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My Identities Go in This Order: An Interview with Attica Locke

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What can good writing do? Perhaps a valid response: good writing reflects the world back at us, back at ourselves. Attica Locke’s newest novel, BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD, a contemporary East Texas thriller, does just this. With our current political landscape shot through with division and fear, BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD finds its voice amongst our current racial struggles and tragedies. Though the book centers around a fictional double-homicide investigation, the parallels to Charlottesville, Charleston, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Black Lives Matter, white supremacy, and the Alt-Right are easily identified and experienced. Locke’s new work situates itself inside 2017 America, where racism is not going away just because we don’t talk about it.

Interabang is excited to host Houston native Attica Locke for the launch of her novel BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD on September 12 at 7 p.m. Locke’s previous novel, PLEASANTVILLE, won the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. She’s also a writer and producer on the hit Fox series, Empire. In anticipation of the book launch, we spoke with her about BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD.

Tyler: In the wake of Charlottesville, BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD feels especially timely. This is not to say hate groups like the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT), mentioned in the novel, are only recently terrorizing minorities, but that certain factions of the American public are forced to face what they may have been avoiding or ignoring. I’m curious if you view your book differently after the Virginia tragedy, and how you went about researching and understanding the ABT.

Attica: I viewed my book differently the moment Trump was elected. It was the strangest feeling -- to know that my book would now be received differently, even though I hadn’t changed a single world. But the world had changed. And like you said, it’s not that racial terror was new but it’s nearness to the White House signalled a coarsening of American life. Trump has unequivocally given permission for folks to speak and act openly about, at best, their racial paranoia, and, at worst, their hatred. Researching the ABT meant reading a lot of newspaper articles about their dealings with the Texas Rangers. I also read books by former Aryan Brotherhood members (even though I know the two organizations are not the same), and I used the Southern Poverty Law Center as a resource.

Tyler: The idea of the "badge" is a returning racial conflict for Darren Matthews. These are lines that stood out to me: “Without the badge, he was just a black man traveling the highway alone,” “[the badge] was never intended for you,” “The badge was to say this land is my land, too, my state, my country…” The identities of black individual and authority figure cross paths throughout the novel. What do you hope the reader takes from this theme?

Attica: I think the badge can be a stand in for the American identity for black folks. Sometimes it feels it doesn’t belong to us, that America isn’t our birthright. Certainly that’s the way we’re treated sometimes. But there is something that persists in our spirit, something that says, No, this is ours too. This is our home too. I am always in my work trying to integrate black history into our larger cultural and historical understanding of this country. To say, black history is American history.

Tyler: A follow up to the question on identity. The book also discusses the idea of being something “first.” I’m thinking of the line where Darren is speaking with Greg and says: “I’m a cop first.” Just one instance, though this surfaces later. I’m curious if you view yourself as something “first” and if you feel it is an important part of one’s identity to be able to vocalize what that “first” is.

Attica: My identities go in this order: Mom, black person, woman, writer, wife, sister, daughter, Texan. But like Darren, I am at any given time ambivalent about any one of these identities.

Tyler: The landscape of East Texas becomes a character itself. What is your relationship and history with the region?

Attica: My whole family comes from towns along Highway 59 in East Texas -- on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. So I spent my childhood riding up and down 59, visiting relatives in Coldspring and Lufkin and Marshall, etc. I know the region very well. And I have a profound love for East Texas.

Tyler: There’s a shift in tone and pacing at chapter 19 that feels more aggressive and parallels the scene. How do you decide the voice for a novel whose point of view is third person?

Attica: So far I always write in third person close, where the narrator and the main character feel almost like one person. I like seeing a story through one person’s eyes. I also think my background in screenwriting is a natural fit for third person. The narrator is like the camera. Also, confession: I’m scared to write in first person.

Tyler: Music plays an important role more and more as the novel progresses, the title coming from a John Lee Hooker track. Did you have a set playlist while writing, and who should we be listening to these days?

Attica: I’ve had a playlist with every one of my books. It really helps. If you listen to it over and over, it becomes Pavlovian when it’s time to write. Your body and mind just kind of open up to the world. For this I listened to classic blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and Bobby Blue Bland. And some current folks like the Tedeschi Trucks band and Fantastic Negrito. I listened to classic country: mostly Charley Pride. But I also listened to a lot of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton while writing the book.

Tyler: The novel’s conclusion is thrilling. There’s real meat here. It feels set up for another. Are you at work on a new project?

Attica: I’m working on the next book in the series. The idea is that each book will take Darren into a new town along Highway 59 and into a new mystery, while the complications of his life continue.


Bluebird, Bluebird Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316363297
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Mulholland Books - September 12th, 2017

Attica Locke signs BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD on Tuesday, September 12 at 7PM