Daniel José Older talks ‘Last Canto of the Dead’ and the importance of ending with beginnings

Daniel José Older sat down to answer our burning questions about the process of writing Last Canto of the Dead, saying goodbye to such a vibrant world, and what he’s got coming up next.

I tore through the first Outlaw Saints book when it first published last year, and if you read my Ballad & Dagger book review, then you’ll know that this world holds a special place in my heart. Not only was this the first young adult novel to come out of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but it was also an incredibly unique, colorful, complex, vivacious, and musical universe that entertained as much as it educated.

Luckily, its sequel, Last Canto of the Dead, kept up that tradition. Taking place one second after the previous book ends, the second Outlaw Saints novel managed to dive even deeper into this world, with Daniel exploring San Madrigal’s history while its future hung in the balance.

If you haven’t read my Last Canto of the Dead book review, I suggest you go do that right now! It’s spoiler-free, and will convince you to pick up this amazing novel if you haven’t already.

Daniel José Older’s talent and intelligence never ceases to amaze me. I first interviewed him on the heels of the Ballad & Dagger release, and we talked as much about the book as we did his career and what it feels like to continuously work on his dream projects.

This time around, I dug into the writing process for Last Canto of the Dead, following up on several of the questions and themes from the first interview. If you’d like to listen to a full discussion of Ballad & Dagger, as well as that first interview, be sure to check out Prophecy Radio episode #33.

In Prophecy Radio episode #87, we discuss Last Canto of the Dead, with both spoiler-free and spoiler-filled sections, and I’ve included the interview as well. You can listen and follow along below to a transcript that has been edited for brevity and clarity. Enjoy!

Daniel José Older interview for ‘Last Canto of the Dead’

It’s never easy writing a book, and it’s certainly never easy finishing a series. Last Canto of the Dead has been out for about a month now. How are you feeling, especially now that there’s a little distance from the release date?

You know, it feels really good. I love the sense of closure. Like, I do miss the characters. They’re so much fun. I miss the world. It’s a really natural place to write in for me, in part because it’s just kind of my soul in a place. I really did just kind of pour myself out into it. In a good way. Not in a dramatic way. But the books feel like home to me. I just had a really good time writing them. And so, in that sense, you know, I miss it. But I also feel like it’s really nice—I’d never written a duology before—and this kind of, like, one, two, done thing is actually really nice. It just feels really straightforward and like, ‘Okay, we did this. Boom, boom, boom.’ So, I’m happy.

Good. I’m glad. Are there any fan responses to the close of the series that stick out in your mind?

It’s the mixed bag that people are just really happy to read the books and excited for them to come out and also sad for it to be over. So that’s been an overwhelming response from everyone that I’ve gotten. They’re so happy. And they’re also like, ‘Oh, man, maybe there’s more.’ And, you know, we’ll see.

The last time we spoke, we talked a lot about the cover of Ballad & Dagger, and you described how you put together a Pinterest board of ‘vibes, just vibes’ that the publishers could pass on to Irvin Rodriguez, who designed the first cover. Did you approach this cover any differently? And what was your initial reaction to it?

Oh, what a cover, right? Daniel Dos Santos is the artist, and he really got it, like, immediately. My first response to getting a new cover artist, before I knew who it was, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ You know? Because I love the Ballad & Dagger one so much. And I was like, ‘That’s just hard to top.’ But, you know, it’s not a competition. But just seeing what Dos Santos did, it really just immediately jumped out. There’s such a vibrancy to it. I think they did pass on probably the same mood board because it would be the same [vibe]. But what was really important about this book, and to differentiate it from Book One, is that we spend so much time on San Madrigal, right? So it had to encompass more than just the sense of a Caribbean nation that’s living in the in the U.S. or New York or what have you, but really the actuality of it. And also this sort of divided heart of the book that is Chela and Mateo both narrating. And it’s Brooklyn and it’s also San Madrigal. All these things are happening, but they’re very connected and entwined. And so there had to be a unity of two on this cover, which is really what they did. I mean, just looking at it now, it’s so magical, not just because of the actual magical elements, the glow and everything, and the magic coming out of their hands, but just the sense of it, the feeling of it, has such a beautiful magic to it. And I just love it.

You also spoke about how the easiest and hardest part of writing Ballad & Dagger was the worldbuilding. Was Last Canto any easier because you’d already spent a whole book in this world, or was landing on San Madrigal like starting over from scratch again?

