Coming from Texas, I’ve been a fan of Attica Locke for close to a decade, ever since I picked Black Water Rising for one of my book clubs to read. Locke’s work captures the complexities of life and crime in Texas; each of her works explores the layered intersectionality of crime, history, prejudice, and politics that have shaped the big cities and piney woods in which her works are set.
Her latest mystery, Heaven, My Home, continues the saga of Darren Matthews, first introduced in last year’s Edgar-winning Bluebird, Bluebird, picking up just days after the thrilling conclusion as Darren tries to repair his relationship with his wife and worries about how his previous actions might jeopardize his future—and his freedom.
With Trump’s inauguration looming, he’s on a new case with a tight deadline, trying to get the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) put away before the new administration can cut off funding and end the investigation. When a white supremacist’s young son goes missing around Lake Caddo, Darren is dispatched to track down the missing child while carrying on a surreptitious investigation into ABT activities in the area. Upon arrival, Darren quickly discovers tensions between Jefferson, a place where you can buy a confederate flag bikini, and Hopeton, the historic free black community next door. A trailer park’s worth of white supremacists is squatting on land owned by residents of Hopeton, and it’s up to Darren to protect the community from further encroachment as he searches for the child.
Attica Locke was kind enough to answer a few questions about her latest book, her writing process, and her inspirations. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Attica Locke: It’s usually the number one or number two thing I’m thinking about—particularly with the Highway 59 series. I knew before I wrote the first book that each book in the series would touch on a town along Highway 59. I wanted to write about Caddo Lake because I’d seen it as a child and as a young adult, and it’s so evocative and amazing and interesting. I knew I was going to write about Caddo Lake before I had a story—geography shaped this whole story.
MO: Is Lake Caddo as creepy and beautiful in real life as it is in the book?
AL: Probably creepier. I’m so glad I didn’t just go by photographs! There was a part of me that knew I had to go there. In March 2017 I did a research trip to Caddo Lake. I stayed in a cabin on the lake and then I went to Jefferson for a few days. I took a boat tour over part of the lake and to be in it is…I can’t explain it. I hope I captured it in the book. When you go through one of the Cypress forests, it’s so insanely majestic-looking—you’re literally floating through woods in water. It gets so quiet. They say it’s the Spanish moss, but if you’re somebody like me with a lot of imagination and you’re taking a boat through a forest and then there are all these islands in the lake…It’s just so rich.
MO: I probably don’t want to visit Jefferson after reading that part.
AL: When I went to Caddo Lake, I was terrified to stay in a cabin by myself. I made my dad come along, and he asked my grandmother for a pistol because I was like, “I don’t know where we’re going, there’s all these crazy people. There are going to be a bunch of rednecks who are going to fucking skin us and we’re going to get lynched.” In reality, the people around Caddo Lake were infinitely more pleasant than the people in Jefferson. And I feel bad saying that. I feel like everybody in Jefferson, whenever I come back to town, is going to run me out. The spirit around Caddo Lake is very much “Live and Let Live.” You don’t get the kind of oppressive Confederate Antebellum feeling that, as a black person, I had in Jefferson. I felt like, where am I and why do you have a Gone With the Wind Museum? Why do you do reenactments? Why is there a confederate flag bikini at the General Store? What is going on here? I was much more uncomfortable in Jefferson than I was in Caddo Lake, even though I thought it would be the opposite.
MO: There’s so much history in that area and people process it so differently depending on whether they’re looking for the truth or looking for a narrative that services them.
AL: Oh, yeah!
MO: Your novels tend to connect recent crimes to long-ago infractions. What draws you to explore the role of history in crimes today?
AL: When I started doing it, it was very unconscious. It was just the way my brain worked. I have always been somebody who felt like you could never understand a character without understanding the time and place in which they lived, but I also think you can’t understand a place without understanding all of the history that came before it. When I’m writing about one crime, it’s a crime on top of another crime on top of another crime, going back probably decades, if not centuries. Now, I think that is probably what it is to write Southern literature. There is a sense, with Southern history, of a patina of shame on everything; the patina of “something batshit went down here,” and you can feel it all the time. If you are in any way in contemporary society trying to remark in any way on race, it’s hard not to think how the present is built on top of other racial transgressions and decades or centuries past.
MO: What was your inspiration for the dynamics between communities in the Lake Caddo area?
AL: The book is dedicated to Nigton. Nigton is a place that got mentioned in Black Water Rising; Jay Porter is from there. Nigton is a real town. It was a Freedman’s Community and my whole mother’s side of the family (or one branch of my mother side of the family) comes from Nigton. I’ll let you figure out the name. People in the community first called it [n-word]-town. And then it became Nigtown and then Nigton and the name just stuck. In the 80s, there was this push to change a bunch of really offensive Texas names. My family went to the state courthouse and said “No, uh uh! That’s what you guys called us. And we took it and we made something with it. You’re not going to take it away now.” That was in my mind, when I was working on this book—the fact that a freedman’s community is in my DNA, in my ancestral story.
