It was a roundabout way of getting there, but it sounds like Houstonian Attica Locke was born to write. “I’ve been writing my whole life, acknowledges the novelist and TV scribe promoting her latest book Heaven, My Home being published in paperback on August 25.
“I went to Alief-Hastings High School, and then immediately went to Northwestern in Chicago. My focus there was not writing per se, I was a film student. I was interested in storytelling for sure, [but] I kind of went to college with the idea that I would be a movie director. I certainly took writing classes while I was there, but under the umbrella of drama, screenplays and TV scripts. I was not a serious English student at all, I was trying to make movies.”
“When I left from Northwestern to Los Angeles, I was again on that path and working in Hollywood with temp jobs and I did the Sundance Labs, the Sundance Institute’s feature filmmakers lab, and I did that," Locke says. "And I came out of that program with a movie deal! I was 25, I was an absolute baby and I thought: there you go, I’m about to be a movie star!”
Though she can laugh about it now, the author describes what would be all too familiar conversation she faced – an opposition of not understanding. “It didn’t work out, and there’s a lot of reasons why,” she says. “The material I was writing at that time did not seem like it would easily find its market. The material was black, it was rural, it was southern, it featured stories of people’s lives being integrated… so is this a movie for white people? A movie for black people? We don’t know how to market this! I just went: oh shit! I’m in trouble because these are the kind of stories I want to tell and I’m hearing they don’t want to hear it.”
Instead of turning tail, Locke pivoted her career ambitions to find a way to stay in the city of stars. “I was very young, newly married, my husband was going to law school and we were broke. I said I know I can write, I’ll try to write scripts for studios for movies they’re going to make. I’ll just offer my services. I did that for well over a decade, I had a successful career in this business if money is your only measure of success. But none of the movies got made so the joke was on me! I said I’d go to the studios and write the movies they were gonna make anyway, and those didn’t get made either!”
By taking stock of her options, Locke came to a key decision point – it was time to make a change. “I just hit a wall with the whole thing and said I didn’t want to do this anymore. I walked away from Hollywood. I took a second mortgage out on my house and gave myself a year to write a book, and that was Black Water Rising. At the time I had no idea if it would ever be published, or how, but I just felt this kind of calling to pull away from Hollywood which was not making space for me and to pursue an art form for people who love to read, and also that is relatively cheap to practice.
"I don’t need a crew to write a book, I don’t have to pay crafts services or scout locations. There was a freedom in that. To show something on screen, let’s say, there’s a scene in Bluebird Bluebird (which is the first book to which Heaven, My Home is the sequel) where Darren Mathews is falling in a bayou. To shoot that, you have to test the water – there’s a lot that goes into all that. It’s not so much you get more volume, or more story, but you are relieved from any limitations that the logistics of shooting something would put on it. You’re just free.”
Ironically, as Locke found an audiences for the type of stories she was determined to tell (and successfully, earning among other prizes the prestigious Edgar Award and an NAACP Image Award) – there were developments happening in her old haunts that piqued her interest again. “Here’s the thing: television over the course of my professional life was making a huge transition. It used to be that really serious storytelling was on the screen and that television was schlock and you would just go to escape and it’d be fantasy kind of stuff.
"Those things have flipped. Mainstream movie storytelling is the stuff of fantasy (and I won’t call it schlock), but it's not the same kind of material that is happening on TV now. TV has now become the space for grown up storytelling, for stories that explore socio-political themes. It has become that serious medium. I walked out of Hollywood just as the two were flipping and if I’d had a bit more patience, I may have found my way to television. But I didn’t. I just walked away because I was writing movies the whole time.”
“So while I was writing books and publishing, I’m sitting here watching TV get really interesting! Like hey, I maybe want to play. I think I want to be part of that. I went back to my agent – and it doesn’t help that books can’t totally pay the bills, if you’re not J.K. Rowling. Other people teach, but I don’t know how to teach. I have nothing to tell anybody about anything that’s worthwhile! I just went back, I had never been escorted out of the building so to speak. I left. So I just walked back in and said: Hey guys, I think I want to explore television.”