It was almost [from] scratch. And the hardest part, actually, with this is that San Madrigal, when we find it, it is an empty island. It just has monsters and this one wayward spirit hanging out, basically. And to me, worldbuilding is all about character, really. The things that bring a place to life are the people. And it’s complicated. So it turned into this really difficult challenge to make a place feel alive without having any people there to liven it up. And I think some of that I got to answer because there was parts where we go into the past and we learn about what Madrigal looked and, most importantly, felt like in different ages because Chela has this unique ability to connect so deeply to the island, which she’s a part of literally. And that helped a lot to give a sense of what this island felt like, vibes-wise, and who was there and what it was like to be there. But the scenes where it’s just the present tense and it’s just Chela and Odé Kan training, that was challenging to really give it life. It’s almost wilderness at this point, you know?

I really love looking back on what we talked about a year ago because, as a fan, it’s like I get to witness the process of all of this coming together. Last year, you couldn’t tell us the title of Last Canto, but you did talk about how the editors helped you come up with that. Can you speak to that process a little bit more in detail?

Oh, yeah. It was an interesting conversation. I’m trying to remember the beat by beat of it, but it was unique in that… Where does the title usually come from? Usually I just land on a title, and I give it to them. And I think with this one, I presented them a couple [options] because I was really on the fence. I just didn’t know what to call it. So we were bouncing a few things back and forth. I think I gave them the word Canto. Usually, when I’m stuck on a title, I do a word vomit kind of thing, and often what I do is divide it into categories because I think a title is a poem, right? You have to get all this stuff across with very few words, and that’s poetry. And so that’s why it’s so hard. And sometimes you’ve just got it. You know, ‘It’s this. Boom.’ And then other times, you’ve really got to work on it. And the ones I have to work on, I tend to divide it up. So I’d be like, ‘All right, I know I’m talking about’—for this one—‘I know there’s a musicality to it. I know that there is a sense of history and spookiness and ghostliness to it. And I know that this is the last book in the series.’ So all those pieces are there, right? And then, literally, the question becomes, ‘How do they sound the coolest together?’ Like, which words work really well together and sound cool? And that does matter. You know, a title is a poem, but it’s also a part of the marketing. And it does have to sound cool. And I think there’s some people that flinch at that, and are like, ‘Oh, that’s so superficial.’ But like, no, dude. The sounds of words matter. And the look of things does matter. It’s a part of the whole, and it can’t be ignored. And we can’t just blow it off. So, you know, those are all part of the equation. With this one, I think I gave them the word Canto. I told them the dead are important to the story, among a bunch of other stuff. And I think they sent me, ‘What about The Canto of the Dead?’ And it felt good. I liked that, but it felt like it was missing something, just even rhythmically. Like, The Canto of the Dead doesn’t feel like a full title somehow. So I started playing with that. And then the idea of it being Last both worked in terms of what happens in the story, and in terms of it being the last book of the series.

This book takes place one second after the end of the last book. Was it easy to keep that momentum? Or did you find any difficulty in jumping right back into the story after what I assume is a little bit of a break between books?

Yeah, it was a couple months. It was fun. It felt good to be back in the world. The difference between this book and the last book in terms of process is actually very stark. With Ballad & Dagger, I outlined my outlines. I mean, I had rough drafts, multiple drafts of outlines. I had pages and pages of drawn notes. I mean, I storyboarded. Like, it was a process before I ever sat down at the computer. Last Canto of the Dead is entirely the opposite. I literally just was like, well, I know it’s gonna be Mateo and Chela. And I know that she’s gonna be on the island and he’s gonna end up back in Brooklyn. And I don’t know how or why. And I know, eventually, they’re gonna have to take on everybody together. And it’s gonna be a war, probably on the island. So Mateo will have to come back—spoiler! But I don’t know anything else, literally. So that was what I sat down knowing. As best I can remember, it was about that much. So that was really exciting. That’s how I used to write a lot before Ballad & Dagger. So, I’m familiar with that style of just, like, ‘Ahhhh!’ Let’s see what happens. It’s, like, Wilhelm scream into the distance. So, I enjoyed that. It was also hard because it is still staring down this big emptiness, right? And knowing you have to populate that with your imagination. So it was both. It was really both. I was happy to be back in the world. I was really excited. I just wanted to find out what happens to these kids. I care about them. So it was like, yay. I worked so hard at Ballad & Dagger to get to that moment. And then it’s like, all right, they’re starting from the very beginning, except [on the island]. And I enjoyed it.

