Attica Locke writes the kind of rooted-in-truth crime story that satisfies both your intellect and your need to have the hair on your neck stand up.
With only her second novel under her belt, she's won praise from other thriller writers like James Ellroy and George Pelecanos. And she just received another high honor: She was awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, which honors outstanding work by rising African-American writers, for her book The Cutting Season.
Locke was a screenwriter, but early in her career she encountered obstacles.
"I did the Sundance Feature Filmmakers Lab ... and came out with a movie deal," she tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. At 24, she says, she thought she "was at the start of something incredible."
But the film was never made. "I was heartbroken because of the reasons why they said they weren't going to make it," Locke says. "That there was some racial considerations in the material that they couldn't figure out how to monetize."
That was more than a decade ago. "Because it was a multiracial cast there was a consideration of 'Who is this for then? Cause clearly it has to be for black people or white people and if you stick them all together in one movie, how do we market this?' " she says.
"What I heard at 24 is, 'There's not a business model in this industry for who you are.' And it frankly scared me to my core. And I kind of started to retreat a little bit," she says. "My husband started law school, I was broke, but I knew how to write."
So Locke became a screenwriter, but she never felt she was fully herself in her work until she started writing books.
The Cutting Season is authentically Locke; it deals with some of the same things she was told early on were not sellable.
The novel tells the story of an African-American woman, Caren, who runs a tourist attraction: a former sugar plantation, complete with restored slave quarters and slave reenactments. The novel is about solving a present-day murder, but also the case of a missing slave from 1872.
Caren is a middle-class woman who isn't particularly well liked by her staff, but she knows that the people who built the plantation were her ancestors. Locke says she relates to Caren's confusion over her identity.
Ironically, now that Locke is writing about stories she can relate to, she says her soon-to-be-released third novel has already been optioned for a film.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Attica Locke is a name you might not yet know. But if you are a fan of the literary thriller, of the kind of rooted-in-truth crime story that satisfies both your intellect and your need to have the hair on your neck stand up, then you will know her name.
With only her second novel under her belt, she's won praise from the likes of James Ellroy and George Pelecanos. And she has just received another high honor - just last week she was awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence given to honor outstanding work by raising African-American writers. And Attica Locke is with us now. Welcome. Congratulations, thank you for joining us.
ATTICA LOCKE: Thank you for having me. And thank you for the congratulations.
MARTIN: You know, you are not new to this scene. I mean, the interesting thing is you are kind of considered a rising talent, but actually you've been writing professionally for - what - a decade now, right? More than a decade now.
LOCKE: More than a decade.
MARTIN: You were a screen writer. You wrote scripts for - what - television and the movies, correct?
LOCKE: I was a hired hand for a very long time. I was quite good at getting paid a lot of money to write stuff nobody made into a movie.
MARTIN: How do you get that job? I mean, some people might think that's not a bad job. How do you get that job?
LOCKE: I followed my path. I mean, I was very interested in movies. I went to film school and I moved to Los Angeles. And I just kind of clawed my way into something. But really I was first going to be a director. I did the Sundance Feature Filmmakers Lab many, many, many moons ago. And, you know, came out with a movie deal and was 24 years old and was at the start of something incredible, I thought. And I was location scouting for this film when they told me they weren't going to make it. And I was just kind of heartbroken. And I was heartbroken because of the reasons why they said they weren't going to make it - that there were some racial considerations in the material that they couldn't figure out how to monetize.
MARTIN: Wait, they actually said that? That's so deep. Let's hear that again - there were racial considerations that they couldn't figure out how to monetize.
LOCKE: I mean, when I put it in the way they say it - it will be a familiar tale to a lot of people but basically it was a little murder mystery, set in a small East Texas town. It had a black female lead - this is pre-Kerry Washington, so they said, you know, if Halle Berry doesn't want to do it, you know, what are we going to do? You know, we're not going to spend a lot of money on that. And because it was a multiracial cast, there was a consideration of, well, who is this for then?
