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Interview: Daniel José Older

Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult series The Shadowshaper Cypher, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, the middle-grade historical fantasy series Dactyl Hill Squad, and Star Wars: Last Shot. He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Mythopoeic Award, the Locus Award, the Andre Norton Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Shadowshaper was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music on his website, YouTube, and on Twitter.

I read that you wrote The Book of Lost Saints years ago. How long ago was that?

Seven years ago.

Really? What happened during the time between finishing the novel and getting it published? Did it take a while to find a publisher?

It took forever to find a publisher, which is something I want people to know. There’s the idea that once you have a book out or a couple books out, you’ve “made it”—whatever that means—and you can publish whatever you want. And that’s not true. This book got rejected more times than I can remember and it wasn’t finding a home until it finally did. That’s exactly what publishing is like: You keep submitting until it finds the right place.

How did it eventually find its home?

I met Rhoda Belleza at the Boston Teen Author Festival at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, MA. She’s a great writer and just an awesome person. At that time, she was editing for Imprint. I knew immediately that she would have a great handle on the book. I think we sent it out for another round of submissions soon after that, and I made sure she was included in that process. She eventually was the one who took on the book. It worked out really well. She was a great editor.

So in The Book of Lost Saints, the spirit of Marisol, who disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, visits her nephew Ramón in modern-day New Jersey and prompts him to investigate their painful family history, but he’s unaware of what’s driving him on his search. Tell us how the premise came together for you.

I’d been thinking about The Book of Lost Saints for a long time. I’d been trying to figure out how to process a lot of the different thoughts, feelings, and ideas that come with being a Cuban American, growing up in that diaspora, and what that means. That includes what it meant to go to Cuba when I was twenty-one to experience it for myself. I knew it was going to be something, but I didn’t know what. When I was about to head off to grad school, I was taking a walk with my friend, Sam Reynolds, and he was like, “You know, what about the ghosts of the Isle of Palms?” (The Isle of Palms is a famous prison in Cuba on an island.) And it was a weird thing for him to say, because I write about ghosts a lot and had this idea swirling through my head of trying to deal with ghosts and Cuba for a long time. That was the push I needed to set everything into motion.

You begin the novel with an epigraph from José Martí: “Two homelands have I: Cuba and the night. Or are they one and the same?” What meaning does it have for you?

I love that quote! First of all, José Martí is very singular in that he’s someone that both sides of the Cuba conflict love deeply and claim. By that, I mean folks from the Castro and revolutionary side of things claim him as a patron saint. And if you talk to the Miami folks, they also adore him and find that he speaks for them. That’s very rare, because Cubans don’t agree on anything, especially those two sides of Cuba. That, I think, is incredible in its own right. He was an incredible person, an anti-imperialist and a revolutionary in many ways, who served time in prison for his work. He was an organizer, an activist, a soldier, a children’s book writer, and a poet. I love all those faces of him and the fact that he did so much, even though his life was cut short in battle, so I wanted to honor that. As for the quote itself, it perfectly encapsulates the sadness of being Cuban and what that means. It ties into Martí’s very identity with a certain melancholy but does so in such a beautiful way that it almost transcends the sadness with the poetry.

It ties well into the identity of your protagonist, Marisol. She’s our POV character who shuttles us between two time periods and Cuba and New Jersey. And since she’s in spirit form, she acts as an omniscient narrator. How did you come up with her character?

She sort of just came through. Some characters appear fully formed, like Sierra did in Shadowshaper. Marisol was who she was as soon as I started dreaming her up. Much of her personality is about voice. I really wanted it to be irreverent and kind of coy and furious and passionate, because those are all aspects I knew were part of the story. She had to be in touch with her anger, disbelief, and frustration about what she went through. She’s living through her emotions, because she doesn’t have a body. I think we have this idea that spirits are supposed to be holy, ethereal beings that don’t have a lot of personality and they’re just woo woo woo, you know? I wanted to challenge that a little bit and make her more brisk, humorous, and cynical.

She sure is. In fact, she’s initially dismissive of Ramón, calling him a useless boy-man. And she has a “life is wasted on the living” attitude toward him, though she grows to love him and need him as the story progresses. But why all the diss toward him if he’s going to be the one to unearth their family history?

Mostly because she needs him. It’s not just that he’s flesh and blood and she’s not; she recognizes very quickly that he’s her anchor to the world. She’s dependent on him and she doesn’t even know why. She doesn’t fully understand what she’s there to do or who she is. But as she comes to understand that, she realizes her dependency on him, and he doesn’t even know she exists. She’s cursed and blessed with hyper awareness of the situation.

