Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke

It’s 2016 and in Lark, Texas two bodies have been found within a week. The first, a black male, a visitor to the town. The second, a local white woman. It’s the talk of Geneva Sweet’s cafe:

“And ain’t nobody done a damn thing about that black man got killed up the road just last week,” Huxley said.

“They ain’t thinking about that man,” Tim said, tossing a grease-stained napkin on his plate. “Not when a white girl come up dead.”

“Mark my words,” Huxley said, looking gravely at each and every black face in the cafe. “Somebody is going down for this.”

Locke introduces Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews into the equation. Mathews is suspended from duty and his marriage is on the rocks over an ultimatum issued by his wife who wants him to quit his job. His suspension is due to him being called out late at night by a friend, Rutherford McMillan, over an incident with Ronnie Malvo. Two days later, Malvo was found dead. The bullet wounds matched McMillan’s gun, a gun which he’d reported missing the previous day.

Ronnie “Redrum” Malvo was a tatted-up cracker with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a criminal organization that made money off meth production and the sale of illegal guns – a gang whose only initiation rite was to kill a nigger. Ronnie had been harassing Mack’s granddaughter, Breanna, a part-time student at Sam Houston State, for weeks – following her in his car as she walked to and from town, calling out words she didn’t want to repeat, driving back and forth in front of her house when he knew she was home, cussing her color, her body, the way she wore her “nappy” hair.

When Mathews gets a call from his friend Greg Heglund, an agent within the Houston field office of the FBI, telling him about the case in Lark and suggesting he go and find out why the local sheriff’s refusing outside help, Mathews can’t help himself.

In Lark, Locke creates a town dominated by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and the power and money of Wally Jefferson. A man who lives in a house which is a near perfect replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and sits bang opposite Geneva’s cafe. Bluebird, Bluebird is a tale of racial hatred but Locke’s created something much more complex than the initial premise appears. As Mathews uncovers the town’s secrets, Locke shows how the heritage of blacks and whites in America is deeply entwined and suggests that white hatred comes from a more complicated place than they might wish to acknowledge.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a gripping, timely novel. The first in a new series featuring Darren Mathews, I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

I’m delighted to welcome Attica Locke to the blog to answer some questions about the book.

Bluebird, Bluebird has a contemporary setting; did it feel important to be writing about race in America now?

It’s simply my world view. I’m a person of color and so I frequently write characters who are of color and in portraying the contemporary world they live in, I end up writing about race in America. I will say that I wrote this book before Trump was elected and we’ve seen this ugly cancer of racism metastasize all over the country. So it’s been odd seeing how prescient the book is. Although…. Just the fact that Trump was running for President of the United States so successfully was hint enough as to where we were headed.

A small section of the novel is written from the point of view of a white supremacist; how did it feel to get into the mindset of that character?

Oddly freeing. It wasn’t hard to write at all. I just typed up all my worst nightmares about what white supremacist think of me and let it all out. Somewhere in there too I was trying to understand where all that rage comes from. I have a theory that so much of hate and crime has to do with people’s perceived concept of scarcity—their belief, often false belief, that there isn’t enough for them. I think Keith—that character—believes that black men have taken something from him. It’s really a wounded point of view. It actually, I hope, shows you how small these white supremacists are.

The relationships you portray, particularly the marriages, are complex and often difficult. What interests you about people’s romantic relationships?

I suppose the usual stuff—what draws people together. It’s always interesting to write two people who don’t seem like they should be drawn to each other but they are anyway. And of course romantic conflict can be so irrational and passionate. That’s always fun to write too.

Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

It goes to what I was saying before. It’s a mix of exploring what scares me and also philosophically looking at the way people respond to perceived scarcity—whether scarcity of money of love and affection. I’m so curious about why some people lash out and some people don’t.

You’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist; do you treat them as separate entities or does your work in one form inform your work in the other?

I think they can’t help but inform each other—maybe in ways I can’t even see. But I understand the two mediums very well and I treat them differently when I’m writing.

Are we going to see more of Ranger Darren Matthews?

Yes! This is the beginning of a series of novels along Highway 59 in east Texas, all featuring Darren Mathews.

And, I have to ask, will Jay Porter be back at any point?

I’m sure. But it’s nothing I’d try to force. I’d have to wait for the right story to demand that he return.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers and have you read anything recently by a woman writer that you’d recommend?

Jane Smiley. Toni Morrison. Francine Prose. Jesmyn Ward. Paula Daly. Liane Moriarty. Curtis Sittenfeld. Tayari Jones. Jami Attenberg.

