“It was difficult to monetize my blackness,” she says now.
Not anymore. With her fifth crime novel, “Heaven, My Home,” coming out this month, she’s proved that there’s demand for stories about black characters, not just on the page but on the screen. It took her walking away from Hollywood to find success there: After three seasons of writing for the hit show “Empire,” she’s also working on the buzzy upcoming series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere.”
This is a far cry from where she was more than a decade ago, when she was taking out a second mortgage on her house and giving herself a year to become a novelist.
Her debut, “Black Water Rising,” was published in 2009 to critical acclaim and was followed by “The Cutting Season” (2012) and “Pleasantville” (2015). Her books, categorized as mystery or crime, are also unabashedly about black experiences, examining the legacy of black history in the context of modern politics and culture. The crime she really concerns herself with is an existential one: the legacy of America’s original sin.
The protagonists in her novels are mostly black men, and she writes with the authenticity of a lived experience. “The greatest wounds I’ve had in my life have been because I’m black not because I’m a woman, that’s normally secondary,” she says. “I felt like I wanted to tell a story about race and for me, for whatever reason, stripping gender out made it easier.”
But a funny thing happened while she was carving out her career as a novelist. “Everything that I was trying to do in movies — you know, grown-up stuff and deep character work with sociopolitical themes and all this kind of stuff — all of that work moved to television,” she says.
Among that new crop of TV shows was 2015’s “Empire,” the musical drama about the Lyon family, a clan of hip-hop and entertainment moguls. It was a high-end soap opera that combined the bling of “Dynasty” with the psychological drama of “King Lear,” and it was a smash hit.
When Academy Award-nominated director and producer Lee Daniels was creating the show, he wanted not just great writers but “African American voices that understood sort of the world I created.”
One look at a sample script from Locke, and he knew he’d found just such a voice. She “blew me away,” he says, “and I was blown away by who she was as a person, as a woman, as a writer, and it was a love affair from that point on.”
What drew Locke to “Empire” was her interest in telling a different black story: “How do you go from a working-class existence to being a mega mega mega millionaire?” she says. “And how do you navigate the newness of that wealth?”
According to Daniels, Locke was especially adept at channeling the voice of matriarch Cookie Lyon, a standout character played by Taraji P. Henson, who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal. “When I think of Attica, I think of the voice of Cookie,” Daniels says. He admits that Locke saved him more than once, fighting for a nuanced portrayal that, according to her, was more mother and less gangster.
Locke describes her three seasons as a writer and producer on “Empire” as “the most fun thing I’ve ever done” but novel writing never left her, and the experience of television’s episodic storytelling gave her the confidence to start a book series set along Texas’s Highway 59. Locke spent her childhood traveling the rural byways of that stretch, visiting relatives in Lufkin, Corrigan and Marshall, looking out the window on vistas of swamps and creeks, on rural folks selling boiled peanuts and peach jam.
Locke’s early books focused on big city politics in her hometown of Houston, clearly inspired by her own father’s run for mayor there. But Highway 59 “feels like a vein in my body,” Locke says. “It’s where my entire family comes from.”
For many black Americans that route represented a way out of Texas, especially during the Great Migration, a road to the urban promise of St. Louis or Chicago. But Locke’s family didn’t leave and neither did the family of her protagonist, Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. Locke first introduced the character in “Bluebird, Bluebird” in 2017 as a lawman who has a conflicted relationship with the law, because, as a black man, the law is conflicted about him. Of the state’s elite unit of 150 or so rangers, a mere handful are minorities.
Matthews’s case in “Heaven, My Home” again centers on white supremacy; he’s called in to track down a missing 9-year-old, the son of a convicted Aryan Brotherhood member.
Locke’s setting, after the election of 2016, can feel both like a bygone time and a reflection of the current moment when racial violence feels “like a ghostly relative in a daguerreotype that has always been there but was now impossible to ignore,” she writes in the book. This is a place where the n-word is used freely, and Matthews’s badge is no shield against racism. “He felt as if he’d wandered into a movie set,” Locke writes in “Heaven.” “He could see the actors, but Darren was reflected in none of the action around him.”
She captures the acute challenge of being a black man in America, regardless of education, title or pedigree. But her first job she says “is as a storyteller.” Entertainment value is paramount, and she manages to deliver it while also immersing readers in a world where the wound of America’s racial history is raw, infected and resistant to treatment.
It’s a skill she continues to bring to television as well.
Ava DuVernay sought her out to write for the Emmy-nominated Netflix drama about the Central Park Five, “When They See Us.” And the adaptation of Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” hits Hulu in 2020.
Ng is a little surprised that she doesn’t feel more defensive about having another writer interpret her novel but part of it, she says, is because Locke is a “book person.”
Locke brings an important perspective, too. Kerry Washington plays one of the key protagonists in the show, a character who is ethnically ambiguous in the book. Ng appreciates that Locke can provide the details about the life of a black woman in ways that Ng would never have been able to.
Locke is clearly having a moment, though fans of her novels need not worry about her rising profile in television. “Heaven, My Home” ends on another cliffhanger, so we’ll undoubtedly be hearing from Ranger Matthews again soon.
Attica Locke will discuss her latest book at Politics and Prose at Union Market on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m.