I FIRST HEARD the name Attica Locke a few years ago. One of my favorite mystery writers, Dennis Lehane, had just started Dennis Lehane Books at HarperCollins, and Locke’s novel The Cutting Season would be the imprint’s first mystery. I had been writing Land of Shadows then, and my stomach shimmied as I imagined Dennis Lehane standing anywhere near my manuscript. I googled Attica Locke and … what? Skin the color of chestnuts, short curly hair, and … female? My eyebrows lifted damn near off my forehead. There weren’t a whole lot of us black girls writing mysteries (still aren’t), and Lehane had selected her.
Her first novel, Black Water Rising, had been nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was short-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize in the United Kingdom. The Cutting Season went on to become a national bestseller and winner of the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Locke also writes for TV and film, and is a writer and co-producer on the hit Fox drama Empire. As an African-American female mystery writer, discovering Attica Locke left me breathless. Excited. Hopeful. And even though she didn’t know it, I developed a kinship with her. She had moved from Houston to Los Angeles, and even though this city is the size of a sovereign nation, I figured that we would bump into each other — at an event, on the 405 — one day.
That day came a few weeks ago. High above downtown Los Angeles, Attica and I sipped glasses of Writer’s Block and split white chocolate bread pudding. We talked about her new novel Pleasantville (HarperCollins, 2015), our hometowns, motherhood, and how family influences every word we write.
RACHEL HOWZELL HALL: Obvious first question: How did you come to write books?
ATTICA LOCKE: Around 2005, I had something like an existential crisis. I was making money as a studio screenwriter, and yet it felt like all I was doing was writing unproduced scripts and going to meetings. I got really sick of it. So, I took out a second mortgage on my house, took a year off, and wrote a book.
Black Water Rising. Why this book?
The first story that came to me was the boat scene, with the gunshots, that opens the book. This scene actually happened to my family. But we didn’t stop and get the woman. We just kept going, and afterward, we called the police. Over the years, this really bothered my father, whether or not we did the right thing. Because we literally left somebody screaming for help. I was 11 years old, and my dad said, “We’re not stoppin’ for nothing.”
Would you stop with your daughter on the boat?
Me neither. [Laughs.]
My dad said, “We’re not doing it.” But it’s a story that would get brought up after family dinners. He’d get some Scotch in him and he’d say, “Remember that woman? Remember that boat ride?” When I first started writing prose, that’s what popped up — the story of us on that boat. I chased that story.
Let’s talk about story and genre. Here, in Los Angeles, we call it noir. In the South, it’s gothic. Do you see any difference between the two?
No, I actually find all the labels confusing. There are so many of them: noir, crime, gothic, mystery, thriller. There are too many of them. I like that the United Kingdom calls everything “crime.” That keeps it clean. I understand it’s useful for readers to find books, but I find it tedious and inaccurate half the time.
When somebody asks me about Black Water Rising, I say it’s a literary thriller. I think my second book, The Cutting Season, was a clean mystery. But Black Water Rising has a thriller engine. Something is going on, and circumstances can be changed at any moment.
And [the protagonist] Jay is always running.
And Jay’s always running. It’s that pulse of motion. Whereas in The Cutting Season, there’s literally a dead body in the parlor, and that’s not going to change even if you find out who it is. You can’t change that circumstance. And then the third book, Pleasantville, is a legal thriller.
Tell me about Pleasantville. It takes place several years after Black Water Rising. Reading the synopsis, I learn that Jay’s now a single father — uh oh for Bernie, his wife.
I don’t want to put a spoiler in the interview, but … here’s what happened: my brother-in-law died, and I now have a theory. There is one death in every person’s life that pulls the thread on everything you thought you understood. It might be the first death you experienced, it might be the last. It’s an amalgam of who the person was to you, how they died, how old they were, how old you were.
When my brother-in-law died, that was the one that undid my life. His death pulled the ground from under me. I was so thrown that it would have been impossible for me to write anything without also dealing with that grief. I was grieving at the same time I was thinking about coming back to Jay, as I was thinking about writing Pleasantville. I didn’t want to repeat Black Water Rising, and the loss of Bernie is the one thing that would take Jay back to a place where he couldn’t get his bearings.
As in all good mysteries, there are ghosts. In my novel Land of Shadows, [the protagonist] Lou has her sister haunting her. People linger even when they’re no longer here. I’m thinking about your brother-in-law, and knowing that as a writer, the personal always seeps into your work — and sometimes, bad things have to happen. Before having my daughter, I remember saying to myself, I could never have children die in my stories. But in my new novel, Skies of Ash, two children die because that is the truth.
