Attica Locke’s new series is, in part, a ‘love letter to black Texans’

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 Insight and Books
Attica Locke pursued a career in film directing and screenwriting before writing her first book of fiction. Contributed by Jenny Walters

Attica Locke, who grew up in Houston and worked for three seasons as a writer for TV’s “Empire,” has a great new book series beginning, focusing on a black Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews, who works along Highway 59 in East Texas.

It’s called “Bluebird, Bluebird,” and Locke will talk about it and other matters as a speaker at Friday’s First Edition Literary Gala, which kicks off the Texas Book Festival. She’ll join fellow festival authors Walter Isaacson, Min Jin Lee and Kevin Young.

Locke will have plenty to talk about, because her flawed but heroic Ranger has a world-weary outlook. You get the idea early on, when Mathews tells the reader: “In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”

And Locke says she wrote that before the election of Donald Trump as president.

“The entire book was written before the election,” she says, “but you could already see what was coming. You could already see because of the fact that Trump was even the nominee, the fact that he could speak to crowds of people in this dog-whistle coded language. He was always like that, frankly, during the Obama presidency itself. There were always suggestions that race was at play.”

Race is also at play throughout “Bluebird, Bluebird,” although it’s highly entertaining rather than didactic. The case that Mathews is working on: the seemingly connected deaths of a white woman and a black man, in a small town where white supremacists aren’t all that underground.

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Much of the action takes place in or near Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, which sells $4.99 barbecue pork sandwiches and the “best fried pies in Shelby County.” And the Sweet family plays a key role in the novel’s plot.

Locke, who made her first literary splash with 2009’s “Black Water Rising,” featuring lawyer Jay Porter, says she wants to kick off a new series with “Bluebird, Bluebird” because “it just came to me that I wanted to do a series about Highway 59.”

And why did that come to her? “I wanted to do a series that was a love letter to black Texans,” she says. “So race is certainly a part of it, something I didn’t shy away from at all.”

Discussions of race also come naturally to Locke, she says, and she doesn’t want to have to code-switch in her life or art. In other words, she wants to approach her work without having to play down her racial identity.

“The older I get, the less I code-switch. And ‘Empire’ was certainly created in an environment where nobody was code-switching, whether you were black, Latino, gay,” she says. “Nobody in the room was code-switching, and it kind of shows in the work itself.”

So how did a self-described proper Southern black woman end up in Los Angeles, writing for a TV series and becoming an acclaimed novelist?

“Somewhere around high school (in Houston), I really got interested in film. I thought that in college I would study film, which I did,” at Northwestern University in Chicago, she says.

“After graduation, I moved to L.A., and I was going to be a movie director. I did the Sundance Institute, the directors lab. I was on a path to become a director and actually had a movie deal. I was only 24 years old. And then the whole thing fell apart,” she says.

“That was pretty devastating to me at such a young age, to feel like I had the golden ring in my hand and then it got taken away. And I just was crushed. I didn’t have my heart broken professionally, but I just got kind of lost. You know. At the time, I was 24 and newly married, and my husband was in law school and I didn’t have any money. So I said, I know I can write. Let me do that. Let me write for a living.”

She did that for a decade, being hired to write scripts that Hollywood “already wanted to make,” she says. “But I have to say that the joke was on me, because none of those projects ever got made either. So I got really disillusioned with all of it and walked away, took a mortgage on my house and said I’m going to write a book.”

Luckily she got a deal quickly, and “my new identity was a novelist,” she says.

Despite her success with “Black Water Rising,” which led to two more novels before “Bluebird,” Locke still felt a connection to Hollywood and kept an agent. And then she took a meeting for script writing for “Empire.”

“I had several meetings about it, and from the very beginning it felt like a fit,” she says. “I was on the show for the first three years, and I just had such a blast. “

It’s safe to say that people who go to the literary gala Nov. 3 will get a quick sense of Locke’s sensibilities. When asked if her parents gave her the name Attica because of the 1971 prison riot in New York, Locke says, “Yes, but people in my parents’ generation would call it an uprising.”

“I was born in ’74, three years later, but my mother was profoundly influenced by it, so she named me Attica,” Locke says. “She is near retirement, but she owned a building maintenance company for 25 to 30 years.”

And her dad? His name is Gene Locke, the former city attorney who ran for Houston mayor in 2009. “Dad is a corporate lawyer now,” she says.

And her own family? She has one daughter, and she met her husband in a Northwestern film class.

“I did not like him at first, but then I did. It’s really weird,” she says. “Here’s a girl from Texas, and he was like this guy with long hair and earrings and this leather jacket, and he smoked cigarettes. And I just thought, no way. I’m way too much a little Texas sweetheart for all of that.”

But life has a way of dealing surprises. “He’s a lawyer now, and he does not have long hair anymore,” Locke says. “He code-switches more than I do these days.”

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