Despite encouragement, Locke describes similar conversations as before and still it seemed like Hollywood might not be able to tell her story. “They were supportive, of course,” Locke explains, “[but] some of the early ideas I wanted to bring to them they were skeptical of and it was right back to that stuff. This was maybe three weeks before I met on Empire, which was a show that ended up changing the landscape of TV. So that’s the irony of all of it. Empire came because they looked at my story and said: I don’t know, this seems really hard because its super black… but here’s a bunch of other scripts for shows that are coming up. I read Empire and I went WHOA. I had never seen anything like this. And when I started meeting with everyone on this, it just felt like a fit, from the very first meeting. I happen to know they didn’t have the highest of expectations for what it could do, and it was just this rocket ship that took off!”
After a lifetime in other writing biospheres, Locke admits to starting close to square one upon entering her first TV writers room. “When I walked in on day one at Empire, I said: how does this work? It didn’t make any sense to me. I didn’t understand how we were gonna talk and make up a show. And yet, I pretty quickly realize that what ends up happening [is this] brain trust that becomes this collective way of thinking, where all of us as a team are better than any of us individually for this one project. Now that I’ve seen it work on several shows now, it’s symphonic! It is an amazing thing that happens where if you do it well, you gather people that are open and trusting and kind and funny and deep and have different skill sets, then we all kind of sit together and it becomes this symphony of ideas.”
After three seasons writing and producing on Empire, Locke moved to other landmark and Emmy-decorated programs including Netflix’s When They See Us and Hulu’s spicy buzz-grabber Little Fires Everywhere. “I can talk about on Little Fires Everywhere, there were women in the room who had been to art school, which is a big part of the series. There were adoptees in the room, there were single mothers in the room, there were black women in the room, there was an immigrant in the room. All of these different experiences gather together, and if you have the right boss, the right executive producer – she listens to all that, and helps guide that bigger conversation and we’re all adding things to the large story. I think of Little Fires Everywhere in particular where I can’t think of a single person that if they were removed from the equation that we would have the same show. Everyone added something so so specific.”
Locke seems to have a sneaking suspicion that she’s hit the jackpot on having several shows become magnets for cultural and critical acclaim – and she might have a theory about why these projects have been such smashes. “I have been very lucky,” Locke says. “I don’t think it’s very common – and I only say that because I hear it from other people. I have been very lucky where I’ve had experiences over and over where people in power were listening and paying attention. I will say: shout out to women in power! Every boss I’ve had in TV is a woman. And I do think it is a leadership style leaves space for other people to shine. I don’t know how else to put it but I don’t think a dictatorial way of doing things comes naturally to the women who hired me. Cause I’ve heard other stories about female showrunners who sound like nightmares! I’ve just been lucky. It may not be causal that it’s been women bosses, it may simply be I got three great women bosses.”
With a growing list of accomplishments in the TV field, the question becomes obvious: can she imagine any of her books being adapted into the next must binge-streaming event? Turns out – her duo of East Texas-set books came closer than we might have imagined. “It was at FX for a minute,” she says, quickly, adding: “It didn’t work out and it didn’t work out in the most amicable way. We just needed one of us to come up with a version of the story of the series that we were both happy with. What made them happy didn’t make me happy and what made me happy didn’t make them happy. We parted on very good terms, they didn’t even hold the rights to my book, they turned around very quickly and gave them right back.
"I discovered that it may work better as a series of movies, than a series of books. There are ways in which the story unfolds that makes it difficult for the medium of television. Because [the main character] is so much on the road – television requires a stable of characters you hang out with for a minute. And he’s always getting in his truck and going somewhere else, so it doesn’t quite work out super well. It may find its way to screen, I don’t know how and I don’t know when, and I’m not pressed about it at all. I don’t see arriving on TV as a stamp of approval or a pinnacle of a story’s worth, I love Darren as he exists in books, and he may exist there and only there, and I’m just fine with that.”
Attica Locke’s most recent novel Heaven, My Home will be released in paperback on August 25 and her latest TV projects When They See Us and Little Fires Everywhere are streaming now on Netflix and Hulu respectively. For more information, visit atticalocke.com