Screenwriter turned novelist Attica Locke’s second book is a mystery set on a Louisiana plantation.
by Erin Z. Bass
Attica Locke’s first novel is “Black Water Rising,” about a Texas lawyer who saves a drowning woman’s life and opens a Pandora’s Box. Nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award and shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, the book put Locke on map as a mystery writer and got her compared to Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow. A native of Houston living in California, Locke followed up with “The Cutting Season” in the fall of 2012. Moving her setting to South Louisiana, Locke offers readers another thriller, this time on the grounds of Belle Vie Plantation. When a female migrant worker is found with her throat cut out in the sugarcane field, plantation manager Caren Gray puts herself at risk to find out what happened to the woman while also unearthing facts about the long-ago disappearance of a former slave. Locke seamlessly weaves in political and racial themes, all to a backdrop of sweeping oaks, ghost stories and rainstorms rolling in from the Gulf.
Most recently, Locke wrote the introduction for the UK publication of Ernest Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” and as a screenwriter, she worked with Sandra Bullock, Jamie Foxx’s production company and HBO on an adaptation of author Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
“The Cutting Season” is one of Deep South’s Fall/Winter Reading List picks. We’ll be chatting with Attica Locke on Friday via Twitter from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit. Find out more about her in the interview below and then join the chat!
Your first book was set in your hometown of Houston. Why did you choose South Louisiana and plantation country for “The Cutting Season?”
The location chose me. I went to a wedding at the Oak Alley Plantation (pictured above) in Vacherie, Louisiana, in 2004 and was blown away by the experience – both the beauty of the place and also the uncomfortable feelings it stirred in me. It raised a lot of questions about how we balance our past against our future. In the age of Obama, what are we to make of this country’s history of slavery. Does his election change how we view that history?
Your descriptions of Belle Vie are extremely detailed, and there’s even a map of the property on the book’s inside front cover. Did you spend time on the plantation for research or while writing?
I was at the wedding in the spring of 2004, and then when I knew I wanted to write about the place, I went back to Oak Alley in 2009. I stayed in one of their guest cottages for a few nights and drove around the parish and up to Ascension Parish. I also read a lot of books about plantations and plantation life and architecture.
Were there some things that you discovered about slavery that really surprised you or that you didn’t know while doing your research?
I’m not sure I read anything in the research that surprised me. I’d been pretty well-educated about slavery, both the economics of it and psychological components. I will say that in writing the book I was much more interested in highlighting the time of Reconstruction than slavery itself. I was much more interested in contemplating a people (and a nation) learning to be free.
How did it feel to have Dennis Lehane choose your book as first for his new imprint with Harper Collins? Would you say your writing is influenced by his? What other writers have influenced you?
I was floored. I didn’t believe it at first. I thought they were trying to tell me that Dennis might want to publish something of mine some day, which was its own incredible thing to hear, but I couldn’t believe he liked “The Cutting Season” enough to publish it. I wouldn’t say my writing is consciously influenced by his. It wasn’t until I read “The Given Day” that I could see similarities between us, but it was mostly a sense that we’re both interested in politics or at least the distribution of power, who has it and who does it, and we both write with a strong sense of place.
I’ve probably been more directly influenced by Larry Brown, Pete Dexter, Toni Morrison and Jane Smiley.
I was a screenwriter for a long, long time – over 10 years. I worked steadily and was well-paid, but not one of the scripts I was working on ever got made. It was maddening after a while. I started having an existential crisis. Who was I writing for? A bunch of studio execs, half of whom don’t actually read the scripts? I went into a bookstore one day and started reading the first page of novels, just picking them up, reading the first page, then moving on to another book, and by the time I left, I said to myself, “I think I could do this.” I worried that being a screenwriter would make the publishing world take me less seriously. But I don’t think that’s been the case. I feel more stigmatized as a “mystery writer” than I do as a former screenwriter. In terms of the actual writing, being a screenwriter for so long gave me a pretty good sense of pace, and it also taught me to leave some things unsaid.
What do you ultimately want readers to know about “The Cutting Season?”
That it’s an entertaining, thought-provoking read.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
Another book with Jay Porter [the lawyer from “Black Water Rising”].
Oak Alley photo courtesy of Oak Alley Plantation.
Editor/publisher of Deep South Magazine, Erin Z. Bass is a native of Crowley, Louisiana. She has more than 10 years of writing experience and holds a BA in Journalism from Louisiana State University. Find out more about her here.