Californian author and former Hollywood executive Lisa Brackmann, 54, has just published her second thriller set in China. In Hour of the Rat , a sequel to the acclaimed Rock Paper Tiger (2010), we again meet Ellie McEnroe, a 27-year-old former National Guard medic and Iraq war vet who is bumming around Beijing. Ellie is asked by an old flame to find his missing brother, an eco-terrorist hiding out in rural China. As she follows a labyrinth of clues around the country, she finds herself pursued by the Chinese authorities, the GMO food corporates, and a billionaire art collector. In the nail-biting chase that follows, Brackmann touches on issues ranging from pollution to evangelical Christianity. She talks to Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.
Both and are imbued with vivid detail about contemporary China. When did you first visit?
I accidentally ended up in China in 1979. I was 20 years old and stayed for six months. All of this development that you see now, none of it had happened in 1979. You got your clothes from markets with ration coupons.
Your main character, Ellie, is continually watched by China's FBI, the DSD. How did your experiences travelling in China when it was first opening up to the outside world inform this?
[In the late 70s] China was very authoritarian. There was no doubt you were being watched and followed. People were heavily monitored if they had any association with you [as a foreigner]. One time we had these students take us around to look at Beijing's Democracy Wall. We were very obviously being followed by plain-clothes policemen. We ended up getting boats and rowing out on the lake in Beihai Park so we could talk.
You have travelled to China regularly over the past three decades. Why do you keep going back?
To me it's always interesting. No matter what you think of China, you're never going to be bored. The Russian nightclub in Beijing, Chocolate, where the doorman is a dwarf, which has these huge reproductions of European masters on the ceiling. How can you not take advantage of that? I mean, I can't make this stuff up.
Ellie has a murky past. In , we find out that she and her ex-husband were associated with an Abu Ghraib-style prisoner abuse during their time serving in Iraq. What was your inspiration for tackling the Iraq war, albeit from China?
I was really p***ed off about Iraq and the war on terror. [I was inspired] by Jessica Lynch who joined the National Guard because she couldn't get a job at Wal-Mart and accidentally found herself in combat. Also by Lynndie England who was complicit in this [Abu Ghraib] torture and abuse and, as it turned out, was also from a poor family, from a trailer park.
Tell us more about Ellie.
She's raised by a single mum; is smart but not academic. Being a medic is one thing she is very good at. She is in this situation which is above her pay grade and doesn't know how to handle it.
Is she at all like you?
Ellie was more like me when I was younger. I think she's braver than I am and probably more stubborn than I am.
Ellie comes from a religious background (she lost her faith in Iraq) and her mother, who visits her in China in , is an evangelical Christian. Why did you decide to tackle this subject?
I'm profoundly annoyed by the intrusion of religion into political and private life. During the Bush years, this fervent religiosity that got injected into the public debate was disturbing. "God bless our fighting planes" or whatever. The complicity of a certain kind of Christianity in war, that doesn't really fit my conception of Jesus or his message.
In , Ellie travels to Guiyu in Guangdong, which is known as one of the largest electronic waste sites on earth. Did you visit Guiyu?
I wanted to and I just kind of chickened out. They really do not take kindly to visiting people who might be journalists.
The Guiyu scenes touch on China's horrific pollution. What are your thoughts on this?
With Guiyu we can't let ourselves off the hook because the pollution comes primarily from electronics from the US and the industrialised world.
You're now working on the third book in the series, to be published in 2014. What can we expect?
It's going to take place right after the second. [It's going to look at] the billionaire art collector and his three kids, one of whom has fallen in with a shady expat American.