Iraq vet Ellie McEnroe is down and out in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers. When a chance encounter with a Uighur fugitive drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide who to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.
Lisa, welcome to Over Coffee.
You’re a Californian by birth and live in Venice Beach area. You’ve had quite a few gigs in your life—singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band, written screenplays :-), worked in a movie studio for quite a few years. I'd say you were pretty heavily involved in the art of entertaining people. How did that come about?
I’d always been passionate about creative writing, and after my freshman year of college, decided that I wanted to pursue a career in film and television. I felt that film and TV were the art forms that could reach the most people, and I’ve always had a bit of a didactic streak – to me, art is about entertainment, but it’s also about enlightenment.
I noticed a thread of that in your book. How in the world did you go from being passionate about writing to starting a rock band?
During my time in China (more about that below) I got the idea that I wanted to play rock music. When I came home to San Diego, I taught myself the bass and formed a band that helped pay for my textbooks in college. After I got done with school, I moved up to Los Angeles to pursue both of these interests. I had a band that lasted more than a decade. We played around town, got some nice reviews here and there, but never could quite crack that next level of success.
You certainly have drive and ambition so why do you think it never reached “that next level of success”?
I think in part because I always had an ambivalent relationship to performing, and in part because my attention was always divided – I was writing screenplays and teleplays at the time as well. I never had much success with those either, mainly because the stuff I wrote tended to be a little too out there to have much of a chance at being produced.
And oh yeah, there was this need for a day job.
Yeah, eating and having a roof over your head is always nice. Hence, going to work for a studio? What exactly does an executive at a major motion picture studio do?
After kicking around doing various things I ended up at the film studio in a pretty low level job, doing an esoteric form of legal research. I worked my way up to an executive director level, working in a more creative capacity, primarily for film/TV development and production. I like to say that I was a mid-level studio bureaucrat, but for book jacket purposes, “executive” is more or less accurate.
What does Lisa Brackmann like to do for fun?
I enjoy getting together with friends – I have good buddies who come over and we taste wine and watch DVDs – we went through the entire run of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” so we still call these evenings “Buffy Nights.” I like going to art events, to interesting cultural activities. I love to travel – I pretty much like seeing what’s out there in the world. I’m drawn to intense experiences, though more as an observer than a participant (I probably should have gone into journalism). Of course I love reading, and I really do like long walks on the beach. But not piña coladas.
You say, “Accidentally went to China in 1979. Never quite left.” How did you accidentally go to China?
I had a high school friend whose parents were in the first group of Americans to teach English in China since before the revolution. My friend asked me if I wanted to go with him to visit his parents. This seemed like a good idea at the time. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but ended up staying six months.
I would imagine money would run out after being in China six months. How did you support yourself while there?
I taught a quarter of conversational English to college students older than I was, who had had their educations interrupted by stints out in the countryside due to the Cultural Revolution. We also traveled around the country for a month, mostly on our own, which at that time was pretty hard to do. Generally you traveled in tour groups with minders. We always tried to push that particular envelope, to see the “real” China rather than what the government wanted us to see.
What changes, if any, came from that experience?
I think when you have a very intense experience at a young age; it has a profound impact on your personality and actually shapes who you become as an adult. China at that time was particularly intense. We were there shortly after the Cultural Revolution, so it was the scene people sometimes still picture when they think about China – everyone in green and blue Mao suits, lives rigidly monitored and controlled. I went there with little knowledge and few preconceived notions about what China would be like, so I didn’t really experience culture shock all that much when I was there. I did experience it when I went home, in part because it changed me so much, but the environment I returned to had not changed. It was really jarring, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it completely altered the course of my life.
I look at things I wrote before and after China and it’s like they were written by different people. I think this is reflected somewhat in my novels, which tend to feature main characters who almost by accident find themselves in situations for which they were unprepared and which completely change their lives.
China is an unusual setting for novels today. What fascinates you about China?
It’s really hard not to descend into cliché when talking about China in general terms, which is probably why I prefer illustration by anecdote or in fiction. But the contrasts are just so fascinating – the turbo-charged pace of modernization on the one hand and thousand year old traditions on the other—temples across the street from Starbucks.
What keeps drawing you back?
On a personal level, I feel as though in a way I return to China to examine my own life – returning to the scene of the crime as it were, in an attempt to understand how China affected me. I feel very comfortable there, so it’s like being in my second home. I have a great network of friends whose company I really enjoy.
I also just really dig speaking Mandarin. It makes me happy.
I thought it interesting the way you describe modern apartment buildings but parts of it are either not fixed or half built. This description is set in Beijing, which is suppose to be a *modern* city. Do you see a lot of this? Or is it only in certain parts of town? Or was it made up?
