Daniel José Older talks ‘Ballad & Dagger’ and having a career full of dream projects

This Daniel José Older interview spans topics such as how to define success, what to do when anxiety takes hold of you, and, of course, Ballad & Dagger.

When we heard Rick Riordan Presents would be releasing its first young adult novel in Ballad & Dagger, I was ecstatic. I love middle-grade books and will defend their importance with my very last breath, but I was curious about seeing the imprint tackle an older audience.

If you’ve read my Ballad & Dagger book review, then you’ll know I absolutely fell in love with the world Older created. Sure, the protagonists were teenagers, but it carried on the tradition that Rick Riordan started with Percy Jackson by gifting us with a story about a group of extraordinary heroes who have to solve an apocalyptic problem set against the backdrop of a world steeped in mythology.

Ballad & Dagger is the kind of beautiful, timeless story that every generation can enjoy, and when we got the opportunity to chat with Older on Prophecy Radio, I already had a whole host of questions lined up.

Below is Prophecy Radio episode #33, “Just Vibes,” which features a full discussion of the book (with a designated spoiler section), as well as our interview with Daniel José Older. Beneath that is a partial transcript of the conversation, highlighting Older’s answers to our more specific Ballad & Dagger questions.

You’ll find a ton of laughs, some truly remarkable insight into his process, and plenty of fantastic advice for any writer, no matter your skill level or success rate. Enjoy!

Daniel José Older interview

In Rick’s introduction to the book, he talked about how it was a dream come true to work with you, and you’ve had some pretty kind words to say about him as well. What was it like joining the Rick Riordan Presents family?

Oh, man, it was something I’ve just always wanted to do since it came out. I was like, “Oh, this is perfect!” I love the philosophy behind it. I love Rick’s work, obviously, and I love that he really took the step to use his platform in a way where he wasn’t speaking for other people but giving them room to speak themselves. And I think that’s just really a great model of how we move forward as a culture. So, I loved it, and I wanted to be part of it. I was also in the middle of a couple other series that I had to wrap up before I could jump to something else. So, the timing actually worked out perfectly. This was pitched to them—Ballad & Dagger was initially a middle-grade book because that’s all they were doing at the time, and I didn’t think they had YA on their radar. And the story, to me, initially was a middle-grade story. It was called Mateo Matisse Monster Merker, and it had a much younger vibe to it.

That’s an awesome title.

Thank you. It would’ve been cool too! He just goes around murkin’ monsters. But I’m so happy that it became a YA because that’s really what ended up ultimately expanding the universe into what it became, which is infinitely more complex, and I just love that that happened.

The cover for this book is phenomenal, by the way, especially because Mateo and Chela are portrayed exactly how they’re described in the book. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and how you reacted the first time you saw it?

Yeah. Irvin Rodriguez. Shout-out to him. I think I have that name right. He’s incredible. He really just nailed it throughout. The first thing I did, actually, was make him a Pinterest board of vibes. Just vibes. Outlaw Saints vibes. So it was a lot of Sephardic cultural stuff, Santería stuff, pirate stuff, obviously, and then a lot of Brooklyn and modern-day Brooklyn. And putting all those things together really helped me, and then I passed it on to the publishers so they could get a sense of what I was talking about. And then I kind of sent a list of stuff that I hoped to see on the cover, mainly Mateo and Chela, and then maybe some kind of action pose. Chela with a knife, obviously. Like, a big dagger.

That’s kind of important, yeah.

Yeah. And then just the sense of a larger mythology around them, like the symbolism. There’s so many rich symbolism traditions in this book. I just wanted to draw on them to invoke the magic and the culture. And that’s what they did. They sent me a sketch back, and it was very close to the actual picture that you see. I just had a couple of notes about certain things. I was like, “Make the candles fatter,” basically. [Laughs] In the first draft, they looked more like Sabbath candles, and the ones we use in ceremony for Santería stuff are the seven-day candles you buy in corner stores. That level of detail was in the first round of notes, which means you’re really close. And then they basically sent me the finished draft, and it was perfect.

You’ve said in the past that Ballad & Dagger is the book of your heart. What was the hardest part about writing this story, and what was the easiest?

Interestingly, I think the easiest was, in a weird way—the easiest and the hardest were maybe were the same. Because the world-building, right? On the one hand, I did a lot of research and I [did a lot of] deep dives about a lot of different things—pirates, Jews in the Caribbean, Santería stuff, all sorts of things. On another hand, all of it is cultures that I’m very familiar with and live, in many ways, and in other ways not. So, it was kind of this dual thing of the very familiar and also the very not fmailiar, and having to bring those two things together to figure out how they could work on the page. The world-building is so complex that it was a challenge to get it clear without being boring, you know? Without belaboring the point. But also have it clear on the page, and keeping the story moving the whole time.

