Whatever you want to call it, PW said this of Rock Paper Tiger: “The China scenes are fast paced and strikingly atmospheric,” and “the book’s exotic setting and tough heroine will definitely appeal to fans of John Burdett and Stieg Larsson.” Booklist said it’s “a gritty and intriguing tale of terror that draws in the reader with each page; Brackmann is a new writer to watch.”
If you’re joining us for the first time, go ahead and read Part I. *nods encouragingly* We’ll wait.
Jan: Lisa, you’ve had a bittersweet month, what with Rock Paper Tiger landing in Amazon’s Top 10 Mysteries and Thrillers, then with loss of your agent, Nathan Bransford, to his new job at CNET. How will Nathan’s decision affect you?
Lisa: I wrote about my experiences working with Nathan and the impact he’s had on my writing life here, for those interested. As I explain in my post, Nathan was very much a hands-on, editorial agent, and he is a really awesome editor. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he takes those skills and what he learns at CNET and ends up running a publishing company designed for the new millennium some day (hear that, Nathan? I’m calling it now!). So having that kind of support and creative partnership at the beginning of my publishing career has been absolutely amazing and invaluable.
The thing is, no matter how good your relationship with your publisher is (and mine has been great), your agent is your natural ally as an author. They make money when you make money, so your interests are in concert. Add to that having a partner in the creative sense, and it makes for a very close, intense relationship. I’m going to miss working with him, a lot.
That said, Nathan and Curtis Brown were very careful and thoughtful in how they matched up his clients with other Curtis Brown agents. Obviously I didn’t have to go in that direction if I wanted to look elsewhere, but my overall experience with Curtis Brown has been so positive that I can’t think of any real reason to go hunting for greener pastures—it’s nice and green right where I am. I’ll be working with Katherine Fausset, whose client list and sensibilities are an excellent match with my work. We’ve already spoken and corresponded, and she’s great. She’s really allayed my agent separation anxiety!
Change and a fresh perspective bring new opportunities for creative growth, and that’s always been my major goal as a writer — to get better. So I’m really excited about the future, and looking forward to this new partnership.
Reading between the lines of your blog post, My Big Giant Head Part II, you’re ambivalent about your success. At the very least, it seems surreal. What makes it all worthwhile for you? What’s the moment that made you squeal/jump/Snoopy dance the loudest or longest? And how do you stay grounded when you’re being told by people like…well, me, that you’re a fine writer?
I don’t want to be in what I write. I know that’s impossible, but I wish I were more analytical, more skilled, was better at my craft, and I could think of a way to have a greater distance from what I do. I don’t like things being about me. I’m much more comfortable when they’re about someone else. And I’m frankly still amazed at times that I’ve managed to connect with anyone with what I do.
Plus, there are always plenty of people who are not going to like what you do. I’ve had some pretty scathing comments from readers, several of whom took the time to write rather lengthy posts about how and why my book sucks and that I don’t deserve any acclaim or success. I had a guy on Amazon make his first ever and only comments on the site, which were: saying that I don’t know much about China, and oh yeah, the book really sucks.
I try not to take it personally, but sometimes I just want to say, “Who crapped in your Cheerios, dude?”
So believe me, staying grounded isn’t a problem. Having the resiliency and nerve to pick myself up and try again is what’s hard.
On the, “What makes it worthwhile,” side, it really is the connecting with people, strangers who’ve read my book and for whom it resonated. It’s also getting to hang out with authors and booksellers and passionate readers – the sense that I’ve found my tribe.
I had one moment in particular, one of the first book events I did, at Houston’s “Murder By The Book,” which is an absolutely wonderful store, where they go out of their way to both create a sense of community and to treat authors well.
Owners McKenna Jordan and David Thompson took us out to dinner after, at this wonderful seafood restaurant, and I remember sitting there at one point, going, “Wow. This is my life now. Just how awesome is this?”
I was so sad to hear that David passed away last month, suddenly and entirely too young, because he seemed like such an amazing guy. I’ll always have this association of him with this intense moment of feeling like a “real” author.
And, okay, the good reviews in big-time venues are pretty awesome! And some of the reviews I’ve gotten from “amateur” book bloggers, who put so much passion and intelligence into what they do, those have meant a lot to me. Maybe not more than the NYT and PW, but just as much.
A lament I hear from other writers – even those in their early twenties – revolves around the concept of lost time. They wish they’d become serious about their career earlier; some really suffer from this idea. I personally choose to believe a different story: that these “non-novel-writing years” can serve as prep work for the writing years, if we’ll let them. You’re like me; your skin bears a wrinkle or two. Would you walk us through your previous professions and tell us if/how each might have fed into your present success
I’ve mostly worked doing research in the film and television industry. So I got a lot out of that. I learned some things about research, I got paid to learn stuff, and I gained an understanding of the collaborative nature of even highly creative professions. Writing novels is by nature far more solitary than film-making, but you still have to learn how to work with others and how to at times make compromises. On a more basic level, I learned about professionalism and deadlines. Just because you’re “creative” doesn’t mean you get to be a flake.
The campaign and political stuff had a lot of those same elements and was also one of those opportunities to see what goes on behind the curtain – to learn that a lot of what happens is motivated by the same kinds of concerns that drive schoolyard politics.
Now that you’ve written somewhat critically of both Chinese and American governments, do you have any fear about traveling to the former, or being on watch lists, etc., for the latter?
