Most writers tell the same story again and again, regardless of genre. Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes says her story is "You are not alone." Whether she is writing for TV or one of her fast-paced novels, Attica Locke's favorite story to tell is: "They're all lying."
That may sound cynical, but Locke is actually having a moment that artists dream about. Her third novel, Pleasantville, publishes on April 21. After 10 years of writing scripts for studios from Paramount to DreamWorks that were never made into feature films, she is the co-producer for Empire—a show that has shattered ratings records since it debuted earlier this year.
"When I decided to become a novelist, I profoundly needed that in my life," Locke says. "I got really lucky that my heart was open to something radically different." While she enjoyed the craft screenwriting involves, the business side was frustrating. "I was one of those people whose screenwriting never got made," she says. "At some point, it felt empty. I decided to stop and write a book to stretch myself and to write for people who love to read."
In 2005, Locke took a second mortgage out on her house and took a year off to write a novel. After a decade of confining her ideas to 120-page scripts, she cut loose and penned a 600-page draft of Black Water Rising in 10 months. It was clear that writing fiction instead of screenwriting was what she needed at that point in her life. "That leap of faith was this huge thing I needed to stretch as an adult," Locke says. "I knew as an artist I needed to write in a different way, and writing a book was the most transformative thing in my life other than motherhood."
When she shopped the book around, it was rejected several times, mainly because of length. Locke trimmed it by 200 pages, and by the time she edited it, her Hollywood agency had a book department. That led to the publication of her first novel in 2009.
Black Water Rising centers on the cranky and compelling Houston attorney Jay Porter, whose personal life is in as much disarray as his professional one when he stumbles unwittingly into the cross hairs of an oil company's malfeasance. Pleasantville returns to Porter 15 years after the events of Black Water Rising and centers again on corruption, this time in politics.
When Locke wrote her second book, The Cutting Season, her only daughter was a toddler. The bestselling book won the 2013 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Beyond affirming her talent for writing fiction, the book also taught Locke to write in a different way. "When I wrote the first book, my husband went to work, and the house was mine, so I could write. With The Cutting Season, my daughter was a little bitty toddler who needed so much," Locke says.
Now she can write even while her daughter is watching television—although she doesn't recommend it—and "the blessing is that I can't afford my neuroses. If I have an hour free, I can't spend 30 minutes of that beating myself up."
Instead, she has to use every free moment she has to continue her life's work, which she describes as "chronicling contradictions and complications around race post–civil rights. My whole time on this Earth is informed by the fact that I was born on the other side of the movement and exploring the question of where are we. I think Empire is another piece of that; it's another way of exploring black life."Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C.