Interview: Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna

It’s kind of hard to put into words how much I love Daniel José Older’s collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna, although I’ll do my best in my upcoming review. However, I did have the opportunity to chat with the author/paramedic about his writing (and other stuff) and I even attempted not to gush over Salsa Nocturna too much…

Please welcome Daniel to the blog!

Daniel, your story collection, Salsa Nocturna, is absolutely wonderful. The words gorgeous and evocative come to mind, and I could probably go on… What was your inspiration for the collection?
Thank you! These stories are inspired by my work as a paramedic and community organizer in Brooklyn. In both of these jobs you end up negotiating all these wild dynamics: bureaucracies of life and death, power plays and infighting, territory disputes – a whole saga of conflict. And that’s not to mention the blood and guts. So of course I write ghost stories! Ghosts are the literary crossroads of the future and past. What better way to express the tumultuous shenanigans I deal with on a daily basis? Ultimately, what has stayed with me from both organizing and medicine is that humanity wins out in the end – even amidst shattering degradation, lifelong trauma, oppression, stifling bureaucracies and the callous machinery of the state: there’s always this unbreakable arc towards healing, towards humanity. Ghosts speak to that arc – that even after death, something in the human spirit strives towards life.

How long did it take you to write the stories, then put them together (because story order does count)?
The first book I wrote was actually a YA urban fantasy called Shadowshaper. It takes place in the same world as Salsa Nocturna – supernatural Brooklyn, specifically, and has a few characters in common. While that was making the rounds to editors and agents I took a class with the great Sheree Renée Thomas at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center uptown and that’s where I first started writing the Salsa Nocturna stories. The ordering does indeed count, particularly in an interconnected collection like this one, and it happened over a series of very entertaining conversations and brainstorms with my wonderful editor at Crossed Genres, Kay Holt. She was also the one that pushed me to open up the world even further – the first group of stories were almost entirely male-centric, it was, as one beta reader put it, kind of a sausage party. Kay was like, Listen now…*insert wise peptalk about where are the women that she phrased much better than I could* and I ended up writing two of the stories that have gotten the strongest responses in the whole collection: The Passing and Magdalena.

I’m guessing your day job as a paramedic keeps you pretty busy. How do you balance work, writing, and your band, Ghost Star?
They balance each other. Each one plays a role in leveling out the other, whether it’s by helping me pay the rent or process the chaos or simply have a good time. Paramedicine keeps me out in the world, it’s a physical, mental and spiritual interaction with people that can be draining and uplifting at the same time. Music is one of the deepest forms of expression I know, and while I am a writer first and foremost, music will always be there as a way to get at those impossible to put into words moments. When Salsa Nocturna came out we put on a series of performances at the Nuyorican Poets Café – a kind of extended release party/concert. Ghost Star backed me up while I read from the book and we interchanged song-story-song-story. Turned out there were all these interconnected themes between my music and fiction I hadn’t even realized.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Junot Diaz’s The Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Walter Mosley’s Six Easy Pieces and Steven King’s On Writing are the three books that got me to take on the craft of fiction in a serious way. They collectively opened up so many doors about narrative and voice for me, it was impossible not to write after reading them. The other main influence behind my writing is storytelling: paramedics weave some masterful tales, there’s endless bochinche on the domino tables, hair salons and street corners of Brooklyn, family histories that reach back into the blurry line between mythology and memory. All that stuff gets me excited to write – it’s why most of these stories are in the first person. Voice matters.

If you could read one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler did something to me. I love all her books, but the gift of Wild Seed was to say Look: you can tell a graceful, heartbreaking, sexy, inspiring story about life, love and history in a way that doesn’t flinch from our ugly past and looks bravely into our troubled future. And it’s short! All that in just 320 pages. The experience of reading it was a critical moment in my journey as a writer.

What are you reading now?
STORY by Robert McKee, which is actually for screenwriters but is an absolute must-read for any writer, INK by Sabrina Vourvoulius, a gorgeous, imaginative and painfully honest dystopian look at immigration in the US and Michael Gruber’s Tropic Of Night.

