a very smart observation about how a plot reveal I’d initially done early on sort of undermined the tension, so I moved that around. My amazing editor at Soho, Juliet Grames, suggested the addition of a prologue, to put people back into Ellie’s world, and had some notes about strengthening certain emotional arcs and story points. Overall, though, I was really lucky with this book – it basically came out in the first draft pretty much the way that it went to print. Would that they were all so easy!
JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story? If so, who?
LB: I like them all, of course, but I will admit to a particular fondness for Kang Li, the macho guy with a soft spot for cats.
JB: You traveled to China shortly after the Cultural Revolution. How did that visit affect you and also your writing?
LB: It completely changed the course of my life. I was twenty years old, and China at that time had been very closed off to the West and to Western cultural influences. When I showed up it was like being from the Starship Enterprise, and I’d beamed down to this strange planet. Americans, especially young Americans, were objects of intense curiosity and speculation—most of the Chinese we encountered hadn’t met many, or any Americans, so we took on this weird symbolic role, too. At the same time, there really weren’t any American pop culture influences in China at that time, other than bootlegged tapes of The Sound Of Music and TV broadcasts of a short-lived TV series starring Patrick Duffy called The Man From Atlantis (which was filmed in my hometown of San Diego, making it even weirder to see in Beijing, China!). American pop culture is so globally pervasive that being someplace where it was absent was oddly liberating.
I was in China for six months but the whole thing was so intense that it felt like Experience Concentrate.
It took me years to put it all in context and to really fully integrate the experience. I don’t think I really did until I started studying Mandarin years later and began to travel back to China.
In terms of the writing, if you compared examples of my prose before and after China, I don’t think you’d recognize them as being by the same person.
JB: World-wide environmental and political issues are of significant importance to you. How easy or how difficult is it to
incorporate the things that matter to you into your fiction?
LB: I always say that my stories are about character meets setting meets something that I’m passionate about – the kind of issues you mention above help provide the passion. The main thing I have to work on is incorporating those kinds of topics into the story in an organic way. I want to avoid info dumps and a lot of didactic speechifying. I’m writing suspense novels, not academic non-fiction or political polemics.
JB: What is different this time around compared to when you were writing Rock Paper Tiger?
LB: Pretty different on a lot of levels. When I wrote Rock Paper Tiger, I didn’t have an agent. I hadn’t sold a book. There were no particular expectations on me other than the ones I put on myself. Hour of the Rat is my third published novel, and there’s a whole process that goes along with that. I can’t say that I’m exactly used to it, but I’m somewhat familiar with it at least.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Hour of the Rat?
LB: Probably that I had to take certain aspects of Rock Paper Tiger that I had intended to be a little metaphoric – the open-endedness of the parts of the story to me was an expression of what the book was about. But in a sequel, you don’t have the same leeway to leave that many areas mysterious. I had to make decisions about how to ground these things in reality.
JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing the novel?
LB: Mostly that I could write a book on a schedule and with a deadline, and that as long as I planned my time wisely, I could do that.
JB: What is a typical day of writing like for Lisa Brackmann?
LB: I get up and do my email and reading. I edit any work I did the night before. When I’m on a roll or have a lot to do, I have a writing session after that. Then late afternoon, I go out and get some exercise – either I go to the gym, or I take a long walk to do errands. I think it’s super-important for writers not to neglect their bodies, which is easy to do when your job is so much in your head and there’s so much sitting involved! My latest favorite form of exercise is old-school weight training—dead-lifts and bench presses and the like. I’m loving it.
I usually read novels or books for research and/or watch some TV in the early evening. I save the tough creative work for late night. I’ve always been a night owl, and I got into the habit of writing late at night when I had a full-time day job. I just sort of trained myself into it: “Now is the time to be creative and work.” For whatever reason it’s when my focus is best and when I am most able to problem-solve. Maybe for me it’s easier to be creative when everyone around me is asleep.
Mixed in with all this is socializing with friends and family, which is another thing that I think is really essential. Most writers are introverts, and for a lot of us, at times we think of other people as intrusions and interruptions. While it’s true that we need to be able to shut the door and work, I think for me, it’s important to not isolate. Besides, people and their conflicts are at the center of what we write. If we just stay in our rooms all day and don’t talk to anyone, what are we going to write about?
Of course, then, I have to make sure that I’m not socializing as a form of procrastination, which has been known to happen.
Also, cats. Generally there are cats involved. I’m sitting next to one as I type this.
JB: Will you go on a book tour? If so, which cities will you visit?
LB: I’m mostly going to focus on California this time out, so I’m doing events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Orange County. I’ll also be at Bouchercon in Albany, NY, in September and am hoping to do a few gigs in New York City around that.
LB: I hope they get a little sense of what China is like, and maybe take away that the tough things we need to face in many cases are global in scale. What happens in China affects us in the US, and vice-versa. And that maybe there are certain aspects of our global economy that are pretty [screwed] up, that don’t benefit most people and that don’t benefit the planet.
Also, I hope that it’s a book people can escape into for a few hours, go somewhere different, and at the end that they enjoyed the ride.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new? I certainly look forward to the return of Lao Zhang.
LB: I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively called Dragon Day. The end of Hour of the Rat actually is setting up for a sequel – there are some plot threads running through the first two books that I feel I need to draw to a conclusion. So, yes, you will see Lao Zhang! I’m also working on a sequel to my second book, Getaway. It’s very different from that book, with a more satiric edge, but it also deals with issues that I’m very interested in exploring: the prison system in the US, particularly private prisons, and the relationship between that and the War on Drugs. Also, I’m having a lot of fun with the main character, Michelle, who I’m just going to say is not the woman she was at the beginning of Getaway, and the villain of the piece, who gets so much joy out of screwing with peoples’ lives—a man who truly loves his work.
JB: Thanks, Lisa, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!
LB: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!