Puerto Rican American Ann Dávila Cardinal is the acclaimed author of horror and supernatural books for young adults. The Storyteller’s Death is her debut adult novel, following Isla Sanchez, a girl who spends the majority of her childhood and adolescence between New Jersey and Puerto Rico. When she turns eighteen, she begins seeing visions of her family’s stories and must figure out how to stop them before it’s too late, revealing family secrets and inner truths about herself along the way.
Sofía Aguilar and Ann Dávila Cardinal hopped on Zoom to discuss The Storyteller’s Death, her writing journey, and her advice for fellow Latina writers.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How did you find your calling as a storyteller and a writer?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: I was always reverent of books. I always say Charlotte’s Web essentially saved my life. The day they took my father’s body out of the house, I was clutching a copy of Charlotte’s Web. I was reading it over and over again when I was eight and didn’t know why. I was reading in bathrooms and reading in between things and hiding underneath the covers. Now I realize that’s a book of how to deal with death and how children can deal with death. It comforted me. After my father died, I got more obsessive about reading. So I just picked up anything I could get my hands on. But writing was something that came to me late. I honestly didn’t think it was an option. I thought smarter people than me did that, you know? Then I had an advisor in college who suggested it and it just took off from there. And once I realized it was an option and I had some innate skill, the storytelling came easily. The mastering of it was years. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: After 17 years of writing, The Storyteller’s Death finally came out last week! How do you feel right now?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: It’s amazing. I thought it would be my first and it wasn’t. It wasn’t ready. It’s interesting because I did it in my MFA program. It was my thesis and I had incredible advisors, and they thought at the end that it was ready. I jumped from when Isla is ten to eighteen. In the original version, I had nothing of those eight years. I had to go to a place that I wasn’t ready to go. I had an agent at the time who wanted me to rewrite it as a YA and I did that. Then I started to lose sight of what it was. It wasn’t the book I loved. It took Andre Debus, a friend who teaches for the college, who said, “You know, why don’t you put it in third person to give yourself some distance?” So I did and it wasn’t even about what I thought it was about. It just blew it out and then I was able to take it to the next step. I wrote it again in second person and then brought it back to first. Krista, my editor at Source Books, also got me to get it to that last stage to address those years in Isla’s life.
Writing was something that came to me late. I honestly didn’t think it was an option. I thought smarter people than me did thatAnn Dávila Cardinal
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What intrigues you about magical realism and horror stories?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: I’m interested in the ones that have a supernatural element. There’s something that speaks to me about that. It’s this recognition that there’s something beyond what we understand intellectually. In Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, and D.R., there’s this magic in the air. There is no question when you say to somebody in Puerto Rico something about ghosts. It is accepted that there are things beyond what we understand. There’s not this fear of death. It’s just another stage, and I love that. For me, that belief system brings hope. If there are some elements that we can’t control, beyond our understanding, I find that intriguing. I find comfort in that.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Isla is such an interesting, complex protagonist. Do you see parts of yourself in her?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: Absolutely. She took on a life of her own, as characters often do, but many of the cores of her experiences were things I felt and the reason I didn’t want to do those ten years. And I wanted to address my relationship with my family in Puerto Rico, my love of the Island. I was very determined to capture the land, which is quite extraordinary. It was small. It seemed big to me then, but it was really only an acre. But an acre in the middle of Bayamón now is massive. But I watched it go from the country to the city and I wanted to capture what it felt like on that land. And all of the stories Isla sees were based on family stories, which I altered obviously. But family stories can morph and it doesn’t matter if they’re true, they still say a lot about the person. It was an interesting process to dig into those stories.
Your voice is needed more than ever. Tell your stories… Just keep going. We need you now.Ann Dávila Cardinal
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: It’s about truth-telling. At this point in my life, I no longer care what anybody thinks. I’m going to speak my truth. Family is complicated, but they’re a lifeline also. I don’t care if it’s blood or found, you find the people in your family that feed you in that way. Also, you can overcome generational trauma. Part of it is bringing it out into the light. That’s what’s at the heart of this. To get to the other side of hell, you have to walk through it. I also hope they’ll want to go to the island because I am in love with it and I always have been. That was important, the food and the plant life and the coquís. I wanted to show my love but I strongly feel that I can’t do it with rose-colored glasses. It’s a form of exotification. But I hope that also the love and the beauty of the island and the culture and the people come through as well. They’re the most resilient people on the planet as far as I’m concerned. I hope I have a piece of that.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What advice would you give to emerging writers, particularly Latina writers?
ANN DÁVILA CARDINAL: I would say your voice is needed more than ever. Tell your stories. I really would love to see more Puerto Rican writers, particularly from the Island. I would love to see stories from all of our communities. I’d love to see more work translated from Mexico, Puerto Rico, DR. Elbow your way into anywhere you can. Ask for a mentor. Ask people to be your mentors because nine times out of ten, they’re gonna agree. Not giving up is incredibly important. With every book, I feel my writing and my craft get stronger. Just keep going. We need you now.