Hour of the Rat: A Q & A with Noir Author Lisa Brackmann
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
In January, I headed up the freeway to L.A. to take part in a panel on “A Changing China,” which was sponsored by the Pacific Council on International Policy and organized by the prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. I had agreed to take part for two main reasons: it would give me a chance to share my ideas with and plug my recent books to an informed and engaged audience (this is the sort PCIP tends to draw), and the discussion would be steered in interesting directions (I’d been part of panels Mei had moderated before). I also thought I’d enjoy meeting and come away with some new food for thought after listening to the two other panelists: Joy Chen, author of the much-discussed Do Not Marry Before 30, which had been a bestseller in China, and Richard Burger, whose Peking Duck blog I’d been reading for years. All those expectations were fulfilled, but I also got something very welcome but totally unexpected out of the day. One member of the audience was mystery writer Lisa Brackmann, and after I mentioned liking noir fiction, she gave me a copy of her then-forthcoming book and now just-published book, Hour of the Rat. I was pleased to get my hands on it, since I’d heard good things about her earlier book, Rock Paper Tiger, which like the new one is set in China. I found her book a rollicking and engrossing read, so was very pleased when she agreed to do the following interview via email:
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Can you begin by filling readers in, very briefly, about the main character in this book and what they will have missed about her past adventures if they first encounter her, as I did, in Hour of the Rat?
Lisa Brackmann: Ellie McEnroe is an Iraq War vet, a medic, who got involved in a situation way above her pay grade involving prisoner abuse at a forward operating base. That’s also where she met her future husband, Trey, and where she got “blown up,” as she puts it, suffering wounds that still cause her a great deal of pain and psychological distress. In Rock Paper Tiger, she follows Trey, who has resigned from the Army and taken a job with a private security company a la Blackwater, to Beijing, whereupon he gets involved with a young Chinese woman and dumps Ellie. Ellie finds a refuge of sorts with a community of Chinese artists, including the charismatic Lao Zhang, but that refuge is short-lived when an encounter with a Uighur fugitive sends Lao Zhang deep underground and Ellie down a rabbit hole of conspiracies.
JW: Your new book touches on a range of topical issues, from surging interest in the Chinese contemporary art market to environmental activism, which gives it a straight out of the headlines feel. Protests associated with the environment and Ai Weiwei were already news before you started writing, but were there headlines that hit while you were working on Hour of the Rat that hit particularly close to home, perhaps even blurring the fiction/non-fiction line for you?
LB: When I wrote Rock Paper Tiger in 2007, Ai Weiwei was still best known as a contemporary artist, not as a political activist, which really happened more in 2008, especially after the Sichuan earthquake – so that was a big blurring of the fiction/non-fiction line right there. The artist character in my books, Lao Zhang, was in no way based on Ai Weiwei, and then all these weird parallels came up later, like the destruction of Ai’s Shanghai-based studio. But there have been a number of Chinese contemporary artists who’ve run into problems with the authorities – Ai Weiwei is just the most prominent.
With Hour of the Rat, a major plot thread has to do with GMOs, genetically modified organisms, in China. GMOs are products pioneered by companies like Monsanto and DuPont where unrelated genetic material is inserted into a plant or even an animal to create something with desirable properties that you’d never find in nature. Most typically they are designed to resist a particular herbicide, like GM soy, or produce their own insecticide, like Bt corn. In the US more than 90% of all soybeans grown are GM, as are 90% of sugar beets and almost 90% of corn.
With all that in mind, probably the weirdest coincidence that came up while I was writing Hour of the Rat was a story about illegal tests of GMO rice on Hunanese village kids, which were the result of a partnership between Chinese and American institutions.
Also, the original inspiration of Hour of the Rat was an article I’d read about an American “eco-terrorist” from Oregon who had fled (somewhat inexplicably, in my view!) to China, where he was later busted in Dali for having 30 pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he’d been renting. I’d read this story while I was vacationing in Yangshuo and thought, “this has got to go into a book somehow.” What I didn’t realize until I was well into the writing of Hour of the Rat is that the crime he’d committed in the US was firebombing a horticultural center that he thought was conducting GM tree research. I’d really had no idea that GMOs were what he’d been protesting until I was nearly done with the first draft.
I’d actually found another case that inspired some of the plot where unapproved varieties of GM rice had made their way into the food chain in several Chinese provinces, with three seed companies (one of which wasn’t even registered with the necessary provincial authorities) basically giving this stuff to farmers, presumably in the hope that once it was out there, the official approval would become a fait accompli. Now, there’s a big story about how an unapproved variety of Monsanto-patented GM wheat has been found growing in fields in Oregon. You can draw your own conclusions as to how this came about.
JW: What sort of research did you do for this book? Did you travel to the places you were going to write about, read up on them, or both?
