AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Lisa Brackmann – Part I

WU peeps, today I have the pleasure of interviewing debut author Lisa Brackmann , who I met and liked before I figured out she was famous. The reason for her reputation? She’d queried all of six agents before being plucked from Nathan Bransford’s slushpile. I know, huh? Impressive. Some people might hate her on principle. But before you go that route, have a look at her query letter and see for yourself why it worked.

After signing with Nathan and going through seven months of intensive revisions, Lisa sold her novel, Rock Paper Tiger, to Soho Press.  Fast forward to today.

She’s been blurbed by Nicole Mones and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The New York Times reviewed Rock Paper Tiger — cough, once, cough — and observed it featured a “perfect spunky heroine” and that this “first time novel got off to a fast start and never let up.”

As of yesterday, Rock Paper Tiger occupies the #72 position in Amazon’s Best of 2010 and is solidly in their Top 10 Mystery and Thriller list.

Jan: Lisa, welcome to Writer Unboxed. Want to begin by summarizing the premise of your book?

Lisa: In “Rock Paper Tiger,” Ellie Cooper, a young American and accidental Iraq War vet, is adrift in Beijing, estranged from her husband and hanging out on the fringes of the contemporary Chinese art scene. When Ellie meets a Uighur dissident that her sort-of boyfriend, the artist Lao Zhang, has crashing at his place, Ellie finds herself entangled in a conspiracy involving various Chinese and American interests—in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game. As she tries to elude her pursuers, she’s haunted by memories of Iraq. Is what she did and saw there the cause of the mess she’s in now?          

You’ve told the story elsewhere about why you chose to write Rock Paper Tiger but I think it bears repeating.

I had a few motivations. The first was that I felt contemporary China was underrepresented as a setting in Western fiction. Most of the time, Western writers deal with China’s past — you know, with foot-binding and tragedy. Today’s China is such an endlessly fascinating place, and I wanted to use the small insight and experience I have to share something of that fascination.

Second, I was outraged by the Iraq War, by the fact that it was waged at all, and how certain aspects of it were conducted. I’m not a flag-waver but to me, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are something that we Americans should be proud of and defend, and the way that the “War on Terror” undermined these fundamental American principles appalled me. Obviously the US has never been a perfect nation; there have been all sorts of abuses and wars that were imperial in nature. But watching our decline from Republic to Empire accelerate over the last decade was particularly painful, and I felt obligated to try and say something about it.

A particular inspiration, if you can call it that, was a remark made by one of the American soldiers implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal. He supposedly said, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’” I was both fascinated and appalled by this contradiction, which is a thread running through the entirety of America’s waging of the war in Iraq, in my opinion.

And, I wanted to write an entertaining book that was fun to read, whether you agree with me about any of the above stuff or not!

What is it about China that resonates for you so?

A part of it is because I spent time there at a very crucial point of my life. I was young; it was a formative experience. So going to China always feels on some level like an excavation of my own past, a partial explanation of who I am now. Also, It’s a cliché to say this, but when you get 5000 years of history and culture bumping up against turbo-charged development and modernization, you get some really interesting juxtapositions!

Finally, I really enjoy my interactions with Chinese people, and for whatever reason, speaking Mandarin makes my brain happy.

I find your writing to be cinematic, and you’re an experienced script-writer with connections to Hollywood. Why did you write RPT as a novel and not a movie script? How did changing formats require you to envision your story differently?

The problem with writing screenplays is that the odds of selling them are extremely remote—I mean, if you think it’s hard to sell a novel, try selling a screenplay, especially one that is a little edgy or different. Filmmaking is an expensive proposition, and it tends to discourage a lot of creative risk-taking. Even if you manage to sell one, the majority of projects that get bought never get made. A novel stands on its own, whether it sells or not.

Quite honestly, I’m not crazy about writing feature screenplays anyway. Trying to shoehorn things into a ninety-minute, three act structure – I wanted to write something that was outside those lines.

So I never saw ROCK PAPER TIGER as a screenplay. It was always a novel in my head. I wanted to play with voice, with descriptions, with the interior life of the main character. I also really enjoy playing with rhythm in my prose.

A number of people have commented on the book’s cinematic nature—I very much picture each moment and look for as few words as possible to describe what’s essential to that moment—and I do think in the right hands it would make a good film. But someone else can write the screenplay as far as I’m concerned!

I love a good title, and I think yours is perfect for the book. How did it come into being?

Well, my long-time blog is called “The Paper Tiger,” which is one of those old Maoist slogans (“American Imperialism is a ‘Paper Tiger’”). One of my critique partners suggested I play off that. And for some reason, the “Rock Paper Scissors” game came to mind, and you know, I just put the two notions together.

You’re convinced there’s a relationship between exercise and creative output in your own artistic life. Can you explain?

