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Birnbaum V.

Attica Locke

Our man in Boston talks to screenwriter and novelist Attica Locke about writing in Hollywood, the origins of her second novel, and where exactly British prisoners locate the moral heart of The Wire.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Attica Locke was born in Houston, Texas. Her filmmaking aspirations took her Los Angeles, where she currently lives with her husband and child. Attica has worked as a screenwriter for such moviemakers as Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, 20th Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer, HBO, and DreamWorks—and, as such things go, has never had a script come to fruition as a film.

She is also the author of two novels, Black Water Rising, which was shortlisted for a number of literary prizes, and most recently The Cutting Season, the debut release of Dennis Lehane’s new publishing imprint.

Attica and I met at my favorite great good place, Keltic Krust, which is nestled well within my ZIP Code. Our chat includes the story of name, her favorite adverb, Dennis Lehane, the perils of screenwriting, The Wire, the possibility of a post-racial society, and the charms of Los Angeles. And, of course, more.


Robert Birnbaum: When was the first time you asked your parents about your name?

Attica Locke: It would be hard for me to remember. Probably my earliest memory about my name, not even asking them, was watching a movie on television about Attica. I remember vividly was a movie of the week on TV, and I was sitting on the carpet in front of the TV with the whole family watching it. I remember trying to make sense of what that had to do with me. I was probably much older before I could appreciate my mom saying that the name just came to her when she was a girl, when I came out. I was actually born three years later [after Attica]. I guess Attica was hovering in the back of her mind from ’71. Both my parents were activists.

RB: What happened when you went to school?

AL: Nobody really got it.

RB: Was it possible there was an association with the Harper Lee novel?

AL: No, I don’t think young kids got that either. By the time I got to middle school, high school, college, I would tell people I was named after a prison riot.

The inherent challenges in the kind of stories I write in books are the same challenges that have me leaving Hollywood. Which is to say that it’s hard to get anything made in Hollywood.

RB: (laughs)

AL: It just didn’t go over well. It didn’t mean anything to kids. It more stunned me to say my name to people who were a generation ahead of me and have them pause. I actually regret the day when that generation is gone.

RB: Well, that would be my generation—I may regret it too.

AL: It is almost like having a moment with my parents when I run into people—it lands with them. But it’s never been with people of my own age.

RB: Isn’t that weird? There must be a handful of events of the late 20th century that grabbed people—Kent State, the 1968 Democratic Convention, the 1963 March on Washington.

AL: Maybe if I was named Kent State when I was born. I think the name [Attica] is actually melodic. It has a contradiction within it. It’s a pretty-sounding name.

RB: Have you ever met anyone else named Attica?

AL: No, but since Facebook, they are out there. They are out there, but I have never met anyone personally.

RB: You grew up in Houston.

AL: Yup.

RB: Have you ever been referred to as a Southern writer?

AL: No, but they called my work Southern. But I don’t think I have ever been called a Southern writer. People are funny about where Texas lands.

RB: Do you see Texas as part of the South?

AL: Yes, I also think it’s completely its own thing. But I do consider it part of the South. I consider myself Southern. Definitely. Texan, Southern, black woman, mom.

RB: And you live in Los Angeles. What did you want to be when you grew up?

AL: When I was a kid kid? A pediatrician. But then I realized that actually meant being a doctor—not just hanging out with kids. (laughs) And so that fell away. Pretty early on I wanted to be doing (overhears a mother explaining something to her child)—that’s my life at home. Sweet. Pretty early on I wanted to be in movies. By junior high I wanted to be a filmmaker.

RB: And so you ended up going to Northwestern to study—

AL: Film. I was a film student there.

RB: Why Northwestern? Why not NYU or USC?

I consider myself Southern. Definitely. Texan, Southern, black woman, mom.

AL: I thought about NYU and USC. But I ended up doing a summer program at Northwestern when I was in high school, and I just fell in love with it. I liked the fact that Evanston was this small-town feel, but if I wanted the big city, I could get it in a train ride. NYU, I think, would have been overwhelming. I don’t think I could ever live in New York. I don’t have it in me.

RB: I feel the same way. I can’t even visit anymore.

AL: I am not a big fan.

RB: And Los Angeles?

AL: I love Los Angeles.

RB: Because?

AL: There is a profound atmosphere of permission.

RB: (laughs)

AL: You could pretty much tell anybody in LA that you were doing anything. And they’d say, “That’s a great idea. Fantastic.” There are all kinds of crazy business ideas. Arts classes, painting, yoga, and life-coaching businesses—I kind of think that’s fantastic. As an artist and a writer I don’t feel part of any East Coast canon. So I feel freed up of that level of competition. It seems stereotypical and unfair that there can be a lot of posturing around a New York writer and all that kind of stuff—I am completely freed from that.

