Leslye Penelope’s latest novel, The Monsters We Defy (Redhook, 2022), takes readers to a version of 1920s Washington D.C. where bootleggers, powerful spirits, and humans blessed (and burdened) with enchantments engage in an epic battle over peoples’ destinies.
Penelope’s protagonist, Clara Johnson, is based upon a real person—a woman who, as a teenager during the 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 Black 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.
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.
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Leslye Penelope on the Historic 1919 Trial That Fueled Her New Magical Heist Novel