That ties into one of the questions I had, because I was going through the interview that you did with Read Riordan. And I saw that you were talking about how you outlined Ballad & Dagger pretty heavily, but Last Canto sort of just flowed as you were writing it. And I was like, there’s probably got to be a certain kind of freedom in writing that way. But also this idea of reaching the end, I would imagine, is a little more difficult too because you don’t really know what you’re working toward necessarily.

Right. Right. That is the challenge. That is both the challenge and the fun of it, right? So you’re deep in it. And you’re literally writing to find out what happens. And that’s really exciting because you get to find out what happens by writing. And that becomes a part of the impulse behind finishing the book. [It] is literally, from a reader point of view—I think we think in writer brain, I think we think in editor brain, and I think we think in reader brain. And we’re always juggling those back and forth. And I do think the more we key into that, and be intentional about it—and be intentional about which brain we’re using—the better the process gets. As a writer, I was plugging away at the scenes when I knew what was going to happen, but then I would have to stop and then think in reader brain to be like, ‘Well, what do I want to know as a reader right now? What would be better if I didn’t know, even if I actually want to know it? What information should be withheld from me as the reader?’ And then it was kind of like, ‘What’s going to really throw things into a loop if it happens next?’ Because you’re playing with expectations, you’re playing with predictions [and] ideas about what might and what could happen, all these different things. And if you’re thinking only as a writer, or only as an editor, which can, I think, be very dangerous too for a writer, it becomes like a very intellectual exercise. But readers are emotions first, generally. Most readers go in for their emotions. And that’s an important piece of a book. We can’t lose sight of it.

And speaking of those emotions, you also said that Last Canto was a difficult book to write because it was hard to inhabit these characters while they were suffering. Can you speak a little bit more to the challenge of putting your characters through hell and then hoping they come out on the other side?

Yeah, it was really a question of being honest with the story. And you’re always going to put your characters through it. That’s kind of a given. But the question is, how badly? What different levels of going through it are they going to go through and all that? You’re always finding a balance there. And I do believe very strongly in joy as a fundamental part of narrative. So that’s there. But these characters in particular, in this moment, in this book, were just very fated to have some real-world struggles that I sort of felt coming down the pipeline. And then I reached them in the narrative part and I was like, ‘Okay, we have to do this.’ So I just kind of went in and did it. And yeah, it was just hard. You’re really writing from their point of view. There’s a dual challenge of it because you’re in there. You’re inhabiting them, right? Especially the first person present tense. You’re really in their brains and in their bodies. And also, like I said, I care about these kids. They are fictional, but I do. They’re still my babies. I don’t want them to go through it. But I also know they were born to go through it because they were born into this book. And that’s the challenge of it all. But specifically, Chela goes through some physical pain in the midst of mental anguish. All these things are happening at once. And then you’re jumping away in the middle of it all to go into the other character, right? So it’s like someone’s going through it and then someone else, somewhere else, is [also going through it]. They’re all connected. So there’s resonance between them. But it was a challenge.

[Spoilers ahead!] I want to talk about your choice to separate Mateo and Chela, because as much as it pained me to see that pretty early on in the book, I loved that it allowed us to go back and forth between Brooklyn and San Madrigal. How early on in the process did you decide this needed to happen? And what was it like finding Chela’s voice and story as an individual rather than as Mateo’s partner?

Oh, yeah. Great question. I think I knew very early. Like, it sort of felt really… I won’t say logical because logic doesn’t really have anything to do with it. But it felt really true that I didn’t want to leave. It’s like the story itself didn’t want to leave Little Madrigal behind. Brooklyn, besides just being the setting of the entire book, it’s also just so fundamental to the narrative of Book One, like who Mateo is, who Chela is, their struggles, their very Brooklyn modern-day struggles, even though they’re mixed up with mysticism and ancient gods and everything. So it felt like it would have been wrong to just leave that behind and suddenly be like, ‘All right, now we’re on San Madrigal, totally different vibe, you know, like, different world, no people. Boom.’ Like, it just wouldn’t have felt full as a book if we spent the whole book on this mostly abandoned island. So that was just a pure aesthetic choice on some level, or a narrative aesthetic choice, that I knew just wouldn’t hit right [otherwise]. And then also there’s so many characters. We could have brought them all to San Madrigal, [but] that would have been a lot of [people], that would have taken a lot of work.

A lot of boats.

Yeah, it’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of logistics. I mean, I guess we could have started with them there… Whatever. There’s ways to do it, you know, but then the other piece is Chela and Mateo have found love. They found their love for each other by the end of Ballad & Dagger. And it’s a very sudden but very deep love. And in ways, it goes back centuries, you know, even if they’re still getting to know each other in their modern-day teenager personas. So it sort of then becomes, like, ‘Okay, so what’s the problem now?’ Because I do think you can write a book where two people are just happily in love and they have other problems in the world. That’s fine. But this felt like they—and that is kind of what’s going on—but they also needed to separate and find each other again. That was very clear in the narrative. So those two pieces really spoke to each other. You know, it worked out perfectly that I needed to get Mateo off the island so we could have his POV. The other piece is, like, if you’re going to do two POVs, there better be a good reason for it besides, ‘I wanted to know what Chela thought.’ You know? Like, no, no, no. Narratively, there has to be a reason, right? So you can’t have these two… you’ve got two POVs and they’re just running around together all the time. What’s the point? As much as I would love [that], you know, I guess that’s for the future. Mateo and Chela just getting to hang out all the time. That’s after the book is over. But during the course of the book, you’ve got to split them up so that there’s a reason for them to even have two POVs. So it was all those things that really came together. As far as Chela—I think I talked about this in the other interview—but the challenge was always, with Chela especially—I think any time you write in a love interest of any gender, but particularly a female love interest, especially as a male writer, you really have to go out of your way and be extremely intentional to make sure she doesn’t become just a flat love interest. Like, Love Interest, with a capital L and a capital I. Because there are so many of those. Because there is such a long history of men writing women badly. I really just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t that. And so, I took a lot of time with her in Book One. And for me, it worked in the sense that, as a writer, I felt like her character really came to life on the page for me as the writer. I can’t speak to the reader’s experience, but I really, like… I knew. There’s a moment with characters when you know, like, ‘Okay, it’s working because they’re making decisions for themselves. I’m not using them as a plot piece or like a pawn or whatever,’ which, you know, sometimes that’s okay with certain characters. But with Chela, it had to be… She had to take on a life of her own. So once she started doing that and kind of moving herself around the chessboard, then I was like, ‘All right, we got something. She’s flesh and blood. You know, she has a past. She has people. She has a belief system. Like all these things are a part of who she is. She’s unique.’ So, then I was like, wow, she’s really interesting. She’s more than not flat. She has a lot going on and she’s a killer and all this stuff. And she has this really, to me, intriguing conflict of being a creator and a destroyer, which is really the heart of the whole series—this idea of opposites living within a whole. And that was something I wanted to explore in first person. That is such a compelling conflict to me internally that I really wanted to get into it. Like, what does that feel like? And then the conflict of—Mateo has his own struggles with being a god and a teenager, you know, and I think that they are very different from each other. They’re different enough from each other as people that it warranted, beyond just the plot stuff of them being far apart and the story, it’s also that they have such different approaches to life, to morality, to divinity, to adolescence, to love, that all of those things contrasted really nicely against each other and offset each other. So I wasn’t repeating emotional beats by having these two different characters talking.

