Attica Locke’s critically acclaimed 2009 debut novel, Black Water Rising, was set in her hometown of Houston and featured a down-on-his-luck lawyer protagonist named Jay Porter, who in many ways was inspired by her father, Gene Locke, the former city attorney of Houston. The sequel, Pleasantville, has just come out, though the final book in what she expects will be a trilogy will likely have to wait a while. Right now, Locke is keeping busy as a writer and co-producer of the Fox television show Empire, which debuted in January and ended its season in March as the highest-rated scripted show on TV.
Jeff Salamon: So, as we speak, Empire just finished its first season on Wednesday. How are you feeling?
Attica Locke: I’m pretty overwhelmed still but very, very happy. To be honest with you, I’m as big a fan of the show as anybody else. I feel lucky that I get to see the behind-the-scenes of it all, but I’m just so happy that people are getting to watch something that’s making them scream and laugh and sing and call each other up.
JS: You’ve been in Los Angeles for how long?
AL: Twenty years. I came out here to become a director and then got derailed into being a screenwriter. But none of the movies I wrote ever got made. I got very disenchanted and decided to write a book.
JS: When I looked on your IMDB page, before Empire you only have one writing credit, for the mid-nineties TV show Early Edition.
AL: I got one freelance script on that show. And they rewrote every word of it! [Laughs.]
JS: So how did you end up writing for the hottest show on TV?
AL: I was done with Hollywood. I was so, like, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. And I had mixed feelings about it. My sister said, “Attica, I don’t think you’re done with Hollywood.” Because it would make me cry, thinking, “Am I really done with Hollywood?” But I walked away for, like, six years and I wrote three books. But I was also noticing that television was getting really interesting—that’s where all the complex characters have gone. You’re not seeing as much of that in mainstream Hollywood. Certainly in indie films but not in studio films. So I went to my agent and said, “Let me see what’s going on this season. I might want to be on staff.” And when I saw the script for Empire I was just, like, “I really want to do this.” And I had a bazillion meetings and it happened and I got really lucky.
JS: Empire is, and I’m quoting here from news reports, “the highest-rated scripted broadcast program of the 2014–2015 television season”—beating out The Big Bang, which happens to star another Houstonian, Jim Parsons. The season finale, which aired in mid-March, was the highest-rated hour for any regularly scheduled broadcast drama in six years. Did you have any idea it would blow up like this?
AL: Nope. I will say this though: when we were in the writers’ room, we were all looking at each other like, “You know what, I would watch the hell out of this show!” We were all like, “This show’s good!” We were all so excited. I had one moment of doubt before the premiere. I said to myself, “What if people don’t like it?” That had never even occurred to me, because I was so entertained myself. But I didn’t know it would be this big. It makes sense to me; when we were in the writers’ room we were all saying to ourselves, “I’ve never seen characters like these, I’ve never seen this kind of mix of high and low, pop culture and politics, I’ve never seen this on TV.” So it makes sense to me that it has really landed with people.
JS: One of the stunning things about Empire’s success is that it has earned these huge ratings with a majority black audience. Would you have thought that could happen?
AL: Yes. Black people in Hollywood have known for years that the narrative out there that there are limitations around shows with people of color was bull—. Black people have seen two versions of ourselves on TV: we are either the third thug on the left in the police lineup on a Law and Order episode or we’re some kind of angel maid who is there to fix some white person’s life. Either a demon or an angel. And neither of those are human. So a show with characters who are flawed, who live in that gray area in the middle that is humanity? Black people have been waiting to see that.
JS: For years black creators in TV have complained about their treatment and the treatment of what are regarded as black shows. I’m just curious—with the success of Shonda Rhimes and now Empire, do you have a sense that something is changing, at least in the realm of TV?
AL: Yeah, something is changing. My sister is a television actress, her name is Tembi Locke, and she says she can tell, just on auditions, that it looks completely different. The diversity thing, studios wanting more color. And it’s not just black people—we have Cristela and Fresh off the Boat on ABC. I think something is shifting. The question is, in ten years are we going to look back and say it was a lasting thing or was it a blip?
JS: What do you think you, specifically, bring to the show, as someone who is a novelist?
AL: Everyone in the room has a different skill set and things that they bring. I think I was very helpful in terms of character. Also in terms of putting our stories in a larger sociopolitical context, in terms of American history and black history.
JS: Which is not necessarily a very Hollywood way to think about things.
AL: It isn’t. But you know what is so great about this show? We all in that room didn’t have to code-switch. I don’t know if that’s a term you are familiar with—
JS: Yes. [Code-switching is when someone speaks differently when they’re in different contexts.]
AL: Nobody did that. The black people in the room, there was a Mexican American on the staff, gay people in the room. Nobody had to check half of who they were at the door. We came in with our whole selves. The entirety of the history of gay people in America was up for discussion, the entirety of the history of black folks in America was on the table for discussion. That room could reference Ariana Grande one minute and the Moynihan Report the next. We were very high-low, which is what the show is.
JS: Does being an author of note carry any weight in Hollywood?
AL: It did with this particular group of people, praise Jesus. I mean, I went on some other meetings where they didn’t give two s——excuse my language—about the fact that I was a published author. In fact, it was like a weight in the room. But when I met with everybody at Imagine [the studio producing Empire], they were all excited about the fact that I had a different background. And there are other people in the show who had never done TV before. That may be part of why the show is so fresh. The room was not stuffed with TV veterans who have all the TV soap opera tropes in their back pockets. We were all coming to this pretty fresh.
JS: Let’s talk about your novels. In both of your Houston books, there are lots of descriptions of a specific street or intersection. Is this just typical scene-setting, or are you saying to people who don’t know Houston, “Hey, look at this place, there’s a there there”?
