Attica Locke's latest thriller"runtimeTopic">, "The Cutting Season," explores a murder mystery and the tangled history of a Louisiana plantation-turned-event venue, managed by a descendant of its slave population. The book, which hits bookstores Sept. 18, follows her debut novel, "Black Water Rising," set in Locke's native Houston, which was a
Is there a story behind your first name?
Yes, I was named after the prison riot at Attica prison in New York.
Because you were such an adorable baby?
All I know is I was born three years later, in '74. [My mother] has since said it's a fit for my personality. I guess I'm fiery or righteous, but she felt right away that's what she wanted her child to be named. It's late '60s, early '70s politics. Both my parents were activists in Texas, starting in college at the
I gather that your new book was inspired by a visit to Oak Alley Plantation.
I went to a wedding at the Oak Alley Plantation in 2004. It's in Vacherie, La. We were bused from New Orleans, and you basically drive through rural poverty and all of a sudden these majestic columns shoot up along the Mississippi and it is a stunning sight. And I immediately felt my stomach turn over, because I was confused by the mix of the beauty and what the place represented. When we disembarked from the bus, I burst into tears. I was there with my white husband — it was 2004 — and the couple getting married there was an interracial couple. So I didn't understand if our presence there was a sign of tremendous healing or were we so divorced from history that we had turned this setting, where people had toiled and died and were not free, into just a party. Somewhere in that question was the impetus to write this book.
One of the book's themes is the ambivalence of the African American characters about their families' roots in slavery. Lorraine, the cook, says, "It's our history," whereas my sense is that white descendants of plantation owners have easily dissociated themselves from that legacy.
The Oak Alley Plantation — and there are plenty like it — has a gift shop, you can get ice cream there, there's a bed-and-breakfast, people are getting married there. I don't really know what it means for people. They're seeing it more actively than if you live in Detroit — you're not really having to come face to face with the nation's history; you're not driving past it to take your kids to school. Whereas a lot of that architecture and imagery is present all over the South.
In your book, the African American characters seemed reluctant to let go of the legacy.
Those characters' ambivalence is my own. One of the most poignant scenes in the book for me is the image of the descendants of a slave standing alone inside this big white house with the descendant of a slave owner. And this question of where do we go from here really is a felt sense for me. I don't know a way forward unless we stop holding the history quite so tightly. But then right behind that feeling is the terror that if you let it go, you will somehow be lost as a nation, lost as a culture.
I don't have the answers for it, and I feel deep ambivalence. There's a part of me that feels that, I don't know if we can so deeply, with
What did the president's 2009 trip to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where slaves were shipped to this country, mean to you?
It is probably of a depth of feeling that I can't even articulate. My feeling about the Obamas in general is that I have a deep respect for them that is beyond policy and it has to do with the fact that I feel like they're taking one for the team, one for the country. I wouldn't want to be in that position, to be the first to walk this line, and there's no way to go through it without the conflict, without the stuff being hurled at you.
Ancestry.com recently reported that Obama is believed to have descended from a slave on his mother's side.
It's so telling that it's through his mother's side. For all our fighting, we are a family in this country whether we like it or not. We're interrelated, we're intermarried. Our histories are woven together, so there's something poetic about that for me.
Obama is almost in a character in your book, because one character works for him in Chicago, and I know you're going to be on a panel discussing the future of African American literature in the age of Obama. How is he affecting literature?
That conversation that's planned at the [Central] Library [on Oct. 9] is raising something other academics have raised but not specifically talking about art and literature — that part of black progress necessarily fractures us along the issue of class. And what that means is that a black literature that previously was steeped in issues of struggle, almost all black literature up to a certain point, that's what it all turned on. And as black political and economic ascent continues — that's what I think we all hope — I wonder how much room there is in our culture to hear black stories that are not rooted in those kinds of traditional issues of racial struggle.
And I've noticed that with readers, and frankly even with publishers, there has always been this kind of romance around the African American past, and those stories are the ones that really seem to speak to the American imagination — [such as]
Tell me about your writing trajectory.
I moved to Los Angeles to become a movie star — I'm being funny — as a director. I was a film student at Northwestern, and I moved out here with my big bag of dreams. I did the
As a native Texan, what do you think about L.A.'s barbecue?
Do I have to tell the truth? I have to say thumbs down. If I had to name a place, Dr. Hogly Wogly's in Van Nuys. It's very good. It's the closest, at least, to the Texas barbecue that I grew up with. The problem with what people in L.A. do is they douse everything with heat. You don't need all that hot.