RB: Well, Manhattan is the center of American publishing—but it’s odd that it is a little acknowledged fact that Los Angeles is the largest book market in the country. Not so Lala-land after all.

AL: I didn’t even know that.

RB: There are still lots of bookstores and certainly lots of writers.

AL: There is a lot of physical space. There is physical space to spread out, and then the figurative space is this feeling of elbowroom to try things out and explore.

RB: I take it you moved to LA because of film work?

AL: Yes.

RB: And you want to stay there indefinitely?

AL: I could hang out there for the rest of my life. I don’t know where else I would go. My husband and I have fantasies of moving back to Chicago.

RB: Is he from Chicago?

AL: No, he’s from Missouri. He was born in Chicago, but we both went to school at Northwestern. I have fantasies, but I don’t know that I really mean it. The weather thing is no joke.

RB: What about the fires and mudslides and earthquakes in Southern California?

AL: Yeah, but those are sporadic. The winters in Chicago are this big block of time. I don’t know—I love Los Angeles tremendously, and I leave my heart open to see what happens. I do have moments of worry that these are my highest earning years and I am pissing them away in city that is so profoundly expensive—that I can’t leave anything for my kid. I have these thoughts.

RB: Let’s see, two novels that are clearly cinematic—

AL: (laughs) Maybe, but I am not holding my breath.

RB: Well, sure, nothing is guaranteed—

AL: Nothing is guaranteed, and also the inherent challenges in the kind of stories I write in books are the same challenges that have me leaving Hollywood. Which is to say that it’s hard to get anything made in Hollywood.

RB: Right.

AL: We were just talking in the car about how TV is having a great heyday with really sophisticated dramas.

RB: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”

AL: I would give credit to AMC and FX also.

RB: What do we see on the networks?

AL: It’s kind of the same as it’s always been.

RB: Except, for example, Richard Price wrote and produced a cop series, NYC 22 (with Robert De Niro’s involvement). Additionally, NBC did a remake of Prime Suspect (made famous by Helen Mirren).

AL: I didn’t even hear about that.

RB: See, neither lasted a season.

AL: When I was writing original content as a screenwriter, which wasn’t for very long because I realized—

RB: It’s a long shot getting your stuff made.

AL: Yeah, here’s how I see it. When I first came out of school, within a few years I went to the Sundance Institute Filmmakers Lab. I was on path to become a movie director. I had this really heady, idyllic experience on a mountaintop up in Utah, working on my art, and I had a movie deal when I left. I was 24 years old. There was nothing bad that was ever going to happen to me. And I was location scouting for the film when the studio, which doesn’t exist anymore, USA films, turned into Focus Features said, “No, we are actually not going to make it. And their reasoning was the story was a murder mystery that took place in an East Texas town. And there were two bodies that washed up in a bayou, and one was a local white girl and the other was black lawyer from Chicago. And the lawyer’s wife shows up. She didn’t even know where he was, let alone what happened. That’s the mystery—she is trying to figure it out. It was an interesting look a racist little town. They said, “Well, if we are trying to raise independent money, we have a black lead—there are maybe only two actresses that are ever going to open this movie.”

RB: (laughs)

AL: And then they have a very fixed idea that black content doesn’t play overseas. So we can’t raise overseas money to help fund it here. So we don’t see a business model where this works. My 24-year-old ears heard the very thing that’s in my soul to speak to—there’s no business model for it. So I had my heart broken. I was really young and felt really frightened that that movie was the kind of stuff I was going to write my whole life. So I was really scared, and I shut down a little bit. I was newly married and my husband was going to law school. We didn’t have any money, so I became a screenwriter. I say all this to say that, the books I write, they still have that same kind of challenge.

RB: I spoke to John Sayles in May. He’s been making films for over 25 years and can hardly get his films made.

AL: And he is exactly who I want to be when I grow up. He’s a model. But it’s hard. It’s a hard art form.

RB: Apparently a bankable star is a must, and then the competition for screens is extreme.

AL: What I learned about myself, which is not a particularly fun thing to learn about myself—I don’t think I have the fortitude to do what an independent producer or director does. I would rather be inside of the art than to fight to practice the art. So, writing a book is relatively cheap. It feels more direct. It does not pay as well, but what are you going to do? [Film] is a beautiful art form, but I don’t know that I have enough of a passion to push through the stuff I hate about it.

