“You can’t really go forward without understanding what was behind you.”
Photo: Jenny Walters
Attica Locke quit her job in 2005, took out a second mortgage, and gave herself a year to write a novel.
“Honestly, looking back, it was one of the most idyllic times of my life. I am told I was nervous and scared, but I don’t remember it that way. I remember it as the great year that I wrote a book.”
Risky business? Absolutely. But the gamble paid off.
Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising, published in 2009, introduced Jay Porter, a former civil rights activist turned attorney with a pregnant wife and a lot of guilt. Black Water Rising was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edgar Award for best first mystery, an NAACP Image Award, Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and made numerous “best of the year” lists.
Her latest novel, The Cutting Season, which has just hit the bookshelves, has been earning praise for its multiethnic story line that takes place on a Louisiana plantation where the body of a female migrant worker is found. The Cutting Season is the first novel chosen by Dennis Lehane for his eponymous imprint of books at HarperCollins Publishers.
For Locke, her two novels, plus the one she is currently writing, represent career contentment.
“I have a sense that I have come home,” Locke said of the writing process. “I was always heading here. This is where I am most at service to the world. This is me doing the thing I love most.”
For more than a decade, Locke wrote for big movie studios like Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and DreamWorks, turning out intense, character-based scripts. But her career was not the stuff of movies. Despite the good paycheck and the opportunity to write for a living, she became increasingly frustrated.
She never lacked for work as a scriptwriter, but not one of her treatments ever made it to the screen. She was, as she says, “a hired gun” for the studios.
“I am a snapshot for the industry. I made a nice living. I was always working, but none of my scripts ever got made into movies. I got very disheartened. It was like I was only writing scripts for movie executives. There was no audience beyond just going to meetings,” said Locke, whose last script was based on Stephen L. Carter’s novel The Emperor of Ocean Park.
“I wrote screenplays with great moral centers. But so many studios are focused on movies that would make a great ride at Disney or the next remake of Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s not to say that beautiful movies don’t get made, they do,” said Locke.
“I think that people who write screenplays or plays develop an appreciation for what I call the ‘white space’ on the page. I mean the figurative white space when you leave some things unsaid. I think that jazzes up the prose in a way, to leave things unsaid, and it is ingrained in me,” said Locke who was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab.
“I have been told my work is cinematic and I am not trying to be. It is just how it comes out. I would never trade the kind of training I got from being a screenwriter. The constant writing, the getting stronger when it comes to drama and dialogue,” said Locke.
“And I also appreciate getting my ass kicked. Getting all those notes [about changing the scripts], and meeting the various studio executives have made me more laidback about getting suggestions from editors. It can’t get any worse than Hollywood. But also I have a skill set of being able to understand what they mean when they want a scene change.”
Locke says she knew from the beginning that Black Water Rising would be crime fiction.
“It is just my taste. I love movie thrillers. I watch every single episode of Dateline NBC and 48 Hours Mystery. There is something about those heightened scenarios that dance around violence that are a quick way to reveal who someone is. As a woman, I see those shows and novels as cautionary tales, and a way to see what bad behavior looks like and how to avoid it. In a way, most novels are mysteries because the reader doesn’t know that much on page one and then the story gets teased out as it progresses,” said Locke.
Locke’s novels tackle themes of greed, class, and race with a strong emphasis on the past’s impact on the present.
“I am one of those people who feels you can’t really go forward without understanding what was behind you. I see it all connected. Typically, there is some old wound in your past that is interrupting your present. That’s so true of human psychology. Half the time we are reacting to stuff that is really old and not actually happening in the present. But if you don’t go back and heal old wounds, you end up with a lot of baggage that is carried into everything else, and you end up not making great choices,” said Locke. “My hope is that people are not on lockdown by their past. You recognize it, you see it for what it is, but there also can be healing and moving forward.”
Locke found fodder in her own family to flesh out Black Water Rising’s story. Locke’s parents were college activists during the 1970s, but, by the 1980s, their focus changed to raising their two daughters and building their careers.
“A tremendous cultural shift was going on in this country during the Reagan era of the 1980s,” said Locke, who is named after the 1971 prison uprising. Her sister and best friend Tembekile, who acts under the name Tembi Locke, was named by the Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba; the name means “one who is trustworthy” in Xhosa.
“The focus was more on the economic than the political. Money was the new equalizer. My parents played the game, worked hard, bought a house in the suburbs. But I always felt some part of them got left behind. They never talked about it, but I wanted to understand them better,” said Locke, who remains close with both of her parents, her stepmother and stepfather, and her two half-brothers.
But there was another aspect of her life that Locke uncovered when creating Jay Porter—her experiences as a screenwriter.
