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How to get a million-dollar book deal

How to get a million-dollar book deal

Tomi Adeyemi’s mythical version of Africa is changing the way young Americans think about race. She talks to Jasmine Sanders about what comes next

Tomi Adeyemi’s mythical version of Africa is changing the way young Americans think about race. She talks to Jasmine Sanders about what comes next

Jasmine Sanders | April/May 2019

The great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling once wrote that all boxers fall into one of two groups. The first are the Eganites, so named for Pierce Egan: powerful fighters such as Rocky Marciano or Billy Neat who deliver “dreadfully severe” punches. The second are the Brounians, after Heywood Broun, who are more cerebral and less “prehistoric” in style, like Archie Moore or Muhammad Ali.

Tomi Adeyemi, a 25-year-old Nigerian-American novelist, is a Brounian. When I arrived at the boxing gym she attends in San Diego, one rainy lunchtime in November, she was standing patiently in a black tank-top and black leggings. Her hands were being wrapped by her trainer – a tall, wiry young man with sand-coloured hair, who learned how to kickbox in Thailand, claims to have suffered concussion three times and wears a constant half smile. When Adeyemi was ready he set a timer. The session, divided into two parts, began with sparring drills. Adeyemi, whose ombré-dyed dreadlocks were tied back, is tiny, with the tightly wound energy of a jack-in-the-box. She began to punch her trainer’s gloved hands as he yelled out the combinations – Jab, jab, hook! Left, left, right! – and, as she delivered her darting blows, her intensity and focus were clear. With the sparring over, she moved to an agility exercise, hopping between the rungs of a ladder-like contraption laid out on the floor as though she was playing a steroidal game of hopscotch.

Adeyemi took up boxing three years ago, after moving to San Diego from Los Angeles, when she was hard at work on her first published novel, “Children of Blood and Bone”. Adeyemi, who describes herself as “a binary person, very all or nothing”, was writing all day. She kept track of the story’s intricacies with a labyrinthine Excel spreadsheet, which included 50 colour-coded tabs setting out the novel’s clans, their history, their clothing, the nuances of each character and their motivations. She also brought in ideas from the real world: behind the tale of myth and magic was a parable of modern America, with its combustible police violence, racism and recrimination. “It took a big toll on me,” she says. “My physical health declined, my emotional health declined, my mental health declined.” Boxing helped to keep her going. “I imagine Donald Trump’s face every time I throw a punch. It helps a ton.”

The novel, the first in a projected trilogy of books whose second instalment arrives in June, was published in 2018. It netted a seven-figure deal, one of the largest ever paid for a debut by a young-adult writer. “I read it in one sitting,” says Tiffany Liao, Adeyemi’s editor at Macmillan, “and said that we had to publish it or I would leave the company.” Before the book was even released, film rights were sold to Fox 2000.

“Children of Blood and Bone” is set in the fictional land of Orisha, located in west Africa. It follows Zélie Adebola, a descendant of the maji people. The maji, who were imbued with magical powers, from necromancy to telepathy to the manipulation of the earthly elements, had once ruled the realms of the living and dead in Orisha. Then they were cast down by a despotic king and forced into servitude: they are now a repressed minority. The social order of Orisha is maintained by a ruthless, militarised police force; the ruling class brutalises the maji with impunity.

The book’s mix of fantasy and grit had immediate appeal. That summer Adeyemi’s fans, many of them young black women, waited in line for hours at New York City’s Comic Con for a glimpse of her at a book signing. To many of her readers Adeyemi’s success has turned her into an embodiment of a certain form of longing: the kind of person they might become. “Children of Blood and Bone” shot to the top of the New York Times young-adult bestseller list. At the time of writing, it has spent 50 weeks in the top ten.

Adeyemi’s success can be attributed to a strategic and skilful blending of two genres that have been growing in popularity. The first deals with African myth. Tochi Onyebuchi, a Nigerian author, peopled his novel “Beasts Made of Night” with entities who eat the sins of the rich. In “Freshwater”, Akwaeke Emezi, another Nigerian author, tells the story of a child figure from Igbo culture destined to die and be born again. In a sign that this type of novel has truly found a voice, Marlon James has followed his Booker prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” with “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”, a fantasy which has been described as an “African ‘Games of Thrones’”.

