Lisa Brackmann: The China diaries

The US author talks about her latest Far East-set novel, Hour of the Rat

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Much like her debut novel, US author Lisa Brackmann’s latest book Hour of the Rat is set in China. Here, she tells Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore why.

Ellie McEnroe is not the kind of heroine you expect to find in Beijing. The former National Guard medic – still smarting from her time serving in Iraq – is bright, tough, and more than a little lost. She has a busted leg and a sassy, sardonic tongue. She spends her time eating spicy peanuts. She is, it has to be said, hard not to like.

Ellie is the creation of American author Lisa Brackmann, who first introduced her to readers in her zany, furiously fast-paced debut thriller Rock Paper Tiger (2010). In that novel, Ellie ends up wanted by both the Chinese and American authorities after a chance encounter with a suspected Uighur terrorist.

Brackmann, a former Hollywood executive, hit upon the idea of setting a suspense novel in China after she became bored of only reading about ‘foot-binding and tragedy’. Instead she wanted to create a book that showed the country in all its glorious absurdity. The punchy and flawed outsider Ellie is the character who binds her novels together – yet she seems to create as many problems as she resolves. ‘I don’t like superhero characters who can solve the world’s problems with their bare hands and a pocket knife,’ Brackmann observes.

The 27-year-old Ellie is anything but. In Hour of the Rat, Brackmann’s Ellie is still hurting from a broken heart following the breakup of her marriage. Her evangelical Christian mother has come to live with her in Beijing. Her one-time hook up, the artist Lao Zhang, has fled following trouble. Oh, and the man supposed to be keeping an eye on her for China’s FBI, the DSD, has a crush on her.

China may seem like a strange topic for a Californian native who spent 15 years working at a major motion picture studio. But Brackmann’s affair with the country began in 1979 when she first visited, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. ‘I was 20 years old, I was kinda blonde,’ recalls the author, now 54. ‘We went right after they opened it up to foreigners at a time when seeing somebody who looked like me, it was kind of like seeing a Martian. In Inner Mongolia a guy did such a double take – he fell off his bike.’

Today, Brackmann travels to China regularly (‘you know how fast Beijing changes – you skip a year and you miss something’) and takes Mandarin lessons on Skype. Brackmann has taken on weighty subjects with a light touch: Iraq, Xinjiang, fervent religiosity, torture, to name a few. So what’s next? ‘I really want to get into the whole art thing [in China]; the rich, horrible, privileged class,’ she says.
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