It was a visceral thing when I realized, “Oh my gosh, she’s gone.” And then I had second thoughts — “You can’t just take her out!” — but that’s death. The more arbitrary and cruel it seemed that I’d just pluck Bernie out, to me, that’s what death is. You arbitrarily pluck somebody out. That’s what Jay is dealing with. So she’s still very much a character in Pleasantville.
What about Los Angeles? You’ve lived here for twenty-something years now. You’re a naturalized citizen! Do you think you’ll ever write an LA story?
I do. [Laughs.] I’m terrified to even say that aloud.
Who am I to do that? I’m not from here. How do you claim being an Angeleno? How do you claim that level of authority to write about this city? I take this shit really seriously. I don’t want to write something where I’m just peppering in street names. I would want to believe that I really got some aspect of this city.
As a native Angeleno, it pisses me off when people who aren’t from here write about the so-called fakeness of Los Angeles. While that may be true in certain places, I truly believe that people here, especially natives, are warm and approachable. We don’t have to act like Angelenos because we are — this is home, we don’t have to put on.
Can I tell you about the number one piece of pop art about Los Angeles that I detest? Crash. I detest that movie. That is not this city. It is such a Westsider’s panic attack about Los Angeles. That movie infuriates me. What is it talking about? People of different races come together here in Los Angeles. I grew up in Texas. In Texas, I’ve seen some racial bullshit. Crash gets it wrong — there is conflict in LA, but there’s conflict because we’re actually living together.
Yes. So we have to figure it out.
It’s integrated in a way that you’re not seeing anywhere else in the country.
I went away to UC Santa Cruz for four years and I came back to Los Angeles because of that, because there are so many people here, and because we all have to figure it out. Here we are, in Los Angeles, in the sunshine, people together. What are we supposed to do? Not deal with it?
Another thing I like about Los Angeles is this: That black guy over there who’s dressed in Dickies? You don’t know who he is. That could be Dr. Dre. You have no idea who’s who in LA We have a different kind of social structure here.
Definitely. So it’s in my mind to write a Los Angeles story. I am absolutely terrified. I don’t even have a story. I just think if I’ve lived here for 20 years, at some point … I’m just so scared of getting it wrong. I was scared to write The Cutting Season in Louisiana and that’s right next to Texas. I felt like, again, who am I? But what helped with that book is that the plantation is all made up; I had supreme authority over this fictitious place I created. I don’t think I could’ve written a New Orleans novel — New Orleans is its own specific thing — but rural Louisiana and the plantation I invented? I could do that.
Tell me if this is similar to anything you experienced in Houston … I grew up hearing about The Big One, the earthquake that was going to break off the city and dump us all into the Pacific Ocean. [Laughs.] Are people “holding their breath” in Houston?
Other than the hurricanes? Not really. But we pretty much took those in stride. Before Katrina, hurricanes were like a strange rite of passage. There was something romantic about the hunkering down.
I’m reading The Great Deluge by Doug Brinkley right now. Winds? Water? Every year? Too much weather!
I grew up in a culture where you taped your windows, got your stuff together. There was an odd calmness about riding it out. Everything stopped. You’re with your family, there’s nothing to do. You have candles, you play cards. You’re in this heightened situation together, the wind is howling … It was romantic. When I was growing up, I wasn’t afraid of hurricanes. Not really. Before the double punch of Katrina and then Rita, I wouldn’t have said there were hurricanes that could level a city.
The only part of that I remember was, “Our license plate ends in an odd number, so we get gas on Tuesdays.” [Laughs.] For Los Angeles, noir means cops somewhere. In Black Water Rising, it’s oil. Do you think you’ll continue that theme in Pleasantville?
I’m drawn to looking at corporate corruption. In a city like Houston, it’s impossible to ignore the power of the petrochemical companies. So when you’re looking for big bad guys, they’re the obvious choice. They’re profoundly interesting to look at.
And it does pick up in Pleasantville in a slightly different way. Jay Porter’s case in Black Water Rising, where he went up against Cole Oil? He won that case, but he never got paid because the decision was appealed. Now, in Pleasantville, he’s built an incredibly successful career as an environmental lawyer. His life’s work is helping people in neighborhoods where they’re getting fucked over by corporations that are either dumping in their backyards or building toxic chemical plants next to their homes. He’s the lawyer for the residents of Pleasantville, where a chemical fire almost decimated the neighborhood.