Much of this book is about Mateo overcoming his fears and anxieties, and that really hit me very personally as a very anxiety-riddled person. And you impart some really fantastic wisdom on your readers. Is any of that from your own personal experience?

Oh, yeah. All of it. Definitely. I always tell writers, students, and anyone writing who asks my advice, listening is the most important thing a writer can do. For that to be Tía Lucía’s main tagline that she’s trying to impart on Mateo and he’s not hearing her for so much of the book—that’s what I had to learn. I don’t just say that as a teacher, I say that as someone who has had to learn how to listen over and over in life. And what is life if not learning how to listen—to yourself, to the world around you, to the people who are important to you. We have to listen to each other, and not in a passive way. In a very active way. And I think that’s particularly what’s required of us as creators, telling stories, is that we listen. So, you know, figuring that out as a life lesson and a writing lesson is truly a turning point for me—and an ongoing one—and so it felt really right that a book that’s this personal and close to my heart would have a truth like that imbued in it.

Enjoying this Daniel José Older interview? Check out our interview with Roshani Chokshi about Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality.

We heard from your interview with Rick [Riordan] that Leigh Bardguo actually helped you come up with the title Ballad & Dagger. How are you doing with the title for Book 2?

[Laughs] I’m very happy that I didn’t have to hit her up this time. As much as I love talking to Leigh—and we talked about other things in the course of it—but I didn’t have to run crying to her about, “Please find my title for me!” I didn’t exactly do that, but it was a process for Book 1. Book 2—it happened much more smoothly. I can’t say the title, but I can say that it partially came from the editors. The editors brought me part of it, and I added one more word, and then we were all like, “That’s it!” And it just landed.

I love when it just works like that.

Yeah, me too. And I didn’t know if it would. There’s always a question of book two, do you continue the pattern. Is it bum and bum [indicating Ballad & Dagger], or is it something totally different? We shall see.

Okay, you can’t tell us the title, which is totally fair. Is there anything you can tease us about Book 2?

Yes! It begins one second after Book 1 ends. So, that’s exciting! And there’s another POV. So, that’s exciting. And I will also tell you, it was also a hard book to write. It kicked my proverbial butt in every way. I struggled to write it. Not like the words weren’t coming out. Every book is hard to write. This was particularly so, in part just because the characters go through a lot, and you really do—especially these guys, I’ve really come to love them and care about them, even though they’re fictional, it’s hard to be so present with them and be inhabiting their bodies while they’re suffering. But that’s what was required for this book to work, and so that’s where we had to go. But it’s also just really an exciting book in a lot of ways. For reasons that are spoilery for Book 1 too, so I can’t say that. But I had a lot of fun writing it, too. So, it’s both.

I know this one might be a little hard because it seems like you’ve already done so many amazing things, but is there a dream project that you’d really like to work on next?

That is a hard question. I don’t know the answer to that. This was kind of the dream project, actually. I feel like my whole career is, honestly. And that sounds like a brag. It is a brag—my whole career has been dream projects. I remember early on in my career when I was trying to—and this is something I recommend any writer do, really. It’s important to define success for yourself. And make that an ongoing conversation that you have with yourself because the last thing you want is to actually be successful and not realize it because you were so busy pursuing someone else’s dream. So, I remember early on being like, “What’s success gonna look like for me?” And the definition has always been being able to do the work I want and have it support me in the lifestyle that I’m living. And I’ve always done the work that I want to do. I’ve always done these projects that I just didn’t even think they were possible. Sometimes because they weren’t or they weren’t things I was seeing on the shelf. So I would try to get them on the shelf and make that the work I do. And I’ve been able to do that constantly throughout my career, whether it’s Shadowshaper or Dactyl Hill Squad, a series about dinosaurs during the Civil War, or this project, which is so much about my life in different ways. And so, I find myself jumping from one great project to the next, and that’s the best possible career.

Other than the sequel to Ballad & Dagger, what other projects do you have coming up?

More Stars Wars is ahead, which is always exciting. High Republic is entering into its Phase II in the Fall, and I have graphic novels on the way, and the continuation of the Adventures series, which is really exciting. Outside of that, I have a graphic novel that’s my own work with a co-writer, Baba Malik Duncan, called Death’s Day that comes out, I think, next year from Abrams Books. And it’s about Death returning to the world every thousand years to spend one day with its only child, and the child is then kidnapped and they have to go on the hunt to find out what happened and who took the kid. So, that’s a lot of fun.

‘Ballad & Dagger’ hit store shelves on May 3, 2022

Buy Ballad & Dagger by Daniel José Older from Disney Books, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.

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