Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Q&A: Lisa Brackmann

Rock Paper Tiger was one of my favorite debut novels of recent years. Lisa Brackmann has followed it up with Getaway. The best blurb I’ve seen for this entertaining book comes from its own pages: “James Bond as told by Cosmo.” For some reason, Lisa agreed to do a VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about GETAWAY?

Getaway is my version of a noir thriller – “Woman in trouble meets man who is trouble, and things go very, very wrong.”

Rock Paper Tiger is an untraditional book in some ways and a pretty heavy one, dealing as it does with Iraq, torture, the War on Terror and what happens when raw power is unrestrained and authority is arbitrary (at least that's what my intentions were with the book; your mileage may vary). So after writing that, I thought it would be fun to do something a little more linear, that has some elements of a beach book but is also a bit of a commentary on them. Thus, the protagonist, Michelle Mason, a recent widow whose financier husband died unexpectedly and left her with a scandal, several lawsuits and a pile of debt. Michelle decides to take a vacation in Puerto Vallarta that was already paid for, hoping to figure out what she's going to do with the wreckage of her old life. Instead, she meets a good-looking American on the beach, and, thinking that she’s in that kind of a beach book, you know, where you meet the hero who’s going to help solve your problems, she takes him to her hotel room, and, as mentioned, things go very, very wrong. Michelle ends up in the middle of a conspiracy involving drug lords, spies and venture capitalists.

Because it’s noir, the lines between “good guys” and “bad guys” aren’t always clear, and everyone is compromised to some degree. Michelle is forced not only to fight for her life but to confront the ways in which she's responsible for her own predicament, how she may have enabled the malfeasance of her late husband by choosing not to confront him when she knew things weren’t right. Getaway, to me, is largely about corruption, be it corruption fueled by drug cartels or by Wall Street financiers. Both varieties have a devastating impact on society; they just do damage in different ways.

Mostly, though, Getaway is a fast-paced thriller that I hope is a fun ride for readers. And that will make you crave a margarita.

Q. I definitely learned more about Puerto Vallarta from your book than from all those episodes of THE LOVE BOAT I watched. The setting is a big part of GETAWAY. How many times have you been there? What surprised you most about the city?

I’ve lost track how many times I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta at this point. Ten? A dozen? The first time was so many years ago that I honestly can’t remember much about my first impressions. I went with a couple of friends, one of whom had grown up part-time in the town. That might account for it feeling like a pretty comfortable environment right off the bat, because she knew her way around and knew a lot of people there.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, because I try not to have a lot of preconceptions about a place before I visit it. For people expecting a resort environment like, say, Cabo, one of the things that I really like about Puerto Vallarta is that it’s an actual town – well, small city – and though tourism is a huge segment of the economy, PV has traditions and businesses and a life that isn’t just about serving tourists drinks by the pool.

In terms of surprises, one was that it’s hard to find a lot of good regional Mexican cuisine in Puerto Vallarta! You can find Jalisco-style food, and you can find a lot of upscale interpretations of Mexican food, but if you want, say, Oaxacan? As one of the characters says in the book, you’re better off in Los Angeles.

Q. Michelle develops a complex relationship with the community of American expatriates in Puerto Vallarta. What did you find most interesting about this group of people? Are financial considerations the primary reason most of them relocated?

Certainly there are a lot of expats in Vallarta who relocated there because the cost of living is lower than in the US or Canada, at least in terms of a lovely seaside community with warm ocean water and beautiful beaches. The medical care is good, too, so if you’re a US retiree living on Social Security, your dollar will definitely go further. PV is also a place where the pace is slower and more relaxed; if you feel like socializing, just go down to your favorite bar and you’ll likely see someone you know. It’s a more human-scale environment in a lot of ways.

I also think being an expat gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself unembedded from the culture that created you and defines you. That can be very appealing. If you don’t feel like you fit in to the place you’re from, living in a foreign country is a way to get away (as it were) from all those expectations. If you’re an alien, being alienated is natural, right?

Q. You’ve already announced that a sequel to ROCK PAPER TIGER will be coming in 2013. Your Twitter feed is full of stories from China and you’ve spent a great deal of time there. What are the most dangerous misconceptions Westerners have about the country in the 21st century?

Oh, there are so many that it’s hard to know where to start. One is that the Chinese economy has become bigger and more powerful than the US economy. In some ways the Chinese economy is more dynamic, to be sure, but the facts just don’t bear out that notion that China is going to rule the world. China has internal structural problems that are very difficult to deal with: a huge population, not enough arable land, environmental devastation, endemic corruption and a political system that while being very good at certain things is terrible at others. Honestly, it’s what really pisses me off when I look at America – by comparison, we have no excuse for fucking things up as badly as we’ve been doing.

But back to China. Westerners tend to think it’s some kind of social and cultural monolith. They underestimate the diversity of the Chinese people, their experiences and their opinions, and how different one part of the country can be from another – the modern seaboard cities versus the interior being just one example.

Also, that in spite of our perception that China is “exotic” – it’s really a place like any other place, where people live their lives and work and raise their families. In spite of the cultural differences and the differences in life experiences, I honestly believe that we’re all way more similar than we are different. I’m writing suspense novels, so of course there are going to be a lot of things that are exaggerated and that you or I are not going to experience in our daily lives (well, let’s hope), but I also strive to depict China with a certain sense of normality – how it is, rather than how we fantasize it might be.

Q. You’ve written about China and Mexico in your first two books. How often do you travel? What country do you want to visit – and possibly write about – next?

I am missing China a lot right now – I haven’t been there since last year, and I’m used to going at least once a year. That said, there are so many places I’d like to see that it’s hard for me to choose. Turkey has long been on my list. Eritrea. Ireland! You name a place, you could probably talk me into going there.

Q. Any plans to write a California crime novel?

It’s entirely possible that I’m working on one now ... ;)

I’m a native Californian, and the state’s incredible diversity in every respect makes it a fantastic setting for fiction. I also spent four days in Houston recently. Don’t be surprised if River Oaks and Shady Acres make an appearance as well.

Baseball Q. You’re from San Diego. You live in the Los Angeles area. Padres or Dodgers?

Oh, this one’s easy. PADRES all the way! Look, baseball is about atavistic hometown loyalty. Even though I’ve now lived in Venice longer than I did in San Diego, I could never abandon my Padres for the hated Dodgers!

Movie Q. You put in some time as a studio executive. What movie that you worked on in that capacity do you like most?

Uh ... boy ... basically I ran a creative/production research department and worked on so many different films that it’s all a big blur. Plus, I am terrible about maintaining mental lists of “favorites.” Ask me if I worked on a particular project and what I did and what I thought about it, then I can tell you.

I will say that I was responsible for the bulk of the Chinese signs that appeared on Firefly. This seems to give me some geek culture cred!

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Depending on my mood, either a glass of good red wine, a microbrew beer, a shot of artisanal tequila or ...

A classic margarita! Tequila, fresh lime juice, a little simple sugar, on the rocks, light salt.