Tense and Tightly Coiled: MysteryPeople Q&A with Attica Locke

Attica Locke’s latest crime novel, Bluebird, Bluebirdis a timely narrative of justice, murder and taking a stand. African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, suspended after helping a friend hold off white supremacists, is thinking of leaving the Rangers and joining his uncle to practice civil rights law. His marriage is on the rocks, his superiors won’t let him bring race into the equation when tracking the criminal activities of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he’s getting sick and tired of East Texas.

When Darren drives through a small Texas town and stops at a small cafe that functions as a safe haven for African-American travelers, he learns of two suspicious murders committed within a week of each other. Neither is the subject of a proper investigation, and Darren knows that without his intervention, consequences for the town’s black community loom large. As Darren looks into the murder of a prosperous black lawyer from Chicago and a local hard-living white waitress, he faces opposition from the small-town sheriff, the Aryan Brotherhood, and a cheerfully corrupt good ol’ boy. 

Bluebird, Bluebird is our Pick of the Month for September. Attica Locke was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, its context, and her crime-writing career. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Bluebird, Bluebird is your fourth crime novel, and you’ve spent time writing for a TV show that, while not a crime series, has some crime elements and is certainly all about power. You’ve written a straight-up mystery, a political thriller, a legal thriller, and a rural thriller – what draws you to the genre, and what subgenre do you want to tackle next?

Attica Locke: I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories, probably since I read The Westing Game as a kid. I’m drawn to intrigue and and am curious about people who lie. I’m drawn to the (heavily paraphrased here) Flannery O’Connor quote about violence: when we’re confronted with it; it reduces us to our most essential selves.

MO: Darren Matthews, as a black Texas Ranger, is torn between his community and his profession. The Texas Rangers are dedicated to fighting the Aryan Brotherhood as a drug-smuggling operation, yet refuse to address hate crimes as a reason to target the white supremacist gang. Darren is placed on administrative leave after helping an old friend protect his granddaughter from a racist attack, in a state that fully embraces the right to shoot trespassers. What did you want to explore about the constraints and ambiguities faced by minorities in law enforcement?

AL: I definitely wanted to reclaim the idea of “Stand Your Ground” from the awfulness of the Trayvon Martin or the Jordan Davis murders. There is another aspect of stand your ground which is about black (Texans, in this case) saying this is my state too (my country too), and I’m going to stand up for right to live peacefully and safely in it. I also wanted to portray a black man with a badge who wants to protect black life in Texas.

MO: Your Jay Porter novels contrast sharply with The Cutting Season, set on a plantation in Louisiana, and Bluebird, Bluebird, set in rural East Texas. What draws you to writing about the complex machinery of the city, and what inspires you about the frozen-in-time backwoods?

AL: I’m from Houston, so truth is, I’m a city girl at heart. But all of my people are from rural towns along Highway 59 in East Texas, so the rural is in my blood too. It’s fun to write both.

MO: I am so happy you returned to writing crime fiction, but I’ve also enjoyed the show Empire and your work on it. How does writing television compare to writing a novel?

AL: They could not be more different. One is done by committee, essentially – and by that, I don’t just mean the other writers on the show, but also the actors and set designer and director of photography and the editor. Through every stage of the process, the storytelling is being tweaked – either by a performance or a lighting choice, etc. It’s fun to be a part of it. It feels like playing. And I do like the social aspects of it. But it’s also lovely to be alone in your own story and following your own story compass. I’m one of those gregarious introverts. I like people. But I also really like being alone.

MO: To piggyback off that last question, Bluebird, Bluebird felt more cinematic than the previous volumes I’ve read from you, especially the shootout at the cafe. How did you bring that cinematic urgency to your latest, while exploring power politics as much as in previous volumes?

AL: I used to be a screenwriter before I was a novelist, so I’ve kind of always had the ability to write visually. It may be that a few years on Empire reminded me of the pleasures of writing visually. Or it’s just that I set out to want this book to feel tense and tightly coiled. So I tried to find urgency in lots of places.

