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2017-05-17 / News

Author Sadeqa Johnson talks publishing, diversity and courage

BY TAMURLAINE MELBY
MANAGING EDITOR


Sadeqa Johnson, an award-winning author who lives in Midlothian, recently released her third novel, “And Then There Was Me.” 
PHOTO COURTESY OF SADEQA JOHNSON Sadeqa Johnson, an award-winning author who lives in Midlothian, recently released her third novel, “And Then There Was Me.” PHOTO COURTESY OF SADEQA JOHNSON Before becoming an award-winning author, and before she worked alongside J.K. Rowling to promote the Harry Potter books, Sadeqa Johnson was just a booklover growing up in Philadelphia. Every Monday as a girl, Johnson would dress in her best clothes and head to her local library, toting a purse just for her library card. She’d check out seven books to read, one a day, before returning the next week.

“Being around books just made me happy,” Johnson recalls. “So being in the library was like my second home.”

These days her home is Midlothian, and Johnson, 41, has added writing to her routine. In April, St. Martin’s Press released her third novel, “And Then There Was Me,” and on April 19 a crowd of roughly 40 gathered at the Barnes & Noble at Chesterfield Towne Center to hear her read from her new book.

It was something of a hometown reception for a woman who bounced between New York City and New Jersey before moving to the county two years ago with her husband and their three children. A friend from Glen Allen had recommended the Richmond area as a good place to raise kids, and as the family house hunted, every trip to Midlothian, Johnson says, “felt more like home.” At the book reading last month, Johnson greeted neighbors, talked about transitioning from working in public relations for Scholastic and G.P. Putnam’s Sons to writing her own novels, and fielded questions from the crowd: “What was it like working with J.K. Rowling?” “I knew her when she was still the broke girl from Edinburgh.”

Back in New York, Johnson worked with other greats as well, but these days she’s focused on making a name for herself, touring the central East Coast to promote her new book. The Observer caught up with her between tour stops.

Observer: Can you describe your path from being an aspiring author to releasing your third book?

Johnson: It was funny because when I left my job at Putnam I really felt connected. I thought that I had made a lot of contacts … and that it would be very easy for me to get a publishing deal. I found a really good agent … and she went ahead and sent my book out to 11 publishers … and one by one they said no. … My husband, we’re both kind of from entrepreneurial blood … he says, “Why can’t you do this yourself? Why are we waiting for a publishing house? Let’s [self-publish].” And I’m like, “No, I want an editor.” And he said, “Well, we can just hire an editor.” … And it was like once I said yes to it, the universe was waiting for me.

Observer: What was that early experience as a self-published author like?

Johnson: It is so hard. … I remember being at the Harlem Book Festival in New York City. … I’m literally hand-selling my book to every single person who passes my booth. It was a good day; I sold 80 copies of the book. But … it was a lot of blood, sweat and tears for sure. [For my next book, my editor] paired up with a really well-known agent in New York … and I remember it was a Thursday night and my agent called me and said, “We’re in the middle of a bidding war. We’re going to auction with your book.”

Observer: Your third book, “And Then There Was Me,” was just released. What’s it about?

Johnson: “And Then There Was Me” is the story of Bea and Awilda. They’re best friends. Bea is our main character. … Her husband is unfaithful to her. … She has a secret addiction that no one knows about. … And so it’s the story of a woman who goes on a journey. … And she has to really dig deep within to kind of bring herself out of it and see who she’s going to be going forward.

Observer: In 2012, your debut novel “Love in a Carry-on Bag” won the USA Best Book Award for African-American Fiction. Can you talk about being a woman of color writing characters who are women of color?

Johnson: So, there’s a lot to that question. … I think I’ve really worked really hard not to be pigeon-holed as only an African-American writer. … While realizing there are a lot of women of color who look up to me and appreciate my book, I don’t want to alienate people who are not of color. So I’m very conscious of trying to be as diverse as possible.

As a black writer, I think we always have to make choices that non-black writers [don’t] have to. … It’s always the packaging. The moment a writer of color is writing a book, they want to put a person of color on the cover, [even though] non-blacks don’t [always] have people on the cover. They have birds, they have trees … which makes it open to everyone. So I think it’s a struggle that the publishing industry has, that they don’t really know what to do with us.

Observer: You’re currently teaching a six-week writing class in Richmond called “Pens up, Fears down!” What are some fears you’ve had to face down as a writer?

Johnson: For a long time I was afraid of not being perfect. … My first novel took me 10 years to write because I would write and scratch out. … You have to give yourself some freedom to just spit up on the page and then clean it up later.

Observer: Do you have a new book in the works?

Johnson: I do. [It’s] historical fiction, which is not something I had ever thought [of], but moving to Richmond, history is everywhere. I was on the African-American slave trail down on the James River … and it was right there on that trail that the next story kind of grabbed me. So I’m working on it now. It’s going to be 1850, pre-Civil War … When I was telling [a friend] how terrified I was [to write historical fiction], she said to me, “You’re supposed to write the thing that scares you the most, because that’s where your growth comes from.”

Observer: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Johnson: I tell people that they need to first get their butt in the chair. Start with 10 minutes [of writing each day]. … Your 10 minutes will quickly go into 30 minutes, which will quickly go into an hour. … That is how you’re going to get the book written. … And then just not being afraid. … Don’t be afraid of being creative. It’s your birthright. ¦

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