With tears in my eyes, I’m recommending everyone read Yellow Wife, an engrossing, compelling, and beautifully written story. Pheby is a born into slavery on a Virginia plantation; the white man who fathered her was the master, and her slave mother is the medicine woman for the community. Often getting special treatment, Pheby is expecting to be freed when she turns eighteen; she is looking forward to getting an education, but things do not go as planned.
After getting into trouble with her boyfriend who worked in the barn, Pheby, heartbroken, must run. She ends up at Devil’s Half Acre, a hell-like place where slaves are dragged in, brutally tortured, and then cleaned up, dressed up and sold. Her forced relationship with her jailer has her doing things that go against everything she believes and all that she is. This cruel and horrible man repeatedly saves her and breaks her as she sacrifices her freedom to protect the ones she cares for.
“Whenever I started feeling as if I could endure this place, thee was always a reminder that I could not. “
Author Sadeqa Johnson tells this incredible story based on the past with grit and vivid description that will bring you to tears, yet is most important to recognize. The love and tenderness between some of these brave characters will keep you turning those pages with the hope that you will witness a worthy outcome. Yellow Wife, a fictional story based on a shameful part of our history, is a must read. Great for book club discussion.
Author Q & A
Q: Oprah Magazine featured Yellow Wife as one of the 27 most anticipated novels of 2021! Congratulations, that must be a real thrill! How were you notified and do you know if Oprah read it yet?
A: It was a major thrill! Oh, my goodness! Oprah has been on my vision board for as long as I can remember, and having Yellow Wife selected for the magazine was a dream come true. I’m a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, and two of the Poppies texted me with the link. It was like as soon as I picked up my cell phone, it was right there. I had barely wiped the sleep out of my eyes. It was truly amazing. I wasn’t notified that Oprah herself has read it, but I do believe I’m one step closer to her in more ways than one. Fingers crossed!
Q: This is your fourth novel, but your first that delves into history. Why write historical fiction, what was your research process, and how important is it to you to be accurate when writing fiction?
A: I had not intended to write historical fiction at all. In fact, I was in between books, fishing around for my next contemporary novel when I happened upon the slave trail with my family and close friends in 2016. It was pure curiosity that led me down the path of writing Yellow Wife. I was wrapped up in so many emotions when it came to this story. At first I was utterly afraid of it. I kept thinking, how could I possibly write a book about people who lived before I was even thought about? I have loved pre-civil war stories since I was a girl, but I didn’t feel worthy or qualified to write one. I told a friend about the story and how scared it made me and she said, “the thing that scares you the most is what you are supposed to write next.” I took her advice and dove into the research. I visited numerous plantations, scoured the Library of Virginia, museums, read online periodicals, and many books written by enslaved people. It was a wonderful ride and I’m so glad I stayed the course.
Q: How long did it take you to complete, and what is your writing schedule like?
A: I discovered the story of Mary Lumpkin and the Lumpkin’s jail in April of 2016. I research for a few months exclusively but even as I write the story I always stop and fact check. The book went to auction September 2019, so about three years with a lot of stops and starts. My husband opened a new business in 2018, so I stopped writing for about 6 months to help him get situated. Typically, I try to write Monday-Friday for 2-5 hours depending on where I am in the story. It varies. I have three children, so they come first. I always feel like I’m a full-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time full-time writer!
Q: Pheby is an incredibly strong character in your story. She is subservient in order to protect those she loves, yet at times she is bold and breaks the rules. I felt her emotions so strongly through your writing. Why did you choose to give her the backbone to show glimpses of her spitfire side?
A: I personally love to read about female characters who are placed in difficult situations but will stop at nothing to get what they want. Pheby was that for me, and I really enjoyed learning about her as she moved through the story. She had moments of feeling like such a badass and I loved going through those scenes in the story when she just wouldn’t back down. She left it all on the cobblestone floor, and that was intriguing for me as a reader and a writer.
Q: There are some similarities in the inhumane treatment of people when it comes to slavery in the 1800s and the concentration camps in the 1900s. So many have been criminally abusive or just complacent and accepting of torture, abuse, violence and disrespect during these horrific times in history (the white people during the times of slavery then the Germans during the Holocaust)… do you believe it could happen again and how do we prevent it?
A: Such a meaty question! In dealing with the coronavirus now and how this pandemic has touch every corner of the earth, it’s hard to predict the future. I totally didn’t see this coming, nor did I expect it to hang around for so long. Anything is possible, but let’s hope that as humans we have grown and learned from those moments of history, and we know how to behave better because of it.
