Tomi Adeyemi's West African-inspired fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone, debuted at #1 on the New York Times’s YA hardcover list, and has yet to drop off. This December marks the publication of book two of the Orïsha Legacy trilogy, Children of Virtue and Vengeance. Adeyemi spoke with PW about her process, the pressures of success, and a forthcoming film adaptation.
When you sat down to write Children of Blood and Bone, you were unpublished. What was it like for you to tackle this new book knowing that you had fans who were watching?
From a purely creative standpoint, the writing was technically easier; I had already built a world, I had [created the characters] Zélie and Amari, and the conflict sort of naturally feeds out of what happened at the end of book one. But life was a lot harder. It was wonderful to do so many events for book one, but that also took away from the writing time. And there were more competing interests. If you’re baking a cake, it’s like a lot of people poking the batter before it’s mixed or before it’s cooked. They’re like, “Oh, let’s put the icing on!” And you’re like, “This will give you some kind of food poisoning if you eat this right now.” That was so much harder to navigate. It was noisier, and so I had to find a way to cut through that.
Was your writing process different this time around?
Children of Blood and Bone was written on a really accelerated schedule and Children of Virtue and Vengeance was also written on a really accelerated schedule, so there were some things that were similar. The way I write, I want everything to be the best version of itself, but you have to put all of the Legos together before you can be like, “Oh, you know what? The second floor sucks.” That’s sort of my process. I don’t have a lot of peace or calmness with it, especially when the process is accelerated, because I’m like, “Well, how am I gonna know? I won’t know it’s right until I do it. I won’t know it’s wrong until I do it.” I always keep trying to get it right, but I always kind of think it’s not good enough. I just keep going. I have people that I trust that give me that perspective that I can’t have myself.
You and your editor, Tiffany Liao, spent many months editing Children of Blood and Bone, cutting and writing and researching and doing sensitivity reads. How did that process compare with what you went through for Children of Virtue and Vengeance, and how much of a role did Tiffany have in shaping this book?
Toward the beginning of book two, there was a lot more talking out of things. “Okay, let’s see if we can get to some of the better ideas through discussion. Is there a draft or two we can cut out of the process by talking through things?” Which is a cool resource, but I now know that I’ve got to bake the cake before anyone can help make it better. There are so many assets to having people who know your world, and know what’s going on. But I’ve been writing since I was six, and so [I’m used to] doing all of this alone. With book one, you do it alone and then people get added into the process. But with book two, all these people who got on the boat while you were still in book one, they’re there for the start of book two. I think that’s a big reason writers struggle so much with book two, because they’re learning to navigate. You have to learn how to balance protecting that space in your head with the assets but also the noise that comes from more voices, and more interest, and different stakes.
Last March, you posted a video announcing the decision to push publication of Children of Virtue and Vengeance from June until December. Was that a difficult decision? What kind of an impact did that extra six months of work have on the final product?
We actually pushed this book twice. Originally, they wanted it published exactly a year after [Children of Blood and Bone], so in March. And that was incredibly stressful, because I turned in book one the third week of December 2017. The first week of January 2018, I started book two. And I had to do that because I wanted enough of my cake baked before book one came out and I started getting feedback, not just from the people in my life professionally but from fans.
The first couple drafts of this book were like 600 pages. It takes a long time to write that. It takes a long time to edit that. And then to step back and be like, “Actually, those 200 pages can be halved. Or, actually, I thought that person was a good guy but they’re a bad guy. Or, actually, these people aren’t going to make out anymore.” I was always pushing myself to the line. The first [delay] was difficult in the sense that I’d been pushing myself so hard, so I wanted it to work, but I knew it would be better to have more time. The second one was also difficult. It wasn’t like, “Oh, now I have all this time to sit and think,” it was like, “I have more time to do what I didn’t have enough time to do before, but I don’t know if this is even enough.” The whole process was always racing against the clock, which was a lot of stress and a lot of intensity.
When I was in the process of moving [the release date], I reached out to some authors for their opinions. And everyone was basically like, “You’ve got to do what you need to in order to be happy with it.” I think of authors like Angie Thomas and Sabaa Tahir—they were public about [delaying the publication of] their books, and that gave me a lot of courage. So even though that’s not something that I wanted to be public about, I know there’s going to be dozens if not hundreds of authors in the same situation and so if they see you do it, then they feel a little more courageous about doing it. So, I’m like, okay, let me talk about this.
Have you started writing book three?
No, and I love that. I smile every time someone asks me. I’m excited to put the second book into the world because I’m not worried about writing book three as I’m doing it.
It’s funny because book one, from an idea perspective, kind of exploded out of me. And book three, from an idea perspective, kind of exploded out of me. Book two required a lot more discovery. For book three, I know generally what happens and who the characters are. The specifics of it are things I still have to investigate, but it’s cool to really think about, “Okay, how are you going to this? How are you going to build this? And how is that going to affect a potential series after this?” To have all the time that I want to consider all those things—I really like that. It’s nice.
Do you know how it’s all going to end?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always known who makes out and I’ve always known how it’s going to end.
Is a Children of Blood and Bone film adaptation still in the works?
Yes! The movie is with Fox and Lucas Films, and the team is incredible. I know we went public a bit ago about Rick Famuyiwa as the director, and it is moving along. It is in such passionate and exceptional hands. Everyone on the project has been so excited and is someone whose creative work I respect. It’s very cool to have people make you think about your own work in a new way. It’s been a very positive experience and I’m excited. It’s picking up a bit more steam, so I feel like we’re going to see more public announcements in the near future.
Your debut novel was released almost two years ago. What advice do you wish you could go back and give your pre-publication self?
I would tell her to buck up and to trust herself. I’m 26. The publication journey started when I was 23, and at 23, I felt a lot closer to being a baby than an adult. I had trusted my compass to get me where it got me, which was an incredible book and movie deal, and then once I got there, there were all these other people around who had a lot of experience. I don’t know if that’s a Nigerian thing, because “respect your elders” is aggressively engrained in our culture. You can’t turn your compass off, because it comes from inside you—it’s part of your gut. But I didn’t feel the need to follow it as strongly as I had to get to that point and now, it’s completely the opposite; I’m like no, my compass is my guide. I’m much less apologetic, I’m much less shy, I’m much more blunt. And not in a way that I think is rude, I just think it’s like, “Okay, I’m driving this car.” And I always respect opinions, I always respect feedback, but I’ve just realized that at the end of the day, only you know what is right for you.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Legacy of Orïsha #2) by Tomi Adeyemi. Holt, $19.99 Dec. 3 ISBN 978-1-250-17099-6