Story by Kerry Santa Cruze, sophomore at The Living School
This story was originally published in an ongoing partnership with The Gambit. The following is that article, verbatim.
Daniel Jose Older is an award-winning author, prolific TikTok mad scientist and former paramedic who also happens to be one of the lead architects of Disney’s new “Star Wars: The High Republic” initiative. Older’s latest book, “Flood City,“ was released earlier this year, and the first issue of the “Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures” comic book series was released Feb. 3. Older spoke with Kerry Santa Cruze, a JRNOLA student journalist, to talk about his career, his process and working on Star Wars.
Gambit: How did you get to this point in your career?
Daniel Jose Older: I’ve always loved storytelling and that’s come through in different aspects of my art. When I was a kid, I loved to draw cartoons, and in my 20s, I played a lot of music. Eventually that creativity kind of just started making the most sense to write books. So that’s what I started doing when I was 29. And I got rejected a whole bunch of times — like 40 times with my first book. Then finally, I got accepted with a book called “Shadowshaper,” which did well. I kept writing books and here I am 10 years and about 15 books later and writing Star Wars and young adult books, middle-grade books and all kinds of stuff. So it’s a great career. I’m very pleased.
What is the best thing you’ve written?
Older: That’s a tough one. It’s kind of like having kids: you love them all in different ways. A book I’m really proud of is “The Book of Lost Saints,” which came out in November 2019. It’s a very personal book. It’s inspired by a lot of family history and Cuban history. It’s about diaspora and history and it’s a very different vibe than anything I’ve tried before. It’s narrated by a spirit who is moving through the world and it explores what it feels like to not have a body. I also have a book coming out in February called “Pled City.” It’s a book for kids, and it’s about kids fighting off aliens and warlords to try to save the last city on Earth after floods had taken over. That’s a super cool book, too.
What is the story and message of your books?
Older: I want people to really understand their own power. The young people in “Flood City” all have different skills — some of them are scientists, some are musicians, and some of them love technology and building things. They all have to join up to put those different powers together to save each other and save the world. I just feel like especially young people have so many different skills and there are so many different ways to survive and to thrive in this world. I want people to really understand that there’s no one way to make art or to organize your community or to help yourself get back.
What are some pieces of literature that inspired you?
Older: One writer that I love and think about a lot is Octavia Butler. She was one of the greatest fantasy and science fiction writers of all time. I started reading her in high school. … One of my teachers, Mrs. Middleton, gave me a copy of a Butler book. And to this day, I don’t even know why she did that. It was so cool — because it wasn’t assigned or anything. She just handed it to me and I still have that copy. And that was a really powerful experience because I realized it meant she believed in me. It took me a long time to really realize the meaning of that gift. But it’s powerful. … I put Butler down for a while, but I came back to it after college and I’ve just always loved everything she’s written. She has a really deep way of thinking about the world and thinking about power. So she’s a really important one. Walter Mosley is another writer. He’s a mystery writer, so he’s definitely an important one.
Was there anyone who inspired you to pursue a career as a writer?
Older: Aside from Mrs. Middleton, my mom and dad have both been really helpful along the way. My sister’s a writer, too, so I’ve always looked up to all of them and learned a lot from all of them about storytelling.
As a Star Wars fan, I have to ask — what was it like to dip your toes into that very expansive universe?
Older: It’s really the most fun thing ever. What I love is creating my own worlds and I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was 3 years old. It’s my favorite franchise. They’re really good people to work with. I really just enjoy it.
What was one of the first things you wrote story-wise?
Older: I did a lot of writing in high school and college. A lot of essays ‘cause they assign essays a lot. I remember really liking doing it, even though it was hard work. It was homework. I really did love writing personal essays even back then. I wrote in my journal and that was really helpful to me as a young writer and I still do that. … I felt like when I wrote I was safe, like I could tell the journal anything and it was just for me and the journal to know and nobody else. So now when I write books, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing homework. It reminds me of being around a really close friend that I can tell the truth to. And so, you know, that’s always something that I take with me.
No matter who’s writing it, do you think someone’s always likely to find a way to relate to a story?
Older: Stories tell a lot of truths across humanity and people will see themselves in lots of different kinds of fiction. Even if it’s monsters or aliens — science fiction — there’s truth in there. And that’s what jumps out, that’s what’s important.
What are some of your works that you’d want to see as a movie series?
Older: Well I think “Shadowshaper” would make a really cool movie for sure. I definitely also think of “Dactyl Hill Squad.” It’s about dinosaurs in the Civil War. I would imagine that it’s like an animated series, so that’d be really cool.
Before you were a writer, what were some job experiences you had?
Older: I was a paramedic for 10 years and that was a really formative experience that really taught me a lot about writing about the world — that was in New York City. And when you’re a paramedic, you deal with a lot of problems and find yourself in a lot of weird situations. You learn a lot about humanity. At the same time I worked as a community organizer — working on issues of gender and race and racism. All those things really made me a better writer. I’m glad I did them.
