A Q&A with writer Daniel José Older on the day his novel Half-Resurrection Blues is released
"Carlos Delacruz is one of the New York Council of the Dead’s most unusual agents—an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he barely recalls suffering, after a life that’s missing from his memory. He thinks he is one of a kind—until he encounters other entities walking the fine line between life and death."
Daniel José Older is busy today. Not only is it the release day of his second book and first novel, Half-Resurrection Blues, he's scheduled to do a reading in New York City later tonight, and — as this is being uploaded — is conducting a "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit.
He's used to multi-tasking. For years he was an EMT and a writer and a professional musician all at the same time. He was able to drop the EMT job after the success of his first book, Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost-noir short stories published in 2012 (read AL DÍA's interview with him, in Spanish, here).
The Brooklyn-based author graciously agreed to answer our questions even as he fielded other questions being posed to him from the Reddit and at the same time responded to an impressive number of congratulatory messages on his Twitter timeline.
AL DÍA: Half Resurrection Blues launched today. How are you feeling?
Ha! Feeling wonderful, thank you! It's a great day and I've worked hard to get here.
Are you imagining people reading it even as we speak? Who?
Interesting question. What's amazing is being able to see people enjoying (and not enjoying) it in real time because of social media. There's been a great reaction already from folks from all different backgrounds (and coasts). While the book does speak specifically to a New York context, I think a lot of the questions raised — about the changing faces of cities, gentrification, appropriation, identity, love — resonate in much broader ways.
Why this book, at this moment?
I think it's time Urban Fantasy stepped up as a genre and started addressing more of the issues that cities are dealing with these days. Some do, of course, but often what we get instead is a very sanitized, whitewashed version of urban America, or a hideously villainized one. Right now, U.S. cities are in crisis. Police violence, the violence of mass displacement and poverty ... these are all unfolding tragedies that folks of color in particular have to confront, and we should have literature that confronts it too.
New York City is so much a part of your writing, can you ever imagine yourself writing about another city in the same way?
I do love this city, but I love the power of place and context in general. I don't think it'll ever be the same when I write about other cities, but they'll come to life in their own way, I'm sure. New Orleans, San Francisco and Havana have all gripped my heart in different ways, and of course, my home town of Boston.
What about Havana? You've been working on a non-speculative novel set there, right? When is that slated for publication?
The Book of Lost Saints is set partially in New Jersey and partially in Havana. It's a monster of a book, different from all my other work, still working its way through the process to be sent out to publishers. Stay tuned!
Staying with Cuba for a second — what do you think about the recent rapprochement? Are you hopeful in view of the immediate crackdown that followed the announcement?
Man...Cuba is so complicated and trying to decipher what's going on there on the ground versus in the news is nearly impossible. I do have hope, although it's tinged with some cynicism. I was there twice last year, I did see signs of change, and other things that have stayed the same. It feels like one big we'll see right now...
Latin American literature has always had a strong connection to the political. How do you see this as an important part of your work? Of U.S. Latino literature in general? Do you think there is a difference between U.S. activist writers and Latin American?
Hmmmm...it's really an ever-changing playing field. Those generalizations are so hard to make sense of for me, because identity itself is so complicated. I definitely look to the political writers of Latin America for inspiration, particularly (Eduardo) Galeano, but there has been an amazing tradition of loud and rebellious US writers. I try to draw from many sources.
You write a lot of non-fiction pieces for Buzzfeed, Salon, even an occasional piece for AL DÍA ;) , is there an intersection with the fiction?
I find balance in the process of jumping back and forth. I'll be mid-novel and some essay idea will strike me and I'll HAVE to write it. The non-fiction also helps me suss out ideas more clearly, which I can then mythologize into my fiction.
Do you think of yourself as a storyteller within a particular tradition?
It's a beautifully phrased question because if anything, I think of myself as a writer in the storyteller tradition. By that I mean, I always try to keep the oral tradition roots of writing at the forefront of my mind when I write. Ultimately, we are storytellers, whether it's alone on our computers or surrounded by friends and neighbors - the process of storytelling has survived generations, perhaps it is the first art form, and it can get lost amidst all this technology and business.
Do you write any pieces wholly in Spanish?
I don't. Mostly because it's my second language, and while I love it dearly I probably don't speak it frequently enough to be able to find that flow with prose in Spanish the way I'm able to with English. Maybe one day though....
On Reddit once more, I ask Older one more question — about the connection between the art of music and the art of language in his work.
"I always think musically, " he answers. "I hear conversations musically in mind; I love how rhythm and melody can make poetry out of every day chit-chat. When I'm stuck, I listen to music and let the thoughts untangle themselves naturally. I always listen to music while I write and sometimes finding the right song/album/artist is key to finding the right flow to the words.
"The Blues in Half-Resurrection Blues refers to the idea of a song of lament, especially one that's complicated by that special swagger blues carries. Carlos is complicated and distraught over a woman for much of the book, but he's also slick and ferocious at what he does, much like the boastful, heartrending blues singers.
"In terms of other styles, I love the idea of the Montuno — the part of a Cuban bolero when everything goes haywire and the singers chant a chorus over and over while the instruments take turns improvising. It always happens at the end and reminds me of the way a great story climaxes. I try to capture some of that in my fiction."