Not really. I mean, I was much more paranoid when I worked for a major corporation and felt like I was being watched all the time (because they do that, you know!). I doubt that anyone in China is overly concerned with my critique as an individual and a foreigner. If I were agitating or organizing or investigating sensitive real-life issues, that might be different. But I’m not a journalist, and it’s not up to me to tell Chinese people what to do.
Similarly, I’d be pretty stunned if anyone in the US government worried about what a novelist had to say about US policies and the nature of American power. Far more important people than I have spoken far more critically, and have taken real risks to investigate and reveal sensitive information. Though the mainstream media failed pretty miserably in the run-up to the Iraq War and in the war’s early stages, there still are plenty of examples of heroic journalists exposing malfeasance and speaking truth to power.
If I were president of your fan and book clubs – why aren’t I president of your fan and book clubs again? – I’d ask a few questions of you that deal with the intersection of author-as-person, and author-as-public figure. (Warning: spoilerish.)
For me, one of the central questions of your book involves the nature of heroism. As Rock Paper Tiger opens, Ellie’s suffered so much betrayal she no longer believes in heroes, most noticeably, herself. By book’s end, however, she’s beginning to find peace in quiet, pragmatic acts of bravery, rather than ones based in ideology or grand gestures. Can you speak to that?
I don’t have much faith in ideologies or “isms.” Living in China shortly after the Cultural Revolution disabused me of any notions that sweeping revolutionary romanticism was a great way to organize a society, and living through the economic decline of the US has made me equally wary of turbo-capitalism and the so-called “Free Market.”
Human life has always been hard on an individual level, and now we live in a world where impersonal and globalized systems run for the benefit of small oligarchies hold tremendous sway. I think the best most of us can do is to try to lead a decent, honourable life that’s meaningful in whatever way we choose to define that.
And you’re totally welcome to be president of my fan and book clubs! That is if I had them.
Secondly, I’d describe this as the anti-complacency, anti-excuse book. Ellie doesn’t get a free pass for decisions she made during the Iraq war even though, at the time, she’d been nineteen and naïve. She’s not allowed any real peace until she begins to make small gestures of atonement. Beyond age and experience, what excuses do you see society making for why it tolerates injustice?
Societies in general value conformity pretty highly, no matter how much we talk about being a nation of rugged individualists and all. It’s very hard, when you are confronted by an injustice, to go against the tide and do something about it. When you think of all the soldiers and contractors and government officials who were involved with the prisoner abuse scandals in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, after you separate out those who actively created and carried out the policies, you have large numbers of people who were involved or witnessed what was going on. Very few of them blew the whistle, or even protested. It’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature, born out by studies like the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments. I actually sympathize with Ellie in her predicament, and to be honest, I question that I would have been any braver or active in that situation.
If you agree this book serves as an anti-complacency, anti-excuse prod, are you disappointed in how it’s been received? From this person’s perspective, many of the big issues you’ve raised are not getting airtime.
Well, on the one hand, every time the book is described as a fast-paced beach read, I figure maybe that means I did my job and buried the bigger issues into an enjoyable story. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t want to write a book that came across as didactic. On the other, I’m not really sure why so many reviewers passed over the more political aspects of the book, as they really are what ties the story together in a lot of ways. Overall I got a lot more comment on Ellie’s “potty-mouth.” Make of that what you will…
(If you want to follow up with your own opinion about this, I’d love to hear it!)
Jan: Now I have an official position in your book club, I think this would be an excellent question for people to discuss in the comment section! I’ll be happy to add my thoughts.
You began Rock Paper Tiger to answer a question for yourself about another odd juxtaposition: a self-identified Christian who seemed proud of the atrocities committed on Iraqi prisoners. How about your present novel – the homicidal WIP?
The WIP was mainly sparked by a location, in this case, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The opening chapter just kind of came to me, and I sat down and wrote it. I really thought that this was going to be a much simpler book, more linear, easier to write. Boy, was I wrong. It’s been very tough and has required me to dig deep into my discomfort zones. The book has some of the same concerns as RPT — another woman in over her head, the division of society into winners and losers, the consequences of enabling and complacency — but it is also more of a straightforward suspense thriller in plotting and execution. It’s homicidal in that I’m pretty sure it’s trying to kill me and has taken a few years off of my life!
If you could wave a magic chopstick, where would you want your writing career to be in ten years’ time?
First, that the career is supporting me. I know that’s a rare accomplishment in today’s publishing world, but I’m at a place where the writing takes a fair amount out of me and I put a tremendous amount of time and effort into it. I don’t multi-task nearly as well as I used to. I wrote RPT while working at a full-time job, and looking back on that now, I’m not sure how I managed it. I value sleep!
Second…okay, maybe this really is first. I just want to get better with every book. To bring something different to the table each time. I want people to read my books, not just because they liked what I did in Rock Paper Tiger and want to see more books just like it, but because they want to be happily surprised by what I do.
If people are interested in learning more about you and Rock Paper Tiger after this interview, where would you like them to reach you?
My website has links to my Twitter feed and Facebook page, both of which are fairly active (and there’s an events calendar there too). The website also links to my blog, which I update less frequently – I use it mainly for longer pieces these days and keep the short news & schedule items current on FB and Twitter. You can contact me that way, or at lisa at lisabrackmann dot com. I welcome your feedback and questions!
Lisa, thank you for being here today! Good luck with your present manuscript. I look forward to being happily surprised..
And now, mein peeps, care to discuss Lisa’s question? Why might people – intelligent people – refuse to engage with serious themes or content within fiction? Any other thoughts/inquiries you wish to address to Lisa while we have her here?