Queen Sugar, OWN’s new series from Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, is one of fall 2016’s most highly anticipated shows. The show, which airs its first two episodes tonight, was renewed for its second season ahead of its premiere. It follows a group of siblings who have inherited their late father’s sugar-cane farm and must overcome internal and external challenges to build a legacy. The series is based on the novel by Natalie Baszile, who spoke with Vulture to discuss her inspiration for the book, how she trusted DuVernay to bring her vision to life, and why the timing is right for the show.
What inspired you to write Queen Sugar?
Queen Sugar is based on my family’s experience to the extent that my dad was from Louisiana. He was born and raised there. He was born closer to the Texas border where they grow crawfish and rice. The story of the sugar cane is completely of my making. My family was not involved in sugar-cane harvesting at all. The part of the story that’s inspired by my family’s story has to do with some of the characters. For example, in the book, Miss Honey, the grandmother, is inspired by my grandmother. Some of the issues, some of the scenarios that take place in the book are inspired by either things I’d heard about my family or things I’d observed firsthand.
When did you find out it was being considered for a television series?
In April , I was at the L.A. Book Festival and ran into Leigh Haber, who [works] for O Magazine. Right before the book was published, [Leigh Haber] wrote to me and said, “Would you like to write an article for O Magazine?” I wrote this essay about how I became a writer. That came out simultaneously with the book being published. So when [we] ran into each other in April, she said to me, “I passed your book along to the folks at Harpo. I think it’s something they might be interested in.” I knew that it was out there in the Harpo orbit somewhere. Then in June, I got a call from my agent saying, “We just got a call from Harpo and they’re interested in optioning the book.” It took about six months for them to negotiate the contract and I didn’t hear anything. I had no idea what was going to happen. Then in November 2014, I got a call from my agent again saying, “We’ve negotiated the deal and they’ve hired this young, up-and-coming director named Ava DuVernay to write and direct this project, and it’s going to be a TV series.” I had not thought TV series at all. And then I realized that, holy smokes, she had written to me on my website. I was running so fast, and I had not answered her email. And she had sent me this lovely email saying, “My name is Ava DuVernay and Oprah has hired me to work on this project.” So Ava and I scheduled a phone conversation. And she told me how she came to the project, how she’d worked with Oprah on Selma, Oprah had given her the book. She loved it and thought it had potential for a TV series. She sent me a link to her most recent project, Middle of Nowhere. I had already done my due diligence at that point and I loved her work, loved her aesthetic and thought, She’s the right person for this.
Were you concerned about the changes from book to series, some of which are pretty significant?
No, I was never concerned because I knew I was in good hands. I had met Ava, I liked her work very much. I thought she was trying to do in film what I was trying to do in books. So our intention, although it was in two different mediums, was similar. We were in alignment. I never had to worry about the vision being compromised. The team was an outstanding team. I also wasn’t worried because Ava called me last November . They started shooting in February 2016. She said, “Hey, I just want to update you and let you know about some of the changes I’ve made to the book.” She told me. I loved them because I understood that she had to now take the world of the novel and expand it so that she could sustain over 13 episodes. A feature [film] would’ve been the book. But to sustain that and complicate it even further, she would have to do those things. Writer to writer, that made sense to me. What was important to me was that she maintained the heart and spirit of the novel, that she continued the conversation that I started in the book. The themes — the plight of African-American farmers, the mother-child relationship, or how many black men are in prison — were all issues I was thinking about and had deliberately infused into the story. That was what I wanted her to continue and she has, and, in some cases, amplified. I can be okay with her changes because they were logical.
Are you involved in writing for the television series?
No, I’m not. My story is probably no different than a lot of other authors whose books have been optioned. Hollywood comes calling and you sign your name on the dotted line and you have to be prepared to say good-bye.
When you wrote Queen Sugar, what did you hope to be the main takeaway for readers?
Toni Morrison has a quote: If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it. Part of what drove me was that I was not seeing books by African-American authors that reflected my experience. Part of my desire in writing Queen Sugar was to say, we are a rich people, a complicated people, and a diverse people, and a whole people. We have families and relationships and trials and struggles but we also have triumphs. We are working-class people and middle-class people and upper-middle-class people. It was so important for me to put a book out there that said we are not all one thing, but we are human and complicated and nuanced.
Queen Sugar is straightforward about racial tensions, culture shock, and the complications of interracial dating. It seems particularly poignant to have the book on television now. How do you think Queen Sugar fits into the stories of black lives in the current television landscape?
I’m very happy Queen Sugar the series is part of a new wave of showing African-Americans on television, shows that are more complicated. My gut tells me that Queen Sugar is going to be different. That was my hope, to have something out there that has a different kind of storytelling, a different kind of tone, a different pace, [something] that was more character-driven than plot-driven. It needs to happen, and the timing is right.
This interview has been edited and condensed.