Tochi Onyebuchi wasn’t new to writing when the idea for Beasts Made of Night (Razorbill, Oct.) came about. He had already written 15 unpublished novels and wanted to write about the race, justice, and class issues he had seen in his work with the Office of the New York Attorney General and the Legal Aid Society’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit. He also wanted to bring his Nigerian heritage to the page. The result is the first of a series set in a fantastical world full of dark magic and danger. Beasts Made of Night follows a boy named Taj, an aki who absolves the wealthy of their sins by eating them, resulting in the animal markings that cover his body.
Onyebuchi’s road to publishing was a circuitous affair. He met his editor, Tiffany Liao, early in law school, through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until his final semester that they decided to collaborate on a project. When he had written enough of Beasts Made of Night to negotiate a contract, he signed with Noah Ballard from Curtis Brown Ltd., an agency that he’d queried dozens of times with past projects. The lesson here, Onyebuchi says, is that “you never know when opportunity will arrive.” He adds, “One can only hope to have material ready for when it does.”
For Onyebuchi, Liao was his “platonic ideal” of an editor, who encouraged him early on to make Nigeria a foundation for the novel. After that, for Onyebuchi, all the puzzle pieces fit together. “I could see the forum [an open-air marketplace] clearly,” he says. “The gowns that people wore, the smell of goat meat and egusi soup. I could suddenly hear the characters talking, the aki and the merchants. Tiffany helped me find the music in the noise.”
Onyebuchi also cites Liao’s friendship and her “unceasing encouragement” as what helped him reach the finish line. Although she’s since moved to another publishing house, he says he’ll always be grateful for her guidance.
Onyebuchi’s decision to write for teen readers stemmed from his background in social justice, particularly as a response to issues surrounding gender, racial discrimination, incarceration, and police violence. Onyebuchi cites influences like Ian McDonald, who opened his eyes to stories set in non-Western societies. Anime such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira also provided considerable inspiration.
Representation for young adults is very important to Onyebuchi, who says that direct contact with his readers has provided some of his most memorable and meaningful moments: “In Beasts, I’d written the character of Aliya with many of my female STEM friends in mind. I find them to be some of the bravest and most fiercely brilliant people in my life, and I’d very much wanted to include this tribute to them in my first published novel. And at the Texas Book Festival, a young man approached me at my signing table and told me how much the character of Aliya had resonated with him because she was ‘a nerd like me.’ Whatever I said to this reader in the moment was sorely inadequate in conveying how much his remark moved me.”
Now, alongside his job at a tech company, Onyebuchi is hard at work on edits for book two. In a hint to readers eager to dive back into Taj’s world, he says that “Taj will have some very important decisions to make—and they will involve monsters.”
Kristin Centorcelli is a book reviewer based in Denton, Tex.