“How was it that she could help others but couldn’t help herself?” Bea, the heroine of Sadeqa Johnson’s latest novel, asks herself. Bea appears to be holding everything together: She’s got a handsome husband, two sweet children, another on the way and a big house in Evergreen, New Jersey. But inside, she despairs. Her husband’s cheating. She never wanted to be a housewife. And not even her best friend, Awilda, knows her most shameful secret.
“The story kind of chose me,” Johnson says. Her husband came home one day with a story he’d heard about two friends, and “as he was telling me, I could just feel the hairs on my arms raise, I could just feel it going into my skin,” she says. “That’s what happens: A story kind of sinks into my skin and it won’t leave me alone.” From that spark, she created the fictional story of Bea and Awilda, titled “And Then There Was Me,” which hit bookstores April 11.
“I like to write about characters that need to be stripped down to their bare bones. Because I feel like in real life, we all show who we want to be, but we’re not really who we are,” Johnson explains. She forces her characters into situations where they can no longer pretend, but must reveal their flaws and frailties. “And when they do, they’re much stronger and much more ready for the rest of their lives.”
A theater major in college, Johnson decided to pursue a different career after she graduated. “What am I passionate about?” she says she asked herself. “Well, I love to read. I was the girl who read a book a week.” She took a position as publicist at Scholastic Books, working on the “Harry Potter” series before it became an international phenomenon. Johnson self-published her first book, “Love in a Carry-On Bag,” a story about a long-distance love affair, which won the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for fiction. Its success led to the publication of “Second House From the Corner,” followed by “And Then There Was Me.”
Image courtesy Sadeqa Johnson/St. Martin's Press
Johnson grew up in Philadelphia, lived in New Jersey and then moved to Midlothian two years ago. It’s a great place to raise children, she says, although she misses the cultural diversity of the Northeast. “And everything closes so freaking early,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t be hungry after 9:30 in Midlothian, okay?” Johnson is preparing to lead a six-week writing workshop, "Pens Up, Fear Down," beginning May 2 (register here). She’s now working on a historical novel set in Richmond.
Sadeqa Johnson’s Richmond book launch party takes place at Chop Suey Books on Tuesday, April 18, at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. She’ll also appear for an author talk and signing at the Chesterfield Barnes and Noble on Wednesday, April 19, at 7 p.m.