Please welcome guest Lisa Brackman, author of Black Swan Rising!
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Several things. I’d recently moved back to my hometown San Diego. I live in what was a few years ago a swing Congressional district. Because of gerrymandering in many parts of the country, actual swing districts are rare in the U.S., but California has a panel of retired judges who draw districts, so we do have some competitive ones.
The amount of money poured into this race was astounding. At the time it was the most money ever spent on a congressional contest. Much of it was dark money from out of state – money where you do not know who the donors are. There are no limits on this type of spending. As a consequence, every time I turned on the TV I’d see attack ads. It got to the point where you just wanted to take a shower after seeing them.
I was also just very interested in the changes in my hometown in the years I’d lived away. San Diego had become a much more diverse and in many ways more interesting city than the Navy town of my childhood. And you tend to think of the place where you grew up as “ordinary.” It’s what you know from childhood. So to me, San Diego was always baseline “normal.” But go to other parts of the world, and Southern California is an exotic, strange place. I wanted to bring both perspectives to the city as a setting – what makes it “normal” and what makes it unique.
One of the smaller changes that I really enjoyed was the growth of the craft beer industry. San Diego can make a strong case for being the craft beer capital of the country (maybe even the world). We have something like 152 operational brewhouses here. Brewery tasting rooms have become real community gathering places—craft beer culture is lot of fun, and it gets people to other parts of the city they wouldn’t necessarily think to visit otherwise. I don’t know many other places where you will have random conversations about hop varieties with so many different people.
I had also been following something called GamerGate. In case you missed it, “GamerGate” was ostensibly about ethics in journalism covering the online gaming industry. What it really was about was attacking and shaming women involved in that industry who advocated for more inclusive and more women-friendly games or who examined the kinds of sexist and racist tropes common in gaming. These attacks ranged from constant online harassment of women, people of color and at times, their male allies to doxing, “swatting” (calling in a fake police report to provoke a SWAT team response on a target) and real-life death threats.
Most of the attackers were young men who objected to what they saw as encroachments on “their” territory.
Finally, I’d been thinking about mass shootings. They literally happen every day in our country, and it’s very easy to be shocked and appalled by a particular incident at the time it happens, and then that incident quickly recedes from public consciousness, to be replaced by the next slaughter.
There’s a common theme with mass shooters that at the time was not much discussed. They are mostly white men, and the great majority of them have expressed or acted upon misogynist sentiments. Most shootings are in fact “domestics,” with the majority of victims being the male shooter’s family. But look at almost every high-profile mass shooting and you will find anger towards women. Dig a little deeper and you will also find extremist political sentiments. Granted, these are often incoherently expressed but they are there. Christopher Harper Mercer, the killer behind the Umpqua Community College shooting, is an example who also provided partial inspiration for one of the killers in Black Swan Rising. Socially awkward, living with his mother, unemployed, no girlfriend, known to frequent “incel” chatboards, fascinated by Nazis and firearms. Angry at the world, convinced of his own victimhood.
After writing the first chapter and a basic pitch, I put Black Swan Rising aside to work on my fifth book, Go-Between. I ended up writing the bulk of BSR in 2016. The political climate at the time undoubtedly influenced the book, but since I finished it, I’ve watched more and more events unfold that feel like what I wrote. I’ve said that I feel a bit like Casey Cheng, one of the two leads in BSR, a reporter who fears that by giving something a name, she’s helped bring it about. I don’t actually think I have that kind of power, at all, but it’s definitely one of those times that I don’t much like being right.
Tell us about your main character.
Black Swan Rising has two protagonists, with a third POV character who is nearly as prominent. The first is Sarah Price, a young woman who is working on the reelection campaign of a San Diego congressman. She is very smart, very shy, even closed-off. She doesn’t trust and she doesn’t share. There are reasons for that—she has a secret past that won’t stay secret and threatens to engulf both her and the campaign she’s working for. You find out in the first sentence of the novel that she’s being harassed via email. The harassment is explicit and ugly. The question is, why is this happening to her? And also, what will she choose to do about it?
The second lead is Casey Cheng. Casey is a local television news reporter with ambitions far beyond the usual fires, crimes and surfing bulldog stories she generally is assigned to cover. She gets her wish but not the way she would have liked or hoped when she’s seriously injured in a mass shooting incident. Casey pitches a series of stories about the long-term impact of these shootings—what happens to victims after the sorrow and outrage and public spotlight have moved on to the next slaughter. When she investigates the man who nearly killed her, she finds a connection to a group of online harassers called #TrueMen—and realizes her shooter may not be the only killer they have inspired.
Casey is very different than Sarah. She’s confident, outgoing and more at ease in the world. But she still has to overcome a significant trauma to get on with her life, and though she’s determined to do so, the trauma affects her far more than she would like to admit.
The third major POV character is Lindsey Cason. Lindsey is married to Representative Matt Cason, the congressman running for reelection. She’s a complicated and rather prickly character who is currently serving as the campaign’s finance director even though she doesn’t much like the work, because somebody has to do it, and she wholeheartedly supports Matt’s career. But meanwhile she’s been stifling her own ambitions, and she and Matt are not particularly happy in their marriage. When the campaign itself becomes a target of violence, she has some choices to make—and some danger to face.
How did you get started writing?
When I was five, I wanted to write an epic novel about cats who went camping. But I could not spell “tent,” and my mom was on the phone with her best friend and couldn’t help me. Thus, sadly, that work has been lost to the ages.
What do you think makes a good story, and how do you incorporate that into your books?
Compelling characters, conflict, real stakes (not artificially inflated ones), interesting, vivid settings.
For me, though I do think a lot about story and larger thematic elements, writing still exists on a sentence-by-sentence level. I really care about the quality of my prose, and I aim to make every sentence tight and effective. On the Big Picture side, I also spend a lot of time just thinking about what I am writing, or want to write, and what that all means, and how I might bring more depth to it.
If you couldn’t write, what would you do?
I would do the other things that I do right now—play music (I sing and play bass guitar), take long walks, hang out with friends, pet my cat, read books, study foreign languages, travel the world. I just need to figure out how to fund all these activities. I’d maybe take up drawing and painting, something I used to do when I was a kid. I’d also want to be more involved in things that I think are important – urban transit, environmental causes in general.
Lisa Brackmann has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and was the singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band. Her debut novel Rock Paper Tiger, set on the fringes of the Chinese art world made several “Best of” lists, including Amazon’s Top 100 Novels and Top 10 Mystery/Thrillers, and was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, Getaway, won the Los Angeles Book Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for the T. Jefferson Parker SCIBA award. Hour of the Rat, #2 in the Ellie McEnroe series, was short-listed for Left Coast’s World Mystery award, as was Ellie #3, Dragon Day (and was a Seattle Times Top 10 Mystery Pic). Lisa lives in San Diego with a couple of cats, far too many books and a bass ukulele.