JULY 4, 2016
A WOMAN WHO PLAYS the bass ukulele is hardly the type to chase fads. While today’s female-centric crime fiction has been swarmed with the kind of domestic noir made popular by Gone Girl, Lisa Brackmann continues to go her own way.
Her smart thrillers pit female protagonists against master manipulators worthy of Maurice Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus. Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series features an Iraqi war vet living in China, while her first Michelle Mason book, Getaway, follows a widow whose life is knocked upside down on a vacation in Acapulco, when a high-powered creep named Gary demands her help, coercing her with trumped-up cocaine charges and a violent attack at the city dump.
In the sequel, Go-Between, Michelle has finally recovered from the bruising adventures that propel the plot of Getaway. She and her boyfriend, Danny, are living in Northern California under assumed names. They’ve created a pleasant life for themselves, but Danny screws it up when he’s busted in Texas with a plane full of pot. Creeps being what they are, Gary not-so-coincidentally reappears just when Michelle needs help getting Danny out of jail. As Gary pulls strings once again, Michelle finds herself playing a dangerous game as she trades favors for Danny’s freedom.
Like the women found in the pages of domestic noir, Brackmann’s female protagonists are (somewhat) regular Janes. But Brackmann kicks them out of the house. She takes them out of their known worlds and installs them in bigger social and political contexts, batting them around and putting them to the test.
I interviewed Brackmann by email about authorial megalomania, the prison-industrial complex, and winking at readers.
KIM FAY: Getaway is a stand-alone novel, but it also has an open ending. Did you have a sequel in mind while you were writing Getaway, or were you drawn back to Michelle’s story later?
LISA BRACKMANN: I fully intended for Getaway to be a stand-alone. I understand how the ending reads as somewhat ambiguous, but to me it summed up what I came to see as one of the central themes of the book — life deals you a lot of unexpected blows and sometimes all you can do is hope you can pick up the pieces when you land, wherever that might end up being.
I decided to write a sequel because, well, my publisher asked me if I’d be interested in doing one. My first response was, “No! Why? No way!” because I really did feel like Getaway told the story I had wanted to tell.
Then I thought some more about it. I realized that I would enjoy revisiting Michelle. At the beginning of Getaway, she is a character who has suffered devastating loss and gets pulled into a situation where she is completely out of her depth, for which she has very little in the way of relevant experiences and skills, other than her ability to be somewhat of a social chameleon. Her learning curve is quite steep, and she’s a different person by the end of that book. I thought it would be a lot of fun to show this woman who is now tougher and savvy, and who this time knows the magnitude of the mess she’s in, even if she doesn’t know the exact details of her nemesis’s scheme.
The “nemesis” was another motivation. I don’t generally write out-and-out antagonists whose villainy powers the narrative of an entire book, but Gary from Getaway is one, and he is just a lot of fun to write. He’s a horrible person who has a great time being awful.
Finally, when I decided upon the US prison industry as a partial backdrop for the story, this was a huge motivation for me. I’d been interested in the issues surrounding our “prison-industrial complex” as some refer to it for a while. The other elements I put into this mix, marijuana legalization and “Dark Money” — the use of “social welfare organizations” to raise unlimited funds that are shielded from any kind of public scrutiny — are also issues that interest me. I felt that all of this added up to a book that in a way is the flip side of Getaway, which dealt with the malign impact of the War on Drugs in Mexico and corruption on both sides of the border. Go-Between is my attempt to take a closer look at the corruption on our side.
You mentioned to me once that you think your books are pretty funny in places, but you’re not sure how much of this comes across to your readers. Do you intentionally weave humor into your stories, and is it important to you that your readers find it in your novels?
I think a part of what makes a suspense novel suspenseful is the unexpected, and humor where you don’t expect it is a part of that. I tried to do some of that in Go-Between, where some of the “bad guys” Michelle encounters are not at all how she expects them to be. It’s also a way to manipulate tension — suspense needs periods of release as well as terror. Mainly I like to write stuff that is serious and intense, but I don’t know that I’m capable of writing a book without some humor to it also.
