Library Interview: Attica Locke on Black Water Rising
Write what you know about.
That admonition, the first bit of friendly advice every young writer receives, has paid off for Attica Locke.
After several years of struggling to get her screenplays produced, Locke decided it was time to go solo and produce something that didn’t require lots of people and money to make a reality.
She wrote a novel. A novel about something with which she was intimately familiar.
And in her first attempt, she has a winner.
Locke’s Black Water Rising was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a nominee for an Edgar Award (best first mystery), and won Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction.
“A near-perfect balance of trenchant social commentary, rich characterizations and action-oriented plot,” raves the Los Angeles Times.
Locke discusses and reads from Black Water Rising on Wednesday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.
Admission is free. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the event. RSVP online or call 816.701.3407.
Set in Houston in the early 1980s, Black Water mixes politics and murder, corruption and labor unrest, oil and industry. Its hero, Jay Porter, is an African American lawyer with an office in a cheap strip mall, a client list of lowlifes, and a history as a student radical. Years before he went on trial for his rabble-rousing ways.
“It’s no secret to anyone who knows my family that Jay is a sketch of my dad,” Locke said in a phone call from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband (a public defender) and their two children.
“My dad was a political activist. He went on trial for inciting a riot, then went on to be a small-town defense attorney. My dad is much more laid back and I’m much more paranoid, so there are big chunks of both our personalities in Jay.”
But Black Water Rising is also a gripping portrait of Houston in the early ‘80s, when it was the boomingest city in America, with a busy port and an oil industry that was generating tremendous wealth.
Locke says she was surprised at how much she remembered about her hometown at that time.
“In 1981 I was only 7 years old,” Locke said in a recent telephone conversation. “But I grew up in Houston and I trusted my memories of life there. In many ways our memories of childhood are stronger and closer to us than the things that happened just a couple of years ago.
“When I was writing I never looked at a map of Houston. The city’s geography was still in my head. I never checked it for accuracy until the final draft – and then I was surprised by how accurate my memory was.”
Black Water’s plot centers on Jay's rescuing of a drowning woman in Houston’s mucky Buffalo Bayou. That act of bravery sets off a chain reaction that leads to murder, threats against Jay and his pregnant wife, shady land deals, and a vast cache of crude oil secreted in an abandoned salt mine.
Oh, yes. There’s also the intimidating guy in a big black car who follows Jay and warns him away from the unfolding mystery.
“Jay is a character in transition from the political headiness of late ‘60s and early ‘70s to the Reagan era,” Locke says. “Both my parents were political activists, but by ‘81 they were living a middle-class life.
“So a big part of the story for me is a personal one. Jay’s story, the changes he’s going through, are more important than solving the mystery. It’s not really about the crime. It’s about a man healing himself, a man so wounded by the past that he no longer wants to be involved. But he can’t help himself. Getting involved ... that’s who he is.”
Since it was published earlier this year, Locke has been besieged by readers wanting to know if there’s another Jay Porter book in the offing.
“I cannot express how much it did not occur to me to do another Jay book,” she says. “I wrote it, and I thought that was that.
“But what really changed my mind was that my dad” – Gene Locke – “ran for mayor of Houston in 2009 and I got reluctantly sucked into his campaign. It was fascinating to see the workings of the city 30 years later, and to realize the characters I wrote about in Black Water Rising – the crack metro reporter, the union leaders, the black preachers, the power elite – were still at it.”
Jay Porter will return, Locke promises. But not in her next book, another mystery, this one set in Louisiana in the present day.
Locke says she’s familiar with Kansas City and is looking forward to her visit here.
“My husband is from Nevada, Missouri, my sister-in-law lives in Lawrence, and my college roommate lives in Kansas City. So I’m no stranger. I love it there.”
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.