Attica Locke

by Susan Henderson on June 3, 2009

Attica Locke has written movie scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and is currently co-writing a miniseries for HBO about the civil rights movement. But it’s her debut novel, BLACK WATER RISING*, that has satisfied her need to write original material and find her own voice.

This literary thriller is about a good man who makes many wrong choices until he’s snared himself in a dangerous trap. There’s greed, politics, corruption, and oil in a city divided by race and class. We’ll talk about this book, as well as the heartbreak and satisfaction that is the life of a writer. I’m very fond of this author, and I hope you’ll leave her a message at the end of this interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.


First, let me ask you about your name. Attica like the prison?

Yes. My parents were political activists in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was actually born three years after the uprising at Attica prison in 1971, but my mother was so deeply moved by the events that took place there—the inmates who stood up to demand humane treatment and the crush of government violence that killed over 40 inmates and guards—and when I was born, it was the first name that came to her.

BLACK WATER RISING is your debut, but you’ve been writing for quite a while. Can you talk to me about your career leading up to this book?

I’ve been a screenwriter for ten years, writing the kinds of movies that production companies love to have on their roster—character based dramas or thrillers with a sociopolitical bent—because they sound classy and smart, but when it comes down to actually spending millions of dollars to make the movie they hesitate or their financiers don’t think it will sell, etc. In ten years, not one movie I’ve worked on has gone into production. It’s not a bad way to make a living, but not fulfilling enough for me to feel like I’m really living as an artist. I started to feel like film as a medium, especially because it’s such an expensive art form and companies can be fatally risk-averse, is getting more and more narrow in terms of the kinds of stories that get told. And that both saddened me and pushed me to explore a more inclusive art form: books.

And anyway, even as a screenwriter I’ve always had a very literary style. One production executive once told me in a meeting, flipping through the pages of my script, “There are too many words in here.” So, maybe I was destined to be a novelist.

I’m not normally a thriller reader, but I’m an absolute junkie when it comes to books about civil rights and race relations, and that’s what made me so anxious to get my hands on this novel. What I didn’t realize until after I’d finished is that this very real portrait of 1981 oil-rich Houston, with its corporate corruption and disputes between newly-integrated union members, is actually from before your time. What drew you to this period in history?

Jay is representative of my parents’ generation, and I think in some ways writing a character like him was an attempt to understand the people who raised me. I was a kid in the early ‘80s in Houston. My parents had been college activists in the early ‘70s and now found themselves smack in the middle of the Reagan era. There was a tremendous cultural shift going on in this country, from a focus on the political to the economic, in terms of the path to upward mobility. Money could be its own kind of equality. My parents played the game. They worked hard, bought houses in the suburbs. But I always felt that something in them got left behind. They never talked about it, but I think it was a challenging psychological shift for both of them. And I wanted to understand that better.

Also, in reality Houston was just an interesting place in 1981. They had just elected their first woman mayor, Kathy Whitmire. The city was flush with oil money and on the receiving end of worldwide attention. It was an arrogant, adolescent city, newly rich and oblivious to signs of impending doom on the economic horizon.

But most of Jay’s clients are walk-ins or people who get his name out of the phone book or friends of Bernie’s extended church family. People who, for the most part, cannot afford to pay him. Over the years, he’s engineered all manner of creative financing plans. Monthly installments and deferred payments. In lieu of cash, he’s taken everything from used furniture to free haircuts. (p. 207)

I never thought I’d be so thrilled to read about labor unions, but those scenes absolutely buzzed with tension. What a timely book—the resistance to change when it means a redistribution of power.

Well, there are things about this country’s current state of affairs that I never could have foreseen, other than to say that class tension has always been a hidden fault line running through our culture. Also, the labor fight for better wages for black workers was a part of the larger theme of the move from the civil rights movement’s focus on politics as a way up and out and the Reagan era focus on money as the path to equality.

“You know, Marx said that the working class is the first class in history that ever wished to abolish itself. And if one listens to some of our ‘moderate’ Negro leaders, it appears that the American Negro is the first race that ever wished to abolish itself. And, my black brothers and sisters, it stops tonight.”