MO: Although I found all the characters compelling, the tough cafe owner was my favorite. That cafe felt so real. What was your inspiration for the diner and its complex owner?

AL: There was a cafe called Geneva’s in Lufkin, Texas, when my mother was growing up in the 50s. Also, my great-grandmother had a cafe in Corrigan, Texas. These were both places that mainly catered to black folks during the Jim Crow years. And I guess the idea of women running their own businesses, just kind of stuck with me. Geneva’s strength, particularly the way she never gives in to a bully like Wally, comes from my grandmother.

MO: Darren’s uncles and their vastly different advice fascinated me – one uncle, a former Ranger, represents the voice of working within the system, and the ultimate image of Texas tough, while his other uncle, a career lawyer, constantly urges Darren to fight the good fight from outside the governmental system. Can you tell us a bit more about the paths Darren’s uncles represent, and Darren’s choice to drop out of law school to become a Texas Ranger?

AL: Well, they’re identical twins, so they quite literally represent a fracture in the black psyche. Do we follow the rules (i.e. put your hands in the air when the cops says to)? Or do we not bother because we’re going to get shot anyway? That’s a macabre example, but it suggests the ways in which black folks are never quite sure if it’s safe for us to follow the rules. And the two uncles represent that philosophical question. I know there are a lot of officers of color who consider protecting all life as a part of their duty. Just as I know a lot of black folks who say they will never trust a cop.

MO: Darren’s separation from his wife, and his grief over their potentially permanent parting, mirrors the grief felt by the murdered Chicago lawyer’s wife. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for their relationships with their spouses, and their bond with each other?

AL: No inspiration per se, just as I was writing I could see the parallels between Darren being a Ranger (literally a man on the range) and having a wife who wants him to stay put, and Randie whose marriage was the opposite. It truly just came out in the writing.

MO: You’ve so far written exclusively male protagonists for your crime novels – what draws you to the male voice?

AL: Don’t forget my sweet Caren in The Cutting Season. But, yes, it’s true, I’ve mostly written male protagonists. Jay is a sketch of my dad and even still, he’s a part of my psyche; and of course Pleasantville continues with him. With Bluebird, Bluebird, I made a choice to choose race over gender to tell this story. There are so few female Rangers that the story would have taken on a different tone, held different responsibilities. Maybe I’ve got a lot of work to do on intersectionality, but I consider myself black first and a woman second. No right or wrong to it, it’s just my truth. It was easier for me to say what I wanted about race and law enforcement without layering on the gender politics of being one of only like four female Rangers. And black. But that also sounds like a hell of a book. So maybe that’s coming.

MO: I loved your latest, but I would also love to see another Jay Porter novel; maybe even Jay Porter in LA, given your time spent there (although I read in your interview with Rachel Howzell Hall that you are wary of writing a story set in LA) Will Jay Porter ever return?

AL: I hope so. But I’m waiting for a story that demands Jay be in it. I’m waiting for him to tap me on the shoulder.

MO: The Rangers are an ambivalent force in the novel – instead of the straightforward racism expressed by Lark’s small town sheriff, the Texas Rangers refuse to acknowledge race at all, thus perpetuating racism in ways more subtle but just as persistent as any generation before. Darren must manipulate his superiors down to the local sheriff to get any law enforcement to do what he wants – did you set out to explore supposedly “colorblind” law enforcement and its limitations, or did that simply follow naturally from your initial plot idea?

AL: Anything “colorblind” is a problem. One, it’s impossible. And two, it’s offensive. People shouldn’t have to lop off parts of their identity to be accepted, or to do their jobs. But I should be clear that though I based my portrayal of the Rangers on research and talking to at least one Ranger, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a Ranger. Their desire to take down the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas on drug charges (not race) is a tactic. But I think in any law enforcement unit or in the military there is an emphasis on unity and sameness. Part of me understand the need for that. But a larger part of me feels for the black or Latino man or woman trying to navigate the culture when they clearly aren’t the same as everyone else.

You can find copies of Bluebird, Bluebird on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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