Attica Locke hasn't lived in Houston for 20 years, but the city in which she grew up leaps off the pages of her latest novel, Pleasantville. The book is a follow-up to her popular 2009 novel Black Water Rising--a look at the intersection of race, oil money, and politics in 1980s Houston--and reacquaints readers with protagonist Jay Porter, the disaffected lawyer whose inner turmoil drove much of the action. That doesn't mean Pleasantville is a sequel, though--not quite.
"There was a lot of back-and-forth about whether I was pulling this off," confessed Locke. "I wanted to write this so that you didn't have to read the first book. I bristle at the word 'sequel'. I feared that people would expect the same experience, the same character, and I wanted Jay to grow as an individual who has aged, and a city that has grown up a little bit since 1981."
As we follow the characters through the familiar streets of Houston, Locke again explores the intersection of race, money, and politics in Houston--this time in the late 1990s. A missing girl, a mayoral race, and a languishing case against Cole Oil leftover from Black Water Rising provide the platform, and Houston once again delivers a vibrant backdrop for Jay and the powerful Hathorne family to play out their complicated power struggle. Though she's been gone twenty years, Locke returns frequently to visit family and friends and makes reacquainting herself with the city a priority.
"I'm born and raised in Houston. I kind of grew up with it under my skin," explained Locke, who split her time between her dad in Macgregor and her mom in Alief, where Locke did part of her schooling. "In 1996 I wasn't in Houston, but it was still 'at hand'. I work from memories, and I go home two or three times a year--there is always a moment on those trips when I drive around by myself." On one such city tour in Christmas 2013, Attica "found" Jay's Midtown office.
After Black Water Rising Attica had no intentions of revisiting Jay even though readers frequently requested answers to their unanswered questions. "When readers would ask, again I would bristle!" laughed Locke. "I always felt that Black Water Rising was about Jay's psychological journey as a former activist who was done speaking truth to power, but who was willing to try again--I didn't care whether he won the case against Cole Oil. That Jay was willing--that was enough for me."
So, what changed to make Jay reappear? Locke cites her father's run for Houston mayor in 2009 as a pivotal moment in her thinking about Jay, and her next novel. "I'd written about the political life of a city in Black Water Rising but in 2009 I was thrust into the middle of it, in real life," said Locke. "I tried to write the book without Jay, but ultimately his life story is a great vehicle through which to look at late twentieth century complications and contradictions around race." Pushing her "sequel terror" to the side, Locke invited Jay back in, and discovered what she described as "love and freedom" to tell the story of Pleasantville.
The intersection of race, money, and power is a familiar theme for Locke, who currently writes for, and co-produces, the hit FOX show Empire. Citing the show's enormous appeal across all demographics, Locke expressed hope that her writing--on the show, and in her books--can help move the conversation surrounding race forward.
"The coverage of the show's "hit" status is more like, 'Hollywood discovered black people!'. The show does extraordinarily well with black people, but the bigger point is that everyone is watching it--just like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat," said Locke. "The point is that our humanity is broader than networks give us credit for; I hope the coverage broadens so the story isn't that Hollywood discovered a bunch of black people under a rock they could make a show for, but the idea that the race of culture of the show doesn't matter--it's the quality of the show."
You can catch Attica Locke at Brazos Bookstore--where she'll be presenting Pleasantville, and probably answering more than a few questions about Empire--on Monday, April 27 at 7 p.m.