“At the beginning of the book, Jay wants to just put his head down, not get involved, and just get through it. I had arrived at that place as a screenwriter. At the beginning of Black Water Rising, Jay jumps into the river and that was a metaphor for me starting and writing the book. He can’t help who he is. He is the guy who thinks he is his brother’s keeper. I am the person who has to write the story,” said Locke, who lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, a public defender, and their six-year-old daughter.
“The time period was a way to talk about transitions,” said Locke, 38. “Black Water Rising showed a man and a country in transition. Houston of the early 1980s was emblematic of the start of that decade, the tone of the country, the blind optimism about Reagan. Houston encapsulated all that. Houston also showed that what came out of the big culture and political activism and angst of the 1950s through the 1970s was this thin shellac that we were all going to get rich.
“Of course, Houston didn’t know this big bust was coming,” said Locke, who visited Houston several times while writing Black Water Rising. “Learning about the Houston of the early 1980s also allowed me to understand what it was like for my parents, and how they transitioned out of their activism into their middle-class lives.”
It helped that her father, Gene Locke, an attorney, had worked with the port of Houston when the unions were in the process of integrating. “It was kind of osmosis for me because I had been around so much of the politics and the goings-on of Houston,” said Locke. “Why not use something you have easy access to for research?”
For The Cutting Season, Locke’s inspiration again was personal, only this time it came during a 2004 trip she and her husband made to attend a wedding held at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, about an hour or so outside New Orleans. The sugarcane plantation, with its Greek Revival mansion, 20-foot columns, and wrap-around balcony, is a national historical landmark. It has been a popular spot for movie filming, Civil War reenactments, and private weddings and other events.
Oak Alley unleashed in Locke a sense of “rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.” Her emotions were heightened when she saw the former slave quarters and paused over a plaque that listed the names of every slave who had lived there and cut sugarcane.
Locke said she knew she had to return to Oak Alley and finally made the trek in the late fall of 2009 during the sugarcane harvest, also known as “the cutting season.” She arrived at her small rental cottage on the grounds of Oak Alley late, having picked up some wine and crackers at a nearby store, and sat for hours on the screened-in porch, watching and listening. Sometime during that night, she says, she came up with The Cutting Season’s opening scenes, the fictitious Belle Vie Plantation, and the character of Caren Gray, the plantation’s general manager and caretaker who is African American.
The Cutting Season delves deep into the issues of race and class while delivering a tense and emotional thriller. At Belle Vie, the fields are now being farmed by Hispanic workers while African Americans are running the plantation. As the story progresses, class and economics again prove to be the main dividing line among Locke’s characters.
“There is no way you could set anything on a plantation and not have race [issues] in it. But a lot of Caren’s story is about class and class ascension. If everyone doesn’t ascend with you, is it that much fun to make it into the big house?
“Certain experiences cut across time. For black people, people of color, and women, our economic ascent is complicated because it comes with a lot of other baggage. I don’t know how you celebrate black people’s progress if you just moved in another brown group. Playing a racial shell game, so to speak, doesn’t actually feel that great,” said Locke.
The Cutting Season also launches a new HarperCollins imprint under Dennis Lehane, an author she admires.
“His work has such a moral center to it. That’s my kind of thing,” said Locke, whose excitement is evident. “It’s not just a ride down dark alleys; [it] has a soul underneath it. He wants to share some of his spotlight, and I think that is very gracious.”
Locke had not planned to do a series when she began to write novels. For her, the idea of a sequel just didn’t work, believing that “a book should be the biggest thing that happens in a character’s life.” Then she read Scott Turow’s Innocent, which gave her inspiration. “He took [the character] Rusty Sabich and turned the plot into a psychological revelation because some people do repeat their bad behavior. Rusty is in his sixties in Innocent, and he is still wrestling with stuff that has been going on for 30 years. Turow took what could be the limitations of a sequel and turned it into a psychological reveal.”
So her third novel, which she is currently writing, returns to Jay Porter and Houston, but moves the characters forward to the Clinton years.
“Someone asked me, ‘What would Jay think of Houston now?’ And that got me to thinking. The city has changed and the characters also have changed with the times,” said Locke, whose father ran for the mayor of Houston in 2009, losing to Annise D. Parker, who still holds the office.
Working in her writing around the book tour for The Cutting Season and around her daughter’s schedule, are Locke’s new challenges, which she welcomes.
“The books are a tangible legacy that the scripts were not,” she said.
There is one moment as a novelist that Locke is looking forward to: “I can’t wait to see both my books side by side on my shelf. Then three books, and then four, then five. I just want a chance to keep doing this over and over again. If I can look back on my life with a stack of books, I will think I really did something.”
AN ATTICA LOCKE READING LIST
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #126.