Meet Tomi Adeyemi, the YA breakout of 2018
At just 24 years old, Toni Adeyemi has launched a stunning Black Lives Matter-inspired fantasy trilogy, the phenomenon that is Children of Blood and Bone. Before the first book was even finished, its film rights sold around seven figures and generated buzz for its sharp racial commentary as few books have been able. Not unlike Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which topped best-sellers lists and won several awards last year, Children of Blood and Bone is looking like the next big thing in YA: a story that’s simultaneously pulse-pounding, prescient, and enchanting.
The author calls the book an “allegory for the modern black experience,” and finds fantasy the perfect mode for conveying complex ideas without getting preachy. It’s a process that’s taken her years to refine and perfect — “It’s been rewritten 100 times,” she cracks — and the fact that it’s culminating in a potential movie franchise still stuns her. Blessedly, the next step in this crazy ride is around the corner: The book hits shelves on March 6, coinciding with Adeyemi’s national book tour. (Order it here.)
Last year, as buzz for the book was heating up and just as she’d turned in her final draft, EW caught up with Adeyemi to get her story: her inspiration as a writer, her process with this book, and what it feels like to have a big-budget movie adapted from her own work on the horizon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been writing, and what got you to Children of Blood and Bone?
TOMI ADEYEMI: I’ve been writing since between five and seven. Writing is just the first thing I ever did and I kept doing it, so I’ve been writing for almost my entire life. My freshman year of college, The Hunger Games movie adaptation came out and I was really excited about it. This was maybe 2011. I loved it, but there was a lot of hateful backlash against the black characters in the film. People were like, “Oh, why’d they make all the good characters black?” Just really, really awful and hateful things. I’m the kind of person who gets motivated by anger, so I was like, “Oh man, I’m going to write a story that’s so good and so black that everyone’s going to have to read it even if you’re racist.” That became my writing mission. The first story that I wrote for that mission did not go anywhere, but it took me about three or four years. I needed it because it taught me everything about writing and it taught me everything about actually how you get a book published. Lots of writers’ first books don’t go anywhere, but this was such a valuable learning experience that I couldn’t have done what I did with this book without that book.
I learned that book wasn’t going anywhere, but I also learned I didn’t want it to go anywhere because I saw what was out there and I knew I could do better. Then I was really inspired after reading books like Shadowshaper by José Older and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. This was on the tail-end of me still on my book one journey, so maybe between three and four years of book one, and I was discovering fantasy is way to teach people but not in a preachy way — just in the way you can get something across through a character’s experience that helps explain something that feels like it can’t be explained in a universal way. I don’t know if that’s too many vague words. I got that from both of those books and I was excited and like, “I want to write something big!”
Children of Blood and Bone is big, certainly, but it also tells a story that feels personal and important.
There’s so much talk of representation in politics and entertainment — it’s everywhere — but I didn’t realize representation was important until really my senior year of high school. The reason was that every character I wrote in the stories I was just writing in my free time were white or biracial. It was because I never saw myself. Even me, I didn’t think I could write myself into a story, and I realized that leads to so many self-esteem issues that would really just be solved if people saw themselves. On the same token, seeing a black God and a black Goddess — it’s not only like, “Wow, this is so cool and different.” When you see blackness in a sacred way, that means something. That makes you feel a certain way, whether you’re black or not. I knew I wanted to do something with it; I just didn’t have the story idea.
Around April of last year, I saw this animated drawing and I was so captivated: It was this black girl with really luminescent hair, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept showing people at work and they were like, “Oh, did you draw this?” and I’m like, “No! I just bought it on the internet, isn’t it amazing?” Everyone’s like, “Okay, let’s go back to work now.” [Laughs] It was really in my head and that night I just started thinking: Who is this girl, what does she do, what does her world look like? I remember I was talking to my boyfriend on the phone and I was like, “What if this girl was a fisherman’s daughter and she had to go to a market to trade something and this girl runs into her and is like, ‘You have to help me, you have to get me out of here’? Is that cool, is that interesting?” He’s like, “That sounds cool,” and I’m like, “I’m going to run with it.” From there it was an explosion. I was on my own personal deadline, which meant I had to write it really quickly, but from an idea and creative standpoint, a story had never exploded out of me that way. I also think it’s because I have learned how to actually write a story because I spent so much time on my first book. My first draft of my first book took me like a year. My first draft of Children of Blood and Bone took a month. Everything was sped up both because I had the tools but also because I was on my own personal deadlines.
Personal deadlines for anything specifically?
The deadline I gave myself for Children of Blood and Bone, when I was just starting out, was for this competition I wanted to get into because they had a good track record for getting people representation and even sometimes book deals. But that meant I had to write my book in one month and then I had to revise it in another month and submit it to the competition. And then I got into the competition but then that was another two months of revising; I signed with my agents and then that was another three months of revising. We submitted the book and that was pretty crazy. I ended up with Macmillan. And then we’ve been revising since April … It was like 18 straight months of really intense writing and revising. I’m still a little delirious. It’s been aggressive and it’s been accelerated, but it’s also been so much work. A lot of people don’t realize writing is really just rewriting. The final book is probably somewhere between draft 30 and draft 40. It’s been through a lot. I’m so happy with it, but I’m also so ready to sleep for two straight weeks.
