In 2014, Tracey Rose Peyton stumbled upon a book by Paula Giddings: When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, which included a tract from 1860 about enslaved women resisting pregnancy. “I was interested,” she tells me. “And it stuck in my mind. I started thinking about the issues of long-term birth control being given to women of color, incarcerated women giving birth in handcuffs, and I wondered, How did we get here?”

This coming January, Ecco will publish Peyton’s debut novel, Night Wherever We Go, about six enslaved women on a Texas plantation in the 19th century, who meet at night in the woods to conspire to keep themselves from falling pregnant.

The women call the couple that enslaves them the Lucys, deriving the name from Lucifer. Facing hard economic times, the Lucys are advised to purchase women to work and bear children, employing a “stockman” to impregnate them.

Outside a tavern, on the way to Texas, one of the women overhears Mr. Lucy’s Uncle Pap, a Louisiana merchant, telling him, “Take what you have left and invest in women. They are cheaper than men and more versatile—can not only pull a plow and clear land, but can cook and clean, too. And best of all, they can breed, increasing a master’s profit year over year every time a child is born.... But be careful, boy, about using your own seed.... Out there, you’ll want hardier stock and while half-breed gals fetch top dollar down here, outside Orleans, you can hardly get two nickels for ’em.”

The women ingest herbs from the elder Nan, who, past her child-bearing years, performs as doctor and midwife. They bond and risk everything for agency over their bodies, though “clearly, the road to becoming a we was not a honeyed one,” Peyton writes. “The sun of Texas felt different to each of us. It made us crazy for a time and that crazy was called many things—homesickness, grief, drapetomania [an overwhelming desire to run away, considered in the 19th century to be a mental illness afflicting enslaved persons fleeing captivity]. What forged us together was more than circumstance.... We were bound together by what tends to bind women like us together. Often, that doesn’t make folks kin. Makes them trapped... unless it’s redirected and harnessed toward something else altogether.”

Peyton started writing the novel at night and taking workshop classes while working in advertising. During a workshop at Tin House, she read the first chapter of her novel and from the comments realized “working piecemeal wasn’t enough.” In 2017 she entered the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. “I threw out the draft I had and didn’t go back to the book for the first year at Austin, but I did a lot of research,” she says. “It’s amazing the access you have at a university.”

As she researched, Peyton says, “Texas kept showing up. I’d never been to Texas before or knew anything about it, but when I started writing, Texas was always appearing in the narrative, so I thought, okay, there’s something about Texas.”

Peyton’s agent, Henry Dunow at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner, met her at the Michener Center in February 2020, right before the pandemic. She showed him a short story, “The Last Days of Rodney” (which went on to be selected for The Best American Short Stories 2021 anthology), and some early pages of the novel. “I was impressed with the simple poetry of the language and her skill with the collective voice of the six women,” he says.

They stayed in touch, and months later Peyton sent the full draft. Dunow was “smitten” and signed her up. “I sent it out widely in fall 2021,” he says. Ecco senior editor Sara Birmingham came back quickly and preempted, buying north American rights for “a healthy six figures.” To date, the book has sold in Germany and the Netherlands, and will publish simultaneously in the U.K. with HarperCollins.

Tracey knows what she wants this book to do. She manages to be unflinching and honest in telling the terrible realities while capturing the nuance and depth of each woman. —Sara Birmingham

“I never before read an account of slavery that was so visceral,” Dunow says. “The idea that these women were property, forced to bear children, forced to submit to a stockman. It’s a fresh perspective and so relevant today in the wake of Roe v. Wade.”

Birmingham says her initial feeling reading the manuscript was “pulse-pounding and it carried through.” She, too, notes the impressive collective voice and the individual voices of the enslaved women as each one is introduced. “Tracey forces you to shake off preconceived notions of enslaved women and see them as individuals and not archetypes.”

Birmingham made the deal in a week. “I felt like it was the best thing I had read in fiction,” she says. “The story was radically different, and the writing was assured and elegant. She never loses confidence or style, which is striking in a first novel. Tracey knows what she wants this book to do. She manages to be unflinching and honest in telling the terrible realities while capturing the nuance and depth of each woman.”

Peyton says that now that the book is finished, she feels “slightly unmoored” adding, “The feeling surprised me. I didn’t expect it. I’m wondering, Why am I cranky? Oh, because I don’t have my book anymore!”