Hour of the Rat (Soho Crime) is Lisa Brackmann's new gripping sequel to widely acclaimed Rock Paper Tiger. The novel follows spunky Iraq vet Ellie McEnroe's adventures through China's gorgeous countryside as she encounters horrifying environmental realities in the e-waste capital of the world, Guiyu. On a hunt for her buddy's mysterious brother, Ellie also has to run from the Chinese police and evade an obsessive millionaire art collector. Consider Hour of the Rat an essential summer read that will leave you loving Ellie and hating almost everyone else on Earth.
Brackmann talked to Bustle about her new novel, plus China, environmental degradation, and, naturally, Patrick Duffy.
BUSTLE: tell me about your time traveling in China. Did you get to see the reality of Guiyu?
LISA BRACKMANN: I've been traveling in China for about 30 years, and the environmental problems are something that have really taken off with the economic development. It's the dark side of bringing a lot of people out of poverty and becoming an economic powerhouse: in order to do this, any environmental considerations are thrown out the window.
Guiyu is a real place. It's in the south. It was profiled in 60 Minutes, and Greenpeace China has been really involved there. I did not visit, but to a smaller extent you can see this kind of environmental degradation any place you look in China. For example, the air pollution in Beijing: in the capital city, the air is literally not safe to breathe a lot of the time, and you can't see across the street.
It's really a country-wide problem. I did want to go to Guiyu, but I'll admit it: I kind of chickened out. It's a nasty place.
You wrote on your website that after your first visit to China, you returned to the United States feeling changed. Tell me how your time in China shed light on yourself and your life at home. What did you learn?
At the time, I was 20 years old and had grown up in southern California. China in 1979 was a very different place than it was now. It was just after the Cultural Revolution, and there was very little Western presence or culture in China at all ... I was in a place where, for the first time in my life, there was no American culture at all. Nothing. Except for bootlegged tapes of The Sound of Music. And they actually ran this TV show called The Man from Atlantis that starred Patrick Duffy and lasted about six episodes. Somehow it ended up on Chinese television.
Being that far removed from everything you're familiar with culturally is kind of liberating. At the time that I was there, I never really experienced culture shock, but when I got back, it was very hard for me to reconcile these two realities. It was jarring. Here I was in San Diego, where nothing had changed, and I had known this completely different reality on the other side of the world. You can know these kinds of things intellectually, but experiencing it is quite different.
Have you experienced this type of reality inversion anywhere else?
No ... there were a lot of things I was thinking about in China: I come from a huge country that has a significant impact on the world, and here I am in another huge country that was not outwardly focused at the time, but still had a huge impact, culturally, on the rest of the world. It was like being in a near-universe reality.
I've traveled to Mexico and Europe, but these didn't feel as completely unfamiliar as China.
You also wrote that you've had a lot of different careers in your past and have tried screenplay writing. What do you love about writing novels?
Well, when you're writing a screenplay or teleplay, you're writing something that's not finished. It's a blueprint for other people to come in and do huge parts of the work—to visualize it, to act it and direct it, to create the sets. On some level the screenwriter is the architect, but on another level the director is the architect. That collaborative process could be really fun, but if it doesn't get made, it never gets finished.
But, with a novel, whether it gets published or not, you have the satisfaction of knowing that what you saw in your head has been created. You have the sense of completing the project.
In Hour of the Rat, how did you come up with the leg of the story that deals with Ellie's involvement with the DSD [the Chinese equivalent of the FBI]? How did you develop those specifics?
This book is a lot different from Rock Paper Tiger, which gave a lot of details of Ellie's time in Iraq and how she got to where she is. In Rock Paper Tiger, you meet one of the characters, John, but it's not clear who he works for and what it is that he does. I was kind of influenced by The Crying of Lot 49, the Thomas Pynchon book. There were certain aspects of the first book that were metaphoric and that I left mysterious. I hadn't planned on writing a sequel.
When it came time to write the second book, I knew I wanted to write about the environmental issues in China, and I also knew it was time to decide about these open-ended plot strands of the first book.
Then it was a matter of researching how the Chinese police system and the police state are organized. It really gave me a headache, but I wanted to do my best to make it credible.
Is this the end of Ellie's story?
No. This time, when I got to the end of the novel, I left things open-ended deliberately. There are plot strands from the first book and the second that I want to resolve. I am working on the third book now, and I'm going to resolve a lot of those things. I don't want to say what, specifically, but things like her relationship with the artist who's been in hiding, and now her relationship with John, and her mom—I want to resolve these issues that have been running through the first two books.