Beijing is quite modern overall, and things like the subway system are truly impressive (would that we had its equal here in Los Angeles!). But there is a lot of substandard construction, because a fact of life in China is that regulations on the books are frequently not enforced in reality.
Also, I find there’s a sort of weak sense of public, common spaces – why put any effort into an area that isn’t “yours,” where you don’t actually live? You also have to factor in the amount of over-building that’s gone on [in China]. This is due in part to the tremendous corruption and collusion between local governments and developers, and in part due to government policy – China depends on an 8 to 9% annual growth rate to keep unemployment at a level that prevents widespread unrest, and with export demand down, that means infrastructure projects that aren’t necessarily well-thought out or needed.
I have to ask, are there online games in China like you portray in the book?
I based the game in the book, “The Sword of Ill Repute,” on World of Warcraft, which is incredibly popular in China. Like a lot of other popular entertainment, the government isn’t quite sure what to do about it or how to regulate it. Gaming is a big part of youth culture; a form of escapism and a means of individual expression that I think is probably more vital there than it is here in the US.
Gaming is big with the youth of most countries; what makes it different in China?
There actually have been protests within online games, like the one portrayed in the book. And recently, a gamer made a funny and pointed satire about the government’s attempt to censor World of Warcraft that was done entirely with animations from the game. I wish my Chinese was better, but I can still appreciate the effort that went into it and the critique it represents.
You mentioned in an interview one of the inspirations for the book was the war in Iraq and something you heard an Iraq veteran say? Care to tell us about that?
I was fascinated/appalled by the Abu Ghraib scandal, which to me was a complete betrayal of our Constitution and the most fundamental principles of our government. The only people convicted for the prisoner abuses were low-ranking soldiers, and given that they were following directives from the highest levels of government, I think this is a real miscarriage of justice. One of these soldiers, a sergeant, once said in an interview, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I’m a good Christian. I teach Sunday School. But a part of me likes making grown men piss themselves in fear.” I thought there was something really profound and interesting about this seeming contradiction.
And thus we have Trey Cooper, yes?
I don’t see Trey as a bad person. He doesn’t have a sadistic streak like the sergeant mentioned above. He really wants to do the right thing, to be a good man. But he’s not a terribly strong person when it comes to resisting authority – and when it comes right down to it, most people aren’t.
No, they aren’t and especially in war situations. It's all considered justifiable.
Most people do what they are told to do; they try to find some way of rationalizing behavior that is contrary to their own best natures.
That’s very true and yet it happens time and time again.
Your main character, Ellie, tells the story in first person which I find puts the reader right there with her. What do you like about Ellie?
Ellie isn’t the toughest person or the smartest person or the bravest person, but she has a fundamental sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and in spite of her own flaws and fears, she keeps going. She’s in a situation that’s way over her head, at the mercy of forces that are far more powerful than she could hope to defeat, but she doesn’t quit, and ultimately she holds true to her own hard-fought and won values.
Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
Not really. I mean, it’s weird to say this, but a lot of times the most disturbing scenes are the ones that are kind of the most fun to write! Except that they’re also disturbing to me as a writer. Like, “eyewww, where did that come from?” But I also enjoyed writing the humor that’s threaded throughout the book. It may not sound like it from all the stuff I’ve said above, but I think Rock Paper Tiger is a pretty funny book in a lot of places.
Yes, I enjoyed the humor—its dry but there. Many times just her reaction to things made me laugh.
I noticed in the acknowledgements you mention a couple of groups. As a writer, what benefit are groups such as the two you mention?
It really varies. At the most basic level, writers support other writers – we’re the only ones who really understand what we go through, and it’s nice having a forum and a sympathetic audience where you can share and vent and just sort of socialize. It’s a cliché to say it but it’s true – writing is a solitary activity, and having an online home where you can go take a break and hang out is really nice. I also count on my writer friends to give me beta reads and to fill in my own gaps about how the industry works – I can’t begin to tell you how much amazing information I got from our own Judi Fennell, who is a consummate professional.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve learn much from her as well in so far as applying marketing/promotion principles to writing and building a readership—not to mention her ability to get her name out there.
What’s next for Lisa Brackmann?
I’m working on a book that’s set in Mexico – about the intersection of drug cartels, political power and another woman who’s in over her head. After that, I plan on returning to China. I have a good start on a story that I’m excited about. Besides, my Mandarin is really rusty – I need to get back!
I'm looking forward to reading it, Lisa. Thank you for being with us today and I know right now you're heavily involved in promoting your book and building a readership, but I do appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions.
Folks, be sure to check out ROCK PAPER TIGER. If you like thrillers and entertainment that enlightens, you thoroughly enjoy the story!