Film is a beautiful art form, but I don’t know that I have enough of a passion to push through the stuff I hate about it.

RB: Of the writers I am acquainted with, I can’t recall any who say their contact with the film business was positive.

AL: It’s almost impossible to sever the business pressures from it. There is business pressure in anything, in any kind of art form you want to practice, but boy, when you are talking about millions of dollars—I was doing it at the studio level. There is a way in which people almost court failure to try to get around them. You actually spend a ton of time thinking about failing. You are thinking about how you are not going to fail. And energetically, it’s not a fit for me. I don’t want to spend my life contemplating failure.

RB: (laughs) Well, baseball hitters are great if they hit one out of three. What are the statistics for screenwriters having their scripts actually made? Out of 10 screenplays written, how many are produced?

AL: Maybe one. Maybe.

RB: But, they get paid a lot of money. Amazing. Isn’t there something wrong with the model when people get paid for stuff that isn’t used?

AL: I will say this—it was set up in such a way that by having a strong union, by paying people well, it allows people to keep working on their craft. Even if things aren’t being made, you have a group of people whose skills are pretty fresh. That is one of the positives.

RB: I guess that’s not where the money is wasted. In the scheme of things, writers come cheap.

AL: They are not wasting in that way anymore. I don’t think I could have the same career now. I made a very good living pissing around stuff that nobody was ever going to make. But they don’t spend as much on development now.

RB: Does it seem like more and more novels are the starting point for current films?

AL: Sure.

RB: What do you think about the impact of films like The Wire?

AL: On television or on life?

RB: On the quality of films being made.

AL: The Wire is a miracle. It’s a miracle. First and foremost because it is so profoundly good. But then also that it just got through. Mind you David Simon is coming from—

RB: Baltimore, where he was a newspaperman.

AL: Yeah, he had already done, Homicide: Life on the Streets. But that that got through, that some body said yes to that, is a miracle. Its tentacles are so deep. I was just in London, and one of the things I did on my book tour—it doesn’t really sell books—I went to Brixton Prison, and I did prison radio there. Afterwards I hung out with some of the prisoners. Some were interested in writing but all they wanted to talk about was The Wire. And American gun laws. They were so moved—it was a way for them to play out—we got into a big argument about whether Omar was the moral center of the series. One guy was like, “Ultimately, he was a snitch.” It was way to watch these prisoners play out their own moral quandaries through The Wire. The Wire is fantastic, and it gives hope that there will be more.

RB: Part of its success is credited to using writers like George Pelecanos and Richard Price.

AL: And Dennis Lehane.

RB: I don’t know who is writing for FX’s Justified, but that’s some excellent writing. Of course Elmore Leonard is involved, and it’s all based on his Raylon Givens character.

AL: My understanding is when you make these deals, you make them for the character in perpetuity.

RB: Deals, which Leonard eschewed until recently. Why is your writing compared to Dennis Lehane?

AL: I guess because—I don’t think I really saw it until I read The Given Day. And that’s not even a mystery—

RB: That was his stand-alone or one off before his newest, Live by Night. Both excellent.

AL: You’ve read it already—I thought it wasn’t out until October.

RB: I received an ARC.

AL: The Given Day—I actually felt like we might be soul mates. It’s a brilliant book, and it was where I saw that we both have this natural ingrained political viewpoint, a sense of hierarchy and power dynamics and class. To me, that’s through-line that I see.

RB: Apropos of nothing, the only book of Robert Parker’s I admired was All Our Yesterdays, his only one-off. I find there are very few series worth reading past the first one.

AL: What people do well—I won’t talk about what people do wrong. Two things I read this year—Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, the latest Kenzie & Gennaro, and Scott Turow’s book Innocent, which was not a series but the sequel to Presumed Innocent. What Turow did with the very problem I have with the series is that “how many times can you get arrested for murder?” He took that and made a larger psychological point about “sometimes people don’t really change.” And then you look at this man’s life—he ends up walking in the same path he walked 30 years ago. He actually ends up saying something about human nature and how stuck we can get. And so it said something bigger.

Here’s the thing about mysteries: There is a limit to how much you can trick people.

RB: OK, not every series is terrible.

AL: But you can’t keep dumping people in the same situation. What I liked about Moonlight Mile, the characters were older. You could really tell that their lens on the world—they were seeing the world differently.

RB: That was the genius of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series—the passing decades were as much characters. Philip Kerr, who has a fair number of stand-alones, also has series that has seven or eight volumes about a Berlin homicide detective in Nazi and postwar Germany. He makes time and place significant. Kerr pointed out that the problem with series is that “even the great writers do one or two too many.”