Your half-resurrected cleanup man Carlos is a major character in the Salsa Nocturna stories and is one of my favorites, along with Gordo. Will we see full length novels with these characters? Because I’ve gotta tell ya, I want more.
Gordo will probably have his little Alfred Hitchcock appearances in everything I do. Salsa Nocturna the story was the first piece I wrote for this collection and everything seemed to unfold from that. But Carlos is the true protagonist. I wrote a full-length novel, The Half Resurrection Blues, about Carlos trying to uncover the mystery of his origins and I’m working on finding it a home.

You have a section on your website entitled “Ambulance Stories”. Is it cathartic to write about your experiences as a paramedic?
Writing is a great outlet for all the madness we deal with but the ambulance blog is most helpful for the times I get stuck with fiction. Working as a medic comes with its own mini-forms of catharsis; it’s built into the job: the action of healing, even when it’s not successful, cleanses the spirit of the pain of being present at such traumatic moments. Writing the blog helps remind me that at the end of the day, we writers are just telling stories. Write what happened; it’s that simple. With fiction, you get to make it up, which can be overwhelming sometimes, but ultimately, our job is to tell the story.

I also read that you do workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools. Will you tell us a bit more about that? What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about it?
It’s been so incredibly inspiring to be able to have these deep conversations with young people about the intersections of oppression and strategies for empowerment. These are topics that people often don’t want to breach when dealing with teenagers, at least not in a real way – white supremacy and male privilege, institutional and internalized racism, collective action, art as activism. These are all concepts that I deal with in my stories and one thing about young people is that they give it to you straight. They have the analysis, although we don’t always give them the language to express it in. Facilitating these conversations has taught me again and again that there is more to every story, more depths to explore more angles to consider, more humor and edge and context and texture in a single interaction than a writer could ever hope to put down in words. It’s humbling. Most recently, I’ve begun combining the anti-oppression workshops with a writing seminar format. I find that the complexities of power and oppression can be the last thing that craft seminars want to deal with, and that turns out to be a tremendous missing piece. We are saturated with these issues, no matter who we are or where we live – how can we write about the world and without including them as part of the story?

Your love of New York City is obvious in your writing. I’ve only visited once and didn’t have much time to explore. Where would you take a new visitor to the city?
Brooklyn! But that’s a biased point of view of course: I’ve lived here almost ten years and I can’t seem to stop launching my characters on haunted missions through these Brooklyn streets. Most specifically, Prospect Park, starting at Grand Army Plaza (there’s a great farmer’s market there on Saturdays) and through the first great open lawn, up that nice hill with the tree and the boulder for some people watching.

You’re obviously a busy guy! When you manage to find some free time, what’s one of your favorite ways to spend it?
I am and as if all that wasn’t enough, I’m working towards a Masters in Creative Writing at Antioch University. But hey, twenty-four is a lot of hours, right? I love dancing. I love reading. Wandering the streets aimlessly has and will always be a favorite past time of mine, and I love that I live in a city big enough to offer up new discoveries and places to get lost in no matter how long I wander.

What’s next for you?
In one way or another, I’ve been writing about Cuba my whole life – in college I put on a mini-opera about a made-up fiefdom with a tourist economy based on giant man-eating insects. But the novel I’m working on now, tentatively called The Book Of Lost Saints, is the first time I’m approaching it head on. It’s challenging in a million different ways, throws me out of my comfort zone and it’s more sprawling and epic than anything I’ve ever written, and that’s what I’m loving most of all about the process right now. I have only a rough notion of what the final result will be but I’m excited to find out.
Keep up with Daniel: Website | Twitter
Purchase Salsa Nocturna: Amazon| B&N | Indiebound

About Salsa Nocturna:
A 300 year-old story collector enlists the help of the computer hacker next door to save her dying sister. A half-resurrected cleanup man for Death s sprawling bureaucracy faces a phantom pachyderm, doll-collecting sorceresses and his own ghoulish bosses. Gordo, the old Cubano that watches over the graveyards and sleeping children of Brooklyn, stirs and lights another Malagueña. Down the midnight streets of New York, a whole invisible universe churns to life in Daniel José Older s debut collection of ghost noir.

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