Friday, June 18, 2010

Author Interview: Lisa Brackmann, Suspense Author

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing
Lisa Brackmann, author of Rock Paper Tiger. Read below for Lisa’s insights on writing, publishing and Rock Paper Tiger. Also, Lisa was kind enough to offer to answer any reader questions, so if you have anything to ask her, leave it in the comments and she'll stop by later to answer them!

Before we get started with the interview, here’s a bit about Rock Paper Tiger: 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.

Hi Lisa! Thanks so much for talking with me today. First, I’d like to talk a bit about your debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger. What was your inspiration for RPT?

I had two basic inspirations. The first was that I was interested in setting a novel in today’s China, which I think has been underutilized in Western fiction. If you do see China as a setting, it tends to be period pieces, and while I like to read about China in the past, it’s such a vital, fascinating place today. I’ve been traveling to China for about thirty years, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve experienced.

My second inspiration was the Iraq War and the “War on Terror,” specifically the prisoner abuse scandals and the policy of indefinite detention, both of which in my opinion violate some of our most fundamental Constitutional principles. To me, torture disguised as “enhanced interrogation” and imprisoning people without allowing them their day in court betray the best values of our country.

Ellie is pretty amazing. She’s one of the most honest characters I’ve read in recent fiction. Authors often pull character traits from themselves or someone they know. How much of yourself is in Ellie?

This is a hard question for me to answer, because I didn’t really think that much about her character per se; the voice just more or less popped into my head when I started writing. I knew that she had served in Iraq and had some traumatic experiences there, that she’d been injured, but that was all I knew. I quickly decided that she’d joined the National Guard because of an unstable family situation and economic insecurity, both of which told me something about her as well. I knew that she needed a specialty in the military, and I did give her a skill set that I have – a number of years ago I certified as an EMT, and though it’s been a long time and I don’t remember many details, I felt that I could handle that with more credibility than say, making her a Humvee mechanic. But when I did that I had no idea that her medic background would play so heavily into the story. Mostly I thought about what it would be like to be young, female and thrown into a war that you’d hadn’t planned on fighting.
There’s a lot of betrayal going on with Ellie, by her husband, by her country, and I think in part she’s a reflection of my own anger at the betrayal of our country by our leaders.

Rock Paper Tiger has such a wonderful and unique setting. Set part in China and part in wartime Iraq. What inspired you to write a novel in these settings?

See above.

What was your favorite part of writing RPT?

A lot of it was fun to write. I liked thinking of all those little details to make China come alive. I like the humor that’s threaded throughout the book (I totally crack myself up, to be honest!). As I remarked in another interview, writing the really intense, disturbing stuff is fun in a weird way, even if it does lead me to question my own mental health for thinking of it and writing about it.

Most challenging?

Truthfully, it was a hard book to write overall. Weaving the flashback Iraq plot with the “present day” plot was tough, because you have to maintain the tension in both plot threads. I also did a ton of research on the Iraq setting and the war, and after a while reading all of this really disturbing stuff was pretty depressing. Plus, I was concerned about presenting both major settings accurately, especially Iraq, given that I’ve never been there. Some of the most meaningful compliments I’ve gotten on this book came from vets who asked me if I’d been in the Army. That made me feel really good, because I wanted to do a credible job. I am also super-happy about the response I’ve gotten from China-based people – even though I have a lot of experience there and go on average once a year, I haven’t lived in China for a long time. It’s just very important to me to get the little things right.

Reading RPT, I often felt myself wanting a nice cold beer. Ellie’s favorite beer is Yanjing. What’s yours?:)

Well, I am a native San Diegan, and we have a micro-brewing culture down there that can compete with anyplace in the world – awesome handmade beer and ales. I’m a big fan of everything Stone Brewery does, for example. And Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Yum! When I’m in Beijing, I do drink quite a lot of Yanjing, and I really do like it.

Rock Paper Tiger was such a gripping, exciting novel. What can we expect from you in the future. Any projects underway?

Right now I’m working on another novel of “existential suspense” set in Mexico, that deals with the intersection of drug cartels, political power and another woman in over her head (although she’s a very different character than Ellie). I’m through a few drafts and into the heavy revisions right now. After that, I plan on returning to China, and I already have a pretty good start on a story that I’m really enthusiastic about.

Since there are probably some aspiring authors that will read this, can you tell us a bit about your road to publication? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I first learned that there were these things called “words” that you could put on paper to tell a story. It’s surprising in a way that it took me so long to seriously pursue publication, because writing is the thing that I have always done, that I’ve always been passionate about, and I think a part of me has always known that it’s the thing I’m meant to be doing. I just circled around it for a number of years! I’ve always written with seriousness, but RPT is the first novel that I set out to write with the intention of getting an agent and selling it.

Tell us about your journey to getting an agent.

It was actually a relatively short journey! Nathan Bransford was about the sixth agent I queried. I was already pretty discouraged about the book and ready to throw it in a metaphoric drawer – as mentioned, I’d set out to write something I could sell, and I still ended up with a pretty weird novel that I wasn’t at all sure was sellable. One of my writing group members (Purgatory’s own Redzilla) suggested I query Nathan: “He likes novels set in foreign countries, and he has a blog.” I figured I might as well give it a shot. I studied up on his blog and tried to get a sense of what he liked. I read some books by one of his clients. Like just about every writer out there, I’d had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent query, so one night after a really large glass of wine, I stayed up late and rewrote mine for the umpteenth time. Then I shrugged and hit “send,” not really expecting anything to come of it.
The next morning I had a request for the partial, and later that day, for the full.

And how about finding your publisher?

Before I get to that, I should tell you that I revised the MS for seven months with Nathan before going out on submission. It was actually pretty fun because Nathan is a really good reader/editor, and we worked well together. And I’m really glad that I did all that work on the front end, before going out on submission, because ultimately when Soho did offer on the book, I had very little to do in the way of editorial revisions. I’d much rather work that way than be under contract and under all that pressure to revise. I don’t have any illusions that it will be the same for every book that I write, but I am always going to strive for getting the book as absolutely good as I can get it before subbing.
RPT went out on submission during one of the most challenging periods in publishing since the Depression. My timing could not have worse. There were deals that might have happened in a better economic time that didn’t happen. Ultimately I really feel that it worked out for the best, because I don’t think RPT could have found a better home than Soho. They are a dream to work with – they have a creative vision, they really get behind their books; they support their authors – it’s been a blast.

What is the best part of the publishing process?

Boy, it’s all been so much better than I expected it would be. I’ve gotten to work with some great people at Soho. I ended up with an awesome-looking book – getting that cover felt like winning the lottery. I’ve traveled to bookstores for events and signings – bookstore people are wonderful. The response to the book has been really gratifying overall. The whole gig of being a professional author – I like it, and I love the community around it.

The worst?

There’s definitely increased pressure and the worry that I won’t be able to live up to my first book. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I worry that people will want a second book that’s like the first one. I worry about the quality of what I’m doing, mostly, and now people are paying attention to what I write. Before, I just wrote what I felt like and I could choose to share it or not. Now, I have people who expect things from me. It’s a little daunting!

Thanks Lisa! I’m looking forward to reading more exciting books from you in the future!