‘When Trump was elected, overnight my book changed. I didn’t al­ter a word’ At­tica Locke

The nov­el­ist and screen­writer on the lure of crime fic­tion, and why her lat­est book is a love let­ter to black Tex­ans In­ter­view by Paul Laity

The Guardian - Review - - The Books Interview -

‘ Iwrote the book pri­mar­ily in 2016,” At­tica Locke says of her new crime novel Blue­bird, Blue­bird , “so the rise of Don­ald Trump and of peo­ple feel­ing free to speak their white su­prem­a­cist be­liefs” had be­gun. The plot re­volves around mur­ders with a con­nec­tion to the Aryan Broth­er­hood of Texas: “Are you talk­ing about the Klan?” her hero, Darren Mathews, is asked. “Worse,” he replies: “It’s the Klan with money and semi-au­to­matic weapons.” The pol­i­tics of race sat­u­rate the sus­pense­ful tale, which is the first in a se­ries set in the near present day. “When Trump was elected,” Locke tells me, “I re­mem­ber feel­ing: oh my God, overnight my book changed, and I didn’t al­ter a word.”

Mathews, a Texas Ranger be­set by dif­fi­cul­ties but proud to wear the lon­es­tar badge, is de­ter­mined to in­ves­ti­gate “homi­cides with a racial el­e­ment – mur­ders with a par­tic­u­larly ugly taint”. He re­flects on the long his­tory of racial prej­u­dice his fam­ily has suf­fered and his re­cent hope that “change might trickle down from the White House”. But “in fact the op­po­site had proved to be true. In the wake of Obama, Amer­ica had told on it­self.” Locke has been forth­right in her anal­y­sis of the dis­com­fort many Amer­i­cans felt hav­ing a black man as pres­i­dent: “A large seg­ment of white folks … could not take that.” In­ter­viewed hours af­ter Trump’s elec­tion, she saw his vic­tory “through the lens of race”, as a “back­lash” to Obama.

We talk in the wake of the vi­o­lent events in Char­lottesville, and Locke, who is from the south – she was born in Hous­ton – main­tains “there’s noth­ing sur­pris­ing to me in what’s hap­pen­ing”. “Ev­ery­thing about Trump has led to #Char­lottesville,” she tweeted. She notes the ubiq­uity of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments – “there was a Robert E Lee high school where I grew up” – and be­lieves it is “dan­ger­ous to have th­ese relics of the past un­ques­tioned and all around us … It’s laced into a child’s un­con­scious all the time, the re­gion’s racist past”. In other words, “they are tools of white supremacy. They are there to fuck with your head.”

“All of a sud­den,” Locke says, Blue­bird, Blue­bird is “res­onat­ing in a way that I had not pre­pared my­self for. I was just telling a story that I knew to be true about Texas, but I didn’t know it would speak to some­thing larger.” The novel is Locke’s fourth, and ar­rives af­ter a spell of her writ­ing for the enor­mously suc­cess­ful TV show Em­pire , the hip-hop mu­sic in­dus­try saga dubbed the “black Dy­nasty”. “I missed books, and I missed writ­ing about Texas,” she says. She has lived in Los An­ge­les for many years, but is a great en­thu­si­ast for her home state, and owns a “very big” col­lec­tion of cow­boy boots. In the novel she has given Mathews a sim­i­lar fam­ily his­tory to her own: her peo­ple are “from towns along High­way 59, go­ing back to slav­ery. We are the peo­ple who stayed.”

Be­gin­ning in the sec­ond decade of the 20th cen­tury, “there was a great mi­gra­tion of black peo­ple leav­ing the south”. But de­spite seg­re­ga­tion and “Klan ter­ror”, “we set down roots”, she ex­plains. “Part of that was to do with class – we owned land … we dared any­one to run us off.” Blue­bird, Blue­bird is, she has writ­ten, “a thriller and a char­ac­ter study, but it’s also, at heart, a love let­ter to black Tex­ans and a thank you to the ones who raised me”.