Q: You did a wonderful job creating relationships between Pheby and the other characters, so much so that I continually had my hopes up and rooted for them with all my heart, and was then crushed every time bad things happened. How do you come up with your characters? Do you write an outline and make character decisions before you write, or do you decide along the way?
A: I begin my novels with character. Pheby came to me first and then other characters followed. I start with the idea of the story, and then I discuss it from start to finish with my agent. From there, I write a synopsis and then a loose chapter outline to get me started. The story changes as I get into it, the outline serves as a road map so I don’t get lost, but it’s not set in stone by any means. I do like to give my characters space to breathe and move in the story the way they see fit. I try to follow them the best I can. Sometimes characters just appear on the page. Like July, she just showed up and I thought hello there pretty girl, welcome to the story.
Q: Violence occurred many times throughout the story, and every time I had to put the book down for a minute and take a breath. Horrible to read about but so important to not look away. Why and how did you decide to include the violent scenes?
A: It was necessary because it happened. It happened over and over again, and even though my novels are fiction, it’s my job as a writer to tell the truth within fiction no matter how hard it is for me to write and for me to read. I read so many accounts from people who were enslaved, stories that had been lost or covered up and I felt it was my duty to honor them with this story. I incorporated as many of those voices as I could throughout Yellow Wife. All the names I used in the story I found on slave ledgers during my research. So many people sacrificed so much for me to be in the position that I am in. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and I hope this book makes them a little bit proud.
Q: The scene when Pheby’s daughters were playing the game of selling slaves felt shocking and yet, very plausible. Did you come up with that “game” of did it reveal itself in the research?
A: I came across that game in my research and I thought it was so important to show all sides of the mental and physical ramifications of how slavery affected even small children.
Q: Pheby finds enjoyment and peace in music and playing the piano. Do you have a connection to music?
A: I listen to music while I write. In fact, each of my novels have somewhat of a musical playlist. For Yellow Wife, I listened to a lot of Chopin. I played the piano as a child but gave it up as a teenager. A few weeks ago, my twelve-year old daughter’s piano teacher asked me to play a duet with my daughter for her piano recital. I was tickled pink. We played Fallin’ by Alicia Keys and I truly enjoyed every second of it!
Q: Was there anything in the book originally that you ended up taking out?
A: I have a wonderful team that constantly pushes me to add and take out things in the book to make it stand up. I trust their vision. When the book landed at Simon & Schuster, my editor, Dawn Davis asked me to rewrite the opening scene of the book. That was a tough one. The opening scene had been in the book since the first draft so I really had to sit with how to do it differently. It took about a week for me to figure it out, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
Q: If Yellow Wife were to be a movie, who would you want to play Pheby, her mom, Essex and the Jailer?
A: I think about the movie all the time. I’ve only cast Pheby so far in my mind. Jurnee Smollet has been my favorite since Eve’s Bayou. She was also in the series Underground. I also like Alexandra Ship from Shaft and Nathalie Emmanuel from Game of Thrones.
Q: The cover is striking and elegant, did you have a say on the design?
A: Yes! My publishing team is so awesome. I was involved every step of the way.
Q: What is up next for you?
A: I just started fooling around with another historical fiction novel that is set in 1955 between Philadelphia (where I am from) and Washington D.C. It deals with a lot of themes I’m interested in, so we will see how it goes.
Q: How can we follow all that you are doing?
Q: What books have you read recently that you recommend?
A: I loved The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and I’m currently reading Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke.
About the Author
Sadeqa Johnson, a former public relations manager, spent several years working with well-known authors such as JK Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan and Bishop TD Jakes before becoming an author herself. Her debut novel, Love in a Carry-on Bag, is the recipient of the 2013 Phillis Wheatley award for best fiction, OOSA best book award, and USA best book award for African-American fiction. Second House From the Corner, was hailed by Essence magazine and a Go on Girl! Bookclub selection for 2017. And Then There Was Me, won the National Book Club Conference fiction book of the year award, and was a finalist for the Phillis Wheatley award. She has also received the Black Pearl Magazine Author of the Year award for 2017.
Johnson is a Kimbilo Fellow, former board member of the James River Writers, and proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She also teaches fiction writing for the MFA program at Drexel University. Originally from Philadelphia, she currently lives near Richmond, Virginia with her amazingly supportive husband of 18 years, and their three beautiful children.