MO: How did you come up with the setup for the book?
AL: Because it’s a sequel to the first book and I left the first book on a cliffhanger, I knew I couldn’t pick up the story a year later. I left Darren and his mother in a precarious situation at the end of Bluebird, Bluebird. Only a matter of weeks could have gone by. I was writing the book while the election was gearing up, and I didn’t know what country we were going to be in on the other side of it, so I purposefully set Bluebird, Bluebird in October of 2016. I saw something in the idea of setting the new book after Trump is elected, but not yet inaugurated. It captured that period of time, for me, personally. What I thought about the country was: “Oh no. Oh no. Oh, no. I don’t know what’s coming.” Already you could start to see racial violence picking up—it was picking up during the election but it really jumped off shortly after he was elected and before he was inaugurated. There was a sense of “What have we done? What have we done? Can we stop it?” Once I settled on that time period, I leaned into it and realized that that law enforcement agencies had to be paying attention to what was happening, and asked “How would they be dealing with that?”
MO: In Heaven, My Home, the Rangers have to wrap up all of the cases that the administration might interfere with before the inauguration. It’s such a perfect setup for a race-against-time narrative.
AL: Yes! My unconscious is a better writer than I am. I’m grateful that my unconscious started to put all that together and I just went with it.
MO: There’s a lot happening in Darren Matthew’s personal life in this new book. Can a crime novel protagonist ever find happiness and stay compelling? I’m hoping the answer is yes!
AL: That is a very good question. I don’t know. At the beginning, they can believe that they have found some peace, but then something interrupts it. Some of that is the nature of life—even at our happiest times, we’re constantly doing this seesaw up-and-down: we feel great joy, and then something comes along and makes us question that joy. It’s all about trying to figure out how to stay present and alive and happy in a world full of potholes and pitfalls. The fact that crime fiction protagonists might always be a little unsettled is probably the way a lot of people feel in life.My basic set point is optimism and I tend to be somebody who wants to feel a sense of patriotism. But I also feel constantly beaten back by the reality of trying to love a country that doesn’t always love you back.
MO: One of my favorite things about your protagonist is that he’s not only unsettled by the events in his life. He’s also always trying to follow the advice of his twin uncles, each of whom represents a different path toward seeking justice, and he feels constantly torn between working within the system versus rejecting the system.
AL: I actually had twin great uncles (both of them have now passed). They were identical. They were different, but not nearly as different as William and Clayton in the book. I saw in that a way to play with this fracture in the black psyche—you could have two faces that looked exactly the same, but two completely different ideas about how we navigate our relationship to the country. Some of that is the inner turmoil and the dialectic within my own heart. My basic set point is optimism and I tend to be somebody who wants to feel a sense of patriotism. I have an impulse toward it. But I also feel constantly beaten back by the reality of trying to love a country that doesn’t always love you back.
MO: Heaven, My Home is as much about old-school racism as it is about racism’s modern-day incarnations. Do you think of the Aryan Brotherhood as just the new version of the KKK and how it manifests in East Texas, or are those things to think of separately, still?
AL: The old-school Klan might have been in robes at night around a bonfire, but come Monday morning, they were back as being president or they were back in the sheriff’s office or they were back to being a pastor. There was a sense that members had this relationship with the Klan, but they were upstanding. The Klan was an offshoot of the White Citizens Council, so there was a sense of upstanding, middle-class white men who had this other Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing that they did.
When you look at the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, most of these people got jumped into their gang in prison and most people end up in prison because of crimes and most of those crimes have to do with class issues. These are the people who are so susceptible to a Trump argument—white folks who don’t have a lot, but are being told “you have white privilege.” They’re looking around their trailer or they’re looking around their not-wealthy lifestyle, and saying “what fucking white privilege are you talking about?” There’s a kind of hostility and anger in feeling like brown people are passing you, but also looking back and blaming you for shit. There’s a deeper class dynamic, and more hardscrabble working-class white folks end up as Aryan Brotherhood members.
MO: The family of the missing boy in the book captures all of those different dynamics—the boy’s grandma is an old school racist, and his parents are raising him in a white supremacist dominated trailer park. You’ve spoken about a personal story that inspired the character of Levi—can you tell us a bit about where this character comes from?
