Attica Locke is the award-winning author of Pleasantville, winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, Black Water Rising, and The Cutting Season, and worked as a writer and producer on Fox’s Empire. She is also a native of Texas, and descends from two long lines of Texans. It’s that history of the black community in rural Texas that she set out to write about in her new novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, about Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. She spoke to The Millions about race, crime, and all the “weird shit” you see on Highway 59.
The Millions: I saw you speak about this book at BookExpo this year, and you said you want to write a book that expressed the complexity of the black experience in Texas—that black Texans face prejudice, but also love being there and think of it as their home. Your previous books have also been set in Texas, but is this book different as far as what you’re trying to convey about that experience?
Attica Locke: It’s one thing to talk about urban black folks in Houston living a relatively cosmopolitan life. But it has always been true of black folks anywhere in the South—the towns and the rural areas are infinitely more lawless and terrifying than Atlanta or Dallas or Houston. It’s when you get out into the rural areas with a small town sheriff and their version of law enforcement. In the black psyche it’s like, that’s where shit can go wrong. You get pulled over somewhere in the middle of Podunk wherever and nobody ever hears from you again. I do think that writing about the rural area makes this book series different. I also think it speaks to the idea of people who set down agrarian roots, and that was very much my family. My family never left Texas during the great migration. Part of that is class; we owned land, and the sense that you would give that up to move to an apartment building in Chicago was crazy. We hear so much about stand your ground in the lens of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but the flip side of stand your ground is black folks saying you know what, we built this, we’re not going anywhere. We built this place, we are a huge part of it, and the worst of this state do not get to define the entire state. And I meant for Texas to be a stand-in for the country. I do not believe white nationalists in Charlottesville get to define what America is. They are a very loud and very visible symptom of a big-ass problem, but they’re not the whole of what we are.
TM: Randie, the widow of the murdered black man, voices that attitude that you mentioned when she says, why did he come to rural Texas? Of course something horrible was going to happen. And Darren tells her that that’s exactly why he stays. He says being a Texas ranger is a calling, and calls the Jasper murder his 9/11—the moment he decided to stand up and say no, this is our land too, and you can’t make us leave. When I read that I thought, this sounds like what Attica said. Was there a similar moment for you, where you said okay I want to tell this story, we need to speak against this?
AL: I will say that there’s a supreme irony that I wrote this book before Donald Trump was elected. After the election I thought, oh my god, my book just changed. I didn’t change a single word, it was already written, but suddenly there was a kind of urgency behind it that I had not necessarily intended. What changed is that now all of a sudden you don’t have to dig down to find these stories, people are walking in the middle of the street wearing their white nationalist pride. I don’t know that there was a specific incident that led me to it. It’s just a lot of things coalesced at once. I’ve thought for a while about why my family never left Texas, and that made me think about what it means to stay and fight.
I remember when I realized I wanted to write about a ranger. I knew I wanted the series to go up and down highway 59 and it was my agent who said I think you need a main character to take you through this. And when I thought about the types of characters that could move with that kind of freedom, a Texas Ranger came up. I’d always said my whole career I’d never write about a cop, and then here I was thinking about writing about a cop and remembering having read Ghettoside by Jill Leovy and having read that the flip side of our current conversation about the over-policing of black life is a conversation we need to have about the under-policing of black life. There’s a statistic that in all kinds of crimes, when the victim is black, that is where the prosecutorial system falls apart. That’s when people serve less time. It doesn’t matter if a white person or black person did it—when people of color are victims of crimes, they are least likely to get justice. So that’s the flipside of over-policing, and that was kind of an epiphany, to take a law enforcement officer—a black law enforcement officer—and ask these larger philosophical questions of what are we as black folks to do? When is it safe for us to follow the rules?
TM: In the past few years the policing of black lives has become a predominant conversation, at what point during those events were you writing the book, and did that affect it at all? It’s like the book becomes an explainer without meaning to be.
AL: This book is so pointedly contemporary. In all of my books it really matters to me that from page one the readers know where they are in space and time. The first book was 1981, The Cutting Season took place three or four years before it was published. This book seems like so right now, there was a sense of having to stay really clear about what you want to say and not letting the news change how a chapter plays out. Where I’ve gotten nervous—I think I put it in the voice of his uncles when they talk about the different approaches to protecting black life. One uncle, who was a ranger himself, believes that the badge in the right hands could be the thing that saves black lives, and protect it. And his identical twin brother, who was a criminal defense attorney, said the law is a thing that black people need protection from. In my writing I said both of these men were holding on to their own creed that held black life as holy and worthy of continuance. It is the most naked statement that I’ve ever made about the fact that black lives matter. It is no surprise that I believe that black lives matter, that I am about that movement. It’s no surprise that I have a problem with “all lives matter.” But it is something to put that down on paper. It was something when I wrote one little bit where Darren nakedly says “I’m here for Michael.” Missy, the other [white] victim, I can get 20 people here for her in about an hour. I can get Dateline here for her. I can get 20/20. But this man needs my help. That’s a bold to write and sometimes uncomfortable.
