Attica Locke’s debut legal thriller mixes race, politics, and oil-industry treachery. Celia McGee talks to the screenwriter turned novelist who's already being compared to Dennis Lehane.
While screenwriter Attica Locke would not presume to divide the world of people she meets as she publishes her first novel into those who get her name and the ones she has to grab by their ignorant little hands and lead through the history of the Attica Prison uprising, it’s one way of looking at the story she is trying to tell.
Nothing against Harper Lee, you understand. But would the overjoyed parents of a black girl baby really name her for a fictional character created by a white lady from the South?
“Barack Obama is like the wallpaper of her life,” Locke says of her two-and-a-half year-old daughter. “The other day she asked if she could watch him instead of Sesame Street.”
“Either they ask me if I was named for Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Locke says, “or, when I explain that I’m named after Attica”—the bloody, violent event that marked a confluence of rage, outrage, and politics for a certain generation—“they say, ‘Oh wow, was your father there?’”
Locke has to tell them, no, her daddy was in Houston on his way to becoming a lawyer, her mother an entrepreneur, and the name they chose was an homage to a past they were already leaving behind (their marriage, similarly made in politics, soon ended too). Yet Locke decided to dredge all that up, in the unlikely genre of a murder mystery, in Black Water Rising (Harper/Amistad), a crime novel set in 1980s Houston about an African-American lawyer and ex-student radical—make that gun-toting revolutionary—abruptly forced to deal with his past. His young wife is pregnant and it’s sweltering in Bayou City.
The bare outlines of the plot of Black Water Rising suggest a chalk line for a life story resembling Gene Locke’s, her father. That includes the after-dark gunshots that set the action swirling (though in real life, unlike Jay Porter, the legal eaglet in the book, none of Locke’s family got involved).
But Black Water Rising is “about me,” said Locke, who lives near Pasadena and is adapting Taylor Branch’s civil-rights trilogy for HBO (she also penned the script for the film adaptation of Stephen L. Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park.) “I wouldn’t want people to think it’s about my father. It’s much closer to who I am.”
That statement might as well be powdered sugar for politics junkies: Gene L. Locke—University of Houston ’69, former dockworker, union man, and City Attorney, current partner in the law firm Andrews Kurti LLP—is running for mayor of Houston. He is one of the two leading candidates, his daughter thinks, the other being City Controller Annise Parker, who bears a passing likeness—in that she’s politically high-up, smart and white—to Cynthia Maddox, the mayor in Black Water Rising, and Jay’s lover in college.
“My father has a greater vision,” Locke said, “and his soul is deeply in this. I don’t believe he’s going to run for any other public office. People can tell he loves the city. He has a lot of endorsements from business and labor leaders. We’ve agreed to keep my book’s release and his campaign separate. One reporter started to ask him about it, and he said, ‘Please don’t do that to my daughter.’”
In the deepest sense, she said, her father is not Jay Porter. Despite growing up in the Jim Crow South, losing his father when a white hospital refused to treat him after a car accident, hanging with Stokely Carmichael and the Panther pack, and encountering many reasons to lose trust and hope, “my dad,” she said, “is the least racially angry person I know. Jay’s racial paranoia is my own.”
That feeling, she says, was bred not so much by her earliest years in a family with grim experiences reaching back through American history (her mother is from Louisiana). It was a side effect of “my parents not being equipped to deal with raising their children during integration,” the very accomplishment they had fought to bring about. “They went to segregated schools, their work in college was to integrate it, and no one could walk me through what it would be like to go to white schools, to be bussed, which created a lot of anxiety in me. I was browner than everybody, and smaller—I started first grade at 5.”
And smarter? “That’s certainly what my mother said. Yet I also credit the experience for the way I can function in different situations, it taught me coping skills. I deeply appreciate my parents’ generation and the generation before them.” Black Water Rising is dedicated to her paternal grandfather.
Up north in college at Northwestern, she was taken aback by a sense of ambiguity. “In the South you had flags that went up, like the Confederate stickers in cars, sometimes with rifles in the back. They might call you the N-word. These were like sign posts. But at my northern, sophisticated, integrated school that was supposed to be tolerant, things happened that unnerved me. Someone wrote ‘Fuck the Jews’ on my dorm wall. You could never know who did it, and that made me more anxious. It might be the person sitting next to you in class, or at the next table. Jay’s sense of not knowing how to trust the world on the other side comes from that. The times are past Jim Crow, but some shit is still not adding up.”
Not that she can’t stand up for herself. She has the added ammunition, she joked, of “a very politically active white man,” her husband, public defender Karl Fenske. Her sister lives nearby—the actress Tembi Locke, named by Miriam Makeba when Gene Locke was in Africa with Carmichael. Locke and Fenske’s daughter is two-and-a-half. “To her, Barack Obama is like the wallpaper of her life,” her mother said. “The other day she asked if she could watch him instead of Sesame Street on television.”
The pressures on Locke growing up were to be political. “I used to have guilt about that. But I’m political through my writing. I first had the idea for this book as a screenplay I wrote at the Sundance Theater Lab 10 years ago.” Yet Locke landed on suspense fiction for exploring such material, in a book that also encompasses oil-industry skullduggery, FBI conspiracies, real-estate payoffs, and the mysterious use of abandoned salt mines. “I was just writing a thriller, inspired by a boat ride my father took our family on for my 10th birthday.” Unlike Jay Porter, Gene Locke decided not to investigate the shooting firsthand. “He called the police as soon as we got back to shore. For years it was one of those stories you tell over cocktails, and debate what you would’ve done. The answers define who you are.”
By employing a commercial, popular genre, she says she thinks, “you can open hearts and minds to something else. In terms of genre, it seems safe and familiar, and you can get at more complicated issues.”
She knows that producing a successful sleuther—advance word has compared her writing to Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles—can lead to an ongoing series. “But I wouldn’t write a sequel unless I really had something to say,” Locke said. “Right now I’m writing a thriller about woman, set in Louisiana.”
She swears it is not about her mother.
Celia McGee has been the publishing columnist of the New York Observer and writes regularly for The New York Times and others.