A modern-day story of past and present, black and white, converging on a south Louisiana sugar plantation brought its author into a Baton Rouge public high school Thursday.
Attica Locke said she wrote stories from the age of 11, but spent years trying to break into the movie business as a screenwriter before returning to prose.
Her second novel, “The Cutting Season,” published in 2012, is the winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. She accepted the award Thursday night in a ceremony at the Manship Theatre.
Locke, who lives in Los Angeles, got to meet Gaines on Wednesday. Perhaps best known for his 1993 novel, “A Lesson Before Dying,” Gaines, who is 81, brought the 39-year-old Locke to the plantation home in Pointe Coupee Parish where he grew up.
A unique aspect of the award is that along with the $10,000 prize, it requires the recipient to speak to school groups. She spoke to four elementary schools on Tuesday and ended her school circuit Thursday with a stop at McKinley High.
She said she’s been amazed at the fearlessness of today’s children compared with how she remembers herself.
“They were asking me, ‘How do I make my movie?’ ‘How do I write my novel?’ ” Locke marveled.
“How do we preserve that and not stomp on that?” she wondered.
Locke took a long road before finding the courage to tell her own stories — stories set in American South with black and white characters, told in her own voice.
“I think what gets in the way of voice is fear,” she told the students.
“I was afraid that if I wrote the way my grandmother talked, that it wouldn’t be proper, that it would make me seem less intelligent,” she added.
That voice came to life first in her first novel, the 2009 “Black Water Rising” which was set in Houston, where she grew up.
The wellspring of her second novel was an interracial wedding she attended in 2004 at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie. She and her husband, who is white, were shaken by the contrast between the loveliness of the place and the awful past of slavery on the property, which she said was only glancingly acknowledged with a plaque.
“Trying to hold that ugliness and beauty at that same time really made my head hurt,” she said.
Expecting the bride and groom to quietly acknowledge the tension, they were instead surprised to find the happy couple were untroubled. They chose the plantation simply for its beauty.
That experience eventually led Locke to write “The Cutting Season.” The novel follows a murder on the fictional Belle Vie plantation in Louisiana, along the way uncovering secrets dating back to the Civil War.
Jessica Gutierrez, 16, a junior at McKinley High, said Locke made her think about what the world was like in the past for minority groups, in her case Hispanics.
“I think about how this would have been for my grandmother,” she said.
Locke urged the teenagers to not lose their taste for reading as they go to college.
“Fiction is the art form that makes us the most compassionate and allows us to see the world from someone else’s point of view,” she said.