The openings of Getaway and Dragon Day both have a pretty big wink at the reader to them: Michelle’s reading of a very predictable romantic novel right before she meets a dark, handsome stranger on the beach and Ellie’s discourse on the cliché of dragons and China. With Getaway it really does set up the whole novel — this is not going to be one of those beach books. Hour of the Rat also has a fair amount of humor in it. I call it “a light-hearted romp through the environmental apocalypse.” Because when you are dealing with something that heavy, I feel like there needs to be relief in the story as well. Especially with a character like Ellie, who is dark, depressive, and self-destructive. She at least has a funny way of looking at things.
Whether all my readers pick up on this or not is something that I can’t control, but I think if you don’t see the humor in the books, you probably won’t like them as much.
Your Ellie series is set in China and your first Michelle book in Mexico. Go-Between moves back and forth between Humboldt County (in northern California) and Houston. Humboldt is a logical locale for crime fiction — it’s a place known, like the parts of China and Mexico you explore, for illicit activity and the corruption that comes with it. But Houston? If it’s an outlier, why did you choose it, and if it’s not, what parallels do you see between it and the other locations you’ve focused on?
I needed a location where the drug laws are different and a lot more draconian than they are in California. Texas and California have really gone in different directions when it comes to drug policies. Both states are big players on the national scene, where the impact of “local” politics extends far outside their borders, and culturally there are a lot of contrasts. In terms of similarities, both states have big prison systems and a lot of problems in those systems.
Mainly I had been to Houston a few times and thought, “This is a weird, interesting city! It would make a great setting!” This is actually one of my guiding principles when it comes to choosing locations. It’s much easier to bring a place to life if you’ve been there, and I find most places are interesting if you look closely.
The Big Thrill quotes you as saying, “I can’t see myself writing something that does not deal with some larger political issues.” You’ve addressed the Iraq War, Chinese Muslim minorities, ecoterrorism, and dissident artists to name a few. Why do you consistently incorporate major issues into your books, and specifically, how did you land on the issue of the corporatization of prisons in Go-Between?
I’ve long been interested (which is to say, appalled) in the privatization of things that I feel should not be privatized. It’s a long, sad trend in contemporary American politics, one which I hope has finally reached an end and the beginnings of a reversal. I’d been following the for-profit prison industry and the influence of the prison industry in general for a number of years, increasingly feeling that it sums up much of what is wrong with the ideology that everything should be a money-making opportunity rather than a service for the public good.
Not that there’s anything wrong with enterprises being run efficiently — there isn’t — but that inserting a profit motive into a thing necessarily makes it more efficient. I think there’s a real moral problem with creating a profit motive to “fill beds” in a correctional facility. I have to think it has helped criminalize behavior that might be better dealt with outside the criminal justice system or at least to maintain this punitive focus. Certainly there is little incentive in such a system to look at alternatives or to concentrate on rehabilitation. And the reality is, the great majority of inmates will at some point return to society. What kind of tools do we want them to have when they do?
In a more general sense, I like to engage with political issues in my fiction for a number of reasons. I’ve always been interested in politics and domestic and foreign policy — there was a time when my goal was to join the Foreign Service, not write novels. I like trying to figure out how the world works, how we humans have chosen to organize ourselves. Because these are not abstract issues that are somehow detached from how we live our lives — they are fundamental to our experiences and have very real impacts and consequences. I guess a part of me wants to call attention to what I see as injustices because I want to help fix them (many writers are kind of megalomaniacs, and it’s possible I am one of them).
Also? I tend to write about things that make me angry. It’s an energy that can help get you through the long slog that is writing a novel, but it’s also for me a productive way of dealing with anger. I was talking to a friend the other day about this. There are so many things in this world that are enraging, that we should be angry about. But you can’t live your life being angry every day. It’s too hard a way to live.
Wrapping up with the traditional “what’s next” question, will we see Ellie or Michelle again, and are there any other issues on the back burner that you hope to address in books to come?
I don’t have any immediate plans for more Ellie or Michelle books, but never say never. If I think of a story where one of them is the right vehicle to tell it, I’ll write one. Right now I’m working on a stand-alone involving mass shootings, political polarization, and internet shaming — you know, good times! Beyond that, I have no idea. Just that my goal with this writing thing is to keep it interesting and to continue to grow.