In Tomi Oyemakinde's The Changing Man fear is to be conquered as much as it is to be embraced. The novel follows a precocious and lonely teenager, Ife Adebola, as she navigates settling into new boarding school Nithercott, and the adventures that follow her investigation of the school's elusive urban legend. This debut offering joins the ever growing canon of YA speculative thrillers that combine a horror-esque pace, and the levity familiar to the young adult fantasy genre- although it is arguably at its best when the focus is on the latter. In The Changing Man, this explorative prose in anchored by a protagonist whose Nigerian roots form not only the casing for her character, but also for the novel's motivations.
In this conversation, Oyemakinde shares publishing insights, personal ties to the story, craft, and candid feelings on the aftermath of the book's release.
Walk me through the process of writing The Changing Man from idea to publishing?
So, I like to draw from my own experiences. There were two instances that sat in my mind for a while and the first was moving away from the Netherlands to the UK when I was about 10. And the second thing is fast forward to when I was about 14/15, I went to boarding school and found really good friends there. Around the time when I was thinking about merging the two, Jordan Peele’s US came out and it left me feeling completely terrified, but also really energised. So I thought, why don't I just combine this idea has been sitting in my head for a while with this feeling that I've got, and try come up with something cool. From there, it was pretty much about getting words on the page. When it came to publishing, I had an unconventional path mainly because I used one of those Twitter pitch competitions, where there's a given day where you can pitch your book in a tweet, you have hashtags and literary agents looking at those hashtags. I was quite fortunate that I got a lot of engagement, so I got my material ready and sent it to them quite quickly. I ended up having quite a few conversations with various different agents, and then picked one to represent my work. And then from there, it's quite standard, tweak the draft before it goes to submission to a publisher. And then we get to the point of securing a publisher and it becomes the longer back and forth to get it published.
What are you looking for in an agent as a debut author?
So, you want your agent to have a passion for your story. It can be quite easy to see when an agent is passionate about the commercial aspect of it like, ‘this is going to sell really well,’ versus actually just ‘I really love this story and I want to be the one to represent it.’ As an author you want the latter. I think another thing that you're looking for as well is passion for your writing and being able to resonate with it and, and enjoy it, because this story that you have right now may be very different to the next thing that you write and you still want their support. You want someone with a desire to see your career grow.
Is The Changing Man classified as fantasy or speculative YA fiction?
So you picked up on something that's quite interesting, because up until I wrote this book, I was very much a fantasy reader and writer. But then I started seeing the possibilities that speculative fiction offered and realised there is something interesting about writing stories that are set in a world that's quite familiar to us, but with some distinct differences. So in the book there’s lots of me drawing on my enjoyment of fantasy, and then there's me trying to lean on that new appreciation for speculative fiction. Growing up, I remember being absolutely blown away by Octavia Butler. I think Kindred was incredible.
Do you particularly care for it to fall into a specific genre?
I mean one thing that I found quite challenging is that I never called it a horror, or a thriller, or horror thriller, or any of those things. But a lot of people have. And I found that readers are either surprised like, ‘this isn't what I was expecting,’ or they've quite enjoyed the weirdness. When I was querying it I called it a speculative thriller but even then when I was trying to define it, it felt difficult. I also feel quite pretentious saying this because it probably can be defined, but it really does have a lot of different aspects to it. I think I’m ok letting people decide. I'll take that risk.
Tell me a little about why you felt like boarding school was a great setting for your story.
So I think one thing that always sticks with me about boarding school is that if you don't know who you are, it can be quite easy to come in one way, and by the end of it be completely different. I saw that so often. Students would come in wide eyed and innocent and by the end of it, that innocence was gone and that's often, no fault of their own. It's often a result of the environment and the lack of support from teachers. And also because they're just still trying to figure things out. And I wanted to play with that when I was writing The Changing Man. Also, when you go to boarding school you can't just leave, so you have to try and figure yourself out in a place that almost feels like a prison at times. It's quite an interesting setting to play with. I think I wanted to write something that kids who are about to go or at boarding school can read and feel like they can relate to. And also hopefully offers them a sort of assurance that you can navigate this experience and come out the other side ok.
How did you come up with the idea for the villain, Orchid?
So I first thought, what is the weirdest thing that would freak me out? And for me that’s someone that could shapeshift. Octopuses have also always freaked me out, so I thought it has to be something that has tentacles. So that was the basis. But then I thought it would be terrifying if this was something that was based on something that could actually happen. My parents often encouraged me to go for scholarships when I was at school because private schools and boarding schools can be quite expensive. So what if, it was those who offered scholarships, and who were meant to be kind benefactors were doing it with sinister motives. And that was quite a sobering thought. Particularly with scholarship programs, what if the very thing that's supposed to help you get into a supposedly better institution, and the very people who are supposed to offer better were actually using your need for that opportunity to lure you into your death.