Because, clearly, it has to be for black people or white people. And if stick them all together on one movie, how do we market this? And then the other consideration was that because it was a Southern story - and a Southern black story - is, how do we raise overseas financing for this? Because black American life is not interesting to people in foreign nations, which we all know to be not true. But it's a Hollywood narrative that's really ingrained and hard to break. And so what I heard, at 24, is there's not a business model in this industry for who you are.
LOCKE: And it frankly scared me to my core. And I kind of started to retreat a little bit. You know, my husband started law school; I was broke. But I knew I knew how to write. And so I said, OK, then I'll just be a screenwriter. I'll just adapt the stuff you've already decided you're going to spend money on, and I won't really show up with my full self.
MARTIN: That is amazing. You know, you're telling us something that I think a lot of people outside the industry often wonder about. Why is it that we don't get to see kind of a diverse array of stories on the screen? And you're kind of pulling back the curtain and letting us understand why that has been. So then is it fair to say after a certain point, you got kind of tired of writing other people's stories; and you wanted to kind of get back to what you wanted to say?
LOCKE: Yes. I mean, I felt like - first of all, none of this stuff was getting made. I mean, I was literally making a really great living, but to what end? It was just writing to get to the next meeting. I don't think I could keep this up. It may sound, you know, so courageous that I, you know, stopped everything, walked away from Hollywood and decided to write a novel, but I was breaking inside. I was just miserable. It was as much a reach for a life preserver as anything else.
MARTIN: How did you then set about organizing your life so that you could get back to what it is that you wanted to do? What did you do?
LOCKE: Well, Michel, picture it - the economy in 2005. I took a second mortgage out on my house. I took this leap of faith in that I did borrow money in order that I could give myself one year. And at the end of that year, I had a first draft.
MARTIN: And that was what became "Black Water Rising."
MARTIN: James Ellroy, who wrote the crime thriller "L.A. Confidential," says that you are a standout in every imperative young writer way. I really love what he says about - it's a superlative debut, a wonderful treatise on Texas in the 1980s, the best bad town novel in some time.
LOCKE: He's kind.
LOCKE: He's very kind.
MARTIN: Well, what was it like to get that kind of praise from somebody whose works are so popular?
LOCKE: Incredible - you know, pinch yourself that you've been even noticed in the world; you know, that you've been heard or seen. Every time somebody who has done this longer than me shows me kindness, it really kind of teaches me the way that I want to be. So there - you know, the George Pelecanoses and Dennis Lehans and Tayari Jones, all these people in the world are helping me know how to be when I get to where they are.
MARTIN: How do you get your work in front of people like that? I mean, particularly having, you know, you told us kind of this heartbreaking story. On the one hand, everybody recognized your skill as a writer, but then people - it seemed just in Hollywood, at least at that time - were just not interested in figuring out how - or being creative enough to figure out how people could see these stories on the screen. Is it that as a novelist you just have more freedom, people are more open, they are more willing to entertain this kind of work?
LOCKE: Here's the thing about Hollywood, is that I think if you met with any studio exec, director, producer, individually - you would find some of the warmest, nicest people that would interrupt the stereotype that we have about Hollywood. As an institution I have called it the last great benevolently racist and sexist institution in American life. Why that comes to be is because when you're talking about making art that is into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, there's no way that the whole process doesn't start to become about a return on investment. So that the people that are making the decisions about what goes on the screen are all frankly terrified.
And so what happens is when you want to make your money back you try to say how can I get the broadest audience possible. And there's this idea that what is the neutral American audience is white and male and maybe like 18. And so that's what keeps coming out - stuff that appeals to them. TV right now is doing something incredible 'cause there's just so much more - many more platforms and cable channels in this. I think we're seeing just the most incredible time for American television, certainly in my lifetime if not ever.
MARTIN: Let's tease out some of these ideas, though, because it's just so interesting that your second novel, "The Cutting Season," which has been - received incredible, incredible praise, as well as selling very well - also deals with some of the very things that you were told were not sellable.
LOCKE: It does.