Speaking of Mateo’s time in Little Madrigal, I wanted to ask about the political undertones of the story, because Last Canto is as much about us versus them as it is about us versus ourselves. And I thought that was a really interesting dynamic to explore, especially as Mateo explores this idea of forgiveness for those who’ve wronged us.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially with his dad, right? Like, yeah, so much of this in Book One, too, is just trying to break down how simplistically we often see different cultures and cultures of resistance presented in the media. How the media, whether it’s actual news reporting or entertainment, just really flattens the different dynamics that we have as people, whether culture, political ideologies, all these things. They just get flattened, right? Like, there’s the protest character who’s a cartoon, like an actual cartoon, who’s just all about protest, or there’s the fascist who’s just the fascist. I think that the conversation for literature always has to be to get into the deeper humanity of each character, but not at the cost of being honest about it, about what they’re really about, if that makes sense. That sounds vague. I’m trying to put it in clear—I don’t think that means we have to make a hero or make a redemption arc for every horrible person, because I think there’s a difference between humanizing and forgiving, right? Those are not actually the same thing, but they get conflated a lot. Again, these simple narratives, like do you forgive or not? A lot of what the book talks about with forgiveness is the way that forgiveness [is depicted]. People will often shove it down someone’s throat who has survived something terrible. Like, ‘All right, now the clock has started. Are you going to forgive the person?’ Like, all this nonsense about the performance of forgiveness, it’s theater. Forgiveness is something that happens inside. It’s not a performative act. It’s something that you feel or you don’t feel, and we don’t see it treated like that around us, so I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to allow the humanity of each character, even the terrible characters, to come through, but also not to let that soften who they were or how terrible they were, if they were terrible. And that’s the great challenge. That’s a really hard thing to figure out, to navigate, especially in this political climate, with things popping off the way they are, and with the real dangers that we face as human beings around us. I wanted the characters to be in deep conversation with that, and even within that conversation, I wanted to really make them have to struggle with their notions. And particularly Mateo’s dad, who is so bent on forgiveness, so much so that he rushes right through it to—you know, does it badly—to get to the other side, and then realizes he hasn’t done it at all, right? That’s the danger of performative whatever—forgiveness, you name it. Compassion. All these different things that are actually very intimate and deep down things that we feel or don’t. We can cultivate them, sure, but it’s not about this big public performance that they make it into. I obviously have a lot of feelings and opinions about this that I wanted [to express]. I wanted a book that would grapple with them, not just beat people over the head with whatever my opinion is about it.

Mateo’s relationship with his father was so interesting because they view the world in two very different ways, and Mateo’s father’s viewpoint isn’t altogether wrong, nor is it altogether right. Was it hard to treat him as an obstacle for the story without turning him into an antagonist?

Yeah, that’s really perfectly put. That was exactly what I set up to do—have him as just someone who is kind of there. I mean, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of even bringing the parents in, initially. That was fully my agent—Jo Volpe is fantastic. She was, editorially, really great along the way, too. Not every agent can editorially help, but she’s really good at it. And so, I was always bouncing stuff off her, and she was always like, ‘You know, I really just want to know about Mateo’s parents. Like, we don’t get anything about them barely in the first book. They’re just absentee,’ and then she was like, ‘You know, here’s a great opportunity for it.’ I was like, ‘Ahhh! Okay, fine.’ It’s just so funny. I don’t know why I was resistant to it. It just didn’t interest me, initially, to have them around because it just felt like they would get in the way. And then I was like, ‘You know, them getting the way is actually not a bad thing.’ Which is obvious, but it took me a second to warm to it. But then it just became this really interesting—besides the role that the dad plays in the story—it became a really interesting character study of Mateo to have this older, douchier but very steadfast-in-his-ideas version of Mateo around for them to butt heads. And I also just think it’s interesting in the larger community dynamic that there’s this extreme atheist in the midst of an otherwise spiritual community. They all have different spiritual tracks, but they’re very firm in them, and then you have this real science-not-spirit couple, and they all love each other. They work it out. They get along for the most part, but there is that dynamic at play, and it created a lot of different opportunities to have these conversations in the midst of all the action and monster fighting and running around. These were real questions of morality, of spirituality, of forgiveness, of compassion. They all come up in the course of action. and I think if we’re honest about action, that’s true to what it means to be in a war. you are constantly making really hard decisions about other people’s lives and your own that no one prepares you for. Because media usually depicts war as, like, ‘Cool, shoot ‘em up. Hey, kill the bad guys,’ right? And I’m sure it can feel like that at times, but I think there are also these other issues that it brings up that people have to deal with for the rest of their lives.

Watching Mateo go from a super anxious kid who didn’t really know what direction he wanted to go in to somebody who is willing to stand up against authority and lead his people back home was so satisfying to watch—and, I imagine, pretty satisfying to write as well.