When I have some kind of problem to solve, I rarely am able to solve it sitting on my butt with a laptop on my lap. Generally solutions come to me when I’m doing something else, things that require some physical effort but leave my mind free to wander. Exercise is great for that. I love to take really long walks when I have something particularly difficult to puzzle out.

The other thing that works really well for me is long showers, but we are having a drought here.

You are a research wonk, and the feedback from gamers and Chinese newspaper book reviews say you got the relevant details right about their respective cultures. What about American servicemen and women?

The verisimilitude of the Iraq sequences really worried me. I’ve had a few people ask me if I’d been to Iraq or if I am a vet, including a former Army medic who thought that I must have been in the service, and that makes me really happy. I did a ton of research, particularly because when I started, I didn’t even really know what I needed to know. Most of it is not in the book, but I hope the depth is still there.

I am not anti-soldier, far from it—the misuse of our servicemen and women and the waste of their many sacrifices I think is an outrage. It was really important to me that I portray that world credibly.

I’ve been looking at your book again, and at the level of the sentence, you employ one of Donald Maass’ favourite techniques: microtension. How or where did you learn to do it so well? Any tips for those of us who struggle?

Er, what’s microtension? I can take a wild guess?

I think that goes back to what I said above, about rhythm, about making the prose tight and about pulling the line that extends through each scene as tight as possible. How do I do it? I have a very good agent who keeps me on track and lets me know when the writing gets flabby, as well as some awesome beta readers. I listen to the rhythms of the sentences in my head, and look at the patterns they make on the page. Mostly, I revise, revise, and revise again.

Spoilerish question: The “bitch” motif. If I’d read your book with the heart of a sports nut, I would have been on my feet punching the air with that last “bitch” delivery. At an intellectual level I don’t get why it worked for me; just that it did. Did you write yourself into that motif? Was it something that came through revision and collaboration? What purpose did you intend it to serve?

I actually had to go back and search the MS to remember what you were talking about – not sure what that says about any intent on my part. The only part of it I was really conscious of is that whole put-down women often get when they try and assert themselves – “Why are you such a bitch?” I guess I’ve heard it more than a few times, and it stuck. The final usage, I didn’t intend it that way though. I just thought it was funny!

So, now that we’ve established your process seems to be intuitive writing, collaboration, and tons of revision, let’s move on to goals.
Beyond supporting yourself financially, what are yours? I ask because more than any author I personally know, you seem to have a mission to make people wake up and act upon pressing social issues. I see this in the political articles you link to on Facebook and Twitter. Can you speak to how your larger politics are integrated with your writing?
I try not to be didactic, and I don’t know that anything I write is explicitly a call to some kind of political action. For me it’s more my process of trying to make sense of the larger world—what do these facts, these events, these circumstances, what do they mean? What do they all add up to? What’s the larger picture that they make? I try to share the puzzle pieces because I feel like if nothing else, I can be a conduit to increase peoples’ awareness of the bigger picture. But mainly I’m just trying to figure it all out myself. 

I do have a political side and have dabbled in politics, and I do believe that we as human beings have the capacity to improve our lives, to solve some of the problems that we have created, and to come together somehow to create more meaningful and more just societies.

I think though that the first step has to be identifying what is significant, putting the pieces together, saying to others, “Do you know about this? What do you think?” You know, let’s see how many people we can get on the same page, who’ve reached some of the same conclusions.

How you link that up to action, I don’t know that I’ve figured that part out yet. I don’t necessarily know what I think the best actions are, either. But let’s start by bringing things to the surface, into the light, and connecting.

Jan here: Speaking of connecting, peeps, Lisa’s agreed to take your questions in the comment section below.

I hope you can return for Part II next week in which we’ll discuss the nature of heroism and coping with life in the spotlight, among other topics. In the meantime, if you wish to contact Lisa outside Writer Unboxed, you can find her at her website, Facebook page, and Twitter.


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    Fantastic interview, Jan and Lisa! I was most definitely impressed with Lisa’s research when I read RPT. Never having been to China or Iraq, she really made me feel like I was there.

  2. says

    Great interview, Jan. Lisa has always struck me as a gutsy person and writer, and I’m looking forward to reading RPT.

  3. says

    Thank you for sharing this — great interview! Looking forward to reading Part II.

    Oh, and that query letter? Did SO rock it!

  4. says

    Jan, this is a terrific, thoughtful interview–and of course Lisa always has interesting things to say. RPT’s huge success is so well-deserved. Will look forward to part II!

  5. Rebecca says

    Great interview, Jan and Lisa!
    Lisa has chosen a brave subject to tackle, and this interview shines a great light on her motivations and thoughts in doing it – very much appreciate the insight into the book. Thanks, ladies!

  6. says

    Great interview. Loved the query letter.

    I was just wondering.. do you have your plot ready before you start or do you just let it develop as you go along?

