Tembi and Attica Locke have been each other’s most ardent cheerleaders ever since the Houston-born sisters moved to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago to pursue their creative dreams. Attica, 45, has penned five crime novels, including Heaven, My Home, the latest in her East Texas-based Highway 59 series. She was a writer and producer on Fox’s Empire, wrote for Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-nominated Netflix drama When They See Us, and is now working on the adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu. Meanwhile, Tembi, 49, has appeared in a laundry list of TV and films, including Beverly Hills 90210, Eureka, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Dumb and Dumber To.
Through it all, the siblings have remained close (their houses are mere miles apart). Their daughters have attended the same schools, they’ve taken turns cooking for each other, and they provide one another emotional support. (Full disclosure: I’m friendly with both of them.) When Tembi was second-guessing her idea to write a memoir about her years with her late husband, Saro Gullo, it was Attica who convinced her to do it.
Now the pair is headed to the Texas Book Festival together—Tembi to discuss her bestseller, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, and Attica to accept her recently announced Texas Writer Award. Texas Monthly spoke with the Lockes in Tembi’s backyard in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood. The two discussed the ups and downs of sisterhood, their newly shared craft, and the Texas memories they cherish most.
Texas Monthly: Who arrived in L.A. first?
Tembi Locke: I came in 1994.
Attica Locke: And I came in ‘95. I was looking to become a director and screenwriter, so it was either New York or L.A. The Texan in me is offended by Manhattan. My body can’t handle all of the people on top of each other. So, I thought L.A.—I have a sister out there, there’s a boy I like out there. Pretty soon after, she and I lived in the same apartment complex in Los Feliz, across the hall from each other.
TL: Our parents were vexed, because as kids when we were living under the same roof, we were always fighting. So they were like, “How—of all the millions of people who live in L.A.—do you choose to live in the same apartment building?!” And our answer was: “We have two doors between us that close and lock. We’re fine.”
AL: Because I’m her little sister, everything I could ever do, she’d already done. I remember vividly, what changed our relationship was when I wrote her a letter that started with: “I hate you because you’re so beautiful. I hate you because you’re so smart.” I just had to get out all that I’d been sitting on as a kid. I slid it under the door of her apartment, and she came over and told me, “I really appreciate you saying this.” And then, that was it.
TL: Maybe some people aren’t blessed to ever get to that place with a sibling where they can just have bone honesty. But for that to have happened, when we were still really formative in our adulthood, it kind of set a template for how we’re choosing to be with each other as grown-ups.
TM: Attica, did you experience any of that old resentment when Tembi decided to write a book?
AL: I didn’t feel that at all. [To Tembi] The one time you wrote something—way before you were doing classes at UCLA and doing writing groups—you wrote a little fictional piece that was clearly inspired by our grandmother. And I did say, “I can’t stand you!” But I was saying that in jest. It was just like, “Whoa! Where did that come from?!”
TL: I do remember that piece. I remember writing it and thinking: “This is lighting a place in me that I don’t think has ever been lit. This is really exciting, the way I feel writing this.”
AL: When she was writing this memoir and was asking me certain questions, I was like, “Chiiild … good luck!” Because I make my stuff up for this very reason. I don’t want to tell the truth.
TL: Which was incredibly freeing for me. Here I am, a first-time author, writing a memoir, and I would get stuck. And I would turn to the person who’s nearest and dearest to me, who is a four-time published writer and say, “What do you do on the days you are stuck?” And she would give me some writerly tips but basically be like, “I don’t know what you’re doing because that’s hard, and I would never choose to do that.”
AL: It’s a lot harder than making it up. A lot.
TM: Do your writing processes differ?
AL: My process is highly defined by being a parent. I just don’t have the freedom to make the day what I want it to be. I try to get my daughter squared away in the morning, I eat a ridiculously early lunch so that I don’t have to stop, then work until I have to go and pick her up. It’s never enough time. Sometimes I’ll write in the car at her soccer practice.
TL: But you’ve done five books with that schedule, so it clearly works fine! I have to say a lot of how I wrote my first book was the result of watching for a decade how my sister and closest friend got it done. At Thanksgiving, when we were all moving on to dessert, she would take a notebook and go into another room and write.
AL: I’m so rude!
TL: But guess what? Eight months later, there was a book. And so, when I sat down to write, I remember telling her I didn’t know how I was going to execute this. She was very clear in saying, “It’s sentence by sentence, day by day.”
TM: Tembi, Attica’s link to Texas is clear, since she’s written a handful of books set there. What’s your relationship with your home state?’
TL: Texas sits in my sister’s imagination as a touchpoint that she is circling creatively. I love going. I enjoy being there. And then, when I leave, it might not land in my imagination. But what’s interesting is, as I think about my second book, Texas has leapt forward in a new way. I’ve been doing some preliminary research on the next book, which would be very much rooted in East Texas. It’s a family memoir, set in three communities along the Trinity River. I’mma leave it at that!
TM: How often do you both go back to Houston?
TL: Definitely three times a year, minimum, sometimes maybe four.
AL: I always add a couple of extra trips besides taking each of our daughters for the summer or spring break, because I’ll do a book event at the Houston library, or I’ll do research. But let me be real clear: I don’t wanna live there. I do think it’s my distance from it that allows me to see it creatively and to write about it. But my love for it is profound. As I get older, I’m getting crazy about it. I listen to the blues all the time, and I’ve started listening to country music. There’s a certain twang to it that takes me back to my grandmother’s house in Lufkin. Also, I wear boots all the time. I have about thirteen, fourteen, fifteen pairs of Lucchese boots. I have a problem.
TL: The difference between my sister and me is she will take her American Express points and convert them and get some new cowboy boots. I will take my points and go somewhere in the world. My way of staying connected to Texas is through food. Those are my immediate memories. I think that’s the legacy of having been married to a chef.
TM: What kinds of foods?
TL: Definitely grits. Also, Dad has this thing …
AL: Potatoes à la Locke?
TL: Yes! He’s coined it! It’s potatoes in a cast iron skillet with onions and bell peppers. And here’s the “Texas” part—it’s gotta have a ton of Lowry’s.
AL: It always makes me think we’re going to the field afterwards. It’s a big ol’ pot that looks like you’re gonna eat it and then go pick cotton.
TM: Lightning-round questions: Fave Texas eats?
AL: My dad’s BBQ. He does brisket and ribs.
TL: For me—and this is because of the service experience, not the culinary experience—it’s Luby’s. It’s beautiful Southern-ness and blackness all rolled into one. I get the LuAnn platter.
TM: Favorite place to hang out in Houston when you were your daughters’ ages?
AL: The Galleria, or the Dairy Ashford Roller Rink, or West Oaks Mall.
TL: I remember when the Angelika Theater came to Houston.
AL: You’re not talking about the Angelika, ‘cuz you’re too old for that, baby. You’re talking about the one where we saw all the early indies? That was the River Oaks Theatre. You’re tryna shave time off, but I’mma keep it real!
TM: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get to Austin?
AL: Find out where my family is, because both our parents are coming. I might also go and find this spot on Sixth Street where I peed once when I was really drunk.
TL: After I check into the hotel, I want to go and hear some music. I’m not leaving Austin without seeing some live music.