Interview: Attica Locke, Author Of 'Pleasantville' In her new novel, Pleasantville, and on TV's Empire, Locke does her best to avoid simple stories. "You do some good stuff and you do some bad stuff," she says. "We exist in the middle."
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No Demons, No Angels: Attica Locke Aims For Black Characters Who Are Human

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No Demons, No Angels: Attica Locke Aims For Black Characters Who Are Human

No Demons, No Angels: Attica Locke Aims For Black Characters Who Are Human

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a warm evening in 1996, a young woman is standing on a street corner. She's waiting on a ride. She's way too alone way too late, and she's being watched. This is the beginning of a new book by Attica Locke. She's a novelist also known for her work on the TV series "Empire." And she spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Attica Locke is from Houston, the city where she sets this story. The woman on that street corner disappears. The crime is soon linked to the family of a local man running for mayor. It's all happening in a neighborhood that has the same name as the novel, Pleasantville.

ATTICA LOCKE: It is a real neighborhood in North Houston.

INSKEEP: Attica Locke uses that predominantly black neighborhood as a symbol of a changing America.

LOCKE: What it's like now is a pretty vibrant middle-class neighborhood, I will say, a little worse for the wear, and there are abandoned homes. But what it began as is the story that I fell in love with.

INSKEEP: It's the story of a country making its painful transition from segregation to integration. Though she grew up in Houston, Locke says she was an adult before she learned the significance of the Pleasantville.

LOCKE: Pleasantville was the invention of two Jewish developers in 1949. They came up with this idea that they were going to create one of the first of its kind in the nation - a planned community for Negro families of means and class.

INSKEEP: So this is just the beginning of suburban America as we know it now, but someone was doing this for black families. Go on.

LOCKE: Which was extra special considering you're talking about black families that couldn't buy anywhere else because of segregation. So it was this really special place where doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers were all congregated together in this really vibrant cultural center.

INSKEEP: Now, you describe in the novel a neighborhood where people also realized at some point that if they all got together and they all voted very heavily and voted the same way, they could be influential in the city. Is that drawn from life?

LOCKE: Pleasantville in real life is nicknamed The Mighty 259th. That's their precinct in the state of Texas. Pleasantville, for decades, has voted in higher numbers than almost any other precinct in the entire state. Something happened when these developers created this neighborhood and they dropped in thousands of engaged, educated and monied black folk; it's changed state politics forever because when that neighborhood got its first elementary school, it got a place to vote. And suddenly they became this political powerhouse and knew they were and used that power and have swung many an election.

INSKEEP: By the 1990s, the time portrayed in the novel, Pleasantville is evolving, the houses getting old. And of course, legal segregation is dead. In that neighborhood, Attica Locke places a main character, Jay Porter, who has appeared in an earlier novel of hers. He's a lawyer who sets out to find that missing young woman. He is also, like much of America, wrestling with a complicated past.

LOCKE: His back story is that he moved to the big city from rural Texas and became a political activist in the late 1960s and early '70s. And he ended up on trial in 1970 for inciting a riot and conspiracy to commit murder of a federal informant. He narrowly escaped being convicted. And when we meet him in the first book in the 1980s, he has abandoned his activism. He feels like by being narrowly acquitted, he was given a second chance and is just going to put his head down and make a lot of money and have a nice life. And he gets wrapped up into a mystery that requires him to face his own activism again. And by the time we meet him in "Pleasantville," it's 15 years later. And he is a more measured man, much further away from the fiery activist that he once was.

INSKEEP: And I want to dwell for a second on his race because you did put him in an earlier novel. And we talked about that novel, and you said years ago that this man, Jay Porter, quote, "owns the script for what it is to be a black man" in the South, in the United States at that time, that he has to think about the police in a certain way, for example. And now here you are writing about him again as a middle-aged black man. What is the script like for a middle-aged black man, and what were you thinking about as you dealt with that?

LOCKE: I think some of the impulses for self-protection are the same. But I think those initial wounds in his life from being a young man who was nearly wrongly convicted are still baggage that he carries with him. And I think it informs his worldview. And I think that that is what it means to be black in America. Whether you are black in America in Compton or you're black in America in Westchester, you are walking around with a very clear sense of existential danger. It is painful to say that sentence, Steve, but it's true.

INSKEEP: Well, I'd like to know because you have created so many black male characters, both in fiction and for the screen - "Empire" and elsewhere - when you're writing a black male character - writing dialogue or writing narrative for a black male character, do you - because of everything going on in society right now, because of so much attention on this, do you go back through that character one more time and think just a little more about how you're going to portray an African-American man?

LOCKE: Do you mean in terms of that I'm feeling like I have to check myself on how black people are presented?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LOCKE: That voice is always there, but I think it is art to push that voice out. What has been extraordinary about the experience of "Empire" is that I think that black people have been conditioned for so long because we so rarely see ourselves in media to only look at the level of representation - are we visible? That there was an inordinate pressure that that visibility was positive. I hope that we're getting closer to black people being able to engage their image of themselves as art, which means complication, which means you do some good stuff and you do some bad stuff because that is what it is to be human.

INSKEEP: You're telling me if there is one Sidney Poitier in the world, he can only be one kind of character and the stakes are so high. But if there are a thousand well-known black actors or black characters being played, then you can have - you have more variety. That's what you're saying, right?

LOCKE: And you need the variety, Steve. You need it. We exist in the middle. We're not demons or angels; we're human beings. And so that is what needs to be reflected in the art of our nation.

INSKEEP: Attica Locke's new novel is "Pleasantville." Thanks very much.

LOCKE: Oh, thank you for having me.

GREENE: Novelist Attica Locke speaking with our colleague Steve Inskeep. You heard that conversation on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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