AL: People ask me so much about the mystery genre, to the point that they are making me self-conscious. I never even thought about it. It’s my natural kind of thing. People ask me why I am choosing that. But here’s the thing about mysteries: There is a limit to how much you can trick people. So it can’t just be new crazy scenarios. There has to be a deeper social, psychological component. One of the prisoners at Brixton within five minutes said, “I knew who did it, like, right away.” He was right but he still kept reading. That’s what I want to be.

RB: Stories that are simply whodunits aren’t very interesting to me. I don’t recall if there are any mysteries in Elmore Leonard or George Pelecanos.

AL: (laughs) Right.

RB: In your book I didn’t know who the perpetrator was until they were revealed. Why did you choose the epigraph for The Cutting Season. You quoted Rebecca Solnit.

AL: Yes

RB: Because?

AL: I loved that book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I was arrested by that particular passage. I was arrested by a lot of that book. What I loved about it was that it encapsulates what The Cutting Season is about. What it means to me—I can’t speak to what it means to any body else—a feeling that we have been as a nation, as black people, caught in a very particular narrative that has been a guiding narrative but we only may be set free if we let it go.

RB: Who is the “we?”

AL: Everybody in the country would do well to challenge the old script about race that white people are always the oppressor and black people are always the oppressed. We would do well to take another look at that. There is no way I am not writing from the lens of a black person. Here’s the thing—I have a daughter who is five. She is also bi-racial. My husband is white. I very much want to raise her for the country she is going to be living in, not the one I grew up in. I have to find the balance of what parts of her generation’s long history and, for us as a people, what parts of our history must we always carry with us in our back pocket and what parts can we let go of?

RB: When you are required by various forms to identify her race what do you check off?

AL: For her, both. I put black and white. My kid has no concept that there has ever been a president that was not Barack Obama.


AL: Ever. So the optics of that—I literally just four years ago never thought that I would see that in my lifetime. And then, all of a sudden. For my kid, there is no psychological limit. When she was in preschool and black history month came up, and they were preparing, and I saw the list of things and thought, “This feels really old.” By bringing up black history month I have introduced difference to her that she is not thinking about. She is sophisticated enough to think, “Why is my history being privileged this month over some one else’s history? That’s weird.”

RB: No Korean history month in LA?

AL: No. (laughs) It felt really dated. But then I thought we don’t really need that any more. But then another parent said they forgot and I’m thinking, “How could you forget?”

RB: The calendar is full of odd and silly commemorative days, weeks, and months.

AL: All I know is that it makes sense to me because I grew up with it, and it was a necessary component and something you fight to protect. It does not fit my daughter’s life. It really doesn’t. Her history is being folded into her life more seamlessly. The history of black people in America is being folded more seamlessly. We need to look at stuff freshly.

RB: Are you optimistic to think that there will be a racially blind nation?

AL: (long pause) Well, I think we can get to 99.9 percent racist free.

RB: You think?

AL: Yeah, I actually do. Look human nature is to always be fighting our worst selves—to be afraid of the other, or competition with people who are different from us, blah, blah, blah. I do think there is a certain old guard that, frankly, will die off, and there will be something new in its place.

RB: Growing up with an acute awareness of anti-Semitism, I’ve always assumed that every tribe needs another tribe to hate, Jews being the most convenient.1

AL: (laughs) I actually think we are becoming better as a people. As a race of people, we are evolving and expanding. This has nothing to do with racism. I went to this wedding—two girlfriends got married, and my friend Jenny’s mother is in her 80s, super-Catholic. And when Jenny first told me about the wedding, I thought her mother would have no framework for it. It did not fit into anything of her 80 years to prepare her. She said, “I understand if you want a companion, but do you have to get physical with her? I cannot come to this wedding.” When they got married, over the course of time, the mother finally said, “I want you to have this money that dad left for the wedding.” She showed up in her sequined dress—all ready to party. I thought, that is the light in human beings I want to follow.

RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell?

AL: No.

RB: There is a book that has a positive view of the capacity of people to be decent and cooperative. She spotlights six or seven natural disasters from the 1906 SF earthquake to Katrina, and shows how each afflicted community banded together to overcome the damage and destruction.

AL: I am an eternal optimist. And I deeply believe in human capacity to be fantastic. We have the capacity for cruelty. I have seen an evolution in my lifetime, and it’s real.

RB: I thought the most vivid images were from election night 2004, and the Obamas on a stage in the park across from the Conrad Hilton, scene of rioting and police violence in 1968, and Eugene McCarthy’s eloquent address to the gathering that he called The Government in Exile.

