Daniel José Older has a lot on his plate. He has a brand-new book out in his young adult Shadowshaper series, a forthcoming middle-grade book, a short story in the New York Times-bestselling Star Wars anthology, From a Certain Point of View, and he’s just announced that he’s writing a Star Wars novel. Suffice to say, the man is one of the most hardworking authors in the game.
His YA debut, Shadowshaper, is a fantasy set in contemporary Brooklyn starring a Latinx chosen one named Sierra Santiago. Shadowshaper was a hit with critics and fans, with the second book, Shadowhouse Fall, released last month. I asked Older why he chose to center Sierra’s voice at a time when the publishing industry had a tendency to be less than welcoming to books that focused on diverse characters. “There were some choices that were very intentional because of what the publishing industry is, and what it was at that time [...] in the sense [that] there weren't any other Latinx fantasies at that time, that I knew of, that were coming out,” he says. As far as Older is concerned, this created a sense of responsibility for Shadowshaper.
“You can't paint a happy-go-lucky, happy family portrait of everything being great in our community when it's not. There is anti-blackness. There is lots of patriarchy, and it is damaging, and we can still say that and love our community deeply. That was, to me, the challenge.” He pauses for a moment before continuing. “I think that's a beautiful challenge. It's overwhelming in some ways, and it's a lot to take in, but if you're telling stories right, then there's room for that level of nuance and complexity, because that's what we live every day as we walk down the street. Part of Sierra being specifically Afro-Latina and proud has to do with that. She has to be very clear on who she is, so the reader is very clear on who she is.”
In Shadowshaper and Shadowhouse Fall, Older is tasked with creating a fantasy that can exist in our world. A magical world that will blend seamlessly with truths readers already know. For Daniel, the key was in not creating a stagnant world. He deliberately allowed his setting to shift and grow. “What we used to see a lot, in portrayals of the city, particularly in urban fantasy, is just these two extremes: a city that was total degradation and babies shooting each other, and there's all kinds of horror stories, or a very provincial, usually all white, with maybe one person of color, just bakeries and everything really cute. Neither of which are true.”
So what was it like creating a fantasy inside of the reality of Brooklyn?
“To me, it was always a question of painting a Brooklyn that feels very true for all of its love and sorrow. If we're really being honest about how complex it is to exist in Brooklyn on multiple levels, and particularly for an Afro-Latina teenage girl, that requires a deep conversation that's both about character and world-building. Everywhere is in a state of change, even if it's a change of different generations moving through. There's change there, and that change is what actually makes places really come to life and what makes them feel like living beings in our realms. They move, and they progress, and they're not these static things that we portray them to be sometimes. I really wanted to touch on that. I also felt like, to tell the truth, I had to [talk about that change]. While I was writing the book, Brooklyn was literally changing outside of my window.”
Older brought this sensibility into his Star Wars writing. His story in From a Certain Point of View is from the perspective of a stormtrooper sent to Tatooine in A New Hope to find C-3PO and R2-D2. In his story, Mos Eisley feels lived in and real. Older was able to choose whose POV he wanted to tell, and he picked Sardis Ramsin: an average Joe just trying to get through the day while running through a garbage order.
The day we spoke, it had been announced that Older was going to follow in the footsteps of Chuck Wendig, Claudia Gray, EK Johnston and others -- by writing a Star Wars novel. He was unable to confirm who or what the book would be about, but he’s already started writing.
Having worked on two separate books in the property, I had to ask him: What’s the worst part of writing Star Wars? “It's not yours,” he answered, laughing. “The hardest part: You're beholden to a much larger universe, both fictional and of people creating stuff.”
He’s very familiar with the company he’s joining, recommending other books to read while readers wait for his book to release, “The anthology, [From a Certain Point of View] is amazing. Delilah Dawson's Phasma is fantastic. I just really love it. It's really exceptionally done. It's a very claustrophobic story, especially for Star Wars. It takes place in a torture chamber and on a really messed-up planet. It jumps back and forth in time between ... And it's told with a storytelling mechanism, basically. Like, a frame. I think people often really use frames just to be cute and coy, and don't really play out the frame story itself. But Delilah does a beautiful job of telling A story to B story, and both matter and are intricately interwoven beautifully.” He also went on to recommend Gray’s Bloodline and Leia: Princess of Alderaan books. It turns out Older has a soft spot for complicated women in Star Wars. He is also a big Dr. Aphra fan: “That whole section of the comic books with the Doctor Aphra stories and the Star Wars ones that she's in are amazing.”
Daniel talks about Star Wars with such joy, what is it about the franchise that speaks to him?
“[Star Wars is] always story first and character first. And that's what's so amazing about it. That's why it has sustained for all these years. You don't see that kind of commitment to story in most other major franchises. Star Wars is a story-focused franchise, and that's what's so good about it.”