Self-described Gringa-rican Ann Davila Cardinal is a woman of many talents. Not only does she write haunting horror tales but she also works as a recruitment officer for the Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and advocated for their Puerto Rico-based Winter Writing Residency.
Having published her debut, Sister Chicas, in 2006, Davila Cardinal has constantly been perfecting her craft before the release of her spooky YA novel Five Midnights in June this year. Based around El Cuco, the Puerto Rican boogeyman, it follows the final days of a group of almost adults whose mothers have kept a dark secret for the past few years. Full of twists, turns and some heart stopping action, the novel is a feast for the senses.
I was lucky enough to be able to ask this amazing woman some burning questions about her latest release, her role as a recruiter at her alma mater and where she found her absolutely fantastic glasses thanks to Tor Teen.
Congratulations on the release of Five Midnights! I absolutely loved reading it ahead of its release.
Thank you! I’m SO glad you liked it!
So, Five Midnights isn’t your first novel to have been published with Sister Chicas releasing in 2006. Although you have had short stories published within anthologies in the meantime, did you have a hiatus from writing full length novels? Or was Five Midnights in the works for a large proportion of that time?
I actually wrote an additional two novels in between. A coming-of-age magical realist novel that is the most autobiographical novel I’ve written. I started it in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program, and only resurrected it because Andre Dubus III helped me figure out what was holding the story back. I also wrote a fantasy novel that I’m revising, but I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s like there were four things percolating on the stove for years and now they’re all ready at the same time!
Five Midnights is a novel that firmly sits within the Young Adult subgenre of horror. What drew you to this specific genre?
I grew up with horror, read horror comics, horror novels, whatever I could get my hands on. In the late 60s and early 70s, the concept of young adult novels was SO new. Judy Blume was the first realistic contemporary YA I knew of, and she didn’t talk down to her readers. That was shocking back then. But there weren’t really horror YA novels. I read the classics and when Stephen King started publishing, everything he wrote. Teens are often drawn to dark things, dark stories, particularly in dark times, so I like the idea of telling them stories, but ones that still have some hope.
Five Midnights is based around the mythology of El Cuco, a type of bogeyman in Puerto Rico used to threaten children into behaving. What was the inspiration to write about this particular ‘monster’?
I’m fascinated by the dark things parents threaten their kids with. I mean, talk about fodder for therapy! So, the idea that this boogeyman character, El Cuco, appears in almost every Latinx culture, really struck a chord. He might go by different names, but the concept is the same. I was also going through a difficult time when I felt particularly powerless as a parent, and I wondered what if those threats weren’t empty? What if he really came?
Lupe has spent the majority of her life living in Vermont with her parents and has professed that she does not know the parts of herself that relate to her heritage. This leads to a sort of journey of self-discovery while the events of Five Midnights unfold. How did her story come about?
Lupe’s story is partially inspired by my own story. When I was little, I was shipped off to Puerto Rico every summer by my widowed mother so she could drink. I resented this abandonment, though my family on the island was amazing to me. When I was in high school, my mother sobered up and I chose to take off in a different direction—I became a punk rocker. It wasn’t until my mother started to get sick in my late 20s that I began forming my own relationship with her family as an adult, going to the island myself. When she died, I fully embraced that part of my identity as a way of holding on to her and realized that my Puerto Rican family saved my life when I was a child. (That is what The Storyteller’s Gift is mostly about.) I wanted Lupe to discover that side of her earlier, as I wished I had.
Within the novel, there are a lot of themes surrounding loss, drug use and the crises within Puerto Rico surrounding housing and a decline in the financial status of its residents. For those who are unfamiliar with the territory, this would be an eye-opening novel. Were the underlying lessons a by-product of the story or was the story written as a teaching experience?
I never write with lessons in the forefront of my mind, but they are often a bi-product. I watched my mother’s town in Puerto Rico change in the 60s and 70s, mostly due to the influx of drugs. And being the daughter of an alcoholic/addict, this is a theme that often comes up in my work. When I was a teen there were no stories about kids like me, and it was my hope to tell one that would have helped me. As for the crises of the island, they started well before Hurricane Maria. The island is a territory of the US but is often forgotten, neglected. Thank goodness there was some light shown on it after Maria, but these are US citizens and they deserve our support.
The vivid imagery within Five Midnights puts the reader right within the barrios of El Rubi while at other times the characters are in surroundings that could almost described as opulent in comparison. Out of all locations within Puerto Rico, what would be your favourite and why?
The island has that entire range of imagery, but I find it all beautiful. La Perla is often maligned, but it is one of the most beautiful places, and a real community. But as for my favourite location, I’m in love with Luquillo. It is not a tourist destination, it has no big hotels, but the beaches are spectacular. Some of the best food on the island is found at the beach/roadside kioskos, from fried starchy delicacies to gourmet food. It has a village square and the feel of a small town but is only 40 minutes from San Juan. It is not opulent, but it is lovely. However, you can see the impact the economy has had in Luquillo. There are many abandoned houses in the town center now that were beautiful in their day.
Many writers say they put a piece of themselves into everything they write. Is there a character with which you greatest relate?
I’ve come to realize that I relate to all three teen characters. Lupe’s identity and experience are similar to mine, but there are also parts of me in Javier—in his struggle to move forward, his life in and around recovery. Marisol was born from anger, when I went to the island for the first time after Hurricane Maria, I was enraged. Months later the power was still going down several times a week, we lost cell service for 3 days. I said to my cousin Ana Luisa, “That was scary! I mean, what if we needed an ambulance?” She responded with a pat on my hand. “Oh, don’t worry, they would not have come anyway.” Colonialism leeches hope from the people. So, I guess my answer is, I relate to parts of all three. Or is that cheating?
