Thursday, 16 April 2015

Talking Pleasantville and Empire with Attica Locke

Attica Locke © Ayo Onatade April 2015
Attica Locke is the author of three novels.  Her first novel Black Water Rising was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, nominated for an Edgar Award, a NAACP Image Award and a Strand Magazine Critics Award. It was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Award.  It also introduced readers to lawyer Jay Porter.  Her second novel The Cutting Season won the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was long-listed for the Chautauqua Prize and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.  Her latest book is Pleasantville and sees the return of Jay Porter now and environmental lawyer. In this interview she talks about the new book and being a writer on the hit series Empire!

Ayo:   For those who have not yet read Pleasantville – could you give a brief       explanation of what it is about?

Attica: In 1996, during a contentious mayoral race in Houston, Texas, a block-walker – the people who leave fliers for candidates at your doorstep – goes missing in the tiny hamlet of Pleasantville, in northeast Houston.  Jay Porter, who has become an environmental lawyer, represents the neighbourhood in a lawsuit against a chemical company, gets sucked into the case when the relative of a prominent Pleasantville family is accused of having something to do with the crime.  Jay eventually defends the man in court, a case that inadvertently dissects a crooked election.

Ayo:   What made you decide to go back to the character of Jay Porter in what is in essence a sequel to your brilliant debut novel Black Water Rising?

Attica: In truth, I resisted writing a “sequel.”  I thought Jay’s story was done.  But then my father ran for mayor of Houston in 2009, and I got to see a part of the political process that not many get to see up close, and I was fascinated by the ugliness of politics and devastated at the same time.  I knew I wanted to write about an election in Houston.  Still, I was going to write that book from another character’s point of view.  But the more I realized that the book would be looking in some ways deal with the on-going contradictions around race in America, post-civil rights movement, the more I realized that Jay was the right character through which to tell the story.

Ayo:   In Pleasantville Jay Porter of course finds himself back in court.  He really didn’t want to be there as he is dealing with lots of other issues. Was this deliberate?

Attica: Yes.  One of the things that made me wary of writing a “sequel” was the fear that readers would want an experience identical to Black Water Rising.  I wanted it to be a different book and Jay to be a different man.  But I also had to give him real challenges to overcome.  The changes in his personal life are a part of that.  And they mirror changes in my own life.  I wanted Jay to again have to force himself to stand up and speak for what’s right.

Ayo:   There is a lot of history about Pleasantville in Houston.  Is there a specific reason why you decided to write about it?

Attica: I grew up in Houston, but didn’t know the neighbourhood of Pleasantville until my father ran for mayor in 2009.  I went to a candidate forum there – in what at the time was a middle class neighbourhood a little worse for the wear.  I didn’t understand why every candidate was coming to Pleasantville figuratively on their knees begging for votes.  What was so special about this place?  When I learned the history of the place, then I understood.  Pleasantville was founded in 1949 as a planned community for Negro families of means, one of the first its kind in the United States.  Doctors, teachers, engineers, and lawyers moved in, some able to own their own homes for the first time.  The building of the neighbourhood also created a brand new voting district in the middle of the state.  Pleasantville since its inception has had a rich history of civic engagement.  In fact their precinct has been nicknamed “the might 259th” by politicians who come courting for their votes every election cycle.  There’s a quote that opens the book that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, “Every politician worth his salt knows the road to elected office goes through Pleasantville.”

Ayo:   Politics plays a huge part in this novel, do you have any strong political views and if so did any of them manage to find their way into your novel?

Attica: I think anyone who reads the book – or any of my books for that matter – will know my politics swing hard to the left.  Politics are in everything I do, naturally.  I am interested in the distribution of power, in every way.  And it comes out naturally in what I write.

Ayo:   Was there any specific reason you decided to set it in 1996?

Attica: 1996 was right after The Houston Post folded, and the city became the first major
metropolis in America to have only one newspaper.  I strongly feel that my father’s election was affected by the fact that there was only one newspaper in the city.  They got to control the narrative of the election and there was never a counter view.

Ayo:   Do you enjoy writing about your home town Houston and do you think Jay Porter would make of Houston now?