LB: Both. I routinely read a lot of news pieces, blogs and books about China. And a lot of the time when I write, I take a place that I’ve already been and think, “okay, this would be a great setting.” So I’m frequently inspired by a place, and then I decide to write about it. As mentioned, I was in Yangshuo when I read about the case that sparked Hour of the Rat — and the weird “art space” in the rice paddy depicted in the book was based on something I’d stumbled upon out there. I’d just been to Dali the year before, so I had some familiarity with that location. When I knew that I wanted to use Yangshuo, I went back for another visit—such a hardship! Unlike Ellie, I did make sure I got to float down the river on a bamboo raft. And I ate a ton of beer fish.
The “ghost city” and ghost mall featured in the book were originally inspired by the New South China Mall in Dongguan, which is a big factory city in Guangzhou Province — there’s some amazing and pretty surreal documentary footage about it. I’d planned to go there in person, but the story took a different turn, and instead I decided, “let’s float down the river on a bamboo raft again,” and went back to Yangshuo. I did go to some of the bizarre “foreign” developments outside Shanghai, like Thames Town and the “Swedish” one, Luodian, just to get a better sense of what these kinds of foreign-inspired, half-abandoned places are like.
Guiyu, the huge electronic waste recycling area where Ellie travels in her search for answers, is also a real place, though I set the story in a fictional suburb of it. I really did want to go there but ultimately decided I could depict it credibly with the research I could access — some great video footage and many photos and articles. Call me a wimp, but the 60 Minutes crew getting chased out of Guiyu by thugs kind of put me off an on-site visit.
I put Ellie’s apartment near Gulou — the Drum Tower/Bell Tower Square in the center of Beijing, because that’s the area where I like to stay, and I know it pretty well. Now I need to stay there because of course things change so quickly in China that otherwise I couldn’t keep the depiction of Ellie’s home turf up to date. A lot of the hutongs (the old alleys of Beijing), and the bars and such in Hour of the Rat are based on things I’ve seen and places I’ve visited. I’ve been to the Xinfadi Agricultural Market mentioned in the book – I went there thinking it would be an interesting location but couldn’t quite come up with a reason to use it. But I like to go to areas of Beijing where you don’t see foreigners and you don’t see the whole hip, “modern” side of the city. I’ll often do things like pick a subway line and ride it to the end, just to see what’s out there.
My general rule when I travel to China is, go to one place I haven’t been. On my last trip, I went to Anhui because I’d decided a major character in Hour of the Rat needed to be from there. So odds are some of what I saw in Tunxi, Anhui, will end up in the next book.
JW: I’m not sure how to categorize Hour of the Rat in terms of genre. Gonzo mystery comes to mind, though I don’t know if that’s a standard term. In some ways, though the action is set in China, the pacing and no-nonsense heroine made it seem a very American sort of novel. Are there mystery writers, living or dead, whose footsteps you see as following in or have been especially inspirational to you?
LB: I love reading mysteries and suspense fiction. These have been my recreational reading of choice since I discovered Agatha Christie in middle school. But I can’t say that any particular mystery authors directly inspired me. What I like about the genre is that it allows all kinds of room for writers who straddle the line between “genre” and “literary.” I know those are largely false distinctions, but there are some really fine authors writing mysteries, like Ruth Rendell, who can be hard to strictly categorize. On the suspense side, Graham Greene and John Le Carre come to mind. And I loved Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I’m not directly inspired by any of them, but they’re working in that liminal zone where I am naturally most comfortable.
Crime fiction in general gives you the space to deal with all kinds of “big” issues. I like that, too.
JW: Do you have any other mysteries set in China — by Chinese or foreign writers — to recommend? Is Qiu Xiaolong, for example, who has a new book due out this year as well, and has written in the past about how hard it is for him sometimes to keep ahead of the headlines when writing his Inspector Chen novels, someone you read?
LB: I definitely read Qiu Xiaolong, and I recommend him to readers who want to get a visceral sense of what China is like that you won’t necessarily get from works of non-fiction. The whole way that Inspector Chen goes about investigating his cases and the highly politicized system in which he’s embedded are so different than what you find in an American or British police procedural, and I think this gives some insight into Chinese culture and society that’s really interesting and useful. I can also recommend the British author Catherine Sampson and her book, The Slaughter Pavilion, which has some funny set pieces about the nouveau riche in Beijing and also a very apropos location in an abandoned amusement park.
Otherwise, I’m not aware of much crime fiction set in China, which is one of the reasons that I decided to write Rock Paper Tiger in the first place. Most Western authors writing about China seem to write period pieces rather than dealing with today’s China at all. I felt that modern China was a really underutilized setting, and that’s largely why I chose to write about it. There are so many dramatic opportunities, so many contrasts and conflicts, and China is one of the most important players on the global stage – I really don’t understand why more Westerners haven’t set fiction there!
JW: Is this the last we’ll see of Ellie McEnroe or will she be back for further adventures?
LB: I’m currently writing the third book in the series. There are several unresolved plot strands in the two books that I feel need to be concluded. After that, I’m not sure. China is a big country, and there are still plenty of places left for Ellie to visit. But I’ll only continue the series if I have something interesting to say and somewhere new to take the character. I don’t want her to remain frozen in time and emotional development. She needs to grow and change, along with her adoptive country.