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Writer Attica Locke Cuts Deep With Latest Thriller

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Attica Locke is a name you might already know if you're a fan of the literary thriller. She writes the kind of rooted-in-truth crime story that satisfies both your intellect, and your need to have the hair on your neck stand up.

With only her second novel under her belt, she's won praise from other thriller writers like James Ellroy and George Pelecanos. And she just received another high honor: she was awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, given to honor outstanding work by rising African-American writers for her book The Cutting Season.

Locke was a former movie screenwriter, but early in her career she encountered obstacles. "I did the Sundance Feature Filmmakers Lab ... and came out with a movie deal and was 24-years-old and was at the start of something incredible I thought," Locke tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

But the film was never made. "I was heartbroken because of the reasons why they said they weren't going to make it. That there was some racial considerations in the material that they couldn't figure out how to monetize," Locke says.

It was over a decade ago. "And because it was a multiracial cast there was a consideration of, 'who is this for then? Cause clearly it has to be for black people or white people and if you stick them all together in one movie, how do we market this?'" Locke recalls.

"What I heard at 24 is, 'there's not a business model in this industry for who you are.' And it frankly scared me to my core. And I kinda started to retreat a little bit. My husband started law school, I was broke, but I knew I knew how to write." So Locke became a screenwriter, but she never felt that she was fully being herself in her work until she started writing books.

Locke had to take a second mortgage on her house so she could finance her writing career. And The Cutting Season is authentically her. The storyline deals with some of the same things Locke was told were not sellable, back in the day.

The novel tells the story of an African-American woman, Caren, who runs a tourist attraction: a former sugar plantation, complete with restored slaves quarters and slave reenactments. The novel is about solving a present-day murder but also the case of a missing slave from 1872.

Meanwhile, Caren struggles with her identity. She's a middle class woman who isn't particularly well liked by her staff, but knows that the people who built the plantation on their backs were her ancestors. Caren is emotionally confused about who she is today and where she comes from. Locke says she relates.

Ironically, now that Locke is writing about stories she can relate to, she says her soon-to-be-released third novel has already been optioned for a film.

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