Tag Archives: Necessary Fiction

An Interview with Daniel José Older

19 Dec

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories that Publisher’s Weekly called a “delicate mix of horror and humor” that secures Older “a place among the rising stars of the genre.”

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press and The Subversion Anthology, among others. He’s been a featured reader in Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and at The New York Review Of Science Fiction.

In this interview, Older discusses ghosts and stories and why we love to combine the two.

(To read Older’s story “Victory Music” and an exercise on introducing genre elements into literary fiction, click here.)

Michael Noll

This is a ghost story, and it begins appropriately, with the narrator telling a dead person that “you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.” But I was still surprised when the ghost actually arrived, not only because it’s not the ghost we expect but because I’d gotten so engaged in the scene with the narrator’s parents that I’d forgotten that there was supposed to be a ghost at all. I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” To explain how suspense is created, he uses the scene from Hamlet when Hamlet is waiting for his father’s ghost but then gets distracted by this uncle’s drunken entourage. Hamlet, and the audience, get so wrapped up in his uncle that we forget all about the ghost and so are surprised when it arrives. I wonder if you had this basic idea in mind when you wrote the story: promise something and then delay its arrival.

Daniel José Older

Great question. I’ve always been fascinated by the letters we write and never send, or write in our heads but never put on paper. I think this is one way we interact with the dead without meaning to or realizing it sometimes, that internal dialogue. The idea of the things we never had a change to say to someone is so heartbreaking and so real. So on the process tip, that was my starting point. In this case, I wasn’t thinking of Krys as a foreshadow so much as an emotional center that Wes anchors to for support even after Krys is dead. Memories are powerful, more powerful than ghosts maybe, and the subtext to this story, in my head, is that Krys—who does show up as a ghost in my book Salsa Nocturna—is never actually present in this story; Wes uses the memory of Krys to access a sense of their own power and sense of self.

Michael Noll

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Your first book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories. On one hand, when I read the description of the book, I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun to focus every story on ghosts.” But then I realized that you’d have to make each ghost and the approach to each ghost different. To that end, the ghost in this story isn’t really a ghost. He’s someone who can vanish at will–but, he still seems like a ghost. So, to some extent, it seems like you’re expanding the definition of ghost and ghost story. Is that simply out of necessity–there are only so many ghosts?

Daniel José Older

Ha! I really hadn’t thought of it that way. Once the underworld, or parallel world really, of ghosts became clear in my mind, the stories all came very smoothly. In some sense there’s truth in what you say though, as artists we always need to be pushing at the borders of our genre and comfort zones, and with “Victory Music” I was interested in how we are haunted sometimes more by the living than the dead. It’s a concept I’ve played with before, though never quite in these terms, and as I said, the healing power of memory plays a major role here. Niles just showed up in my imagination as is—he was born from the necessity of having an eerie, emotionally resonant conflict for Wes. And the act of disappearing is so rich, so layered when complicated by power and privilege…it’s a natural fit for the story.

Michael Noll

In this interview at the New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, "The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare."

In this interview at The New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.”

The writer Victor LaValle said in a New York Times interview, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.” The ghost in your story seems to fit this description. The narrator is concerned with identity–her Sikh-ness, her gender–and then, appropriately enough, here comes a guy who can empty out his identity until he literally vanishes. Do you think about the meaning of your ghosts, the particular anxieties that are manifested in them?

Daniel José Older

Surely—the ghost is a crossroads. Past and present, life and death, healing and destruction all have the potential of meeting in the figure of the ghost. When we spend so much time focusing on the simple concept of ghost as evil spirit, it’s just a profound missed opportunity. Writing Salsa Nocturna really taught me that ghost stories are really about life, not death.

Michael Noll

I know a horror writer, Scott Johnson, who, in his free time, investigates ghosts and has encountered them many, many times. Those encounters have ranged from terrifying to quirky to sweet. I love hearing his stories—and other true ghost stories. Though I’m not sure I “believe” them in the factual sense, I find them utterly compelling. So, while I’m curious whether you believe in ghosts, I’m more interested in your take on ghost stories: Why do we tell them so often? What is the appeal of ghost stories?

Daniel José Older

How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.

December 2013

Profile pic

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

17 Dec
Daniel José Older's story, "Victory Music" was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction's RePrint series.

Daniel José Older’s story, “Victory Music” was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction‘s RePrint series.

How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.

One way to handle this balancing act can be found in Daniel José Older’s story “Victory Music.” It was originally published in PANK 8.06, and was selected as a RePrint by Necessary Fiction Writer-in-Residence Ashley Ford. You can read it now at Necessary Fiction.

