Leslye Penelope on the Historic 1919 Trial That Fueled Her New Magical Heist Novel
In Conversation with Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
Leslye Penelope’s latest novel, The Monsters We Defy, takes readers to a version of 1920s Washington D.C. where bootleggers, powerful spirits, and humans blessed (and burdened) with magical powers engage in an epic battle over peoples’ destinies.
Penelope’s protagonist, Clara Johnson, is drawn from history—a woman who, as a teenager during Red Summer race riots of 1919 shot and killed a police detective after he broke down her bedroom door. Prohibited from arguing self-defense, she was convicted of manslaughter, but a judge later tossed out the verdict.
Penelope found the real Johnson’s exoneration so remarkable that she felt “it had to be magic.” As she puts it, “How did this young Black girl get out of that situation? If magic was involved, that would make so much more sense.”
The book’s magical elements are layered over D.C.’s dynamic Black community, where entrepreneurs, artists and academics thrive even as they face racism that is both overt (the Ku Klux Klan holds a demonstration) and systemic (Woodrow Wilson had segregated the federal workforce a few years earlier). The magic echoes the hope and horror of the real world, providing Penelope’s characters with the power to save themselves and their community—but at a painful price.
From the episode:
Rob Wolf: I thought we could start by talking about Clara, whose grandmother, Mama Octavia, had been born enslaved and from whom she inherited a special, mystical ability.
Leslye Penelope: Clara was born with a caul, which means she was born with the amniotic sac surrounding her. In many cultures, people believe that children born with a caul have special powers. The belief is prevalent in Black culture, too. So because she was born with the caul, Clara can see ghosts and spirits, and she can communicate with them. Her grandmother passes on but stays around her and is able to communicate with her and guide her from the afterlife.
RW: Clara also has a magical ability called a Charm.
LP: Right. In this world there are spirits called Enigmas, and human beings can barter with them to gain a Charm. Clara has received a charm, which is ostensibly a good thing—a power or an ability. But it also comes with a Trick, which is not so good. Clara’s trick is that she has to help broker these deals for people, using her natural ability to speak with the Enigmas. When someone comes to her with a problem and needing something, she can’t turn them away.
A lot of times when people want something, they just focus on the thing they want and they’re not paying attention to the downside and the cost that they’re going to have to pay. They don’t really realize the true impact on their life until later. And Tricks are no joke.
RW: Mama Octavia doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Clara’s clients. She says ‘Everyone has a choice’ to accept a Charm or not. But Clara points out ‘not everyone has a good choice.’ And Mama Octavia responds, ‘It’s true. Colored folks don’t often get good choices, do we?’
LP: That was one of the things that I was looking to do—trying to create a realistic portrayal on the one hand of this all-Black neighborhood in 1925, which was actually thriving. A lot of people were doing really well. But it’s amidst the environment of that period in America when things were so difficult. I didn’t want the focus to be on racism and racial strife. That’s just part of everyday life for these people. That’s not the main conflict of the story, but it’s there. They are trying to navigate the world as best they can, trying to thrive, but there’s barriers all around.
RW: Can you talk a little bit about the research you did for the story and the real Clara Johnson?
LP: When I started, I only had this idea of having a magical fantasy heist. And so I started doing research about the time period. I didn’t even know what specific year it was going to be originally, and I was thinking it was going to be in Harlem. And then I changed it very quickly to Washington, D.C., because I’ve lived there. My family is from there and there was just so much wonderful history available. …
I found the real Clara Johnson in a newspaper article in the Washington Post. She was 17 years old during the race riots of 1919. This was the Red Summer. The riot lasted for 4 or 5 days, and initially the authorities did very little to quell it. There was an accusation that someone was shooting from the roof of Clara’s home, and so police officers burst into her house, burst into her bedroom where she was hiding with her father with a gun, and she shot back and ended up killing a white police officer.
The fact that she wasn’t lynched immediately was pretty miraculous—and for a 17 year old girl to do that. Of course, it reminded me of Breonna Taylor and stories of Black women being shot in their homes by police officers. So Clara is convicted of manslaughter and serves over a year in jail. And then the original judge passes away, and she applies for a new trial. The original judge would not allow her to plead self-defense. So when she gets a new trial, the new judge will allow her to do that and the district attorney decides that there’s no way they can get another conviction under those circumstances. So they drop the charges, and she goes free at 19. That’s basically all we know about the real person. And I looked at that and was like, what happens to her after that experience?
Leslye Penelope is an award-winning author of fantasy and paranormal romance. Her debut novel, Song of Blood & Stone, was chosen as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. The novel also won the inaugural award for Best Self-Published Fiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.
Rob Wolf is a writer and co-host of New Books in Science Fiction.