Oh, yeah. Totally, yes. I’m glad that it landed like that because that’s also what I was aiming for, of course. Yeah, you know, he is this awkward kid. When we first meet him, he just really struggles to sometimes get out basic sentences. He was like, ‘Put me in front of a piano, let me express myself that way.’ And he really comes out of his shell. I always say the beating heart of a young adult book is the letting go of the mythologies of childhood through some form of crisis and then stepping actively into adulthood. And this series really is such a real personification of that. Mateo is a personification of that. And here we have literal mythologies that he’s shedding or holding on to or letting go or stepping into around him, as he’s really figuring out who he is. And I think it’s so much about how the story shapes and forms him, but also shapes and forms him into somebody who is aware that he is shaping and forming the world, too, as he moves through it. And not just a passive kind of random witness.

last canto of the dead book review

Switching back over to San Madrigal now. I have to talk about Odé Kan because she was far and away my favorite character in this book. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired her and how you developed her throughout the process of writing Last Canto?

You could tell how much fun I had writing her. She’s just so much fun to write, and such a character. And I wanted this wildcard figure in the midst of everything. I think even in a book about how deeply conflicted we are within our own entrenched sides, it’s still easy to get into kind of a good and evil or us versus them dynamic. I don’t think I was too much in danger of that happening, but the truth about conflict is that there are always intermediaries and wildcards and chaotic elements. There’s always so much going on in any conflict, and I think books about conflicts need to speak to that. And so to that end, it was like, what’s going on on the island? What’s the dynamic on the island, and who can be our guide to that dynamic? And also, how are they going to function in the story, both in terms of character dynamics, playing off the other characters, and what’s their role going to be? And then, also, I just really wanted Chela to have a friend, not just—again, because we’re always making sure we’re not falling into dynamics, whether they’re sexist dynamics or what have you, but it would have been easy, I think, to just have her be this lone warrior on the island and badass and all that stuff. But she had to have emotional vulnerability in this core of what she’s going through, and she needed someone to talk about that with—and not just talk about it, but deal with it with, and a partner in crime. And she also has a lot to learn about her magic, about her powers and what that means. And so, all those things really came into play and were personified in Odé Kan. That’s functionality. But in terms of personality, she’s a little bit of a trickster. She’s a free agent in so many ways, and I think that’s refreshing. I’m drawn to those characters that are like, ‘I’m gonna fight on your side, but that doesn’t mean that I signed up for all of your ideology BS.’ There’s a lot going on with her. And then, finally, she’s connected to the Orisha Ochosi, who is very special to me, personally, in my own pantheon of beliefs, and a really powerful figure in terms of justice. Ochosi’s a lot about justice and the idea of being right and wrong, and how those aren’t simple things and those can be really complicated and force us to make really painful and sometimes impossible decisions. And so there’s a core to Odé Kan that is about some of those inner conflicts about justice, about what it means to do the right thing and how to navigate that alone sometimes, and how that can be a lonely process. So, as much as Odé Kan came along to be a friend to Chela, Chela also becomes a really important figure to Odé Kan as she’s working through her own arc and figuring out her path as this wayward spirit and what that means.

You end this book with the idea that yes, they won, but there’s still so much work to do. It even ends with the question, ‘When do we leave for our first date, boating around the world, having adventures in mysterious ports and finding new creatures?’ So, of course, I have to ask if you would ever visit the Outlaw Saints world again, and if so, do you know what kind of story you’d want to tell?

I would. I would. I definitely would. I don’t know. I don’t know, but I definitely would, is the simple answer. I think it’s really important to end with beginnings but still have satisfying endings, you know? I think that’s the fundamental tension to an ending—that you don’t want it to feel like the characters turn to dust when you close the book because they shouldn’t, and if they’re real, they won’t. But you also need that sense of closure, you need that feeling that, ‘Okay, we did this.’ And I mean, I think we can all look to our lives for that, you know? We don’t always have to look to books for the answer to how to figure out how books should work because ultimately the lifeblood of books is life, is our experiences. And so, I think about times in my life when it’s like, okay, you go through something, and then you get to the other side of it, for better or for worse, you might not have “won,” but somehow you know that chapter does end and there is a sense of closure in our lives—sometimes it’s external, like you graduate, you get married, these different things you do. And sometimes it’s just a feeling inside. You’re like, ‘Okay, we’re done with that now.’ And it doesn’t mean it won’t come back, but there’s certainly a moment where you’re like, ‘Okay, whatever, it’s over.’ And so, what does that feel like, and how do we get at that in narrative? How do we use story to find that feeling and to really bring that sense of landing to a book? I mean, the ending is so important. That’s what echoes the most. And if you flub the ending, then the whole book suffers. So, it’s charged. It’s charged with this great responsibility of being this banner of the series, these two entire books. And I recognized that going in, and I knew that it had to feel alive. I will also say that I know I talk about how Leigh Bardugo helped find the title—found the title for Ballad & Dagger, and she wasn’t the Last Canto titler, but I do recall very clearly a conversation I had with her as we were talking about this book, where basically she outlined that moment [quoted above]. She was like, ‘They have to be traveling around the world having adventures,’ and I was like, ‘No, you’re right. It’s true. It’s true.’ So, look, shoutout to Leigh. She’s absolutely right. I think she’s right because it’s true to who they are, and I think even if I hadn’t written the words, it would have felt like that’s probably what they did. But we needed the actual image of it in our minds that these two lovers, gods, teenagers, rebels, warriors, poets—these two amazing people are gonna be together for a long time and have given up so much for that adventure that’s only just beginning.

