TWO THINGS occurred to me the other day: first, that something like one in five people on Earth live in China, and second, that I know next to nothing about modern China. In fact, just as most of what I know about New Jersey comes from The Sopranos, some embarrassing portion of my familiarity with modern China comes from Lisa Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe novels — Rock Paper Tiger, Hour of the Rat, and, most recently, Dragon Day. China’s position in mainstream American media is, to be fair, frequently murky, or historical and exotic in flavor. Brackmann’s novels tangle with contemporary issues and vivid, recognizable, internet-age characters, cast into fun, intelligent suspense stories that sprawl across the country. They’re full of thrill and vigor, and her latest, out this month from SoHo Crime, might just be my favorite yet.
I talked to Lisa about China, art, chase scenes, and murder — and, of course, the wonderful Dragon Day.
STEPH CHA: I love how you open the book with an immediate commentary on the heavy use of dragons in media about China. How do you see your books fitting into the broad category of literature about China?
LISA BRACKMANN: Well, first a confession: Dragon Day was my working title. It fit with the vague Chinese astrology theme I had going on: there really are Dragon Days and Sheep Days and every-other-sign-of-the-Chinese-zodiac days, and you think about a day ruled by the most powerful and charismatic sign, Dragon, and it sort of fit the theme of the book. But I was embarrassed to actually use “dragon” in a title, because as Ellie puts it, “It’s such a fucking cliché,” and I feel like a part of what I’m trying to do in this series is to talk about China in a way that might not be familiar to a lot of Western readers — and by that, I mean the China of today and the China I’ve experienced over the last few decades. One of the reasons that I wrote the first book in the series was that I hadn’t seen modern China portrayed all that often in American fiction. I wanted to talk about what China is like now. China is really important in the world that we’re living in, and it’s easy to construct some sort of abstract, idealized (whether for good or for ill) image of it. I am not an expert on all things China by any stretch, but I think bringing things down to a more human level is maybe something that I can do, with a good dose of humor and absurdity as well.
And of course I’m writing suspense novels. I’m not sure if there have been enough of those set in China for it to be its own subset, but the Ellie books are definitely in that “Alienated ex-pat expresses alienation by living in place where she’s an actual alien” category. (That category exists, right?) I think the fact that she can externalize her feelings that way makes her more comfortable somewhere like China than she would be in her own country. No one expects her to fit in when she’s in China.
One thing I enjoy about your books is that Ellie goes to many unique locations, both cities and specific places like restaurants, nightclubs, and train stations. I imagine many of these places really exist. Am I right? Do you do a lot of research trips?
I try to get to China at least once a year, if not more. Sometimes I go to places because I specifically want to research them or because I want to return to them to absorb more details. More often, I go somewhere that sounds interesting, absorb as much as I can, and use it later.
The specific locations in the Ellie books are a mix. Many of them are based on actual neighborhoods and establishments, others are inspired by real places or are a mash-up of several actual locales. For example: the chuanr stand Ellie mourns in the first chapter of Dragon Day? Totally real. I miss that guy.
How much time have you spent in China? And in what capacity?
My first time in China was in the fall of 1979, and I stayed for six months. I was young: it was not long after the Cultural Revolution and right at the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s economic modernizations, and there was no internet, no cell phones, no American culture — save for things like bootleg tapes of The Sound of Music and, a few months into my stay, the television series The Man from Atlantis (starring Patrick Duffy!), which began to run on Chinese TV. When you’d travel on Chinese trains, you’d be awakened with a medley of “The East is Red” and “Home on the Range.” I taught a quarter of English conversation to students who were older than me, many of whom had been “sent down” to the countryside while the colleges and universities were closed during the Cultural Revolution. People told me about their experiences, which were often traumatic (I was a safe audience), and I traveled to places that had seen very few foreigners. Overall, it was pretty intense.
After that, I went back once in 1993 and have pretty much gone there at least once a year since 1999 — for a couple of weeks or a month or so at a time. For the most part, I was exploring things that interested me, such as the art world, studying Mandarin, traveling, and, later, doing research for my writing. I recently did a trip to research Chinese craft beer. That was a good one!
Your book deals pretty extensively with modern Chinese art, with artists as dissidents and art as a form of rebellion. How do you see the role of the artist in China? Have you gotten any heat for your own art?
I don’t think artists have any particular responsibility other than to make good art, but I do think that artists and writers can, if they choose, make work that examines society, points a finger at inconvenient truths, and challenges authority. Art and literature have the ability to present complicated ideas and concepts in ways that can be easier to digest and felt more viscerally than more literal nonfiction texts might be — it’s a different way of learning about things.
With a lot of contemporary art in China, you don’t have to dig very deep to find political themes. I think — though I am far from an expert — that earlier, like back in the Deng reform era, a lot of Chinese contemporary art was also about self-expression, and given the conformity that was expected and enforced in the Mao years, this alone was a form of rebellion and political statement. Performance art was popular (and I have always wondered if the overt theatricality of Maoism inspired some of this). The first sanctioned Chinese avant-garde art show in February 1989 was closed down by the authorities because of a performance art piece that included live gunfire; if I recall correctly, the artist remarked, “Now that I’ve been arrested, the performance is complete.” You have artists who are overtly political, the best known of whom is probably Ai Weiwei. (I should mention that I wrote Rock Paper Tiger before Ai Weiwei’s political activism became widely known, or at least I didn’t know about it, and the artist character in the books is in no way based on him.) You have artists who deal with contemporary realities like poverty, pollution, the destruction of the old and the creation of the new, and while they may not be making an explicit political statement, commenting on social realities can be a form of rebellion if those realities contradict the official narrative. I think that in some ways, art has more power in a system that practices heavy censorship and restricts political participation. If an artist’s work has to be censored, then the ideas behind it must be powerful for the system to fear it so. Not that this is always a great situation for an artist in that position, considering the artists and writers who have been hassled, arrested, or forced into exile.