MARTIN: Back in the day.
MARTIN: It's set on a place that was once a sugar plantation but is now a tourist attraction...
MARTIN: With restored slave quarters and slavery re-enactments.
MARTIN: And - OK, I'm trying to wrap my head around this, but this is actually based on a place that you actually visited. You were a guest at a wedding at a plantation.
LOCKE: I went to the Oak Alley Plantation in 2004 for a wedding. Oak Alley is kind of like plantation Disneyland. I mean, there's a gift shop and an ice cream shop, and a restaurant, and a B-and-B. You know, when I went there for the first time, they had taken down all the slave cabins. And all they had was a plaque with the names of every slave that had ever been there, and what they cost. And I was supposed to walk by that in my dress to go get to the champagne for the wedding. I could not, for the life of me, understand why would anybody want to start a marriage here? And why were these spaces being rented out?
And I just found the whole question of how we treat our history, who gets to own it, who gets to present it - specifically in the age of Obama - who do we hold the contradiction of where we've been as a country versus where we're going? This is our history. I mean, nobody's throwing a party at Auschwitz. Why are we turning our history into something that can be rented out like a Hilton? You know, I think when you allow for that, you open the floodgates to some problems.
MARTIN: But one of the things about your novel, "The Cutting Season," your main character, Karen, kind of straddles the contradictions of that whole issue. The novel is about solving a present-day murder, right? But Karen, who is an African-American woman, well-educated, is the general manager of this place. And she has kind of a tense relationship with some of the people who work there, including some of the re-enactors. So I'm interested in how you came up with that idea.
LOCKE: You know, Karen probably represents a lot of my ambivalence about the history and these mixed-up feelings about, frankly, where I come from just as an African-American. You know, when I went to Oak Alley - I went back in 2009, once I knew I was going to write about this place - and there was a sense of, for all of my resistance about going to a wedding on a plantation, having spent more time there, I had to face my own resistance about coming to a kind of peace about my ancestry. And laying down any shame and owning the fact that for better or worse this is my family, this is my history. And I accept it and take, strangely, pride in what a country has done over the ark of its life and then what a race of people has done. Karen in particular came about because when I had said I was going to write this book I started reading everything I could about Louisiana sugarcane plantations. And I found this book with letters home from a Louisiana plantation mistress, clearly a white woman, writing home to her mother in, I think, Maryland.
And when I read that book in 2009 about her tales of being there on the plantation - it was - I actually in 2009 had more in common with the plantation mistress than I did with the slaves. That I was now living a middle-class life, what I felt like was on the back of other people's labor that was making my life easier. And I was kind of blown away to experience that. And it made me feel emotionally confused and I kind of tapped into that when I created Karen Gray.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Attica Locke. She's the author of two novels, "Black Water Rising" and most recently, "The Cutting Season." And she just received the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. How do you want us to receive these, you know, these ideas? You know, it's interesting that we are in a moment where a film - a very brutal look at slavery - "12 Years a Slave" - also based on truth - is a major contender for recognition in this Hollywood awards season.
And a film last year, was one of the big topics of conversation, "Django Unchained," which was obviously a much different film, a much more kind of a farcical kind of look, but also very brutal in its own way, right. Well, what is going on here that people are now willing to think about these issues?
LOCKE: I'll say two things. One, thank God for "12 Years a Slave," and I'm proud of the film and happy for everybody involved with it. I think we are, as a nation moving forward, able to tolerate sitting in the ugliness of our history without feeling like it will interrupt the democracy that we're in now. And I think that President Obama's election is a mitigating factor for a lot of people - that if we could see - you know, we could see ways in which this country can recover. I think it allows us to sit in these difficult things about our past when know we're sitting in a future that's considerably brighter. But I will add this little asterisk on to that, which is to say black stories or stories for people of color are still wrapped in the romance of struggle.
