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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the West Texas novel The Paragraph Ranch.
Attica Locke is the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Black Water Rising (Harper, 2009), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, nominated for an Edgar Award and an NAACP Image Award, and was shortlisted for the UK's Orange Prize, and The Cutting Season (Harper, 2013). As a screenwriter, Locke has produced scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and HBO. She was a fellow at the Sundance Institute's Feature Filmmakers Lab and has served on the board of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. A native of Houston, Texas, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Author photo by Jenny Walters
Houston-born author and screenwriter Attica Locke has recently added producer of a hit TV series, Empire, to her resume. Lone Star Literary Life caught up with by email from her home in LA for this profile interview.
ATTICA LOCKE: No. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out when I was a sophomore in high school (see, now I’m dating myself). I had seen his earlier films, but it was this movie that sparked something inside of me, and I wanted to be a filmmaker. It was the first contemporary, powerful black film I had ever seen.
What was it like to be selected to be the first novelist for bestseller Dennis Lehane’s imprint? How did that happen?
It is one of the highlights of my professional life. Dennis and I were at the same publishing house, but at different imprints. Someone slipped him The Cutting Season for a blurb. He decided to publish it instead! No one was more shocked than I was.
Activism and politics seem to have been a big part of your family’s dynamics. Your father was chief of staff for Mickey Leland and was nearly elected Houston’s mayor in 2009. I’ve read that he was the inspiration for your recurring protagonist, former activist/now lawyer Jay Porter. Do you ever see Jay Porter running for office?
Not really. I think Jay is too reticent. His arc continues to be that he’s the guy who wants to stand on the sidelines and not get involved, until something happens where he feels he has no choice but to get involved. Well… in that sense, he could decide that there’s some reason he has to run for office. Hmmm…
You seem to be able to move from writing for the screen to writing novels effortlessly. How are the two processes different?
With novels, I’m creating something that’s meant to stand on its own. Screenplays are a “means to.” They are the first of a longer journey, and you’re not necessarily writing for people who love to read. Not that scripts aren’t well written. The best ones are. But they are always a map to something larger: the actual movie or TV show.
What is it about Houston that creates so many bestselling novelists? How did growing up in Houston inform your writing? I’ve heard that Houston is a part of Texas, but is also apart from Texas. Would you find that description to be accurate? Why or why not?
I could never think of Houston as not a part of Texas because I grew up there and I consider myself a Texan, always. I think it’s different from Dallas (and, yes, I will refrain from invoking the famous rivalry). I think Houston is the most provincial big city in America. It feels like a small town, but it’s huge. I don’t know that Houston inspired my writing so much as it was a natural place for me to explore. It’s an attempt to understand the city in which I was born.
I never miss an episode of Empire. Is there someone who is your inspiration for Cookie? She is over-the-top, but so likeable. Is that all in the script, or is any of the action improvised? Would you ever like to do a TV series based on characters in Texas?
Lee Daniels and Taraji P. Henson get all the credit for Cookie. She came out of Lee’s head, based on women in his family. And Taraji comes up with some of the best lines in the series. We get some good lines in too, but a lot of what we’re doing is providing the arc and structure of the story for the actors to play in.
Which Texas writers inspired you growing up?
J. California Cooper and Larry McMurtry.
You’ve said that your parents moved from activism to being Cosby parents when society changed, and they rolled with it. What sort of activism do you feel is important to you and your generation?
I think we’re seeing it in the streets with #BlackLivesMatter. We’re seeing it on the internet with people like Edward Snowden. It’s about speaking truth to power and calling out the powers that be about their illegal or unconstitutional behavior.
What’s the first thing you like to do when you come back home to Houston to visit?
The very last thing I should do: go buy some boots.
As a Texan living in LA, what’s the meal you dream about when you’re gone?
Tex-Mex. They don’t put cheese on tacos in LA.
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Praise for Attica Locke’s PLEASANTVILLE
“Locke, a sharp and gifted writer, delivers a complex, suspenseful legal thriller that offers a sophisticated appraisal of our deeply flawed political process, one that is likely to resound with readers.” —Booklist (starred review)
“A thriller wrapped in an involving story of community and family dynamics. Locke serves up a panorama of nuanced characters and writes with intelligence and depth.” —Kirkus
“Gripping…a twist-filled plot will keep readers eagerly turning the pages.” —Publishers Weekly
“A nuanced and empathetic look at the unequal, contentious social layers of Houston’s African-American population.” —Seattle Times
Locke makes every scene count with a complex plot that unfolds surprises at every turn and packs a satisfying conclusion.... Highly recommended for fans of fast-paced mysteries with strong geographic angles and appealing underdogs. —Library Journal (starred review)
“This taut thriller. . . is knitted with enough shock and awe and backroom politics to keep you reading and guessing all weekend long.” —Essence
Praise for Locke’s previous work
“As Scott Turow has done, Ms. Locke uses small, incremental deceptions to draw her main character into big and dangerous mistakes . . . Subtle and compelling.” —New York Times
“. . . .in the company of master thriller writers such as Dennis Lehane or Scott Turow. . . . Attica Locke [is] a writer wise beyond her years.” —Los Angeles Times
“I’d probably read the phone book if her name was on the spine.” —Dennis Lehane
“Dripping with southern Gothic atmosphere. . . . Equal parts murder mystery and family drama, the novel also draws readers in through its considerations of African-American history and life in post-Katrina Louisiana.” —USA Today
“Compelling. . . . A mystery that expands the whole idea of the mystery, reaching from the present deeply into the past. . . . Great writing, the kind that gives you goose bumps.” —Los Angeles Times
“Locke draws on the past to remind her characters how much it has shaped their identities and how much it continues to shape the choices they make.” —New York Times Book Review
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