Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Attica Locke and Harry Hunsicker Discuss Writing (and their new books) at The Texas Book Festival

Authors Attica Locke & Harry Hunsicker
For my second session of this year’s festival, I walked way out to the “Texas Tent” for a presentation entitled “Trouble in Texas” that featured writers Attica Locke and Harry Hunsicker.  Locke was born and raised in Houston’s inner city and Hunsicker in one of Dallas’s suburbs, and their books are largely set in those two cities.  Locke, however, is currently involved in the hit television series Empire (a show which I’m only vaguely familiar with because I’ve seen the promos run between innings of baseball games) as both a producer and a scriptwriter. 

In fact, both began the session by trashing the growth patterns of their respective cities in comparison to that of Austin.  Locke commented that in Houston if someone finds an empty spot they “pour concrete on it” and Hunsicker that neither Houston nor Dallas have any respect for the historical buildings located within their boundaries.  Sadly enough, they are right.  In addition, Locke’s father ran for mayor of Houston in 2009 and, according to Ms. Locke, that was an ugly, ugly experience for the family. 

Neither of the authors pulls any punches in their novels.  Rather, they portray life in their home cities as they and their families experienced it first hand.  Surprisingly, though, both Locke and Hunsicker say that they have received very little negative feedback from readers in Dallas and Houston (probably because their readers understand and agree with them).  I get the impression that they are both striving for the “reality” they remember, but clearly both novelists often drift into noir fiction.  Locke’s novels can be very dark and intimidating because the Houston of the past that she portrays was not always a great place to live if you were black or Hispanic.  Hunsicker’s work is not nearly as bleak as Locke’s, but it seems to be a throwback to the days of Chandler and Hammett – and I love it for precisely that reason. 

Attica Locke first came to my attention with the 2009 novel Black Water Rising, a book that features a young Civil Rights Movement veteran and new lawyer called Jay Porter.  The story begins with an incident drawn from one of the author’s own childhood experiences in which a cry for help is heard while her family is enjoying a boat ride along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou.  For the young black men aboard the boat, the question as to whether or not they should respond to the plea for help is an issue touching on both their common sense and their individual codes of morality.  The novel captured Houston’s atmosphere so perfectly that I was able to recapture vivid memories of that era. 

Locke was at the festival to promote her third novel, Pleasantville, which finally continues Jay Porter’s story.  She mentioned at the festival that she was very reluctant to write any kind of sequel to Black Water Rising because of her fear that she could not possibly match the quality of that first book in another that used the same cast of characters.  The author seems to be a bit insecure about her immense talent, even going so far as to say that she “talks to someone every week about that.”

Harry Hunsicker is the author of two series set in Dallas.  His first three books feature Lee Henry Oswald, a man whose very name is certain to cause him problems in a city still scarred by one of the most infamous political assassinations in American history. The main character of Hunsicker’s three most recent books is John Cantrell – ex-cop, ex-DEA contractor.  I have read parts of both series and was entertained by both because the books are well plotted, funny, and intricate enough to satisfy mystery fans like me who prefer their mysteries to have lots of action and atmosphere.

Hunsicker was at the festival to promote his latest novel, The Grid, which is the third John Cantrell novel.  Very surprisingly to me, the author did not spend much time discussing his new book and seemed to prefer speaking of more general literary topics.  He even had some very informed and pointed questions for Attica Locke and seems to be a real fan of her writing. 

Hunsicker still works as real estate appraiser in the Dallas area, and he attributes that job, because it took him to parts of the city very different from the more affluent section of the city in which he spent his youth, as the source of his awakening to what the city of Dallas is really like.  He quipped that he was going to be a “literary writer for about a week” before he realized literary writing is not a strong suit of his.  His fans should be thankful that instead of putting down his pen forever, Mr. Hunsicker decided to try a different approach to his storytelling.

Both writers remarked that they do not “believe in” writer’s block and that, as Ms. Locke puts it, writer’s block “is just the inner critic not thinking the work is good enough.”  Hunsicker added that, “writer’s block is just a writer being self-indulgent.”  He suggests just sitting down and writing five sentences of “whatever” because usually one of the sentences is going to be “pretty good.”  And, according to him, there’s your kick-starter. 

Interestingly, and probably because her father is an attorney, Locke was asked if her first name had anything to do with the Atticus character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (the answer is no).  But it was the follow-up comments regarding the recent publication of the “new” Harper Lee novel that both authors made that intrigued me most about this part of the conversation.  Both of them feel very strongly that Harper Lee has been taken advantage of and can’t possibly realize how much her legacy has been damaged by release of the rather ordinary Go Set a Watchman.  They both feel very badly for Ms. Lee.

All in all, this was another great presentation and I ended up bringing home copies of both their books.  My TBR pile is growing ever higher as we speak…but I suppose that if you have to have a problem, that’s a good one to have.

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