Sadeqa Johnson, THE HOUSE OF EVE

Sadeqa Johnson, THE HOUSE OF EVE

Zibby Owens interviews award-winning author Sadeqa Jones about her latest novel, The House of Eve, which is Reese’s February Book Club pick! This daring and heartrending book is set in the 1950s and follows two Black women in Philadelphia and Washington, DC as they navigate motherhood, ambition, forbidden love, and life-altering decisions. Sadeqa reveals that this story is inspired by her own family history, and shares how much she enjoyed exploring race, class, elitism, and the fate of young Black women in mid-20th century America. She also talks about the taboo love story that Zibby loved (matzah ball soup involved!), her next historical fiction project, and the incredible book tour she is about to embark on.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sadeqa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The House of Eve.

Sadeqa Johnson: Thank you so much. It’s so wonderful to be here.

Zibby: It’s so wonderful to chat with you. I’ve been devouring this book. I love it. I love the characters. I could not put it down. You never know when you pick up a book, what hits you and what doesn’t. This just totally got me. Really enjoyed so much.

Sadeqa: Thank you so much. That means a lot. As writers, we spend a lot of time in our heads, in our offices by ourselves. You really never know what’s going to happen once you turn that book in.

Zibby: That’s true. I feel like your characters, though, are so real. You’re rooting for them so much from the very beginning. You just become immediately invested in their emotions and their lives and the stakes that they’re — it’s hard not to feel compassion and root for the women in this book, really. It’s awesome.

Sadeqa: Thank you.

Zibby: Explain to listeners what the book is about.

Sadeqa: The House of Eve, it’s set in 1950s. It goes back between two different perspectives. Ruby is a fifteen-year-old girl who’s on track to be the first in her family to attend college, in spite having a mother who is more interested in her boyfriend than she is in taking care of her daughter. A taboo love affair threatens to pull her back into poverty, which has been pretty much laid out for her like a birthright. Meanwhile in Washington, DC, we have Eleanor Quarles, who arrives with ambition and secrets. She falls in love with the handsome William Pride at Howard University, but getting into his family is not as easy as she thinks. They don’t just let anybody into their fold. These two women’s stories collide in a very interesting way. At the heart of the story, there’s this thing that pulls them all together. I hope it’s a really satisfying read.

Zibby: It is a really satisfying read. I also think this is one of the most perfect — almost like a wedding gift type of thing. If you think your mother-in-law is tough, read this book. Hard to fit into someone else’s family, particularly when they have all these preconceived notions and prejudice and all of that, which was just horrific here.

Sadeqa: That was fun. It was sort of fun for me to dive into, diving into what social class felt like during these times in the fifties, what family looked like, and playing all the roles. As the writer, I get to play all the different parts in the story. That was a lot of fun.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. I loved that you have a character who’s an archivist at the library, which is great. I felt like we were looking at all the things as she pulled them out. You would give us little glimpses at the actual materials. Is that something that you’ve been involved in yourself?

Sadeqa: Not so much. I do like to include real characters in my historical fiction novels. When I was doing research on Howard University, which is where Eleanor and William meet, I came across a woman named Dorothy Porter. For forty years, she was responsible for amassing the largest collection of African, African American, African Caribbean art and artifacts and literature for the Moorland-Spingarn collection at the library. I thought, wow, she needs to be in my story.

Zibby: Amazing. Did you go to Howard? I should know this. I should’ve looked.

Sadeqa: No, it’s totally fine. No, I didn’t go to Howard. I didn’t even go to an HBCU, so this was also another part of me living vicariously through my characters so that I could have that experience because I did not.

Zibby: You have a character, Shimmy, who attracts the attention — Shimmy, right? That’s his name?

Sadeqa: Yes.

Zibby: Attracts the attention of Ruby. He is a white Jewish boy. His father’s an alcoholic. They work in the neighborhood at their store. Well, he works at a different store. The father’s the super, essentially, ish. Yet Ruby is living with her aunt. She’s Black. There is so much neighborhood, societal, community antagonism around this whole relationship, not to mention that at the time, it’s illegal for white and Black people to marry. It had only been ratified in one state that it was okay to do this. Yet here they are, these crushes on each other, as it begins. I won’t say more. Tell me about that setup. Why a Jewish character? Just tell me about that.