The second genre tackles systemic racism, a fictional form in which many people see their fears and frustrations reflected on the page. Angie Thomas’s bestseller “The Hate U Give” was inspired by the death of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man shot by a police officer in California in 2009. “All American Boys”, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, also features the murder of black men. In these books, young-adult fiction converges with the protest novel. “What really spoke to a need in the market was that she was pulling so deeply from her cultural roots,” says Liao. “The world is confusing and scary,” she adds, “and readers are looking for ways to process their experiences through stories.”

As a parable of police violence, Adeyemi’s fantasy is only partially successful, the fiction is flatter and less horrific than the reality. Her novel contains no white characters, which disrupts its relationship with modern American racism. But in depicting an all-black universe, it also broaches a gnarlier and perhaps more fruitful entanglement: the one that black people have with each other. The absence of white characters shifts its focus to intraracial disputes and the fault lines of gender, caste, class, pigment and political identity. Like “Black Panther”, a film from 2018 which made over $1bn at the box office, “Children of Blood and Bone” engages in a form of historical reimagining, showing a pre-colonial African past untouched by the scourge of transatlantic slavery. In the end it is a work concerned with how black people of various classes and ethnicities relate to each other. The myths of Orisha, and the structure of the African society that Adeyemi depicts, are integral to that. She wanted to explore her “deep pull towards the past, towards everything that got us here”.

The day before I accompanied Adeyemi to the boxing gym, we met for lunch at Carnitas Snack Shack, a Mexican-American restaurant in San Diego’s gentrified North Park district, near the home she shares with her boyfriend. It was a warm 75 degrees, and Adeyemi, dressed in chic athleisure, took a seat outside on the terrace. Her big, Bette Davis eyes are so expressive that, even though she is a passionate and intense talker whose laughter constantly laps at the edges of her speech, you barely notice she has a mouth. We discuss the origins of the book: “It’s always hard when someone’s, like, where did it come from, and I’m, like, aaarggh, there are so many different angles!” But after ordering an aioli-doused, fried-chicken sandwich, she decided on a starting-point, the moment of creative reckoning that lay behind “Children of Blood and Bone”.

It came when she was a senior at Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois. In search of material for a personal essay for her college application, she began to sort through her childhood belongings and came upon the first story she ever wrote, as a precocious six-year-old. A fan-fiction mashup of Disney’s “The Parent Trap” and the “Saddle Club” children’s books, about a group of horse-obsessed kids in the Virginia countryside, it took place on an idyllic farm, where Marilynn and Carolynn, twins and wily teen equestrians, got up to mischief and schemed to reunite their divorced parents. Like their creator, the sisters were clever: they attended “Hubbard” University, a proxy for Harvard, the college to which, even in early childhood, Adeyemi dreamed of going. In fact, they were so like their author that, as the story progressed, Adeyemi eventually rechristened them Tomi and Tomi. But there was one big difference. They were emphatically white.

“I kind of realised how messed up I was,” Adeyemi says. As she read her other early stories, she saw that the characters were fantasies of a beauty very different from her own. The comic books, manga, anime and young-adult fiction she loved hardly ever featured black people of any kind, let alone young black women, so she had seldom encountered versions of herself. “I realised that my protagonists were all white or biracial,” she said. “I wasn’t just writing the adventures I wanted to have, I was writing who I wanted to be. I was writing myself out of my own stories.”

Adeyemi’s parents had lived through Nigeria’s civil war, and the subsequent military takeover. In the early 1990s, with one child in tow, Tomi’s older brother Tobi, they left for a better life in Flossmoor, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago where, in 1993 Tomi was born. Another daughter, Toni, followed. Their father was a doctor, and while he waited for his qualifications to be transferred so he could work in America, he drove a taxi to earn a living. Their mother worked in sanitation, before opening a hospice.

Flossmoor had some of the best schools in the state of Illinois – schools that were almost entirely white. Of the 2,600 students at one of Adeyemi’s schools, there were only 16 black children. She found both the racial homogeneity and the curriculum alienating. She was fed a diet of classic literature from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Instead of exploring the canon of dead white men, she fed herself with books she found outside school, including Mary Pope Osborne’s “The Magic Treehouse”, “Harry Potter” and “Naruto”, a manga series about an adolescent ninja. “I wrote 300 pages of ‘Naruto’ fan-fiction – single spaced!” she says. The contrast between what she wanted to read and what she had to read was painful. “You have these teachers that convince you that what you’re doing is not reading and writing.”

Her parents moved the family again when she was in middle school to another suburb of Chicago, and for the first time she had classes with other black children. “Middle school was when I was introduced to Biggie, to hip-hop and all these other things,” she says. “They would tease me, or we would tease each other, but it was an amazing time. I learned so much about the camaraderie and joy in being around other black people.” The respite was foundational, if brief: for high school she was moved back to a mainly white institution. “I always tell my mom I was on my way to my first black boyfriend and she ruined it.”

At home, Nigeria was present mostly in the form of its work ethic. “I was expected to get all As, and then I had to get an A+,” she says. Her parents wanted her to pursue a solid profession, like engineering or medicine. Instead she studied English at Harvard. There she was supervised by John Stauffer, who introduced her to writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass. Adeyemi was enthralled by them, but shocked by how their work had been obscured. Up until the 1990s you rarely saw an African-American writer on school syllabuses.

In 2012, during Adeyemi’s freshman year, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old from Florida, was shot dead by George Zimmerman while making a trip to the petrol station to buy snacks, Skittles and tea. Zimmerman claimed he was acting in self-defence, and was later acquitted of second-degree murder. The verdict sparked outrage. “I grew up around white people, so I knew racism existed,” Adeyemi says. “But racism to me was the substitute teacher yelling at me even though other people were bullying me, or my geometry teacher telling me I was going to work in McDonald’s. I didn’t think I could be shot because I was black.”

Martin’s death further affected her writing. Stauffer encouraged her, recognising not only her “beautiful prose” but also her artistic and commercial nous. She seemed to have an intuitive grasp of where writers got their material, he says, and how they shaped their characters, settings and themes. These were all filtered through her sense of what would sell. “It was another sign of her maturity,” Stauffer argues.  

Adeyemi rejects the perceived trajectory of the writer’s life. Before she began writing full time, she did internships at Morgan Stanley and at a consulting firm. “Being in these very corporate worlds helped me to realise that this is a business…You can’t just go in and say, ‘Yay, it’s all rainbows’.”

Her first plan for getting into the business was to pursue a “creative thesis” in her senior year at Harvard – writing a book, under supervision, which she would then try to publish after graduating. But after discovering that she could get a travelling fellowship from the university to go anywhere in the world, she decided she would set out on another course: to Brazil. The country, she thought, might give her material for an intergenerational work in the manner of Toni Morrison – an epic tale of two African sisters, one taken aboard the slave ships, one remaining behind. At some point, the two would reunite and reckon with the after-effects. She had it all mapped out before she’d even visited.

Things didn’t go to plan: when she got to Salvador, a city in north-eastern Brazil, she discovered that the museum she needed for her research was closed for refurbishment. She wandered the streets, dejected and short on options. Staying would be a waste of time. Returning home would be humiliating. Then it began to rain, and attempting to protect her costly hair weave from the downpour, Adeyemi ducked into a shop selling cheap souvenirs. Among the local wares, she encountered figurines depicting deities whose features were curiously similar to her own. These were the Orisha, the gods of Nigeria’s Yoruba people, who had been brought to Brazil by slaves.

“I had never ever seen Orisha before,” Adeyemi says. “I’d never seen dark-skinned gods. I thought Beyoncé was the closest we’d ever have! It never even occurred to me that they existed and that my parents had kept them from me.” She called her mother, ebullient with new knowledge. “I was, like, Mom why didn’t you tell me about this?” Her mother’s reaction was deadpan. “She said, ‘Well, we didn’t tell you about Islam either’.” The Orisha just weren’t relevant to them. But Adeyemi knew instantly that they were a godsend.