I have really sweet feelings about my hometown, but industry is not one of them. I think that Houston has a terrible habit of putting jobs and industry first. They can be so short-sighted. If you can bring 250 jobs there, they don’t give a shit what it is. They’ll build anything. They’ll cut around any kind of regulation, if it means jobs. They’re doing very well, but at what cost?
Does that ever scare you, writing about big companies like that?
No. I will say that Pleasantville is about a mayoral race, and my dad ran for mayor in Houston in 2009. That’s where this whole thing came from. I flew into Houston to work on his campaign. I’m in my “Locke for Mayor” T-shirt, riding around with my sister, and suddenly I’m inside of my own novel, Black Water Rising, 30 years later. It was all the same characters. It was the union guys jockeying for power, Metro reporters uncovering stuff. And then you have my dad, who’s basically a sketch of Jay Porter. The woman he was running against looked just like Cynthia Maddox. It was weird. And I looked at my sister, and said, “Is this actually my second book?”
So everyone was cool with that? Even with my friends now they ask, “Am I gonna read this again in a book?”
Pleasantville is the book I’m most nervous about. With Black Water Rising, I said to my dad, “I’m doing this thing. I am not asking your permission. But as a courtesy, I’m letting you know I’m doing this thing.” That’s all I said. And then I’d ask him research questions.
In Pleasantville, I’m not that kind to the Houston Chronicle. At all. And the woman my dad ran against? In a roundabout way, I call her out as a liar and a political animal. So I’m a little more nervous about this one, as is my father. Because he still works with all these people. He lost the race, but he is over the election. He was over it in five minutes.
As a writer, do you say to yourself, “I have to tell the truth, no matter how this may make you feel”?
I always feel very brave when I’m by myself. I’m much more concerned that readers aren’t going to care about what I’m writing. In those moments, I’m not that concerned about stepping on toes. After it’s done, though, I get very nervous that I’m going to piss someone off. The reality that people are going to read it starts to set in. But for the most part, what are you going to do?
Really: how does a nice, God-fearing girl write about evil shit like this?
[Laughs.] To me, books are where I play it all out: the deaths, the murder, all the bad things that can happen. It’s a safe space to play out worst-case scenarios and fantasize about how I might get out of a situation if it happened to me. I think, particularly being a woman mystery writer, that’s a big part of why I’m drawn to this material.
As we walked into this building, I texted my husband and said, “I’m definitely going to need to be on the phone with you when I’m walking back to the car.” I’m already scanning around me and trying to figure out safety. I think women walk through the world with the knowledge that some shit could go wrong at any moment.
I thought the same thing. I parked across the street, and I’m looking, and I’m holding my purse and playing out what could happen to me.
Yeah. And I think that these awful stories we write, where bad things happen to people and to women, is a way to dump your crap on a page and deal with it: some kind of mastery over your fears, or a sense that you could write your way out of it. Maybe you could get out of it in real life, too.
Before I wrote Land of Shadows, I had, of course, read Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane — the masters. And I asked myself, “Where are the stories about us?” Not just in terms of location, but my contemporaries: black women. Women who like wine and shoes and grew up with rotary phones and cell phones, vinyl and digital. I wanted to write that. Los Angeles is a perfect place to depict that kind of duality.
With Lou, as I was writing her, I was thinking about, of course, being a black woman, and I was comparing her to Harry Bosch and all the traditional male PIs and cops. She can’t be like them, because Black Tax, which is very real, states that she can’t mouth off to her superiors and expect to have a job afterward.
Yes, and she also has to dress a certain way. Don’t let her not have that look together. Because she will be treated differently.
I remember, in one review, someone asked, “How is Lou crying over here and then has it together at work?” My reaction was, “You must not know women, first of all, and you definitely must not know Black women.” We don’t have the luxury of being a mess in public. Most of us grew up hearing, “Be a fool at home, but when you’re outside, you get it together.” Same with Caren in The Cutting Season.
People were hard on Caren and thought that she wasn’t likable. She’s the boss and, to me, the point of the book is that she’s caught between what she owes her white boss and what she owes the black workers. She is not liked by them. And she, I think, feels uncomfortable that they don’t like her. But what is she supposed to do? She’s the boss.
Does your daughter know what you write?
Yes, she has a sense that it’s crime. She knows she’s not allowed to read it until she’s in middle school or high school. But she knows what the books are about.
Do you talk to her about crime and Los Angeles?