How the Story Works

Any story that wants to use genre elements but not genre structure must toe a fine line. If it drops the genre element (in this case, a ghost) into the story out of nowhere, the reader is likely to be confused or thrown for too much of a loop. But if the story introduces the genre element too firmly, the reader is going to expect a genre structure. The trick, then, is to hint at the genre element without settling too firmly into the structure. Let’s look at how Daniel José Older does this in “Victory Music.”

He hints at the genre element (the ghost) by letting the narrator address a dead person named Krys. The opening section ends this way:

I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.

Notice how the statement is vague enough to be read several ways, only one of which requires a ghost. But even that lack of specificity might be too much—which is why the story begins with a paragraph that has nothing to do with ghosts:

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

The first section ends with a hint of a ghost but a lot of non-ghost potential conflict. The next section can go two ways: It can develop the “saved my life…after you died” idea or one of the non-ghost ideas from the first paragraph. Older chooses the latter, reintroducing the narrator’s parents:

[M]y dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?”

Imagine how different the story would be if it began the first section with something ghostly. In order to continue to increase the suspense further, the story would have no choice but to further develop the ghost—and as the possibilities for development narrowed, that is when the story would likely adopt the usual structure of a genre ghost story.

Instead, because the story introduces the conflict around the narrator’s gender identity, the story is given a new conflict to develop—and, in this story, that conflict climaxes with the appearance of a ghost. To some extent, the difference between a story with ghosts and a ghost story is when the ghost appears. The earlier it appears, the more likely it becomes that the story adopts a genre structure. (I’ll admit that there are exceptions to this rule, as shown by this story about a monster.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a genre element into our stories, experimenting with placement, using “Victory Music” as a model:

  1. Choose the genre element. Pick your favorite genre story and borrow something from it: ghosts, zombies, vampires, monsters, detectives, cowboys, aliens, giant squid, playboy millionaires, heiresses with squandered fortunes, wizards, middle-aged women looking for sex in a city, 20-something actors with entourages of hometown friends.
  2. Hint at the genre element. Write a sentence or two that suggests to the reader which genre element is coming. Don’t be too specific (“There were werewolves somewhere in this city.”) Instead, try to hint at the element in a way that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Remember Older’s line from “Victory Music”: “I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.”
  3. Lead up to your hint with something unrelated to the element. Keep in mind the writer Ron Carlson’s advice that every story contains two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Create a character or world that exists independently of the genre element that you’re introducing. Give that character or world the seeds of a conflict(s) that have nothing to do with the genre element.
  4. Figure out the relationship between conflict and genre element. Your story is necessarily going to move between two elements: the character’s original conflict and the genre element. To make this move, it’s helpful to know where each is located. Do they exist in the same space? In Older’s story, the ghosts are in one place and the conflict with the father is in another place.
  5. Develop one of those conflicts. Keep in mind where you’re going. If the genre elements waits elsewhere, the conflict should develop so that the character is required to leave one place and go to another.
  6. Introduce the genre element. Remember that most transitions are not clean breaks. Make the character preoccupied with the conflict he/she just left. That way, when the genre element appears, it will come as a surprise to both the reader and the character.

Good luck!

How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

27 Aug
Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. For instance, how do you introduce two characters for the first time? A lot rides on the encounter. It’s not so different than dreaming about that guy or girl in middle school and worrying about how you’d ask him or her to the dance. The problem vexed F. Scott Fitzgerald—how to introduce Gatsby to Nick— so much that he slipped the great man in the back door. We meet him without knowing it.

If you want an easier way to introduce two characters, check out Mary Helen Specht’s great novel-in-progress Migratory Animals. The prologue was published at Necessary Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Specht introduces the novel’s main characters: Flannery, a white American woman in her 20s visiting Nigeria, and Kunle, a Nigerian man in graduate school:

“She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.”

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. When and where she met the man
  2. The initial encounter boiled down to a single spoken phrase and action
  3. What the man was wearing
  4. What his appearance reminder her of

If you used this template for every introduction in every story and novel, you’d be set for life. It’s an easy, efficient way to get two characters together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce two characters using Mary Helen Specht’s novel as a model:

  1. Pick a setting: Why is the character/narrator there? In what specific place did the characters meet? Be explicit when starting the passage: He/She/I met So-and-so in this place.
  2. Pick a moment: Boil the initial encounter down to a single spoken phrase and action. When the main character/narrator leaves the encounter, what words of the other person will he/she remember and dream about?
  3. PIck the clothes: What is the person wearing? Be specific.
  4. Describe the clothes/style/appearance more generally: From one character’s perspective, describe the other character. What does he/she reminder her/him of? What feeling does he/she get when meeting the person?

That’s it. The encounter is over, and you can transition next to the next encounter. Mechanically speaking, all you need to do is get the characters onto the page together. The scene doesn’t need to be long, like the initial encounter in Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Be brief and efficient and move on.

Good luck and have fun.

%d bloggers like this: