Q&A with Attica Locke

We caught up with brilliant 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlisted author Attica Locke, to discuss her latest novel Pleasantville, her hit Fox show Empire and how her father’s own mayoral run inspired her writing.

Why did you decide to set your novel in Pleasantville, Texas?

During my father’s mayoral run, I went to a candidate forum in Pleasantville, a neighborhood northeast of downtown Houston. At the time it was a little worse-for-the-wear, a middle class neighborhood that had seen better days, and so I couldn’t understand why all of the candidates for mayor and for other offices as well were going out there to drink punch in a community center to woo voters. Then I learned about the history of the neighborhood. In 1949, two Jewish developers came up with the idea to build a planned community for Negroes with money. It was one of the first of its kind in the nation. Doctors, teachers, and engineers moved in, many of them buying homes for the first time. The neighborhood also inadvertently changed the political landscape of the city and state. Though they had to fight for it, Pleasantville residents eventually got an elementary school built in their neighborhood in the early 1950s, which gave them a place to vote and their own voting precinct. Pleasantville has always had a culture of high civic engagement. They have swung many a local race. Folks out there vote. And the candidates always come a’courtin’. The quote that opens the novel is from the Houston Chronicle: “Any politician worth his salt knows the road to elected offices goes through Pleasantville.” I was just completely fascinated with this history. When I went home in 2009 to help with my father’s campaign, I knew within a matter of days that I would write a book about it, and that it would open with a campaign volunteer going missing in this prized voting precinct. It was a way in for me to talk about politics.

Much of the novel is based on your father’s own mayoral race in Houston – what did he think of you writing about his experiences?

The greatest gift my father has ever given me is telling me not to worry about what he or anyone else thinks, but to write my stories. Before I wrote Black Water Rising, I went to my dad, and said, “So I’m writing this book and this character [Jay Porter], and people are going to think it’s you. You’ll know it’s not really you. But that’s the conclusion everyone will draw. I’m not asking permission, but I telling you as a courtesy. This is what I’m doing.” And to his credit, my dad never said, “Well, I have to see the book first, before it’s published,” nor did he grill me about what I was going to write. He said it was my story to tell, no matter what it was.

Did you do any particular research to enable you to write the book?

I’m from Houston, so the easiest research for me was going to Pleasantville and driving around any time I was in the city. I also met with residents who had been living in the neighborhood since the 1950s. I read a lot about politics. I don’t think there is a single book about the 2008 election that I didn’t read. I even read Meghan McCain’s book, which was basically just her diary from 2008. The book that was most influential was The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg, about the changing ways that elections are won.

As well as being a novelist, you’re also the writer and co-producer of Fox’s hit show Empire – what have you enjoyed most about working on the show?

I laugh till I might pee in my pants on a near daily basis working there. I simply love my coworkers. We laugh and laugh and share the most outrageous stories.

Writing alone most of my life, it’s been one of the biggest surprises to find that there is such a thing as a group mind. When we’re together, we start vibing in a way that’s very special. And I sometimes get to hang on set with some of the coolest actors and musical artists.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

For the first time as a novelist, I’m working on a planned book series. When I wrote Black Water Rising, a “sequel” was the furthest thing from my mind. But now I’m writing a book series that takes place in my native Texas, but not necessarily Houston. I do think TV has taught me the pleasures of serialized storytelling.

Find out more about our 2016 longlist here. Stay in the loop with this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction by following us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

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