AL: That was really powerful. It really happened. And no amount of criticism of him, and no amount of racial vitriol that’s thrown at him undoes that that happened and that matters. Some of the craziness that is thrown at him is of a desperation and of people understanding that that way of thinking is on its way out.

RB: I am amazed that as a centrist politician he arouses all this furor. He’s certainly no socialist outsider who hates the American way of life.

AL: And not even by calculation. From what I have read of his biographies, he’s acting within his personality.

RB: Right. Why were you in London for a book tour? What’s the reception for a book that is decidedly regional American—it takes place on a former plantation where racial tensions are still in the air and that relies on very American themes?

AL: Actually the first book was better received in London.

RB: I guess, it was short-listed for the Orange Prize.

AL: People looking at problems in another country, and they don’t have to look at their own—I don’t know. I felt very well-received.

RB: Do you ever watch BBC TV crime stories? Luther with Idris Elba?

AL: Right.

RB: They do some great stuff, Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect being one example.

AL: She’s pretty great.

RB: You are just beginning your tour?

AL: Yeah.

RB: So then what happens?

AL: And then I try to get still again to write. I try to process it all and then put it away somewhere.

RB: It’s a big distraction?

AL: It is. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. It is a distraction from writing. But I understand that right now my job is to scream from the highest mountaintop, “I wrote a book!” There is a grace about shaking hands, meeting readers. A reader and a writer—that kind of connection is really intimate. And there is not a lot of distance there. So it’s kind of incredible to meet people from all over and feel that beyond region and gender and all that kind of stuff, there is that great connection with people. So that’s kind of fantastic too. It would be really great if my family could come with me everywhere. But, but, but…

I am an eternal optimist. And I deeply believe in human capacity to be fantastic. We have the capacity for cruelty. I have seen an evolution in my lifetime, and it’s real.

RB: Tell me about the naming of the main character—was that with purpose?

AL: Kind of. Because it sounded like “care.”

RB: I was thinking about her last name, “Gray.”

AL: Oh, the Gray. (laughs) Yeah, that too. She is in the middle. I like her because she is the caregiver, there is something very maternal. But the Gray—she’s between class poles and in the middle between the Clancys and the workers. Yeah, she is gray.

RB: She gets angry with Donovan, and there is this intelligent and responsible assessment of him that dismissed race as an excuse.

AL: Right. (laughs) That is a metaphor for how people of a minority group feel. Caren and Donovan do not have a lot in common. In terms of class kin, age. But there is still this sense of connection that you can’t quite sever. Part of being a woman or a person of color—our economic ascent is complicated. For women, if you chose to be a mother, you can not do it all on your own, and so your life gets wrapped up in the lives of the women caring for your children. And all those people go into a kind of boardroom with you. And for people of color there is a sense of “Do I get to enjoy this if I know my people aren’t coming up too?” Or real progress not giving a shit?

RB: Yeah, right.

AL: Real progress being, “I don’t care about anyone else.”

RB: Donovan doesn’t trust her. His bond to her is what?

AL: I think he actually deeply looks up to her and respects her. It comes to that in the story—but the idea that she’s just a mouthpiece for the Clancys. She’s really not one of them. And the distance that she feels because she is the one in the Big House now.

RB: Would you revisit her life in a future story?

AL: Her life? I don’t know, but I have said I wasn’t going to revisit Jay, and I am, so …

RB: (laughs)

AL: I don’t think so.

RB: The story has her moving to DC and thinking about going back to law school.

AL: Uh huh.

RB: So that puts her in a totally different place.

AL: Maybe. Who knows?

RB: How far ahead do you look?

AL: You mean the next book? It’s not even in my head. This time I had to come up with something because Harper Collins had an option. There are ideas that are in the distance. Like, I kinda want to do that sometime. And then there are ideas that are right here that feel like I really want to do that right now. Also, I kind of really trust my unconscious to connect the dots. Meaning, with this book, 15 years ago there was an article in the LA Times about one of these plantations in Georgia and there were black local actors, putting on costumes and performing a play, and they didn’t like the inaccuracy and they wanted to rewrite it. They threatened to go on strike. I remember laughing out loud, thinking this was the funniest thing I had ever heard. I never clipped it. And then years later it connected because I went to that wedding.

RB: Ah, the spooky art.

AL: Yeah, so I trust my unconscious will link stuff up for me. I don’t have to hold it all.

RB: Well, good. Thank you.

AL: Thank you. That was easy-peasy.