My favourite books of the last 18 months or so are All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Swing Time by Zadie Smith; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; Made for LoveMade for Love by Alisa Nutting; Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Thanks to Attica Locke for the Q&A and to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

In the Media, April 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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There’s been a strong narrative about the abuse of women over the last fortnight. Jessica Knoll wrote a personal and powerful essay about the gang rape which informed the writing of her novel Luckiest Girl Alive. What I Know‘ was published on Lena Dunham’s site Lenny. Daisy Buchanan interviewed Knoll for The Pool. Jia Tolentino looked at the reporting of abuse in ‘Is this the End of the Era of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man‘ on Jezebel. Helen Walmsley-Johnson wrote ‘The shame of abuse has held me hostage for years‘ on The Pool; Kathryn Joyce wrote ‘Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream‘ on The Huffington Post; Jade Blair wrote, ‘Women Do What They Need To Do To Survive‘ on Hazlitt, and Louise O’Neill wrote ‘Nothing could prepare me for what happened when I published my book‘ on The Pool and ‘What a privilege it is to think that I might have touched other peoples lives in some small way‘ in The Irish Examiner. (The later is O’Neill’s weekly column which I’ve now added to the regulars section at the bottom of the post.)

The 2015 VIDA count for the number of bylines and reviews for female writers in literary magazines was announced. There’s some good news in some areas but, overall, there’s still a long way to go. Rachel McCarthy James followed this with, ‘Women in Publishing 100 Years Ago: A Historical VIDA Count: Representation and Gender (Im)Balance in 1916‘ on Literary Hub

The longlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize was announced with seven books by female writers in the running.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

TBR Book Tag

I don’t often take part in memes but I’m doing this one for three reasons: the first is I was tagged by Leslie at Folklore & Literacy whose blog I highly recommend, so it’s a good reason for me to send you over there for a look if you don’t read it already. The second is by confessing all about my TBR, I might do something about it! The third is so I can tag some of my favourite bloggers and see their terrible habits too!

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

Pile? Hahahaha. Book case(s). I don’t. I do keep track of the review copies I’m sent by publishers; I have a spreadsheet in which I log publication dates but I’ve been useless with it the second half of this year. I do actually have two priority piles at the moment though – the books that are on my women of colour #TBR20 pile, which I’ll be finishing reading at the end of the month (yes, it’s taken me this long) and the 2016 publications I’ve been sent which I’m reading in anticipation of my preview post around Christmas.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

It’s probably 75% print. I’ve bought fewer ebooks this year but that’s mostly because it was getting out of hand – it’s easy to pretend you haven’t got a huge stack of unread ebooks when they aren’t physically in front of you!

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

It varies. Sometimes it’s an upcoming publication date, sometimes it’s because a book’s been nominated for a prize, sometimes I just fancy a particular type of read. What’s changed this year though is I’m consciously reading widely so I’m looking at the authors of the books I’m reading and making sure I’m reading more by women of colour and LGBT authors.A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

There are books on my TBR still that I bought in Sixth Form which is 20 years ago now. They’re mostly classics – Middlemarch (which I attempted last year but stalled on) and The Woman in White spring to mind although I’m sure there’s more.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I bought a copy of Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe which has just been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

The 4th Estate boxset of Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and Mislaid. I already had a copy of The Wallcreeper from the Dorothy Project but the boxset is so beautiful I couldn’t resist.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

Haha! I think I got rid of all these in the summer. I culled 300 books before moving house and I was very strict about ones I’d held on to that I was never going to read. They were mostly by middle-aged British and American white men!

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

I’m going to be cheeky and have three: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon which it seems everyone’s talking about; My Name Is Leon by Kit De Waal which people I trust are telling me is wonderful, and Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann which I’ve had a sneaky read of the opening of and promises to be wonderful.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Middlemarch!

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

Beloved by Toni Morrison. I’m going to rectify that before the end of the month.

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

So many! If I was choosing one it’d be Pleasantville by Attica Locke. I loved Black Water Rising, I think Jay Porter’s a brilliant, complex character and Locke’s writing about politics is smart, nuanced and creates cracking page-turners.

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

Oh. Ah. Well, earlier this year I calculated it would take me 23 years to read all the books I have. I’ve removed 300 since then but added some too. Let’s just go with a lot!

People I’m tagging:

Susan at A Life in Books
Cathy at 746 Books
Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal
Eleanor at Elle Thinks
Janet at From First Page to Last 
Eric at Lonesome Reader
LaChouett at Chouett
Ali at HeavenAli