Ramón is one of these people, which I think she says very early on, who’s blessed with incredible talent, which makes him a little bit lazy about everything else in life. She’s like, “I need this guy to reveal this very fundamental piece of my story, because I don’t have a body and he does.” And he can barely get himself together to go to work. He’s not depressed; he’s just kind of alone. That’s frustrating for her. She’s dealing with all of that, and he’s in her way sometimes.

Marisol and Ramón have complex relationships with Cuba. Marisol was born and raised there but disappeared during the Cuban Revolution. Ramón is a second-generation Cuban American born and raised in New Jersey whose mother would prefer he not ask family members about their history. You’ve already touched on your relationship with Cuba a little bit, but tell us how it shaped those of Marisol and Ramón.

I was blessed to come up in a family that was very open about our history. But I don’t think that’s the norm—not just in Cuban families, but families in general. As people, we’re a little too quick to try to be quiet about things and pretend nothing happened. The reality is something always happened. Dealing with that means dealing with it head on, talking about it and being open about it. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to go back to the island and experience it for myself. That’s also something that can be very taboo for a lot of Cuban families, but that’s a part of our heritage and our life. Ultimately, it comes back to having honest conversations.

What kind of research did you have to unearth in order to bring Marisol’s environment and her heartbreaking experiences with the revolution to life?

It’s one of those things I’d been researching on my own for years. When I went there, different questions would come up about some of the details of how the actual battles played out, the play by play of the revolution itself, and what was going on in the country versus in the city. That was more in-depth stuff I did for research. The other level of research was having conversations with people—whether it was people in Cuba, people in my family, or people here, lots of different people—about their own experiences.

Of the books and short stories you’ve had published, this novel seems the most rooted in reality. There’s only one speculative element: Marisol’s spirit. No otherworldly creatures and monsters or interdimensional face-offs. Did you feel the need to restrain speculative elements with this novel?

I knew early on it was going to be much more grounded in reality. It never felt like restraint so much as following and respecting the story that wanted to be told. And it just didn’t feel like a genre novel, which I think is mostly a matter of rhythm, right? It wasn’t racing at breakneck speeds from one plot point to the next. Of course, a lot of novels can slow down, and they should, and mine do. This story is much more about everyday life in the service of this larger narrative and this arc. These are characters who are going about their business and who also need to uncover certain mysteries in the course of their lives.

With that mystery aspect in mind, would you consider The Book of Lost Saints ghost noir like your short story collection Salsa Nocturna and the Bone Street Rumba series, since it addresses surviving trauma, falling in love, and other things by way of a ghost-story set up?

Very much so. Yes. I hadn’t thought of that, but absolutely. There are noir aspects of it in a very different light, but I think it still fits in that umbrella.

At several points in the novel, Marisol wonders if it’s right for her to share her memories of imprisonment with Ramón in his dreams. She’s concerned about continuing the cycle of trauma, of poisoning a new generation. That sort of trauma seems like a haunting in and of itself. She even says she’s a parasite because of this. But at the same time, Ramón and his generation have to know their history. What’s your take on balancing history and the inevitability of sharing the trauma that comes with it?

That’s the exact kind of the question I was asking myself as a writer. How do we pass on these stories without reopening the wounds? Ultimately, I think healing comes from, as I said, talking and truth telling. Since that’s difficult and involves pain, we have to do it respectively and carefully. And it’s important that we do it with the intention of healing. Intentions aren’t everything, and you can certainly still go wrong, but if we allow our intentions to inform our strategy and our storytelling ideas and mechanisms, I do believe we can heal. But we can’t go into it pretending there isn’t a risk of deepening the conflict either, because there is that risk, and that’s just a part of it. That’s also true with representation. That’s true of storytelling across the board. Respecting story means going into it with that knowledge and then acting accordingly.

You’ve written about setting as crisis and how the complications of power, politics, and privilege build a rich, nuanced environment for characters to inhabit (bit.ly/2WjPNkE). What drew you to writing about New Jersey circa 2004? What about this place and time, three years after 9/11, was crucial for situating Ramón and his loved ones and for the start of his journey in uncovering the mystery of Marisol’s past?