AL: Houston is my heart. And it matters to me that it exists in literature. And not just the parts of Houston that we’ve seen in pop culture before. The Third Ward matters to me. The Fifth Ward matters to me. Pleasantville matters to me. I want these places to exist in literature.
JS: Murder mysteries and police procedurals are one way readers learn about our cities. Do you think Houston has been underserved by the genre?
AL: Maybe there aren’t that many of us who think that Houston has a dark noirish side. But I will say this: The one thing that I love about the genre is the fact that it really puts you on the ground. There’s a lot of shoe leather involved in writing a mystery—people are walking through streets. A mystery takes a lot of high-minded ideas and puts them on the ground. It’s a way that people get to walk through Houston.
JS: Do you hear from people in Houston about the books?
AL: I do. But nobody’s ever written me to say, “You didn’t represent the city well.”
The letters I get saying, “You did this all wrong” are all about guns. Which is very embarrassing, because my dad is a bit of a gun nut.
JS: Speaking of your dad, at the center of Pleasantville is a 1996 race for mayor in which one of the candidates is a former police chief who would be the first African American mayor of Houston. Most readers will immediately think of Lee Brown, a former police chief who became the city’s first African American mayor, in 1998. But I’m guessing that your father Gene’s campaign for mayor, in 2009, is what was uppermost in your mind.
AL: Absolutely. My dad’s mayoral race was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I thought I had a healthy cynicism about politics. I had no idea how incredibly awful it is. I really didn’t know. And when I saw it up close I was just blown away. I went home to help my dad’s campaign, and I was walking through this city thirty years after Black Water Rising was set and seeing some of the same characters that were in my book: the union guys, and the metro reporters, and the black preachers, the oil men, there’s my dad, and, frankly, Annise Parker half looks like Cynthia Maddox [Houston’s mayor in the book]. It was so surreal. I remember being at a stoplight one day in a rental car and looking at my sister and being like, “This is a book. Maybe this should be my second book.” Because at the time I was struggling with The Cutting Season [which ended up being Locke’s second book], I was really struggling. My dad’s campaign highly informed my idea of how much of politics is theater and how much is just made up. I had no idea people could just lie like that.
JS: Could you give me an example?
AL: Well, this is from me, not from my dad—my dad is over that election. But that subplot in the book about the fake flyer? Someone was doing stuff like that, creating flyers from fake black preachers that said things like “Support Gene because he’s on the right side of God” [an apparent reference to his opponent Annise Parker’s sexual orientation]. It looked like my dad had asked for the flyers, like he was aligned with these preachers—who do not exist! My dad was [made out to be] this incredible antigay bigot—my dad, who has two gay children!
It broke my heart.
JS: Let me ask you a question that’s maybe going to make you grit your teeth. In the late stages of the election, Ned Holmes, who was your dad’s finance chair, made this—
AL: Yup. Yup.
JS: You know what I’m talking about? [During the campaign, Holmes donated $20,000 to a conservative PAC that then sent out a homophobic mailer to voters.]
AL: I sure do. My father is not a politician; I think he got used. He left the back door open for bigots to come in, and he was slow to realize that was happening.
JS: So you’re saying Holmes did this without your father’s blessing.
AL: I’m telling you, there is no part of my father that is antigay. In fact, before the election, he sat down with Annise and said, “I am never doing this, I am never bringing [your sexual orientation] up. I’m not going to go down that road.” But because he’s not a political animal, I don’t think he could foresee the ways in which people could worm their way in and use him for their own bigoted purposes.
JS: How much of your dad is in Jay Porter?
AL: Well, in Black Water Rising Jay is so much a sketch of my dad. Before Pleasantville came out, my dad asked me, “Are people going to think I’m Jay Porter again?” I said, “I don’t think so, I think this may actually stop the comparisons.” Because my dad did not go on to become an environmental attorney, he had nothing to do with the Pleasantville area. The only similarity is that in the mid-nineties my dad also drove a Land Cruiser. That’s pretty much it.
JS: And you’re not Ellie [Jay’s daughter]?
AL: No. Although I have to say this, the scene of the two of them in the car driving, I think that probably is me and my dad. My dad is the one who taught me how to drive, my dad put me in the parking lot of the University of Houston and told me—and this was in a car with a stick shift—“If you can drive yourself out of here you can have this car.”
JS: How’d that turn out?
AL: I got the car!
JS: Texas Monthly is mentioned in passing in both of your Houston-set books. If there’s a third, will we make it into that one too?
AL: Yes! I love your magazine, I have a subscription, I read it here in L.A. It’s an institution. You know, I did part of my research for Pleasantville in the L.A. public library. You guys used to bind up your political stories in a book, and I found one from 1985 that included a story about [former Houston mayor] Kathy Whitmire and this failed development deal on the bayou. The article reminded me of the fact that there has been drama for decades about development on the bayou and whether or not it’s good use of city money to support a project like that. And because my first novel, Black Water Rising, opens on Buffalo Bayou, it seemed like a great plot point to include in Pleasantville. I literally stumbled on a Texas Monthly collection of political articles, and that’s where I got the idea.
JS: So why haven’t we seen any royalties?
AL: Oh no!
JS: Three years ago you wrote an essay for Texas Monthly that was about, among other things, trying to inculcate some Texas values and culture into your California-born-and-raised daughter. How is that project going?
AL: She has a pair of boots, which may be the beginning and end of her Texas identity. I bought her a belt buckle that she refuses to wear; she says it’s too big. I was, like, “That’s the point—it’s supposed to be big!”