The crowd was clapping and stomping, so loud that Jay could feel it backstage, as if the walls were shaking. He could not believe the heat this man was generating, like a lightning rod in a prairie storm. It wasn’t just the man, but, really, the ideas, the words…two words: black and power.

“So what you’re preaching, man,” one of the white students down front asked, a cat dressed in cords and a denim patch jacket, “isn’t it just racism of a different color? Isn’t ‘black power’ inherently anti-white?”

“See, you still putting yourself at the center of it, jack. That’s what you ain’t yet getting. Black folks ain’t talking about you, or to you, no more.” (p. 202)

One theme I see again and again in this book is the pressure for those with the least power to lie down and take what they’re given. Those in power say, Here, take what little we give you because we can certainly offer you something worse. I think that’s the magic in Jay Porter’s character because we know him, or we’ve been him—someone who feels such fatigue and discouragement when his ideals and dreams keep hitting a wall. Tell me what you think of Jay.

If I’m being honest, beyond the political focus of the book, Jay’s journey mirrors my own as a writer. His fatigue is mine. Was mine, I should say. Before I wrote this book, I had grown so disenchanted with film, which was the whole reason I’d moved out to LA. I’d made a big splash years earlier with a script that was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Program. It was optioned by a film company. We were location scouting when they ultimately decided that because most of the lead characters were black and the story dealt with very American issues of race and history, the movie ultimately would never make any money in foreign sales, which they needed to offset the cost of the financing the movie. They pulled the plug, and I was crushed. I stopped writing original material and started taking assignment jobs. Somebody would have an idea for a script or a book to adapt, and I would write it. I helped my husband go to law school that way. I bought a house. But my voice as an artist was silent. Another one of the themes of the book is Jay finding his voice again.

That’s me.

It wasn’t until late in the evening, the waiting room empty and the two of them the only ones still waiting, that she understood what was going on, that this white hospital had no intention of treating her husband. (p. 71)

I love the marriage in this book, and not just because of the wonderful bickering and the secret-keeping and the obvious love there, but because this marriage taps into a larger theme of the book. You nailed that moment when the ideals of youth meet with the reality of making payments and creating a safe and stable home. Talk to me about that moment.

Some of it’s what I wrote above. But I also saw this tension in my parents.

They came out of the movement with two kids to raise. My mother had a Master’s degree but had been working in a factory because she was a socialist. My dad worked at Shell Oil. The movement was gone. The marches had dried up. The country had moved on, and they were forced to move on too. So my dad went to law school, and my mom eventually started her own business. And both have done quite well for themselves. But, like I said, I grew up feeling like there were a lot of unresolved feelings about where they’d been versus where they were going.

“I heard you go out,” she says.

“I was taking out the trash,” he says.

Bernie nods. This makes sense to her, makes her feel better.

“You gon’ put another bag in?” she asks.

“I always do.”

“No, you don’t, Jay.”

He reaches under the sink and pulls out a black trash bag, snapping it open to make his point. “You gon’ fight with me about trash bags?”

“I’m just saying. Sometimes you don’t.” (p. 41)

In the end, this book has something to say about the courage of standing up for your convictions. Tell me, what are you passionate about? What, for you, is worth fighting for?

My voice. I never again want to spend ten years disconnected from who I really am.

Jay has three guns: a .38 in his glove compartment, a hunting rifle in the hall closet, and the nickel-plated .22 he keeps under his pillow, always within arm’s reach. He’s tried to break the habit of carrying it into the bathroom with him. But most days it’s right by his side. Some people, when they’re in the shower, imagine they hear the phone ringing. Jay imagines people breaking into his apartment with guns drawn. (p. 65)

The LitPark community is full of writers at every stage of the journey. Is there anything you learned along the way to publication that you’d like to pass on to them?

Well, I’m as neurotic as they come (as my husband can attest), but I have a good therapist and I pray a lot. I’m kind of being funny, but I am also completely serious. I don’t know how to do this work without a little faith, a belief in magic. I’ve certainly been rejected a lot, and I don’t know how I kept going except that I just did, even when it hurt like hell. In the end, no rejection has ever been greater than my desire to write.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another book right now. And I’m writing a mini-series for HBO about the civil rights movement. It’s based on the books by Taylor Branch, and he and I are writing the scripts together.