And I should say that there’s plenty of contemporary art in China that is not particularly controversial, there’s mediocre art that is deliberately provocative without a lot of thought behind it, and there are more traditional styles of art that are also selling very well. All of this adds up to a Chinese art market that has been booming for around a decade now. There’s a lot of money being made, and this includes some artists whose work was seen as political or social commentary who are now millionaires.
As far as how my books have been received: overall, the response to my books as they relate to China has been very positive, which is really gratifying because I am not an expert, and I want to do a good job. In general, though, English-language novels by foreigners are not a big deal. You used to be able to buy my books on Amazon China and I’ve seen a couple in foreign language bookstores there. I have my haters, but not generally due to the China angle; it’s more the other content or Ellie’s many F-bombs.
Of your Ellie books, Dragon Day is the only one that incorporates a traditional murder mystery. Did this impact the structure of your book as you were writing? You mentioned to me that Dragon Day was hard to write. Did this have anything to do with that?
I have a weird relationship to structure. I think about it, just like I think about themes that affect the story, but a lot of time I don’t think about this stuff very much ahead of time. I just plunge ahead and see what feels right. I didn’t exactly know this was going to be a more traditional mystery, though the original inspiration was the death of British businessman and fixer Neil Heywood, who was tangled up with Bo Xilai, once one of the most powerful politicians in China. The reality of that case quickly became too wildly operatic and specific to try to turn it into a story for Ellie, so I went in a different direction. (If you’re interested, I talk about the inspirations for the book and provide some links about the Bo Xilai case here.)
Also, I wrote Dragon Day under difficult circumstances. I didn’t have much time to think about the story before I started writing. (This book taught me a lot about my own methods, what they actually are, and what my patterns are.) I had to decide a lot of things about Ellie — where she was in her life, where she would be by the end of the book. It meant I had to think a lot about who the character was and how the events in the book would affect her, and also how who she was would affect the events in the book. It felt like a lot of things to decide, because I really didn’t know, and while I realize that as a writer I am in control of the narrative, I have to let the characters guide me as well. As a result of all this, the writing went very slowly at times.
I'm totally fascinated by the fu er dai phenomenon. Have you encountered any hyper-rich Chinese and their kids in your travels?
Most of my friends in China are academics or journalists, and I’ve hung around the art world there some. When I’m traveling, I generally talk to a lot of people on trains, so I’ve met some well-off people and Party cadres in the soft sleepers, but probably not the super-rich I’m dealing with in this book. But if you have money or a credit card, you can get access to some places where some of these people go — high-end shops and restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, for example. The club where Ellie meets Gugu is based on a real club, and I was inspired by the scene I saw there, a private party that seemed to be one rich guy and a bunch of barely legal girls. I probably took some additional inspiration from when I lived in Los Angeles and worked in the film and television industry and would at times find myself in the company of the rich and famous. Certain behaviors translate. Otherwise the fu er dai get a fair amount of press, and I try to keep up.
It's been fun following Ellie over the course of three books. How do you think she's evolved so far, and what do you see happening next for her? Do you have an idea of how long you want to run this series? What are the challenges that arise with each new book?
Ellie starts out as a person who is recovering from trauma, both physical and emotional, who has been in two places that are completely foreign to her and that she’s had to learn how to negotiate. I think the first book in a lot of ways is Ellie having to put together a big picture of the world from all of these crazy, intense experiences, trying to figure out what it all means and if there’s any sense she can make of it. Plus, chase scenes.
The second book, she’s gotten her legs under her somewhat, has found a place for herself, is building relationships with other people, and is generally more confident. She’s still feeling guilty that she didn’t act when she should have acted in Iraq, still dealing with her addictions and her less than ideal upbringing, and the way she tries to manage all this is by taking on a mission and completing it, no matter what. Also, chase scenes.
The third book takes place directly after the second, and it’s really about Ellie’s unresolved issues and about the limits of how much people can change and heal from trauma.
And chase scenes. I mean, these are suspense books, and they should be fun and not didactic.
What was important to me was to try and keep her arc realistic. The problem with amateur detectives or amateur adventurers, or however you want to describe a character like Ellie, is that it can get to the point where you risk losing credibility. You have a character who is traumatized, you continue to expose her to trauma, and after a certain point, that’s just not going to end well. You have to give her time to integrate this stuff and heal. So I very much wanted to bring certain elements that ran through the first two books to a conclusion in the third. I may write other Ellie books — I have a few ideas — but I don’t see them as a once-a-year sort of series that runs indefinitely. If I write a fourth Ellie book, it needs to follow logically from the third — and I guess for me it needs to feel organic, if that makes any sense.