We do. She’s very naïve, in the sense that she believes that, at her school, no one would ever steal. I don’t want to burst your bubble, I tell her, but thieves are everywhere. Crime happens everywhere. So I talk to her about these things.
One time, when she was much younger, we were getting in our car at Target. This guy with his two sons came up to us and started asking me if I was from around here and that he needed to talk to me about something. I said, “Sir, you need to walk the fuck away from my car right now.” I was with my kid and it just felt wrong. I talked to her in the car and explained that I had a feeling that something was wrong. And that I just wanted to get away.
So yes, I talk to her about situations that make me feel uncomfortable or if I feel like someone is giving me a weird feeling. I talk to her a lot.
We’re storytellers, right? I’m walking down the street with my daughter and I have a vision of that car over there somehow losing control and careening and screeching — boom, we’re wiped out. How do you turn that storytelling mind off? Can you turn it off?
I can’t turn it off. The best I can do is remind myself that I’m writing a story. When I start going off on all these worst-case scenarios about all the bad things that can happen — because I can write 15, 20 of them a day — I have to tell myself, “You’re writing a story right now. Stop.” But that happens all the time.
It’s ebbed some, but at one point, every other day, there was a story about somebody’s daughter murdered by a boyfriend or a husband. Do you have those fears? Can you read those stories? Do you think, “Oh my beautiful girl is gonna find someone that may hurt her?” You’re a crime writer. You put bodies everywhere.
That’s why, I think, I mostly talk to her about instincts, especially since I watch a lot of Dateline and 48 Hours and all that. When you listen to people telling their stories, there are 800 red flags they should’ve noticed. I don’t want my kid to sense something off about someone or about a relationship and then talk herself out of her own instinct. I want her to feel something’s wrong and to then act on it. That’s the best I can do: pray that I raise her to listen to that voice.
I consider The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker to be like a bible. I follow that to the letter. That’s the hope for my daughter, that she feels strong enough that, when someone gives her a bad feeling when they get on the elevator, she won’t worry about being the nice girl and offending that person. Get off the elevator. Like I yelled at that guy: “Get the fuck away from my car.”
Last week, some loud pop happened outside the house and my daughter freaked out. And I’m thinking, growing up where I grew up, loud pops were a constant. You got used to it. And here she is, totally broken down. Part of it is “I wish you were a little harder,” but then, “I’m glad that you’re not comfortable with what could be a gunshot.” No one should ever be cool with that.
As an Angeleno, that’s one of those “holding your breath” moments. Where is that helicopter going? If something happens in Ferguson, will our city burn down again? When Do the Right Thing came out, my friends and I went to see it in Westwood. Afterward, we left the theater to see a line of cops in riot gear, waiting for us to set it off, I guess. That’s how we grew up, in Darryl Gates’s Los Angeles. Was there anything like that growing up in Houston?
Not quite like that. My relationship with the police pre-dates my birth — my parents were political activists. So I grew up with chatter, not just about police, but about Feds. I have memories of my dad unscrewing the phone and taking bugs out of the phone.
I don’t know if it was galvanized around a singular, citywide event. I don’t think Houston has those in the same way that Los Angeles had the Watts Riots and then the Rodney King justice riots. But there was a pervasive sense of race, and we had good ol’ boys. It would take years before I could stand looking at a certain type of person in cowboy boots. You have a visceral reaction to good ol’ boys — you think they’re going to fuck you up in some kind of way. And also, because I’m from the South, driving through the country — very tense.
Growing up in the South, there’s a sense — and I allude to it a couple times in Black Water Rising — that the city feels like the opposite of what you’re talking about in Land of Shadows. Actually, the more urban you are in the South, the safer you feel; in the backwoods, the idea that you can be lynched is still a real feeling. I was much more terrified of driving the country road. The rural stuff for me feels lawless and terrifying.
How does it feel raising an Angeleno?
Weird. [Laughter.] She is such an Angeleno. I mean, she just doesn’t eat the same foods I grew up eating. She doesn’t talk the way I grew up talking.
My daughter was studying Spanish the other day, and she was conjugating her -ar verbs, and in this total Valley Girl accent, ha-BLARR, can-TARR. Hearing her, I’m like, “This is kinda strange. Cool. But a little strange.”
If it means my daughter feels freer than I felt growing up, then I’m happy.
Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the forthcoming Skies Of Ash. Follow her on Facebook at Lou Norton Novels and on Twitter @RachelHowzell.