Sadeqa: When I was working on the story of Ruby, I really picked my mother’s brain. My mother grew up in North Philadelphia. In fact, the apartment that Aunt Marie lives in where Ruby eventually finds herself in is one that my mother described to me from her childhood. It was across the street from the gas station. It was on top of a paint store. The landlord was Jewish. I thought, wow, what would happen if the landlord’s son and this young Black girl fell in love? It’s the 1950s. It’s completely taboo. What would they each be bringing to the table? I always like to say that love knows no color. It knows no class. There’s always a love story somewhere. I remember after the hurricane in New Orleans, there was a photographer who was at the Superdome. Everybody’s in blankets and shelters. He caught a picture of a boy looking at a girl. In the midst of all of that tragedy, there was the love of the boy looking at the girl. I thought the same thing for The House of Eve. In the midst of all of these wonderful and horrific things that are happening in the story, there’s always love. There’s always unlikely love in stories. I thought that the two of them together was just a wonderful pair. I enjoyed writing them so much.

Zibby: Meanwhile, William Pride, I want to go find this guy. I was like, I have to meet this man. What a cutie, oh, my gosh. You could literally feel his sexiness off the page. It’s hard to do that. It’s good. I don’t know, something about his back and the way you wrote about that, and his long dimples.

Sadeqa: That back, I’m telling you, the very first scene that I envisioned with Eleanor and William, it was his back. I thought, where did that come from? It just became a theme throughout the story.

Zibby: How much of this did you have in mind before you started? What germ of an idea did you begin with? How much was outlined versus what unfolded as you went?

Sadeqa: The story actually started when I start thinking about my own family history. I had an idea of Ruby. I knew that she was a fifteen-year-old girl. I knew that she had a body shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle and that grown men cat-called her on the street. I knew she had a mother who didn’t want her. That was it. As I started thinking about my own family history, I remembered that my grandmother told me that she had gotten pregnant with my mother at age fourteen and that she had her at fifteen. She was unmarried. She was shamed. Her family was completely and utterly disappointed, and so they hid the pregnancy from everyone, including the child. My mother tells me that she didn’t know my grandmother was her mother until she was in the third grade because up until that point, she had lived with her grandmother. I thought, wow, what does this do to the child? What does this to do the mother? This was the early 1950s. If my grandmother had other opportunities, how could her life have turned out differently?

This was the beginning of me doing a little research. I came across these maternity homes. I found that between 1945 and 1975, 1.5 million babies were born in these homes. This was before IVF. This was before adoption was not a taboo, secretive thing. These babies were pretty much given over to families. These girls were coerced. They were forced. Sometimes they knew what they were going into the homes for. Sometimes it was a form of punishment. When they wanted to keep their babies, they were often told that they could not. As I was doing this research, I couldn’t find a single Black woman’s story in all of the research that I found. I thought, what did Black women do? I read a few articles that said they would go down South and have the baby and leave it with a relative. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer. As a Black woman, I know that our stories are not a single narrative. I know that it’s not just what you see on these reality TV shows. We are so much more than that.

I found a book called Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham. In the book, he talks about the evolution of these really upper-echelon Black families beginning in Reconstruction going up through the eighties. In Washington, DC, there was a group of doctors and lawyers and judges. They went to Howard. They went to cotillions. I thought, what did those women do when they wanted to have a baby? That was how the threads started to come together for me. Eleanor, I was in my office one day, and I promise you, she just sort of walked in. She was full of rage. I could feel desperation coming off of her. I thought, okay, you want to be in the story. Luckily, I was in the outlining phase of the story, and so I was able to pivot and figure out how to take — I always say I have these beautiful Christmas ornaments, but I need to figure out how to put them on the tree and bring it all together. Once she came into the story, things started to flow and fill itself out.

Zibby: Wow, that is so fascinating. How did you come up with the name Nene? That’s actually my husband’s grandmother. That’s what he called her. She passed away. I sent him a screenshot when I was reading all these scenes with Nene. Where did the name come from?

