As I wrote in December, “I picked up Monsters We Defy as part of my quest to read more fantasy. I love heist books (see my recommendations of Portrait of a Thief, Blacktop Wasteland and The Feather Thief), so I thought I’d try one with a magical twist. My plan worked — I adored it.”
Set in 1920’s D.C., Monsters We Defy follows Clara Johnson, a woman who can communicate with spirits. (As Leslye explained in our interview, Clara is based on a real person). Her gift, though, has left her indebted to the underworld. So, when a powerful spirit offers to lift the curse if Clara can steal a ring right off the finger of an influential D.C. resident, she plans to pull off an elaborate heist.
Leslye Penelope, who also writes under the name L. Penelope, has authored three series in addition to Monsters We Defy. She was kind enough to chat with me about researching the book, building a magic system and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was the process of writing and researching Monsters We Defy like for you?
I started writing it after I finished my epic fantasy series, which was seven books. I wanted to write a stand-alone novel.
It was the beginning of the pandemic. I had this idea to a 1920’s Harlem Renaissance era fantasy heist, but I couldn’t travel or go to libraries. I did the research online. I was kind of teaching myself how to research. I had done research before, but I’d never written a historical [story set] in our world.
It was starting with Wikipedia and Google and looking at the bibliographies of the articles. I ordered books from used bookstores because I couldn’t go to the library. I spent a lot of time on JSTOR reading academic research articles, then I would find PhD dissertations on some random topic about D.C. history and get little tidbits. It was just all kinds of different research that was available to me at the time.
I didn’t have a story other than I wanted to do this heist, so I had to find the characters. I found Clara Johnson, so my main character was based on this real person.
Tell me more about the real Clara Johnson.
I had never heard of her. I didn’t even know that D.C. had riots in 1919. I came across Clara Johnson in The Washington Post piece about the riots. After I decided to set the book in D.C., and not Harlem, I was researching everything I could about that era when I came across this article.
I knew there were riots across the country in Red Summer, but I didn’t know D.C. was part of that. Clara Johnson, the real person, was a 17-year-old Black girl who was arrested for killing a white police officer during the riots and eventually went free. That story was so strange. It felt almost magical. This was the time of lynching and if a Black person killed a white person at that the time, the chances of them going free were nil. So, how did that happen? And what did that experience do to someone who was so young when she took someone’s life, but she was in fear of her own life. I thought about what her life looked like later on.
I had never heard of her before, most people haven’t. She takes up very little space in history, even though at the time she was all in the newspapers. I wanted to imagine a life for her after that.
How do you go about building a magical system?
I love magic systems. I think they're a lot of fun.
In this book, I wanted everything to be grounded since it was set in our real world. I wanted to base it off of Hoodoo, Conjure, Rootwork. It has different names. It’s basically the African American folk magic. I wrote a lot of books that have that as a part of it. It’s part of the culture. I can remember my grandmother talking about certain things that trace back to that.
I did a lot of research on the real systems. The challenge is that it’s different in different regions. Maryland versus South Carolina versus Mississippi. Wherever the enslaved people went, they did their own thing. They were talking elements from Africa, they were introduced to other cultures, from Africa, then European and Native American. So, it’s different everywhere.
I took that and tried to create something that was different from everything else, to make it my own. It was basing it on something real and then figuring out what I wanted to add to it to make it more magical.
Anything you’re working on now you can preview?
My current work in progress is another historical fantasy. The title is currently in flux. It's about an all-Black town in the 1930s that is being threatened with the construction of a dam. It's going to flood them out. A mysterious stranger comes to town saying that he can save them, but he died 12 years ago. It’s fantasy and history, in the same vein as Monsters We Defy. It’s a spiritual sibling and should be out in spring of 2024.
I fell into historical fantasy with this last book and now the next two books that I'm working on are going to be historical fantasy. I really liked it for a long time, but I was afraid of real-world research. Then I kind of fell in love with it.
There are many aspects of our history, especially Black history, that haven't had a light shown on them. And I think that they're right for magical reinterpretation and looking at it through a joyful lens. So much of that history is dark, difficult and painful, but there was so much joy, love and happiness there too. I feel it’s really helpful.
Lastly, any books you want to recommend?
Oh, goodness. It's a hard question. Denny Bryce’s Wild Women and the Blues. I love it. I was a critique partner through the genesis of that book and I think it came out amazing. She’s a fantastic writer.
For a fantasy book, Nicole Glover’s books. The Conductors is historical fantasy about the underground railroad. Her books are wonderful.
Thanks to Leslye for chatting. You can buy her books here, and find her on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. And, just this week, The Monsters We Defy won an Audie (the Oscars of audiobooks, at least according to Thank You For Listening) for best fantasy performance.
I’ll be back on Monday with three more book recommendations.
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Thanks, great interview. Always love reading about the process of writing and research by authors.