Insights on Writing From Award-Winning Author Attica Locke

Minneapolis was this year’s location for Bouchercon, a national Mystery/Crime Writers convention held annually in September. The highlight for me was attending guest of honor Attica Locke’s interview.

A couple of years ago, I was seeking crime novels written by African Americans and specifically wanted to read the work of a female author. To my great fortune I discovered Attica Locke. I have read three of her books thus far. In addition to being the most lyrical writing I’ve ever read, her crime novels and characters are complex, exploring issues that too many of us know little about. She effortlessly weaves history throughout her can’t-put-it-down books, inviting readers to immerse themselves in the Black American experience.

Both an author and screenwriter, Locke won the Edgar Award in 2018 for her crime novel, “Bluebird, Bluebird.” Locke is the recipient of numerous other awards as well, including a Harper Lee Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction from Baileys, a Crime Writer’s Association Dagger Award (United Kingdom) and The Anthony Award. She has worked as a writer and producer on Netflix’s limited series, “When They See Us” and Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere, which she also adapted.

Below are key excerpts Attica Locke’s interview with Kelly Garrett at Bouchercon, along with my commentary.

Kelly Garrett: Were you always going to be a writer?

Attica Locke: I remember the first story I wrote. I wrote it on the back of hotel stationery. I didn’t think of writing as a career.

KG: What was your career path to writing?

AL: I went to Northwestern School of Communication.

After college, Locke attended a number of writing labs and was a 1999 Fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmaker’s Lab. For several years, she made a living writing screenplays in Hollywood, none of which became movies.

AL: Hollywood didn’t want to make Black films. They would have an idea and I would write the script for movies that didn’t get made. The narrative for a long time in Hollywood was that nobody cares about Black lives. It was a lie then, and it’s a lie now. The options were a Black or brown sidekick in an all-white film or an all-Black film.

Locke walked away from Hollywood in 2005 and gave herself a year to write a novel.

AL: Publishing is harder in some ways than screenwriting, but you don’t have to ask permission to write something. The mission in publishing is to tell a good story.

“Black Water Rising” was Locke’s first book, published in 2009. She discussed how the story came about.

AL: The idea came from a personal experience I had as a child. Especially the opening scene where a woman’s scream and a gunshot are heard by a couple celebrating their anniversary. There is almost no book I’ve plotted that didn’t come from personal experience.

In “Black Water Rising,” the protagonist is Jay Porter, a Black attorney in Houston, where Locke grew up. She discussed her inspiration further.

AL: Jay Porter is a sketch of my father. … My father is also an attorney, a civil defense attorney. … Jay’s racial paranoia is based on my personal paranoia. Vigilance is something we constantly must practice as Black women. What writing a book asks of us is intense and transformative.

Locke also discussed Darren Matthews, the main character in her Highway 59 mystery series.

AL: Darren is one of the currently 157 Texas Rangers, where only seven are African American. Writing about a Black Texas Ranger felt like a unicorn. “Heaven, My Home” was expressing some very harsh feelings when Trump was elected.

She also discussed her motivation for writing crime novels.

AL: It’s all politics. They count on us to just dumb down and watch The Bachelorette or be on TikTok, so my obligation is to tell a good story. I believe that politics is part of a good story. There is no way to write about crime without looking at political polices that exist. I think the best publishing reflects where we are. I also think that crime writing is doing this better than any other genre.

Locke shared how writing and publishing a book makes her feel.

AL: When I complete a book, I feel great. As Jane Smiley said, the novel is the most democratic art form ever. My hope is these books help us navigate our time on this planet.

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