Sadeqa: My grandmother’s mother, so my great-grandmother, we used to call her Grandma Nin-nin. I thought, I want to do something sort of similar. I’m always trying to honor my ancestors in all of the stories that I wrote. It was sort of a nod to her.

Zibby: That’s nice. We even have a family business on my husband’s side called Nene’s Treats, which makes crumb cake. I should send you one, actually. I’ll get your address.

Sadeqa: Yes, you should.

Zibby: I’ll send you one after this. That’s wonderful. Scenes like working in the department store, going downtown — that scene was so striking when Ruby and her aunt — her aunt gets all dressed up. They go downtown to buy stockings. It’s this whole big production. Then she gets met with the most horrific vitriol by a white woman passing her in the street calling names and all of that. Really, taking the wind out of her sails is an understatement, just totally gutting her. Tell me about that scene and that moment. Did that come from your family history?

Sadeqa: That scene of Aunt Marie taking Ruby downtown — I did grow up in Philadelphia. I think I mentioned that. I was talking to a book club friend who read an earlier draft of Yellow Wife for me. She told me a very similar story had happened to her in Birmingham, Alabama. I thought, oh, my gosh. It just never left me. This was years ago. As I was writing the story, I knew that I needed to have that pivotal moment with Ruby where she was faced with racism head-on. As the woman who experienced it in Birmingham said, it was the first time that had ever happened. It just took the wind out of her sails. You never forget that first time where racism is directed specifically at you. I thought, we need to have that moment for Ruby specifically because she’s in the relationship with Shimmy.

Zibby: I love the matzah ball soup cameo in this book. Books where you would not expect a bowl of matzah ball soup to appear, but there you go. You never know what’s going to happen.

Sadeqa: I always try and bring in as many cultural aspects as I can into a story.

Zibby: You have Ruby in the first person, but Eleanor is in the third person. Why did you do that?

Sadeqa: As I mentioned, Ruby came first. She came, and she was up close. She was in my face. I knew that we needed to walk through the story through her eyes almost feeling like you were with Ruby, like you were Ruby. Because Eleanor came second, even though it was that rage and that desperation, there was a little bit of space between she and I. I could feel that space, and so my entry point to her was third person. I wasn’t sure if it was going to fly. I just thought, I’m going to write it this way. As it got through my agent, she said, “Ooh, that’s interesting. Why did you do that?” I’m like, “This is why.” She’s like, “We’ll leave it. We’ll figure it out.” Then when it got to my editors, again, “That’s interesting.” No one told me to change it. I’m like, good, I’m going to stick with it. I do leave a little bit of space because I think the professionals that you have around you are your professionals for a reason. I leave a little bit space to see what they’re going to say. They’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That was sort of it, and so it was able to stay.

Zibby: Love it. What are you working on now?

Sadeqa: Oh, my goodness. First of all, I am getting ready for this amazing tour for The House of Eve. I’m going to be on the road for six, seven, eight weeks straight. It’s everything that I’ve always asked for, so I am trying to be in a place of gratitude and not in a place of fear of all the airplanes and trains and automobiles I need to catch to meet everyone. I’m really focused on that. I have a new idea in my head for a novel. I’m trying to just scratch out my outline before I go on tour so that I have something to come back to. It’s just seeds right now. It is another historical. It takes place in the late 1940s, maybe up to about the mid-1960s, another person who I found in history who is an unknown character or not a well-known person. I think that her life was beautiful. Her story needs to be told. I’m trying to figure out how to tell it. As a historical fiction writer, I find or I feel that my job is to go into these dark spaces and flash a light on women particularly, but stories that have been untold or have been forgotten or have been mistold and give them justice. That’s what I want to do with this next novel. I’m still kind of spreading my little seedlings around, so we’ll see what comes.

Zibby: I love it. Wait, back to the tour, so how many places are you going? Where are you going?

Sadeqa: I’m in Richmond. It’s Richmond, Philadelphia; Washington, DC; Wilmington, Delaware; Raleigh, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Oxford, Mississippi; Denver, Colorado; a few stops in California; Rhode Island; New Jersey. I’m sort of everywhere. Indianapolis. I’m going to be busy. I’m going to be really, really busy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How does your teenager feel about this?