Attica: I love writing about Houston.  As for how Jay would feel about the city now, I may have to write a book to find out.

Attica Locke and Ayo Onatade © Ayo Onatade April 2015
Ayo:   You have been heavily involved in Empire as co-producer and writer.  How did this come about and how pleased are you about the huge success it has been?

Attica: I was a Hollywood screenwriter for years before I wrote a novel.  I was very good at getting paid well to write movies that never got made.  The difficulty of making movies is part of the reason I started writing books.  During that time, I watched as TV has consistently gotten more and more interesting, and the kind of movies I wanted to make – grown-up dramas, political thrillers, great character studies – those stories have all moved to TV.  That’s where some of the most interesting work in Hollywood is right now.  I told my agents, “I want to play to.”  I went on a lot of meetings and read a lot of scripts, and Empire was a standout from the first page of the pilot script.  I went to lots of meetings with the executive producers and the studio and then I got the job.  It has been one of the most fun experiences of my life.

Ayo:   What is the best thing for you being a writer on this show?

Attica: The writers’ room.  Everyone makes me laugh.  I’ve made friends for life.

Ayo:   You have managed to have several cameos from a number of really well known musical artists.  How have you managed the challenges when it comes to the music and how have you decided which artists to have cameos?  You have had for example Mary J Blige and Jennifer Hudson on the show.

Attica: In the beginning, Timbaland and Lee Daniels called in a lot of favours.  No one knew the show would blow up like it has.  So no one was necessarily knocking down our doors. But I think once people heard the music that was being produced and word got around, artists were calling us to be on the show.  The music is one of the bigger challenges on the show.  It’s all original and the actors have to record while also shooting the show.  It’s to the credit of Timbaland and Jim Beanz that working under incredible time constraints they created such incredible music.

Ayo:   Timbaland and Jim Beanz are heavily involved with the music for Empire and the soundtrack for season 1 has just been released. Does the music encompass all that you think it should and do you have any favourite tracks.

Attica: I love the music.  I listen to it at the gym.  I am incredibly impressed with Timbaland and Jim Beanz’s ability to take a few sentences, snippet of an idea, from the writers and create music that adds another emotional layer to the storytelling.  They are geniuses, pure and simple.  Favourite songs: Conqueror, Remember the Music, Drip Drop and Keep it Movin’.

Ayo:   One of things about Empire which some people might miss is the social issues that it also deals with like homophobia and abuse.  Was this intentional?

Attica: That was in the pilot script and dealt with in a way I had never seen before in the pilot episode.  It’s in the DNA of the show.  Lee Daniels has said that some of the storyline about young Jamal and his father’s rejection of him is taken from his own life.

Ayo:   Any hints that you can reveal about season 2 of Empire?

Attica: My lips are sealed.

Ayo:   Aside from Empire, what are you working on next?

Attica: Being a mom and a dreaming up my next book.

Fifteen years after the events in Black Water Rising, Jay Porter is struggling to cope with catastrophic changes in his personal life and the disintegration for his environmental law practice. His victory against Cole Oil is still the crown jewel of his career, even if he hasn’t yet seen a dime, thanks to appeals. But time has taken its toll. Tired and restless, he’s ready to quit.

When a girl goes missing on election night, 1996, in the neighbourhood of Pleasantville – a hamlet for upwardly mobile blacks on the north side of Houston – single father Jay is deeply disturbed. He’s been representing Pleasantville in the wake of a chemical fire, and the case is dragging on, raising doubts about his ability.

The missing girl was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and her disappearance complicates an already heated campaign. When the nephew of a candidate, a Pleasantville local, is arrested, Jay reluctantly finds himself serving as a defense attorney. With a man’s life and his own reputation on the line, Jay is about to try his first murder in a case that will also put the electoral process on trial, exposing the dark side of power and those determined to keep it

More information about Attica Locke and her books can be found on her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter @atticalocke and find her on Facebook.  

A review of Pleasantville can be found here.

Pleasantville by Attica Locke is out on 16th April 2015 £14.99 (Serpent’s Tail)

Interview ©Ayo Onatade/ Shots April 2015

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