Locke’s fam­ily in­cludes the first black pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin. Her mother’s ma­ter­nal grand­mother, who ran a road­side cafe where she cooked food for black trav­ellers, was the di­rect in­spi­ra­tion for Geneva Sweet, who in Blue­bird, Blue­bird serves up fried pies and has blues records in her cafe’s an­cient juke­box. Her tiny es­tab­lish­ment is a kind of an­tipode to the white su­prem­a­cist bar just down the high­way, whose owner lives in a grand house built to re­sem­ble Thomas Jef­fer­son’s Mon­ti­cello. Two bod­ies are dragged from the bayou, one a black man, one a lo­cal white woman, and grad­u­ally Mathews un­folds a com­plex his­tory of race, sex and mis­ce­gena­tion.

Although Locke swore she would “never write a cop” – her nov­els Black Wa­ter Ris­ing and Pleas­antville both cen­tre on a lawyer, Jay Porter – she changed her mind for two rea­sons. First, she wanted her nar­ra­tive to be set all along the high­way – “a Ranger ranges”. Mathews has a de­gree from Prince­ton but knows what it means “to stand on the land where your fore­fa­thers had forged your fu­ture out of dirt”. (Locke shows me a photo of her fa­ther, com­plete with cow­boy hat, on the fam­ily land where her grand­par­ents were born.) In writ­ing her black hero as a high-sta­tus Ranger, Locke wanted to turn “the im­age of lone-star swag­ger on its head”.

Jill Leovy’s study Ghet­to­side (2015), which tack­led a “plague of mur­ders” of black men in south Los An­ge­les, fo­cus­ing on how lit­tle was done to solve the crimes, had a big im­pact on her. “It flipped the script of only con­sid­er­ing the over­polic­ing of black life, and asked the reader to con­sider its un­der­polic­ing. Mathews was cre­ated as some­one who could sit on the ques­tion: is the law some­thing we can trust to pro­tect us or is it some­thing we need pro­tect­ing from?”

In the past Locke has said: “I think I get away with a lot of po­lit­i­cal stuff be­cause of the pres­ence of a dead body. If you have fa­mil­iar sign­posts along the way … read­ers get com­fort­able, and then you can slide in all this other ma­te­rial.” Her de­but, the Orange prize-short­listed Black Wa­ter Ris­ing (which re­ceived plau­dits from James Ell­roy and Val McDer­mid among many oth­ers), was given an ex­tra di­men­sion thanks to the black ac­tivist back­ground of her pro­tag­o­nist, the wary Porter. Both Locke’s par­ents were them­selves in the “move­ment” at the be­gin­ning of the 1970s – her fa­ther was an as­so­ciate of Stokely Carmichael and was put on trial. At­tica, born in 1974, was named af­ter the 1971 prison riot: “The older I get the more I have an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my name, it’s al­most a mis­sion state­ment. It has in­stilled in me a sense of a base level of hu­man­ity we’re not sup­posed to go be­neath.”

Her par­ents di­vorced when she was young: their mar­riage, forged in “the ex­cite­ment and sen­su­ous­ness and heady in­tel­lec­tual at­mos­phere of the move­ment” pe­tered out when the move­ment did. Her fa­ther be­came a prom­i­nent lawyer, her mother a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­woman. “Part of why I wrote Black Wa­ter Ris­ing,” Locke says, “is that I grew up with peo­ple who had a deep his­tory, one that must have hurt be­cause they didn’t talk about it. I was try­ing to get un­der the sur­face, to ex­plore what it must have felt like to have done all of this amaz­ing stuff at 19.”

Locke was the first black stu­dent at an all-white el­e­men­tary school, an “over­whelm­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence, and later would write sto­ries on her fa­ther’s law­prac­tice sta­tionery, even try­ing to sell them to her high-school friends. But she “didn’t get se­ri­ous as a writer un­til I got re­jected as a movie di­rec­tor”.