TM: A lot of characters in the book are loosely based on your family. The roadside café is similar to one your great-grandmother ran, the locations are close to where your family lived, and you have twin great uncles. Was writing about an area that is so closely tied to your family, and writing in some ways about your family, at all constricting?
AL: No, not at all. I think I felt that more with my first book Black Water Rising because Jay Porter is very clearly a sketch of my father. I think the way in which I’m borrowing my family’s history here is more generalized—the idea of setting down roots, the idea of black women who catered to black travelers on the highway who had nowhere else to go. It isn’t so much that Geneva in the book has the same personality as my great grandmother, it’s just I just grew up with all of this stuff as cultural wallpaper, and so I was just pulling from the familiar. But I didn’t necessarily feel that I owed a representation of my family.
TM: Did you know your great grandmother?
AL: Oh, yes. She passed when I was maybe 10 or 11, so I spent a lot of time with her. The café was gone, it was just stories and old pictures.
TM: I was looking at photos of Corrigan, Texas, on Google Maps when I learned that that’s where your great grandmother’s café was, and I assumed it was a town similar to Lark in the book. Just looking through those photos I was like, oh yeah, this is where the book takes place. I almost wish I had looked through those before I read the book.
AL: I’m glad you did that, because the other thing about this book is that it is a window of Texas that is not the classic southwestern big sky country. East Texas is nothing like that. It is nearer to Louisiana—I call it Louisiana’s fraternal twin. They are connected in some way. It’s lush and filled with forests of pine trees, lots of bayous and creeks, it’s not like the arid southwest. Even my editor, when I started sending pictures to give her an idea for the cover, said, oh you know I’ve never been to east Texas and now I get it. The idea that people would be introduced to the very particular bluesy culture of east Texas is amazing to me.
TM: The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) play a big role in the book. When I read it, I thought, she could not have known that her book was going to come out a month after an enormous white supremacist rally. The portrait of the ABT, especially Keith (Missy’s widower, a man connected to the ABT), ends up being at least empathetic, if not sympathetic, but there are a few moments where you understand Keith and the pain that he was in. How did you approach writing about a group, and even in a few chapters writing from the perspective of Keith, when they have views that are antithetical to your life and characters’ lives and your family’s life going back generations?
AL: A couple of things. One—as a writer I believe that villains and villainy have to be complex. I also think it’s important that in Charlottesville what you saw was a bunch of young guys in polo shirts—you need to understand that that is what it looks like. I think writing from that point of view for a chapter is to say this is actually still a human being. He’s not a monster. He’s actually still a fucking human being. I think that for me I’m always interested in getting at the psychological wounds around racism–be they the wounds of the victims of racism, or be they the psychological wounds of the perpetrators of racism–because I firmly believe the unconscious is at play in all of this. Without giving too much away about the ending, I think there is a realization that it’s people’s confused feelings about the other that create this thing that we are mistaking for hate, but that deep down should be called something different. It could be called envy, it could be called love, it could be called fear. I’m always looking to somehow find out what’s going on at the level of the psyche. Yes there are sociopaths or people who are off the rails crazy. But people come in clean, out of the womb, and there are life experiences that begin to shape your thinking about things. I don’t know that human beings’ first fundamental impulse is hate. It doesn’t mean that you don’t circle around and get there, but what I’m interested in is how the fuck did you get there? And maybe in that investigation there’s a way to get to the core of this sickness that has been a part of our nation for so long. For me it’s just deeper than straight hate. I think that at the level of the subconscious there’s a realization for some white folks that you didn’t really do anything by yourself. There’s almost an infantile way that you participated in the birth of the country. You weren’t out there doing the real shit. You could not have survived a new land, swampy conditions in the south, land that you were trying to tame, you could not have done that by yourself. The level of dependence that you had on black bodies makes people’s heads explode. I think people can’t tolerate the fact that that is how we’re connected so deeply, the realization that what you present to the world as a superior race that ran everything is not really true. You could not have done it without black labor, without black bodies, in so many ways. I think that level of dependence, and that unconscious knowledge that you’re not as great at all this as you thought you were makes you black out.
