Welcome to this week's #BeyondTheBio interview with Daniel José Older! Daniel's the author of several amazing books, including the incredible YA series, Shadowshaper, the first book of which came out just last year. Daniel's one of the biggest names in fantasy writing today, and it's an honor to have him join us here. Check out the interview below, and then be sure to stop by our Twitter page to participate in an amazing Shadowshaper giveaway!
The interview below is taken from a conversation that Daniel and I had a couple weeks ago. It has been edited for length and clarity.
James: You’ve written for adults in the past but are currently in the middle of a YA trilogy titled Shadowshaper. How is writing for young adults different than writing for adults?
Daniel: I really intentionally directed Shadowshaper at the broadest range of the young adult audience, because I wanted it to be accessible to the younger end of things, as opposed to having a more “edgy” YA voice. That was a really intentional choice on my part, and it didn’t feel like it strained the process of the voice in any way. There was never really a time while I was writing that I was like “Oh, Sierra would be cursing and having sex in this moment.” That wasn’t what the story or characters called for. I wanted ten- and eleven-year-olds to be able to access Shadowshaper without it being a whole controversy or problem.
In that sense, there’s questions of voice and content that arise. I’ve thought about this a lot recently, especially because I had Midnight Taxi Tango come out only six months after Shadowshaper. Midnight Taxi Tango is an adult book in an adult series, but one of the main protagonists--in fact, one of the point-of-view protagonists who appears on the cover--is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in Sierra’s neighborhood and knows some of the same people she knows. So it really came up for me: What makes one of these books a YA and the other not? It’s not just that there’s adult protagonists in Midnight Taxi Tango. It really goes to the central heart and the central crisis of the book itself.
For Shadowshaper, and for all YA, it’s really that the struggle of the book forces them to take an active step toward adulthood on some level. That to me is the defining characteristic of YA. Whether it’s death or terminal illness or an evil wizard, YA forces its characters to shed some of the mythologies of childhood and step up to the plate on another level.
That’s what’s happening in Shadowshaper. Sierra’s coming into her legacy, coming into her own, understanding who she is and coming into her power.
James: You brought up with mythology, and I actually wanted to ask about that. The mythology of Shadowshaper draws heavily on Caribbean legend. How did you first get exposed to Caribbean mythology?
Daniel: We’re storytellers, all of us. I grew up in a household that was Cuban-Catholic and Jewish-American. Both of those sides are story-telling people, so I certainly grew up hearing stories about the homeland, about Cuba, about Baltimore, about a lot of different places. That’s part of it. But I think if you’re listening there’s stories everywhere...especially if you are living in Brooklyn.
James: Speaking of Brooklyn, I have to say there are few books whose portrayal of Brooklyn I appreciate more than yours. I love Adam Silvera; he portrays New York in such a vibrant way, and you do as well. What are some of your favorite portrayals of New York City?
Daniel: Great question! I’ll second you on Adam’s. More Happy Than Not is such a beautiful and important book. So sad but so beautifully done.
I also love Libba Bray’s Diviners series. Her prose is gorgeous, and she takes a very straight-forward, face-to-face look at history and oppression without sugar-coating or making it sound that we are all the same. She took on the challenge of writing a multi-cultural historical New York and doing it without shying away from the challenges that different peoples have faced in order to live here and survive. Layer of Dreams, specifically, is beautiful.
James: Libba’s definitely one of the authors who’s taking on really important cultural topics. However, fantasy has a history as a genre of marginalizing, minimizing, even demonizing voices that are in any way different than the white writers of the past. Who are some of the fantasy authors of today who are doing it right?
Daniel: What’s great is that there are so many that I’m probably going to forget a lot of names. The ones I looked up to when I was coming up are Nalo Hopkinson, who wrote Midnight Robber which might just be my favorite YA. She has a ton of books out, and she’s still writing and doing great work.
Tananarive Due is incredible. She is a mentor of mine, and just does amazing work with speculative fiction and spirituality.
Of course, Octavia Butler. She’s not around any more, but she’s one of the people who taught me how to write. I never got to meet her, but just the strength of her books. She gave us so much in terms of the ability to get deep about power on the page.
Speaking of her, John Jennings, the great Afro-futurist artist, just put out a graphic novel of her book Kindred, which is amazing. Definitely check that out.