This is a conversation that I just had recently with Graci Kim because I was interviewing her for Last Fallen Realm, the final book in her series, and she was like, ‘I haven’t really thought about what Riley’s been doing or what some of the other characters have been doing since the book’s ending because I’m afraid I’m gonna want to write another book, and I just kind of want to leave it where it is for now.’ So, now that it’s been about a month from the release of this book, do you ever think about what Chela and Mateo have gotten up to since the end of the book?

Sometimes, yeah. When I’m talking about the book, and the very idea of them as these two spirits out in the world. It just makes me smile. I don’t think too much in terms of detail, but I think that’s why [the ending] works as a closing image because it’s almost like you don’t need [to know more]. It’d be nice to know—there’s information in books that you need to know, and there’s information that it’d be nice to know that. But it’s also nice not knowing because it kind of leaves this openness. And different readers want different things, and so it’s interesting to see some readers who are like, ‘I needed to know XYZ about why the magic worked or what was behind this decision or whatever,’ and as the writer, you’re like, ‘You didn’t need to know that. You wanted to know that. The story didn’t actually need to have it in there.’ And that’s kind of what it is. I think, with this moment, it’s so perfect just to have it be this open [ending]. There’s also this sense of open books, right? Like, there’s some books that are open in the sense that, yes, they’re [finished], but they’re open in the sense that the adventure really does continue and and it feels like it’s just a living thing that’s taking on a life of its own and it has blood—and blood that flows. And so that, to me, that’s this ending. There’s so much aliveness to that singular image of them traveling the world. They’ve spent so much time not being together but wanting to be together and knowing that they needed to be together—or not knowing it, but feeling it—and then it’s like, ‘We made it.’ And now the adventure begins.

What projects are you working on right now? What projects do you have coming up that you can talk about?

Right. That’s the key. This is where I always struggle with this question because I forget what’s announced, what’s not announced, what’s in my brain, what’s on paper, what’s been signed. Like, whoo. Which is a good thing. It’s a good problem to have. I’m not mad at it, but it’s funny. Well, what I definitely want people to check out is The High Republic. I’m so proud of being a part of that team and the work that we’re doing together. We are coming up on Phase Three of that. Phase Three of Three. And, honestly, it’s always a great time to jump in. I think right now is a really good time because we’re coming up on this kind of finale section. A finale that lasts—you know, I forget how long, but a long time. So you can catch up, and I know there’s an overwhelming amount of material out there in The High Republic. There’s also lots of reader guides, and you can follow different tracks through it. Mostly what I’m responsible for is the comics, and the all-ages comics specifically, along with a couple other things along the way. But I do have a middle-grade coming out in January—the end of January—that I co-wrote with Alyssa Wong, who’s an incredible short story and comic writer but now this is their first novel. And we had an amazing time writing together. It’s called Escape from Valo, and it’s so much fun and so chaotic and there’s some old favorites and lots of new characters and all that. So, get ready for that. My series, The High Republic Adventure, my comic book series, starts back up again in December. I’m incredibly proud of that, and the whole team behind that is just doing stellar work. It’s really fun to jump back in with these characters that we met in Phase One and really take them through this next adventure. And, let’s see. What else? There’s a lot of other stuff coming up. The best thing to do is sign up for my Substack because then you’ll really get the news of what’s going on. And then my website is danieljoseolder.net, and on there, you can find online classes, my blog, whatever books are up and coming, and all that good stuff.

‘Last Canto of the Dead’ published on May 16, 2023

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