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!
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!
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!
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 .