TM: Again, without giving too much away, the book explores how what initially appears to be a strictly segregated town is infinitely more complicated than that.
AL: I think that for some of the current racists that we’re seeing out and about in the world, racism came from the question, how come I’m falling behind? A lot of it is your own inadequacy. If you tell a certain group of people that there’s such a thing as white privilege, and they don’t seem to benefitting from it at all, and then here’s Barack Obama who went to Harvard, it can make you feel inadequate, and then it morphs into a feeling of hate or the other, but it’s really some shit going on within you.
TM: Even though the series will be about Darren, there are three incredible female characters in this book that are so different, and each of them is a version of a familiar black female character. Geneva is a wise matriarch, Bell was an uneducated teen mother who now depends on her adult son for support, and Randie is a beautiful jet-setter in a cashmere coat. But each of these women push back against that character type. Was that intentional?
AL: I did mean that for Geneva. I wanted for her to convey—don’t be fooled by this tableau of black maternal warmth and I’m cooking this, I’m baking that. She keeps Darren at arm’s length until he earns her respect. I meant that on purpose, definitely.
Bell, I don’t know where she came from, I literally have no idea. I knew his mother didn’t raise him, and I knew I wanted there to be a class element to it, but it wasn’t until I wrote a scene where she was chipping nail polish off of her toe with a beer, that’s when I knew her instantly. And then I just kind of went with it.
TM: The richest guy in Lark owns a house that’s a scale model of Monticello, and his dog lives in a scale model of the White House. Is that based on anything?
AL: The only thing that it’s based on is that you see weird shit like this up and down highway 59. You see all kinds of crazy, I don’t understand what the culture of it is except showing off. I have pictures of people who have a huge pistol in their yard—when I say huge pistol I mean they built an iron 32-foot pistol that just sits in the front yard. You just see all kinds of crazy stuff. It just came from the quirkiness of some of these small towns.
In her essay “The Getaway Car,” now included in her nonfiction collection This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes well-meaning readers who approach her at events with ideas for books. To them, it’s a simple equation: their premise plus Patchett’s prose equals literary gold. Patchett deftly points out that ideas for stories are everywhere and easy to find; it’s the sitting down and writing them that takes hard work.
Now that I’m finished with my forthcoming novel, I see what she means. Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative. Patchett is right: there are so many stories! Alas, I have only one life, and one voice, and only three days of childcare a week to write.
But maybe the ideas that don’t snag my prolonged attention would occupy another, different writer. Let’s try it: Here are a few novels I won’t write. Maybe you will.
The Doctor Is In
When I was pregnant with my daughter I read Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History and the Wonder of Childbirth by Mark Sloan. There are so many remarkable details in this book, from the cool, weird things a fetus does in the womb, to theories about why labor is so easy for gorillas and so difficult for human beings. I was especially compelled by the story of James Barry, the first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean (meaning that both mother and child survived). Barry, born in the late 1700s, was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army, and Sloan describes him as not being particularly likeable: pushy, without tact. After his death, it was revealed that Barry was born a woman but passed as a man for decades. When I read that I couldn’t believe his story hadn’t yet been told (or not adequately; whoever does this book right will have a bestseller followed by an HBO adaptation). Because I am not up for the task of writing historical fiction, I nominate my friend Anna Solomon for the job. She would be perfect: her two novels, The Little Bride and Leaving Lucy Pear, explore gender, sexuality, and motherhood in bygone eras; plus, she’s the co-editor of an anthology of birth stories called Labor Day (one of mine is in there).
Trouble in Oakland
This summer, the East Bay was rocked by a police scandal that included officers in Oakland and Richmond, as well as deputies in the Alameda county sheriff’s department. As of mid-September, criminal charges have been made against seven officers and Oakland has witnessed one Police Chief after another step down, with Mayor Libby Schaaf struggling to explain the multiple resignations. In June, a sex worker going by the name of Celeste Guap revealed in an on-air television interview that she’d had sex with a handful of police officers, some of them when she was a minor. As the East Bay Express reported:
According to text messages between police officers and the victim, at least three OPD officers leaked her confidential information about undercover prostitution stings. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Guap also said she slept with cops as a form of protection.
In a quote from Guap that I keep coming back to, she said that she and one of the officers would hook up “like every Saturday night for three months straight…He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work.”
