Iraq War vet Ellie Cooper finds herself caught up in a vast conspiracy against the Chinese government in Rock Paper Tiger, Lisa Brackmann's dynamite debut.
How did you come up with Ellie, an Iraq War vet with post-traumatic stress disorder?
She emerged from a process of overwriting and cutting down. I knew that she had to be in the National Guard, because I wanted to write about Iraq. I'd trained as an EMT, so that made it easier for me to put myself in her head in some of those situations. Regarding the PTSD, I did a lot of research and read everything I could find. It meant that Ellie wasn't going to be action woman, disarming a nuclear warhead—part of the tension is whether she will even keep it together.
Most of the novel is set in Beijing, which you evoke with extraordinary detail. What were the challenges of setting a novel in China?
I travel to China often, Beijing in particular. Still, I wouldn't feel comfortable writing a character with a Chinese point of view. With Ellie I created a character who has a familiarity with China, but is also an outsider, so it's easy to have her notice the kinds of things that a reader would notice. There are so many misconceptions for Westerners about the Chinese, and there's not a lot of Western fiction being set there yet. There is a lot of great contemporary Chinese writing becoming available in translation, but unfortunately what a lot of people have in mind still is the more typical “foot binding” sagas. Not many people have written about China as the kind of place where there's a Starbucks on every corner.
How did you come up with the idea for the fictional online game the Sword of Ill Repute, which features prominently in the plot?
Online gaming is huge in China. There are reports of people dying in front of their computers having played 48 hours straight of World of Warcraft, stuff like that. There's a lot of debate in China right now over how to regulate online gaming, and there is an incident in the book of an online protest that was based on a real event, where avatars swarmed a marketplace and actually put the avatar of one of the leaders of a game in a virtual jail.
What's next for you? Do you think we'll see Ellie in the future?
I'm working on a new book, set in Mexico, but it's a little early to talk about it. I've definitely thought about Ellie a lot, and through my magpie plotting method—look, shiny!—I've gathered things that would be interesting for her to do. I definitely want to write about China again. We'll see how this one does.