Nnedi Okorafor is amazing. Then there’s Zoraida Cordova, who has her excellent Labyrinth Lost series. There’s a writer called Kai Ashante Wilson, who’s amazing who has some phenomenal novellas available on Tor. I love Victor LaValle too, who also has a novella on Tor. Tor’s just doing some amazing work with their novellas. Cassandra Khaw’s got some stuff on there as well. So many great people doing great work, being audacious and bad-ass and unapologetically who they are! It really is a Renaissance right now, and it’s an exciting moment for literature. We’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.
James: When you brought up the graphic novel, it got me thinking about Sierra’s street art. It’s such an integral part of the book, and I couldn’t help but wonder: Have you ever done street art yourself?
Daniel: Great question! The simple answer is “No,” but the deeper answer is “Yes” just minus the street part. I’ve never tagged or done graffiti, but my first artistic love was drawing. As a kid, I was drawing all the time. Something I gave to Robby was him covering himself with art. Backpack, clothes, everything. That was me. I drew on every surface I could find. I tried to have a pen and paper with me whenever I could, but if I didn’t, the art would go on my shoes or wherever I could put it. I still love drawing. It’s just not something I do professionally. It was just a way of expressing myself when I was younger. For both Sierra and Robby to have that as their primary form of expression is really just who I am.
James: Are there any other characters you see yourself in?
Daniel: All of them. Each character is a pot, and you put in lots of different ingredients: from people you know to yourself to different historical figures to mythological figures. And then you stir it and you see what comes out. But they all have parts of me.
James: As you were commending Libba earlier for taking on important topics, I couldn’t help but think that you are doing the same thing. You address so many relevant cultural issues in the first novel of Shadowshaper: police brutality, gentrification, misogyny, street harassment, just to name a few. What issues are we going to see in Shadowhouse Falls as the series continues?
Daniel: Shadowhouse Falls ups the stakes both politically and on the fantastical level. With Shadowshaper, I was just trying to figure out what was possible, if I could write a novel, if I can bring in these important issues you mentioned. Now, as the series progresses, I can become more progressive and experimental and visionary. It happened with Bone Street Rumba too. It got bigger and bigger as I became more confident in my voice, climaxing in this huge war that happens in the final book of that series. With Shadowhouse Falls, it’s much more explicitly political on a number of levels.
First of all, school’s in session, so they’re dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline on a very real level. There are these children who are being treated like prisoners essentially. When they get to school, they have to go through metal detectors and then they have to be taught about their history, sometimes by people who benefit from their oppression and from the white-washing of their history.
This happens, of course, while they’re dealing with all the supernatural elements that are at play, including this enchanted deck of cards that’s this kind of tarot system that gives powers to different people very selectively. But the kids here don’t have luxury to just focus on their magic problems, because that’s the truth. They still have to deal with street harassment and police brutality and a system that doesn’t believe in their humanity.
James: I just have one more question, and it’s about the cover of Shadowshaper! Not least of all, because Sierra’s dark skin and natural hair are featured so prominently. There’s no white-washing here, as so often happens on book covers or in film adaptations. She’s reflected on the cover just as she’s written on the page. Were you involved with the shaping of that cover at all?
Scholastic was very cool about that actually, and they didn’t have to be. A lot of people don’t know that authors usually don’t have a single ounce of say in the cover. It’s very rare, unless you’re very established or you just happen to work with amazing people. I’ve been really blessed in both of my publishing ventures to have editorial folks who were very intentional about involving me. Scholastic sent me different possibilities for who would be in the photograph. They took all my recommendations very seriously.
My basic thing was that I wanted Sierra to look Afro-Latina and to have big hair. I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about that. Because if you’re not explicit about skin color and hair, then they’re going to be defaulted to white. That wasn’t something I was going to allow to happen, because I was very aware that there were very few fantasy novels about Latinos out there. Although there are a few more now, thank God!
That's it for today's interview with Daniel. But don't forget to stop by our Twitter page and participate in today's giveaway, which features three copies of Shadowshaper, plus an awesome set of bookmarks! If you have any questions for Daniel or want to let him know how his books have impacted you, be sure to check out his website and reach out to him on Twitter. And, whatever you do, be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to the hilarious Anna Brewslaw, author of Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here!