A fel­low at the Sun­dance In­sti­tute, Locke as­pired to be the next Spike Lee, but though she se­cured a movie deal, with a story sim­i­lar to Blue­bird, Blue­bird, the stu­dio pulled the plug, on the grounds that the film had a black lead but also white char­ac­ters, and the “world isn’t in­ter­ested in the ru­ral black south”. “I felt de­spair,” she re­calls. “Back then there was no busi­ness model for who I was.”

Her re­sponse was to be­come a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer, highly paid and sought af­ter, though “noth­ing ever got made. It was al­most like the old stu­dio sys­tem … This was a time when se­quels and su­per­hero movies were start­ing to ramp up, and I was writ­ing po­lit­i­cal thrillers and char­ac­ter-based sto­ries. It was fake suc­cess, money suc­cess. I got dis­il­lu­sioned and walked away.” The cash at least en­abled her to put her hus­band, a pub­lic de­fender, through law school. They met at univer­sity, when she was 17. “At first sight, I couldn’t stand him,” she laughs. “He was so weird. He was white. I was a sweet lit­tle girl, and he was this guy with long hair, leather jacket, ear­rings, and he reeked of cig­a­rette smoke. He was so smug! But over time I started notic­ing things about him that made me ques­tion my ini­tial judg­ment. When we had to make a doc­u­men­tary, he spent a night on the streets of Chicago with a home­less man.”

There was no doubt about the kind of fic­tion Locke would write: she was al­ways drawn to crime. “I have al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the ques­tion: why do they think they’re go­ing to get away with it? And the woman in me wants to play th­ese things out in or­der to feel some mastery and con­trol over a world in which I’m shorter than 50% of the pop­u­la­tion. I’m scared of ev­ery­thing. But also I think that in essence ev­ery novel is a crime novel – crimes of the heart, moral crimes. It’s all about how we deal with dif­fer­ent types of scarcity: money, love …”

When she fi­nally de­cided on the sub­ject mat­ter of her first novel, she felt she had “come home … I had shown up as my true self, be­cause when I was a screen­writer, I was fre­quently praised for be­ing ‘of no colour’; I did what I was asked to do; I didn’t have an iden­tity. With Black Wa­ter Ris­ing I vividly re­mem­ber sit­ting on the floor of a ho­tel room and cry­ing: I knew that I was about to an­nounce to the world that I’m black. Which seems dumb, cos … duh! But what I was say­ing to the world was: I’m not in­ci­den­tally black. My world­view is black, it’s who I am; there will no longer be any kind of apol­ogy for it.”

Locke’s sec­ond novel, The Cut­ting Sea­son , was set on a plan­ta­tion with slav­ery in its past and im­mi­grant ex­ploita­tion in its present; Pleas­antville was writ­ten in re­sponse to wit­ness­ing her fa­ther’s cam­paign to be­come mayor of Hous­ton – “one of the most painful ex­pe­ri­ences of my life”, due to dirty deal­ing on the part of his op­po­nents and the lo­cal press.

Locke’s daugh­ter, Clara, was vis­it­ing her grand­par­ents in Hous­ton when Hur­ri­cane Har­vey struck, and the nov­el­ist pays trib­ute to the “reg­u­lar cit­i­zens who made all the dif­fer­ence: of­fer­ing their boats, res­cu­ing strangers, of­fer­ing their homes, their stores for shel­ter.” She also sug­gests that “one day when the wa­ters re­cede, Hous­ton will have to con­tend with its love af­fair and ad­dic­tion to in­dus­trial growth. It will be a hard look in the mir­ror.”

Blue­bird, Blue­bird is ded­i­cated to her an­ces­tors, “men and women who said no”. The state de­picted in the novel may fea­ture huge images of Trump, a cafe called Kay’s Koun­try Kitchen (the ini­tials are a “fla­grant act of mi­croag­gres­sion”) and “white na­tion­al­ism” grow­ing like fun­gus in the “so­cial me­dia swamp”. But Ranger Mathews re­fuses to leave. “They don’t get to de­cide what this place is,” he says. “This is my home, too.”

‘I think I get away with a lot of po­lit­i­cal stuff be­cause of the pres­ence of a dead body’: At­tica Locke in Camilla, Texas

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