After graduating she needed a job, and went to Los Angeles to work in a data-driven marketing division of Legendary Entertainment, the company behind films such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Jurassic World”. The job had its uses: it gave her a chance to think statistically about what appealed to young movie-goers and why. Perhaps this explains why “Children of Blood and Bone” at times reads like the treatment for a film script. But Adeyemi was unhappy. She had been brought up with a simple philosophy, “whatever it is, you have to attack it”, but at the film company she didn’t want to advance. She began working on a novel in the evenings. “I was working on that after work until, like, midnight every night.” This was not her Orisha novel, but a homage to Harry Potter. “My theory is that every fantasy writer’s first book is a love letter to Harry Potter.”

The book was rejected by 60 agents, ten of whom offered feedback. “What I got from most of them was, ‘You have something, but I can’t sell this’.” She saw no sense in wasting time with projects that had no commercial future, so she began to analyse the competition. The books that had lit up the young-adult world in her childhood, such as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, were of a different time, and young readers were looking for something new. “I realised we were in a whole new world,” she says.

The work that stood out most brightly was “An Ember in the Ashes” (2015) by Sabaa Tahir, a Pakistani-American author. A rich fantasy, it centred on a young girl and boy attempting to thwart a tyrannical government. The novel spurred her. “When people ask me about the books that influenced me when I was younger, you can sort of tell when someone wants to hear that Harry Potter was monumental,” she says. “I loved Harry Potter but that’s not my hero and my icon and my idol.” Tahir’s book was different. “I didn’t know a book could be like that, and include people that looked like me.”

Her instinct was to separate the fantastical from the gritty, and write two novels, one a tale of magic set in west Africa and drawing on the Orisha she’d seen in Brazil, the other a story like “The Hate U Give”, drawing on the traumas of modern America. Once you know the market, you might as well maximise your chances. She discussed it with her boyfriend. “I asked him which I should do first, and he said, ‘I think it’s the same book.’ And I was, like, holy shit.”

After Adeyemi had finished her boxing session, we left the gym in search of somewhere to eat. As we walked it began to rain, so we chose the nearest restaurant we could find. While we waited for our churros and pancakes to arrive, she began to talk vaguely about “a bunch of dumb internet stuff”,  “online craziness” and people she’d like to challenge to fight.

It turned out that Adeyemi sent out a tweet earlier that day in which she had accused Nora Roberts, an American romance novelist, of plagiarism. Roberts, who has published over 200 books and earned almost $400m, had recently announced the title of her latest book, “Of Blood and Bone”. Adeyemi was incensed. “It would be nice if an artist could create something special,” the tweet said, “without another artist trying to shamelessly profit off it.”

After she sent her tweet, her fans began to assail Roberts online. Roberts responded with a blog post called “Mob Rule by Social Media”, saying of Adeyemi that “she had no facts, just her emotions”. She had sent her book to her publisher nearly a year before Adeyemi’s came out. “So unless I conquered the time/space continuum, my book was actually titled before hers. Regardless, you can’t copyright a title.” Adeyemi later apologised.

The incident shows both Adeyemi’s strength and vulnerability. For her publishing is as ruthless a business as any other, and she impulsively defends her turf – sometimes clumsily. She says that “as a young black woman, I believe you have to be fiercely protective of your work.” Adeyemi has herself endured racism. Her role, as she sees it, is not just to write the kind of stories that she wished she could have read as a child, in which she could see herself, but to be an example in a different sense. “Sticking up for yourself is the hardest thing, especially if you’re from a marginalised background.” She adds that “people will use you, people will lie to you, people will talk shit about you…It’s learning to stand tall.”

“That’s another reason why boxing is really good,” she explained, thinking back to that morning. “I’m literally like, one, say it to my face, and two, get in the cage with me.”

Additional reporting by Simon Willis