But his laugh -- infectious and accompanied by a wide grin -- comes through every time.
In a few days he will travel 110 miles down the Hudson to Town Hall in Manhattan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of "Things Fall Apart." Toni Morrison will speak, as will, among others, his fellow Nigerian-born writers Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Abani will remind the packed house that they've come together "because we are in awe of the way in which one human being's imagination can intervene in all our lives."
But right now, the owner of that life-shaping imagination is trying to explain that he is not entirely certain just how "Things Fall Apart" came into the world.
"It's a little mysterious in some ways," he says. The book "seized me, and almost wrote me. I'm not quite sure I wrote it."
Looking to elaborate, he invokes his "chi," the personal spiritual guardian that Achebe's people, the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, believe accompanies each individual from birth to death. The concept is hard to translate, but one's chi, in effect, personifies one's fate.
"It was almost like my chi was making me into what I was to be," Achebe says