So, a completely random question here. How did the glasses come into being? Because I must say they are the most fabulous frames I have ever seen.
Thank you! They are Lafont’s twentieth-anniversary sunglasses. Lady Gaga had a pair! But they are hard to come by these days, so it took me two years to get a pair on ebay that I could afford. Then I had them made into regular glasses. Glasses are our most visible accessories, so why are they so BORING?
With this being your second novel, did you find your journey to publication different than it was with Sister Chicas?
It’s a different world out there. Online social media was in its infancy in 2006, and I was much greener as a writer. After doing my MFA study I had a network of writers to advise me, support me. It made all the difference. And I have to say, my public relations and marketing team at Tor Teen are incredible. The first time my co-authors and I did most of it on our own, this time I feel totally buoyed.
Prior to being published, what study did you undertake relating to your work as an author and your position on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts?
Oh, I’m not on the faculty. I leave that to those gifted in the educational arts, but I recruit for three of our MFA in writing programs. I attended both the low-residency MFA in Writing and the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults programs. I became a writer on this campus, had never entertained the idea before coming here twenty years ago. And now, I get paid to talk to writers all day about their work and how to deepen it. I couldn’t imagine a more fulfilling job for me. But I would never have written Five Midnights without my friends in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program. They encouraged me, talked me off the ledge, and now are excited with me.
You work for the Vermont College of Fine Arts and are credited with helping to bring into existence the college’s Winter Writing residency in Puerto Rico. Can you tell me a little about how it came about and the residency itself?
That was amazing. For many years we had a successful summer residency abroad in Slovenia that was created by our faculty member Rick Jackson. We were looking at where to do a winter one, somewhere warm. When the director told me they had chosen Puerto Rico, I was thrilled, and helped build it with the assistance of my cousin Tere Dávila who is a well-known author on the island. I couldn’t believe the writers who agreed to meet with us! If you don’t know the work of Mayra Santos Febres, Hector Feliciano, Yolanda Arroyo, or Urayoán Noel, you need to explore them! We spent four days in Old San Juan, then four days in the Eastern side of the rainforest, El Yunque at Casa Cubuy. That part of the island is untouched and stunning. After Hurricane Maria it was moved to the Mexican Yucatan and is now run by author and faculty member Connie May Fowler.
Do you have any advice for those who are aspiring to be a published author?
Do. Not. Give. Up. It seriously is 50% tenacity. I would have given up if not for my friends. Which brings me to the next bit of advice: form a strong community of writers. They don’t have to live near you, but have some who are earlier in their quest, at the same point as you, and others who are farther along in their careers. Create yourself an art and life-affirming chain. Be open to feedback on your work. You don’t have to take all advice, but you should hear it all.
Last question, where should people expect to see you in the upcoming months?
I’m doing some small events with my friend Miciah Bay Gault who will be promoting her gorgeous adult thriller Goodnight Stranger. We like to call it the Creepy Islands tour. I’m so excited to be reading with an incredible line-up of authors at the Brattleboro Book FestivalOctober 17-20th, 2019. Otherwise it will be more online than a physical tour. I have some upcoming pieces on tor.com that I’m excited about.
Fiction or nonfiction? Oh fiction. Absolutely. I like to be told stories.
Plotter or pantser? (Do you plot out your entire story to the smallest detail or just have a vague idea + major occurrences and let the characters guide you?) Recovering pantser. I’m learning how to plot as it makes my life easier in the long run.
Favourite bookish trope? The cranky outsider who gets pulled in by learning to care. Mad Max, Wolverine…you get the idea.
Least favourite bookish trope? Love triangle. I know they’re captivating, but ugh. Overdone, let’s move on.
Coffee or tea? Coffee. Multiple coffees.
Pizza or pasta? Pizza. Though pasta is yummy. Starch ROCKS!
Beach holiday or hiking in the bush? Beach. I love the beach. I hike on occasion (I do live in Vermont) but as a rule only if zombies are chasing me and it helps to go to higher elevations. Otherwise, nah.
Convention crowds or smaller signings? I would have said smaller until I went to my first BookCon last month. I LOVED IT!
Sunny or rainy? Sunny during the day, it improves my mood, but I love the sound of rain at night.
If you could pick a single holiday destination for the rest of your life, where would it be? Luquillo, Puerto Rico. It’s my favorite place on earth, and close to my family.
Music, books or Netflix – you can only pick 2? Oh Lord! That is TOTALLY not fair! Okay, books and music.
If you could recommend five authors to the general public that are must reads, who would they be? Wow. This is hard. Julia Alvarez is first. My favorite author EVER. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but hopefully everyone has read his work already. He was a master. I’m obsessed with Nnedi Okorafor right now. Love African futurism, but particularly her Binti series. It reminds me of what I loved about science fiction, but with rich, depth. Helen Macdonald is actually a historian first, but her memoir H is For Hawk is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. I write a lot about grief having lost a parent when I was a child, and she writes so gorgeously about it. And I love everything my friend Rigoberto Gonzalez has written, poetry, fiction, memoir, young adult. But particularly his first, Butterfly Boy, and his collection of lyric essays, Autobiography of My Hungers.