Sadeqa Johnson, author of Yellow Wife, has been honored with the National Book Club Award, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the USA Best Book Award for Best Fiction. She is a Kimbilio Fellow, former board member of the James River Writers, and a Tall Poppy Writer.
Get to know Sadeqa in this Q&A and then join us on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 PM ET as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book to hear her discuss her work in Yellow Wife with Sadeqa Johnson.
Festival: What motivated you to become a writer?
Johnson: I wanted to be an actress first. I was a Theater major in college, and have always been a voracious reader and a big fan of my local library. I kept a journal since I was in grade school so I’d say it was a natural progression. Poetry was my gateway into writing followed by play writing. My first job out of college was at Scholastic books as a publicist. I worked on the first three Harry Potter books, and had the pleasure of working with authors like Walter Dean Myers and Ruby Bridges. It was there, surrounded by books that I got the itch to give novel writing a chance. My first novel is still trapped in an old computer, but the second novel, Love in a Carry-on Bag, I started while working in publishing and picking authors brains on their process. I had an up close and personal view of the writer’s life, and I did my best to emulate it.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
Early on, authors that changed my life and gave me permission to write were Terry McMillian, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Bernice McFadden, Marita Golden, and Benilde Little to name a few.
What was your favorite part about writing your book?
Learning the historical facts that went into the true life of Mary Lumpkin, The Lumpkin’s jail and the other historical figures that I mention in the story. History is fascinating, and it was such an honor for me to give a voice to our ancestors and bring their voices to life and onto the page. Writing historical fiction has been a little like teaching the past, and I’ve enjoyed the entire journey of research including visiting plantations, reading books written by slaves, and connecting with the energy of those who came before us. It’s been an amazing journey.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
I always write to music. Each of my four novels have their own soundtrack. The music helps define the space for me. When I was writing Yellow Wife, I listened mostly to Chopin, because the way he played the piano felt right for the time period and it also aided me in crafting Pheby as a pianist. In addition, I listened to old Negro spirituals and enslaved songs, which help me to picture the setting of the story as well as embody the way the characters moved and spoke to each other in the story. Lighting candles and sage, praying and meditation are also a source of inspiration.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
I hope that readers gain a new perspective on the kind of impossible choices women in bondage were forced to make. I tell my children often that everything that is happening in America today goes back to our country’s roots in slavery. My hope is that Yellow Wife will open hearts and minds and lead to meaningful discussions, while giving all people a glimpse of a life never considered. This story is our America’s history.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
My most recent read is Island Queen by Vanessa Riley, which was fantastic. I just finished the audio of Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network which blew me away. Up next for me is The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson and Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce.
What are you working on next?
I am still very much in the beginning stages of another historical fiction novel. Set in the 1950s between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the novel hinges on the gut-wrenching choice that two women are forced to make.