In terms of people who want to be writers, I wish more people knew how much work it was. Every first draft sucks, so when you have your favorite novel and you’re like, “Wow, this is a masterpiece,” and then you write your first draft and you’re like, “This is really bad,” and then you’re like “I can’t do this because this is nowhere close.” When in reality, the book you loved so much started out just as crappy. It’s just been rewritten 100 times. That’s how you actually get to the place where you’re like, “This is so shiny and beautiful.”
This book’s universe feels so vast and detailed: Talk a little bit about your approach to world-building.
For me, I love the beginning stages of world-building. I love when it’s pure inspiration, which is how I like to approach it. Like I said with this book, I’ve been working on it straight for 18 months. I guess 19 months if I think about the month before I started writing, where I was in this world-building stage. Two months of those were inspiration and then the other 17 months was purely rewriting to make it all fit. So I really enjoy that first month or two when you really are just creating a world from scratch. Then I think you do everything you want to do. I like to stretch my imagination to the limit and be like, “Oh, you know what would be really cool? Giant lions!” Then you go from there, like, “I want them to wear these headdresses” and stuff. For me, it’s all the fun stuff, all the Pinterest board. Once I had my initial ideas down, then I do like “Step One,” or I guess “Version 1.0” of putting real-world logic behind it. It’s like, “If I want my character to ride a lion, then it would make sense to have other fantasy jungle cats — which means there’s probably a fantasy cheetah, a fantasy panther, a this and a that.” Then you think about our real world, how you have methods of transportation but then you also have nicer methods of transportation — so which of these cats is like having a Ferrari, which part of society has that? At first it’s all fun and then it’s adding real-world parallels to it.
You draw from African folklore here, but there’s also sharp commentary and parallels relating to race relations today.
I was, as many people are, extremely affected by the police brutality stuff that’s been happening. What was important to me to convey was what that’s like: You have really horrible dash-cam videos, you have Twitter hashtags, but also the real nature of it. What’s important is people think, “The police shot someone when they shouldn’t have and that person died,” but they don’t think about the day-to-day emotional damage — where it doesn’t always end in death but it’s still really emotionally damaging. I wanted to portray that. Police brutality is a very racialized thing and my story takes place in an analogue African society, so there aren’t different races. There’s the type of people who have magic and the people who don’t, but to portray police brutality without necessarily portraying racism — because otherwise it would be like I was pinning black people against black people if that makes sense. Some of the earlier drafts were running into that wall, where it’s like, “I’m trying to depict this but with just black people, so how do I work this out?” We figured out ways to do that, where instead we’re focusing more on classism in the book because we can depict the same thing but with motivations that make sense.
Can you give me some specifics of how you tried to strike that balance between world-building and real-world commentary?
I had references to skin bleaching, which was important to me because there’s a lot of self-esteem issues with having dark skin in America. The fact that one of skin bleaching’s biggest markets is Africa, where the majority of people have dark skin, kind of shows the damage. For me it was important to show skin bleaching. But then when we were getting down to the nitty-gritty, it’s like, “Okay, skin bleaching is about accessing whiteness. That’s what it’s about.” This is a book that doesn’t have white people; therefore they won’t be skin bleaching. So how do we make a similar commentary but in a way that works for this, in a way that makes sense for this world? We took out skin bleaching and we replaced it with more classism-related things because that makes sense in our world. But skin bleaching does not make sense in our world.
In terms of YA trends and conversations, how directly did you want to get in on that dialogue with this book?
I’m lucky that other authors have taken up the sword. The battle for representation in publishing has been going on for decades, but in at least the recent five years, I’ve talked to writers of color who wrote books with protagonists of color and were told, “This is great, but can you make this person white, and then maybe I can sell it or buy it?” People have been fighting that battle for a long time. I feel very lucky that they did do that because by the time I came along it wasn’t like, “This is great but can you make them all white?” Luckily I didn’t have to go into this book citing that fight. I knew, because of authors like Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh, that I could write a great, diverse fantasy and that agents would like it, the publishing houses would like it, but also readers would like it. An Ember in the Ashes is a Middle Eastern fantasy; The Wrath of the Dawn is a Persian fantasy. And readers love them. Both are New York Times best-sellers. They knocked down the door and proved that people want these stories. Similar to Angie Thomas with The Hate U Give, that’s contemporary but I feel like I was able to get the deal I was able to get because of the deal she got. I feel very fortunate to be trying to get published with these stories during this time period.
What’s the feeling around this book being in the works for adaptation?
I’m still trying to process it. It’s feeling more like a real thing because we’re at the point where I’m talking to the screenwriter and we’re exchanging notes … I mean, it’s a movie! I love movies! I watch trailers all the time. To think that I’m going to see what I wrote on a screen blows my mind. And I’m like, I have a crush on John Boyega — what if he’s in the movie? Then I can meet John Boyega! It’s pretty wild. I’m finally a little bit closer to processing it than I have been in the past.