Sadeqa: I’m trying to give them a little bit more responsibility so that they can kind of fend for themselves. I’m like, “Honey, you’re not going to be able to ask me what’s for dinner.” Last night, my seventeen-year-old came in and had thirty minutes. She’s like, “Mom, where’s dinner? I have to go back to school.” I’m like, “Okay, let me just pull it together. You know, I’m not going to be here, love. You’re going to have to pull it together.” We’ll see. They’ll be fine. They’re all resilient. They’ll have my husband. They’ll figure it out.

Zibby: I’m trying to do that with my little guys. I have twins who are fifteen and a half, but then I have an eight and nine-year-old. They’re still like, “Mom, make me breakfast.” I’m like, “You know where the yogurt is. You know where the cereal is. I’m not doing this anymore. Go get it. Go just try it.” Why is my pouring the milk any better? I guess it’s a caretaking, love thing. I think they just like it.

Sadeqa: I think, too, when we make their plate, we know what’s on it. I know that’s why I still make my fifteen and seventeen-year-old plates, because I know what’s on it. I know that that veggie is in there.

Zibby: That’s true. I did walk down once and see him having a bowl of tortilla chips. I was like, okay, no, no, no. This is not going to happen. No. This is not breakfast. That’s funny. That’s so exciting. This is all so great. I’m just so excited to watch you celebrate this book. It’s really good. It’s just really good. Is it going to be a movie? Have you sold the rights?

Sadeqa: Oh, my goodness, from your lips to God’s ears. That is always the dream. I will keep you posted on that. I always like to say that something behind the scenes is sort of working on my behalf, and it has not reached me just yet.

Zibby: Amazing. In your downtime, what do you like to read?

Sadeqa: I just finished reading Eleanor Shearer’s new book, River Sing Me Home, which I thought was just beautiful. I’m listening right now to The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan —

Zibby: — I loved that book. Loved.

Sadeqa: Yes. The narrator is so good. I’m always reading one book and listening to one book at the same time. That’s what’s on my plate right now.

Zibby: I’m opening a bookstore in California next month. If you’re out in the LA area and you want to pop by or whatever, it’s in Santa Monia.

Sadeqa: I would love that. I’m in Los Angeles the third week of February, so we’ll have to connect on that. I would love to pop in.

Zibby: Amazing. We open February 18th and 19th. Having author signings all weekend.

Sadeqa: Wow. We’ll have to connect on that.

Zibby: I’ll touch base with your publicist and see. Do you have a dress, by the way — I know your shirt looks very much the same color scheme as the dress on the cover, which is this fabulous blue and this woman looking all great.

Sadeqa: I do not have my blue dress yet. I put out a message yesterday on Instagram for some help, so people have been sending me links where I can go and find a dress. I really want a dress like the cover of the book for at least the first night of publication. We will see. I have a little time.

Zibby: I’m going to try to find you this link too. My husband found this site. I was saying how I want a dress like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I just love that time period, pretty much like this too. I’ll pretend that this is what my body looks like, but that’s okay. Anyway, he found this costume design place where all the dresses are between twenty-five and fifty dollars, but they all have that same style. The fabric’s not nice, but it’s —

Sadeqa: — It’ll do what it needs to do while I’m on stage.

Zibby: It did the trick. I’m going to look for it after this. I’ll see if I can send it. Sadeqa, it was so nice to chat with you. Great to get to know you. Congratulations on The House of Eve.

Sadeqa: Thank you so much. If your viewers would love to find me and find out where my book tour is, please go to my website, which is Clicks on the events section. You can follow me on Instagram. I am @SadeqaSays. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. It has been an honor and a privilege. You don’t know how long I have waited to be able to speak with you, so thank you.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh, I feel like it’s an honor, so there you go.

Sadeqa: Thank you. I super appreciate this invitation. It’s been a great time with you.

Zibby: You too. Thanks.

Sadeqa: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sadeqa: Bye.

Sadeqa Johnson, THE HOUSE OF EVE

THE HOUSE OF EVE by Sadeqa Johnson

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts