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Sadeqa Johnson didn’t always dream of being an author. She had a focus on making her name in the theater — which provided a natural transition into storytelling.
Johnson, who is currently working on her fourth novel, is attracting many new readers with each book.
NBCBLK caught up with the author to talk about how she got her start, drawing from her own life in her storytelling, and how to write a page-turner. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NBCBLK: How did you get into novel writing?
Sadeqa Johnson: I was always a big reader, In the summers I would go get seven books a week at library. The writing started when I was in the seventh grade and I wrote an essay called The Roof is on Fire. My teacher entered it into a contest and I won.
My interest in writing fluctuated over time, though. I started acting in Philadelphia, where I grew up. I went to college in New York as a theater major. And I took a playwriting class. Later I switched to communications. When I got out of college I got a job at Scholastic Books, in publicity. Being surrounded by books sparked my interest in writing again. I wrote plays, poetry, and screenplays.
The first of your three novels, Love in a Carry-On Bag took you a long time. Why?
First, I wanted to write the next Black love story, like Love and Basketball. I took some things from my real life and a long-distance relationship to help shape the story. It was my first book and it took me 10 years to get it done. I was doing full-time work, being a wife and mother, working on generating drafts, and figuring out structure all at the same time.
You self-published this first book. Why?
I was working in GP Putnam as a book publicist at the time. I thought I was connected, and that it would be easy to get a book deal when I was done. Traditional publishing had changed, making it harder for people to sell a book.
I decided to self-publish, because I had the background to get the book out there. The book went on to be the recipient of the 2013 Phillis Wheatley award for Best Fiction and the 2012 USA Best Book award for African-American fiction.
You are now publishing traditionally. As an author, how do you find it different from your first experience?
This first book from St. Martins, "Second House From the Corner" was a different experience. I wasn’t responsible for the layout and some of the back-end work. Most of the time there is a social media person who works on spreading the word. And when you are with a traditional publisher, there is a sales team behind you.
But either way you still you are constantly shifting between writing and promoting. You must be just as involved. You are your best mouthpiece for your work.
What was the idea behind "The Second House from the Corner"?
It is rooted in family experiences. It is also about what happens when family secrets come out of the closet. The main character, Bea is a stay at home mom with three small children. I am a mother with three kids so I relate to her. And much of the back story comes from stories that my grandmother told about living in Philadelphia. I folded some of them into the story.
You had a new novel released this April. Tell us about And Then There Was Me.
It is the first book I have written that doesn’t have a piece of me in it. I could see the characters though. The book is about two friends. And they surprised me. I remember writing a scene where the lead character, Bea, threw up.
As it unfolded, I saw that she was bulimic I decided to explore that because we don’t really talk about eating disorders in the Black community. So I researched and talked to people in social media chat rooms to learn more.
Also, Bea is a surrogate, who is pregnant and living in an unhappy marriage. Because of some of the subjects in the book it really breaks through the color lines. And the thing that resonates most is the deep friendship between Bea and Awilda.
How would you describe the perfect reader for a Sadeqa Johnson book?
I really focus on writing the books that I love and want to read. Once the story hits me, I am looking for the character’s voice. I write character first, plot second.
I have a large group of readers, and there is a wide range. I have fans in their teens, and women who are retired. My books appeal to everyone. I want to write page turners. I really am a lover of language so I work hard on the words. I write characters that you know.
What’s next for you?
I am working on historical fiction this time around. I am still writing.
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers who also have stories they want to tell?
It takes discipline to keep your butt in the seat to write. I tell myself to use the time I have wisely. I keep a timetable and a schedule for my writing.