  7. says

    Fantastic interview, Jan and Lisa. Very insightful. I loved RPT and glad to have this “behind the scenes.” Lisa’s research was impeccable and her writing a joy to read. I was also thoroughly impressed by her use of present tense throughout from a craft perspective. I find that terribly difficult to do.

  8. says

    Wow — what a dynamic interview! I love hearing all the behind-the-scenes info, and I’m thrilled for your success, Lisa.

    I am red-faced to admit I bought your book a while ago and have not yet read it — it’s actually frowning at me from the table across the room. :( I will be picking it up soon so I can enjoy what I know is an amazing book.
    Donna Cummings´s last blog post ..The One Writing Rule You Cannot Break

  9. Alice Loweecey says

    Great interview and a great book! It will hunt you for weeks–it did me. Nice job, Jan and Lisa.

  10. Vivian A says

    Lisa, I loved the performance art piece in the book, where did you get the idea? It was such a surprise that I barked (laughed) out loud when I read it. That and the creation of the online gaming was so surreal, it transcended the paper, I could see the screen and images appearing. Fabulous.

    After those question, which I want answers about, the most intriguing–What’s next?!

  11. says

    Hi Vivian,

    Well, performance art is quite popular in contemporary Chinese art circles, so there’s that. As to the specifics — you mean the Great Wall one? That was actually a late add to the MS. I felt something was needed there and that I’d gotten too far away from the art element, specifically the performance art, and you know, it just came to me. Some of the other pieces mentioned in the book are based on real performance pieces that I’d seen or read about, but the Great Wall one was my own creation.

    What’s next is The Book That’s Trying To KILL Me™, er, that is, another “existential thriller” set in Mexico. Still working on that one and I’m not sure if it’s ready to sub yet or not.
    Lisa Brackmann´s last blog post ..ROCK PAPER TIGER in Amazon’s Best Books of 2010

  12. says

    Excellent and fascinating interview. I loved both the questions and the answers. Personally I am highly intrigued by ROCK PAPER TIGER and all the hullabaloo surrounding it. It’s definitely on the TBR list. :)

    Speaking of your awesome agent, though… What do you do now that he’s not an agent? I know he found other agents at Curtis Brown for some of his other clients — is that the situation you’re in?

    Also, are you working on another book, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?
    Kristan´s last blog post ..Social media dilemma

  13. says

    walks in the woods, washing dishes, showering – yes! all great “hey!” times – but, I many times forget what my epiphany or thought was -and I guess I refuse to write them down since I never do…*sigh* –what about you?

    Do you write down your thoughts/ideas as you walk (obviously you can’t in the shower -but when you get out of the shower)? :-D
    kat magendie´s last blog post ..Mom away from home in the airport &amp First WNC snow

  14. says

    HI Kristan,

    I posted about the whole agent change on my blog, which you can get to through my website (linked above), and we’re going to talk about it here in the next installment as well. Suffice it to say, the whole thing was handled extremely well by Nathan and by Curtis Brown, and yes, I plan on staying with them. It’s no secret but I want to make a stand alone announcement, just, I dunno, because. I want to celebrate it, I guess!
    Lisa Brackmann´s last blog post ..ROCK PAPER TIGER in Amazon’s Best Books of 2010

  15. says

    Kat, yes. I tend to jot in notebooks and also make notes on my laptop — as soon as I get out of the shower! When I’m out walking, I use the note function on my iPhone.

    BTW, for whatever reason, the post that is linked as being my last blog when I comment is not the most recent one. The most recent one is about working with Nathan.

  16. Allison_I.write.horror says

    Hi Lisa, is it a cooincidence that your novel came out in the Year of the Tiger? At any rate, it’s very auspicious!
    I live in an artists’ village in Song Zhuang (the arts community outside Beijing) and I agree that Western writers tend to dwell on China’s past. It’s exciting to see fiction set in modern Beijing; Lord knows it’s a place with plenty of texture (and phlegm stuck to the sidewalk–just had to add that–sorry).

  17. says

    Allison, howdy!

    It was a total coincidence that RPT came out in the year of the Tiger. I was jazzed when I realized that was going to happen. The other funny thing is that I wrote the book mostly in 2006, picked a date after the Beijing Olympics to set the book and settled on April 2010. The book was released June 1 2010.

    Would love to look you up next time I’m in Beijing! I still harbor hopes of making it there this year…shoot me an email at lisa at lisabrackmann dot com if you’re interested…
    Lisa Brackmann´s last blog post ..ROCK PAPER TIGER in Amazon’s Best Books of 2010

  18. Allison_I.write.horror says

    Haha, thank you Lisa, I will email you. I have been in Beijing since 2004. And with the spitting (not to beat a dead dog but you know how it is right?) now that traffic’s always backed up drivers of the male persuasion often stick their heads out their windows and–okay I’m stopping myself.
    It’s just one of those things–like diarrhea–that haunt you once you’ve lived in China.
    Anyways, I can’t wait to read part II of your interview.