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Writer Attica Locke Cuts Deep With Latest Thriller

Attica Locke 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, which honors outstanding work by rising African-American writers, for her book The Cutting Season.

Locke was a screenwriter, but early in her career she encountered obstacles.

"I did the Sundance Feature Filmmakers Lab ... and came out with a movie deal," she tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. At 24, she says, she thought she "was at the start of something incredible."

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

That was more than a decade ago. "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?' " she says.

"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 kind of started to retreat a little bit," she says. "My husband started law school, I was broke, but I knew how to write."

So Locke became a screenwriter, but she never felt she was fully herself in her work until she started writing books.

The Cutting Season is authentically Locke; it deals with some of the same things she was told early on were not sellable.

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

Caren is a middle-class woman who isn't particularly well liked by her staff, but she knows that the people who built the plantation were her ancestors. Locke says she relates to Caren's confusion over her identity.

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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