That’s a great question. It was really the Cuba in 2004 that I needed to capture more than the Jersey in 2004, mostly because I realized part of the way through writing the book that the Cuba I was writing about was actually the Cuba I had seen when I first went in 2001. It’s changed quite a bit since then, for different reasons, for better or for worse. But when I went back more recently, I was like, “This isn’t quite the same Cuba in certain important ways.” In order for the story to feel like I was telling the truth, I had to set it much closer to the Cuba I saw when I was there back in 2001.

It was also interesting to explore that era during which I was living in New York—all those weird little bits of technology that were around back then, like Napster and LimeWire. The immediate couple of years after 9/11 were certainly a very particular moment in American history that was important to capture. For me, it was about coming back from Cuba—I lived there for three months in 2001—to a totally different country than when I’d left pre-9/11.

Any why New Jersey?

Partially because New Jersey is actually a little known but very important hub of Cuban Americans. There are a lot of Cubans there, more so than in New York. New Jersey is where a lot of my family first landed when they got here and stayed there. Others ended up in Miami. Also, I wanted to move away from the limelight of New York. There’s so much focus on New York, and anything that happens there is like dun, dun, dun! NEW YORK! I needed to establish a separate community that I could create and play with, a community of Cubans in New Jersey that was outside of that entire hubbub. That’s what allowed it to be a localized world. There’s so much local politics involved in what happens in the novel, and that wouldn’t have been possible if it was set in New York.

Ramón works as a security guard at a New Jersey hospital. Several of the New Jersey hospital scenes are imbued with such specificity and detail that I wondered how many of them came directly from your previous life as a paramedic. I’m thinking of the scenes of the Mexican girl in the psych ER and the burn victims from the electrical fire.

Those are all directly out of my experiences as well as from the experience of being around and in a hospital when you’re a medical student doing rotations. You spend the most time in the ER itself, where you get to see a whole cross-section of who works there, who spends time there, who just hangs out there, which I thought was fascinating. Many shows are set in hospitals because they’re quite a crossroads of humanity. I wanted to set something there because I felt like I had a good handle on the feel and rhythm of that world.

Ramón has something else in common with you: his music. He DJs by night. Since you’re a bassist and composer, I’d like to know if you think of DJing as a form of writing music or of mixing music or both.

It’s certainly both. I think it depends how you’re doing it and what you’re bringing to it. There are different ways of going about it. In Ramón’s case, he’s bringing all these different threads together in a way that’s very much like time travel, which is echoed throughout the book and the larger story. He’s grabbing very ancient rhythms, melodies, and ideas and piecing them together with much more modern things. That sums up the tension between him and Marisol—the past and the present bumping up against each other. The struggle is finding harmony between them.

Marisol describes all the music in the DJing scenes in intricate detail. Since you’re so inside the music you write about and you’re coming at it as a composer and performer, what effect do you go for when putting it in prose? What are some of the fun parts or challenges you come across when conveying it to readers?

It’s about trying to capture that experiential level. It’d be easy to only talk about the technical level of music, but that’s how you lose people, even though it helps to know it. People love and experience music in millions of ways that have nothing to do with the technicalities of it. All that knowledge doesn’t do you any good if you’re not reaching people on the gut level, which is where everyone feels it. The challenge has always been taking that knowledge and bringing it to the gut-level experience.

Marisol doesn’t necessarily understand music in terms of the technical piece of it, but she’s living it through someone who does. So I was allowing her into his body and his brain to grasp that he’s this magician and a master of all this noise and putting it together on the fly, and she’s bearing witness to it from the inside.

Much like how we’re all bearing witness to your mastery of storytelling as we read your work. What other writing projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?

The Shadowshaper Cypher wraps in January with Shadowshaper Legacy, which is the last book in that series. It finishes Sierra’s story while opening up this whole other level of the mythology of Shadowshaper, the history of it all. Like The Book of Lost Saints, it actually does a lot with the past and the present coming together, so that was a lot of fun to write, and I’m really excited about that series wrapping up. Then the third Dactyl Hill Squad book comes out in June. That’s my middle-grade series about the Civil War with dinosaurs. Beyond that, there’s a whole bunch of cool Star Wars stuff that I can’t talk about at all.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about The Lost Book of Saints?

I’m really excited for it to be out in the world. We’ve been talking about how I wrote it a long couple of years ago, and being able to have this conversation about it is pretty amazing. Especially when you think about having something incubate for seven years, and you haven’t talked about it with anyone else except your editor and a couple of beta readers. So, I’m happy.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.