So, the main character, Ife, goes through her own personal trajectory with fear and anxiety (on top of having to fight Orchid). Why was that important for you to include in the book?
It was important because the remedy to her fear- and I say remedy lightly- was that she should open herself up to friendship. That she should let those who actually care about her in. The reason why I say remedy loosely is because obviously, you can feel fear even when you do have friends, but it helps to not be alone. I was saying, ‘hey fear is not something that you can just get rid of, it will always be present, but if you have good friends around you, and those you can lean on, then it makes it a little easier.’ I was drawing on a lot of my own experiences where I was felt alone. And in hindsight, it was actually counterintuitive of me to think it was much easier to just keep to myself and not make friends for fear of eventually losing them. It wasn't until I got to boarding school, I started to overcome that resistance to opening myself up to friendship. I still worry and I still get anxious, but I have friends to share that with.
"Particularly with scholarship programs, what if the very thing that's supposed to help you get into a supposedly better institution, and the very people who are supposed to offer better were actually using your need for that opportunity to lure you into your death."
Was the absence of a romance storyline, a staple for a lot of YA, an intentional choice so as to make more space for developing the friendships?
Yeah, I was very much adamant that I'm not going to write romance. And the reason was because unless I'm going all in and writing with romance at the centre of it, it’s not for me. I find that younger readers can be quite impressionable and I'm a little wary. If I’m going to write a romance, I’d want to write it in a very responsible way. I think sometimes YA romances can make it out to seem like the best thing and that that’s what to hope for when you’re at school. And I just think school kids have got so much life ahead of them. Like, you don't need to hope for it in school. If it happens, that's great, but it doesn't have to be something that you expect or even work for. I certainly grew up watching loads of romcoms and I remember going to school thinking that my life is gonna be a romcom. And when I had my first girlfriend at 15, I remember thinking, right, this is it. We’re going to make it out of school and go to unis in the same city. She's going to be a GP, I'm going to do whatever, and we're going to have this nice family. It was over within nine months.
You did leave enough space for a ship though. There was a bit of will they, won’t they going on.
Of course. It’s all about the tension.
What did the process of writing the book feel like when your personal experiences inform quite a bit of the story?
I think it was quite cathartic. Thankfully I've processed a lot of the experiences that shaped the book, which meant that I didn't have to sort of step away to make sure I wasn't going too far into the thoughts and feelings that affected me a lot when I was younger. I think ultimately, it was a very liberating experience because I was able to write from the point of view of almost saying ‘if this book had existed when I was moving around and got into boarding school, what would it have have said that would have helped younger me process how he felt about things?’ To think that, by the end of it, I'd written something that if I could go back in time and hand it to myself, I would have loved it and actually been able to process a lot more of those thoughts and feelings that I had.
Sounds like younger you would be very proud. What do your family think about this book?
My brother ’s got no opinions. My mum and dad are very, very proud. The parents are pretty much based on them. The names of the parents are their names and I completely forgot to change them. They were like, ‘why are our names in this book?’ And I said, Well, that’s a great question [laughs]. But no, they're very proud. And I think they saw a lot of themselves and a lot of me in it as well. I think they also can appreciate all of all what’s in there, because we’ve had a lot of conversations about how these experiences have affected my upbringing. I think one thing that's always stuck with me, is that my mom has always said, write what you know, write truth, don't write in a way where if someone heard Tomi wrote this, they'd be surprised because it's not aligned with your character and what you stand for. And that’s really helped to inform how I write.
What's the aftermath of publishing like? How are you feeling about your debut being out there? And how’s the promo been?
I think one thing that I've struggled to do is process and enjoy the whole thing. I think part of it is because I'm so busy with my 9-5, but the other part is sort of just like processing the fact that it's out there in the world. Like people are reading it and want to ask me about it. But I think on the flip side, I've been really encouraged to have good conversations with people, especially when people have actually read it, and are curious about it. That's quite energising to think about and speak with with other readers. Even if it’s about something they didn’t like. I think whenever someone actually cares a lot about what they're reading or the craft it’s always encouraging. The most challenging part has been letting go and moving on to the next thing. I think, you spend so much time crafting it and trying to make sure that your vision is as clear as possible that once it goes out there, you realise you have no more control over it. I think I still have a lot of work to do in terms of being able to enjoy the moment. In my mind, my job is not finished, I'll only be able to enjoy it once I feel like I've finished writing all the stories in my mind, which probably is never going to happen.
What’s the next story you are working on?
I’m working on a book that's essentially another speculative thriller type story. Think White Lotus meets Jurassic Park. So, it's about two brothers and a dad, who are very different from each other. They struggle to understand one another but they have to work together to survive, essentially. I found that the publishers have already posted the title and the synopsis online so if you type in my name you could find it.