Tochi Onyebuchi has the kind of résumé that can make other writers feel a bit like underachievers. Onyebuchi is about to publish his seventh book, the speculative novel Goliath (Tordotcom, Jan. 2022). He’s also worked as a civil rights attorney, created a Marvel comics series, and was on the writing team for the latest Call of Duty game. In short, he’s not one to dawdle.
It’s no surprise then that Onyebuchi, who is quick to smile, contains a striking amount of energy. Asked to describe his backdrop during a Zoom interview from his home in New Haven, Conn., he gets noticeably excited. Over his left shoulder is his license from the New York State Bar. But he’s far more eager to talk about his prized Akira box set, over his right shoulder, which he got at New York Comic Con. He’s wearing a T-shirt that features the tired and bruised faces of characters from the Street Fighter video game series. “When you get beat, the game asks you if you want to continue, and it does the countdown,” he grins. “And your character—their face is swollen, and they just got beat up. That’s the face that is on this shirt. So this is like a reminder of, ‘Oh, do you want to continue?’ ”
The 34-year-old identifies with that moment of dusting oneself off to try again. Born in Massachusetts to Nigerian Igbo parents, he went to boarding school as a teenager. It was there, writing during spare moments on nights and weekends, that he began querying agents. “Back then,” he recalls, writers had to include “a self-addressed stamped envelope so that they could mail you their rejection letter and not have to pay their own postage for it.” He laughs. “Kids are so spoiled these days. They can just hit an agent up on Twitter and be like, ‘Hey.’ We had to pay for our own rejection letter.”
Onyebuchi didn’t let the rejections stop him. Instead, he employed a strategy he says “any normal person” would have found ridiculous. He opted not to revise novels that were rejected and, instead, simply wrote new books. This practice led him to finish an astounding 17 manuscripts before he got his first book deal.
“If everybody’s saying no to you for a decade and a half, that might be God pretty emphatically suggesting you find another line of work, right?” he says. “But for me, I just love writing so much.”
Onyebuchi references a line from the movie Chariots of Fire: “I know God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel his presence.” That thought, he says, encapsulates how he feels about writing. “When I’m in the thick of it, and I’m building the world, and I’m playing with the sentences, and I’m seeing the characters do things that are surprising to me—that’s Shangri-La.”
Despite his love of writing, Onyebuchi never thought of putting all of his eggs in the literary basket. While working on those unpublished novels, he completed his undergraduate degree at Yale, then got his MFA in screenwriting from NYU, then completed another master’s degree in global economic law from Instituts d’études politiques in France while getting a law degree from Columbia. He also held a few nine-to-fives, working as a civil rights lawyer, then as a domain expert at a tech company. He had a two-hour commute on Metro North each day for that tech job and, from 2017 to 2019, wrote “whole books on that train ride, in addition to a bevy of shorter works.” He finally quit in 2019 to become a full-time writer.
Goliath is an almost-biblical epic set in the 2050s. In it, people with money and privilege have moved off a collapsing Earth to more comfortable space colonies. Those left behind must deal with a collapsing infrastructure as their neighborhoods are decimated for resources. The book offers a critique of gentrification, income inequality, and racism, set in a world where the laws of physics are different, but the reality at hand will feel familiar to many readers.
Goliath was a long time in the making. Onyebuchi connected to his agent, Noah Ballard at Verve Talent, over a much earlier iteration of the novel. Ballard says that Onyebuchi’s gift is his inability to be pigeonholed into a specific genre. “His influences are from all over the spectrum,” he explains. “He is an observer of the world, which then allows him to play with genre, rather than simply applying rules of genre.”
That early draft of Goliath also introduced Onyebuchi, in 2015, to his first editor, Tiffany Liao (who was then at Razorbill and is now at Zando). She was interested in his voice but only edited YA. Sensing an opportunity, Onyebuchi pivoted once more, figuring out how to write for a younger audience. His first Nigerian-influenced fantasy novel, 2017’s Beasts Made of Night, was the result.
Onyebuchi says that writing YA forced him to “prioritize clarity.” He adds, “Before, I would get very caught up in literary pyrotechnics, for the sake of literary pyrotechnics. I would do things to show off, but they didn’t serve the story. Writing YA was a way to get me to focus on having everything serve the story. Now, that doesn’t mean that my prose was shorn of any sort of lyrical felicity. But it all had to serve the story. It all had to move things forward.”
He wrote a sequel to Beasts, as well as another YA series titled War Girls—a futuristic social commentary that takes place in 2172. In 2020, he wrote the adult novella Riot Baby, which was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and NAACP Image Awards, and winner of the New England Book Award for Fiction.
Though he’s jumped around genre-wise, Onyebuchi has incorporated his passion for civil rights into everything he’s written. Goliath is especially meaningful to him. It is more sprawling and ambitious than anything he’s written before, with a wider emotional range and some of his funniest dialogue yet. He credits having more space to tell the story with allowing him to “engage in denser fashion with some of the book’s themes,” notably the power of stories and “the ways they’re manipulated—and the roles they play in forming, destroying, and coloring relationships between people.”
Because it was written over such a long period, Goliath is also in dialogue with a greater number of his literary influences, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, and the writings of Arundhati Roy.
One scene that’s particularly memorable describes what a raging party looks like in the future: a skinny white girl in a Navajo headdress mixes an insane “assortment of pills in a blender, pouring the concoction into a red Solo cup and topping it off with a generous pour from a forty-ounce of Olde English.” It’s both believable and surreal in its vividness. Asked how he writes such scenes, Onyebuchi says he remains heavily influenced by video games and music videos, and will often imagine an image and reverse engineer it to create a scene or character that supports it.
Onyebuchi describes his writing process as “chaos” and a “mess” that works for him now, but that may have to change as he gets older. “It’s sort of like with football players,” he says. “When you’re young, you can throw your body all over the place. You can just let your body take over. But as you get older and you slow down a little bit, you have to take better care of your knees, and you have to play smarter. I feel like that’s going to happen to me at some point. I’m going to have to get smarter about my writing routine. But I don’t wait for the muse. If I only have an hourlong chunk of time, that might be the only time during the entire day that I get to write. So, I think, let me get stuff done. The writing always gets done, partly because I just enjoy it so much. But now I get paid to do it. It’s the ultimate privilege.”■
Rachel Krantz is the author of Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-monogamy, coming from Harmony in January 2022.