What moments really stand out to you from your time as a paramedic?
Older: Oh my God, shootings. We did a lot of those. But sometimes it’s just the little things that really jump out at you. We had a guy who called 911 because he had a broken heart. He was an old guy and it taught me that people have different understandings of what emergencies are, you know? Sure, it’s funny and everything, but it’s also saying that’s just the truth about the world. One person’s emergency is another person’s weird thing to happen.
As a 15-year-old aspiring writer, what’s some advice you would give to me along with other writers?
Older: I would say, first of all, it’s really great that you want to write. I wanted to write at 15, too — and I did write. But I would say: know that you’re a writer. Like if you want to write, you’re probably writing in university, your journal, even if it’s stuff you don’t share with anybody, or even if it’s stuff that you do, or even if it’s social media posts, you’re still writing. And that’s important because people will try to tell you, “you’re not a writer.” If you haven’t published or if you don’t write X, Y, Z times a day, or whatever nonsense people make up, all kinds of rules to gatekeeper you. But the truth is: If you write at all, which you do, you’re a writer. You know, this interview, it means you’re writing. And that’s important.
I would also say to have lots of different experiences in life. I’ve done tons of different jobs — teaching, paramedic, all that stuff. You could look at your jobs as other stuff to pay the bills. But I learned so much about the world through them. All those experiences made me a better writer. And so I’m grateful for them even though it was hard. So that’s dope. Great writers aren’t made out of people who sit around and study and write all day. It’s people who live out in the world and do things and like, you know, deal with their relationships and go through stuff.
And sometimes it’s really hard, but you gotta remember that’s the stuff that makes great books. Sometimes that’s all we got. I feel like writing has definitely been there for me at times when I just didn’t know where to turn. And that’s like really powerful. So, stay at it. But also don’t beat yourself up just because you need a break. We’re human beings and we gotta take breaks. We gotta stop what we’re doing and just rest ourselves, especially right now. Especially with all the drama going on in the world. With so many people dying, it’s really important that we practice self-care. And sometimes writing is self-care, but sometimes we have to just stop everything and just be still and relax and watch TV or whatever we gotta do, you know? So like don’t, don’t beat yourself up. That’s my advice.
What’s been your experience like writing comic books — as opposed to (longer) graphic novels?
Older: As a matter of fact, I have a comic book coming out in a couple of weeks. It’s called “Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures.” It comes out on Feb. 3. So it’s really awesome. I love writing comics and that comes out every month — at least for the next year. So yeah, pick that up.
I’ll be sure to check that out. I’m a big fan of Star Wars and comic books.
Older: Me, too.
Since we’re on the topic of comic books, what’re your favorite super heroes?
Older: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I go back and forth on. Superheroes aren’t my main, favorite thing. I watched most of the Marvel movies. But I’d say Miles Morales.
Yeah, he is one of my favorites.
Older: ‘Cause he’s awesome. Yeah. He’s great!
How has the pandemic and the past year been for working on your craft?
Older: In some ways a lot has changed. In other ways, It hasn’t — mostly on a practical level. It means I just haven’t been able to travel as much. So I’ve really tried to make sure I spend that time doing my work and getting stuff done. It’s stuff that I would probably have to do on the plane or in hotel rooms if I wasn’t here. So I’m just trying to sort of take that for the blessing amidst all the other bad stuff. It’s like, at least I get to be at home and get this writing done.
Has there ever been a point in time where you felt like, “Oh man, I don’t know if people will really like the story that I’ve been working on?” And has there been someone there to keep you going or keep you motivated?
Older: Sure. My wife is that someone for me a lot. I definitely talk to her about stuff when I’m struggling with a story issue or if I’m wondering if something works. She’s also a really good writer, so I trust her opinion. I have a lot of friends who are writers, so I bounce stuff off of them. Sometimes it’s really important to have a writing community around you and other people who you can trust. Not just people who think you’re great, but people who actually tell you the truth the best.
What’s it like when you meet a person who’s a fan of your writing?
Older: It’s been great when I do conventions or readings. It’s always really great to meet people who really liked my work and get to talk about it. It’s really one of the coolest parts of being a writer.
Do you have any advice for young writers who are big fans of your work in particular?
Older: I would say to people, if you’re inspired by the work I do, then I hope it inspires you to tell your story. And sometimes that means a straightforward memoir — “this is my life story,” but that could also mean telling your story with fantasy or with space travel or all kinds of other cool stuff. However, you’re inspired to tell your story, do it. You might find a whole new kind of art or maybe music. Maybe it’s written on a wall, but either way, find a way to tell your story. Cause that’s the most important and powerful thing we can do on this earth.
Thank you, Mr. Older for taking the time.
Older: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I appreciate all your great questions.