AL: I finished the book completely before I realized where the kid came from. There was an incident my daughter’s school, a little bit before Trump was elected. I live in Southern California, my daughter goes to the most leftist progressive school you can imagine, and there was a white kid who called a black kid the n-word. I was stunned, just stunned. We—my husband and my daughter and I—had lots of family-dinner-table conversations about this incident. My daughter was willing to put what this kid did into a larger context of “that kid has some issues and Mommy I feel sorry for him.” She was willing to forgive what he had done. I, as a grown-up, felt such rage, and I also felt disgusted with myself for the fact that I could not forgive a child. But of course my relationship with the n-word is not the same as my daughter’s—it has violence connected to it, for me. My daughter is disconnected from that. To her, it’s a bad choice a person could make. It’s in a song you shouldn’t repeat, but it’s not necessarily connected to “you might get shot.” Whereas, for me, it’s still connected to that.
I remember the day of Trump’s inauguration. I had to be at my daughter’s school for some type of performance. I was so emotional that morning, and I remember turning around, looking at another mom there and I just burst into tears. That kid was there, and that kid’s parents were there, and I felt such boiling rage at this child, and I’m not proud of any of this. That’s where Levi came from in my psyche: asking myself, “Are you willing to forgive a transgression like this in a child? Can we afford to have that kind of hope?”
MO: I like that the book leaves that question hopeful, but a little unclear. It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with this character and that makes him really realistic.
AL: My daughter has read both books, and my mind is blown—that she’s 12 and she’s read both books. She didn’t think it was as optimistic about Levi as I did. I thought it was quite optimistic that he might be okay, but she thought “No no, no, you were still kind of suggesting he could turn into a bad kid.” The fact that people have two different readings…that’s good. That’s the sign of a good story, I think.
MO: Absolutely. Speaking of great stories, I loved When They See Us—it’s so incredibly moving and well-written. What was it like to be in the writers’ room working on that project?
AL: Intense. It was a very small writers’ room, and there was an incredible sense of responsibility about what we were doing. I remember telling people at the time how hard it was and also being like “Oh shut it, those people went through so much, Attica. I don’t want to hear about how you’re saying ‘this is so hard to write.'” But it was not easy, mainly because we took it all so seriously. Even before we came into the room, we’d all read hundreds of articles about it. We read several books. We were required to come into the room with a broad knowledge and we just kept reading and researching and we met with all of the men and we took that so seriously. We met them individually, for hours. We probably spent, with each man, seven hours straight. We spent almost two weeks coming up with our questions, making sure they we had delved so deeply into every aspect of their life and their story and their piece of this story that everything got mined. Even if it didn’t go on screen, it told us about them as characters. Meeting them for me was absolutely exhilarating—to have known that they were innocent, but then to meet them and understand the breadth of their personal integrity as human beings, and to know that that was there as children…Part of their survival was based in the fact that they are fundamentally decent people with a lot of integrity.
MO: What’s next for you in in the TV world?
AL: I hate being coy but there’s something that has not been announced—there’s a project that I’ll start working on in October!
MO: I can’t wait to hear more about it!
AL: I’m excited! I’m excited to be able to tell people! Yes.
MO: What’s the thing that you’re hoping people will take away from Heaven, My Home the most?
AL: Whoa, that’s a big question. You’re the first person who’s asked it. There’s a part of me that likes the idea of people contemplating forgiveness, and I mean that both in the personal and the political. Not only is Darren thinking about forgiveness in terms of the political, in terms of his sense of betrayal on the other side of Trump being elected by his fellow citizens, but he’s also weighing forgiveness toward his mother and he’s weighing forgiveness toward this kid. I don’t have an answer for it except for asking readers to live the question.
As with Bluebird, Bluebird, one of the things that matters to me a lot about this series is to highlight the absolute beauty of black and brown Texas, and to make sure that piece of history gets written down. Even though this is fictional, it is inspired by the truth that I see about black and brown Texans. I write so people can see the beauty of them, the beauty of their survival and thriving in the state of Texas, which is analogous to black folks thriving and surviving in America. It matters to me that people would take that away from this as well.
MO: Oh, I love that. I have one more question. What’s the best soundtrack to listen to while reading your new book?
AL: Oh, my god, I have a playlist!
MO: You have a playlist? Huzzah!
AL: I have a playlist on Spotify—it’s a lot of Blues and Zydeco. There’s a couple of songs by Ruthie Foster. There’s Jesse May Hemphill (because she’s referenced in the book several times). The epigraph is hers. There’s Buckwheat Zydeco. I tried to change it up with this book because the first book has a specific Sharecropping kind of Blues. I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this is a story that takes place close to Louisiana and to get in that Zydeco flavor.
MO: As soon as I finish up this phone call, I’m going to put on that playlist.