This scandal exists against a much larger backdrop; it coincided with the release of Stanford University’s 2013-2014 research study of the Oakland police department, which found “a significant pattern of racial disparities” regarding who is stopped, handcuffed, and arrested; according to the report, police officers showed implicit bias against the African-American community. For many in the city, this came as no surprise. Mayor Schaaf made relations with the community even more tense when she identified the race of officers involved in a totally different department scandal; according to the Oakland Black Officers Association, Schaaf had never before identified the race of officers involved in an investigation.
Fiction has always helped us understand and grapple with the complexities of the real world, and a book like this, in an era of highly visible police violence, feels necessary.
Who is this young woman? Who is this young cop? This would be a big, multi-voiced novel, with community members, law enforcement, and savvy political players. I nominate Attica Locke, author of three crime novels that deal with race in American life, including The Cutting Season, about the discovery of a dead body on a plantation-turned-tourist attraction-and-event space. (Though Ms. Locke might be a little busy right now — she’s currently writing for, and producing, the TV show Empire…)
In early September, Rachel Cusk published an essay called “Making House: Notes on Domesticity” in the New York Times Magazine that so closely aligned with my interests I was practically levitating with excitement as I read it. First, I love Cusk’s writing, in particular her essays about mothering in A Life’s Work. Second, I read design blogs daily and enjoy browsing furniture catalogues and real estate websites; if I’m anxious, nothing calms me more than thinking about sectionals in imaginary living rooms. Third, I am interested in the ways women’s identities are shaped and influenced, and this line from Cusk felt truer than anything I’d read in a long time:
Yet there are other imperatives that bedevil the contemporary heirs of traditional female identity, for whom insouciance in the face of the domestic can seem a sort of political requirement, as though by ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality.
Well, that explains my shame at admitting my couch-fantasies here — shouldn’t I be above all that? Cusk’s essay led me to think about depictions of household maintenance and design in fiction. I’m usually a plot-lusty reader, but one of my favorite sections in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was when its hero…cleaned his apartment. I still remember how gracefully it transported me to the more mundane aspects of life. I recently loved The Stager by Susan Coll, which is in part about a woman who prepares properties for the housing market by changing their furniture, painting a few walls, and so on. I could’ve read about her work for hundreds of pages! I wonder, could someone write a domestic drama which contained no drama, only its domestic details? Can a novel exist on descriptions of laundry alone, on musings about where to best mount a living room television? I’m thinking the main character wants a “clean” house, like so many of the women on House Hunters. This would be a short and intensely claustrophobic book — but also, somehow, sexy. I nominate Rachel Cusk to write this book. If she’s unavailable perhaps Nicholson Baker wants to take on the challenge.
Ice Age Coming
A few days before my senior year of college, I did mushrooms with my best friend. Aside from walking into a field of corn shrieking, we also sat in his car and listened to Kid A by Radiohead. When the song “Idioteque” came on, and Thom Yorke began to sing, “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming…” I had an entire vision about a novel set during a new ice age, with people grappling with the elements, wearing furs, re-purposing ceiling fans as weapons, and turning bathing suits into flags. I thought this idea was so brilliant that I refused to tell my friend about it for fear that he’d steal it. (I hadn’t yet gotten the memo from Ann Patchett about ideas v. work.) Sometimes I think about this unwritten ice age novel, and how fun it would be to read. I was going to nominate a Jean M. Auel type to pen such a saga when I read about The Sunlight Pilgrims by the Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Set in 2020, it shows us a world much like our own, but cold, and getting colder. In her review of the novel, Marisa Silver highlights Fagan’s poetic prose: “Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.”” I’m putting on mittens and reading this! Thank you, Ms. Fagan.
Crystal Geyser by CG Roxane
Have you ever read the label on a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water? (Why would you? The graphic design is horrendous.) Well, I did recently, and was struck by the words I found there:
Alpine Spring Water
by CG Roxane
Now, I realize I could turn on the magical Google Machine and find out that CG Roxane is a corporation or whatever. But what’s the fun in that? Instead I imagined this CG Roxane as a person. He’s got on a Stetson cowboy hat and a large-collared Oxford shirt. He’s obsessed with water. His mother calls him Charles Gomez, which is what the “CG” stands for. In my mind, this book would be a little like the movie There Will be Blood, or a fictional version of the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. A story about power, politics, insanity. It could also be a satire — an absurdist, playful romp. If that’s the case, I nominate Mark Leyner to write it. In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe as “an adrenalized, needle-to-the-red satire of (among many other things) the derangements of celebrity mass worship in a disjunctive culture-gone-wild.” That’s pretty much what I had in mind with this story. Imagine Charles Gomez Roxane. He wants to own all the water. All of it!
What novels won’t you write?