And those are the ones that get through. And the stories that I'm most interested in telling - I talk a lot sometimes about Systems Theory and about First-Order Change and Second-Order Change. And I'm post-civil rights America, that's when I was born. And most of my work is interested in meeting us where we are now and dealing in contemporary racial contradictions and relationships and all that. And I find that those stories - even in publishing - are harder than if we go back to "The Butler" and we're dealing with servitude and we're dealing with slavery and we're dealing with these romantic stories about black life and struggle in the past. I still think that those stories garner and gather much more attention than more complicated stories like "Fruitvale Station."
MARTIN: Well, I also - let me just - going back to your novel - I mean, Karen is kind of the - is the protagonists here who is African-American, very well educated, college graduate with roots on this plantation. Her mom was a cook there, her forebears were slaves there. She's now the general manager. And there's this whole kind of interesting thing going on with who works there, who works there now - a lot of the laborers are Latino, a lot of the people who work on the sugar plantation nearby are Latino - and how people feel about that, whether people are willing to accept her own authority, and so forth like that. And the fact that she is divorced and trying to figure out how to raise her daughter, and depends on her Latino nanny so that she can go to work. I mean, so that's kind of where you are. Your book is not a flashback book.
LOCKE: I'm interested in stories about what happens after we were free, what happens after the Civil Rights Act, what happens after the Voting Rights Act. What is that level of Second-Order Change that's a deeper level of change, where it's not just a couple of black CEOs and one black president - it's a deeper level of systemic change, and that's where I like to hang out. And that stuff is not always easy to make it to a multiplex.
MARTIN: Why the literary thriller genre? How did you happen upon or choose this particular way of telling a story?
LOCKE: You know, it's really just my taste. I kind of am fascinated by - I have watched every "Dateline," dead woman in a ditch, that's on on Friday nights that's ever been aired. I mean, I watch all of these crazy crime shows. And...
MARTIN: You're killing me, right. You're killing me. I work here at NPR, OK, you're killing me, you're killing me. But that's OK.
LOCKE: I watch all of this stuff.
MARTIN: So thank you for ruining journalism as we know it. I appreciate it. Thanks. Understand that. Go ahead, I'm sorry.
LOCKE: There's room for both. There's room for both. I mean, but for me I think there's a fascination with why people do the things that they do and why they think they're going to get away with it. I think there is this kind of comforting strange thing to play out these worst-case scenarios around women in jeopardy and crime so that you can kind of think around it and how you can make sure it never happens to you. I know I read things that way, and I think as a writer I'm kind of playing out my feelings of vulnerability in the world and how I might be able to spot bad behavior before something bad jumps off.
MARTIN: The novel reads like a movie. I have to assume that there is a movie in the future.
LOCKE: I mean, I would hope so. There's been some interest. So knock wood. We'll see what happens.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
LOCKE: I'm in the middle of editing my third book with my editor, which takes me back to Houston, Texas, back to the character Jay Porter. So, you know, between that and motherhood, you know, those are how I spend my days.
MARTIN: Before we say goodbye - for now 'cause I hope we'll speak again...
LOCKE: Me too.
MARTIN: ...'Cause I know that you've got lots more adventures to talk about - do you have any advice for people who may have heard the discouraging words that you heard earlier in your career. I mean, whatever genre he or she wishes to do work in, whether it's film or fiction or poetry, where someone said nobody's interested in that, nobody wants to hear all that - is there some word of advice you could offer?
LOCKE: My advice would be that as long as your love for the medium or the art that you want to practice is bigger than that comment, then you can't really be derailed. I may have discovered that I love books more than I love movies. And now, you know, what's crazy is my first book has been optioned by a producer - "Black Water Rising." So my other piece of advice would be to - the trick in life is to hang out until the miracles come. You do yourself a disservice if you check out emotionally, intellectually before your miracle comes. The trick is to find a way to hang out until something magical happens.
MARTIN: Attica Locke is the latest recipient of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, which was awarded just last week for her second book, "The Cutting Season." Her debut novel was "Black Water Rising." And she was kind enough to join us from Pasadena, California. Attica Locke, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations once again on all your success.
LOCKE: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.