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Good luck pigeonholing Jonathan Friesen. The author of Jerk, California (2008), Rush (2010), and Aldo’s Fantastical Movie Palace (2012) always keeps readers guessing, no more so than with his newest book, the dystopian Aquifer, which details a futuristic Australia in which two incompatible races must interface in order for the trading of the most valuable of substances—water.
You’ve written in different genres, but this is your first full-on invented world. How much was the process different from previous books?
It was a vastly different experience, but the process started in ordinary fashion. I had a picture in my mind, this time of a simple fisherman pulling up a catch, and finding in that catch a decomposed body. As I followed the characters, I realized I needed a bigger canvas to tell their stories. In that sense, I “followed” my characters into this dystopian world. That made the process much more dynamic and exciting, as world building was pure discovery for me, a sense that spills out onto the page for the reader.
What does Aquifer bring to the dystopia genre that you feel is unique?
A certain thought-provoking realization that every being has the potential for both intense good and unspeakable evil. In Aquifer, this includes the government and the controlling aspects of society, as well as Luca, the protagonist. This genre is often one of absolutes. The system is always bad. The young adult at odds with it, our hero. There is rarely a question of who has good intentions. Aquifer changes that paradigm. One of my goals was to make every character real, which meant giving all of them the opportunity to choose both right and wrong. I didn’t give only good options to the “good” characters and diabolical options to antagonists. The result is a rich, real, and oftentimes unsettling story that closely mirrors the truth of who humans are.
There is a good amount of hope and optimism to this story. Was it important to you to counter some of the bleakness of the genre?
I never set out to infuse my story with hope, but I think there is truth to the saying that we unintentionally reveal ourselves in our pages. Hope sustains me. Because of this, at least one of the choices my characters have at any given moment is a hopeful one. One of the most profound discoveries Luca makes, even as the world around him seems to unravel, is an unnatural, but growing sense of hope. This juxtaposition tints the book with optimism and also gives you a glimpse into my experience.
What is behind the great appeal, do you think, of teen characters toppling the artifice of their worlds?
I read so many fantastic articles discussing this issue. Somewhere in the core of a teen resides a passionate desire for freedom. Teens are old enough to identify the structures around them. The rules. The requirements. But they usually aren’t yet old enough to do much to change them. They are in a fantastically wonderful, but incredibly frustrating, in-between age, where in order to progress in society, we ask them to do quite a bit of hoop-jumping. And then comes a dystopia in which a teen doesn’t jump. The teen challenges the system. In Aquifer, Luca, by virtue of being the Deliverer, must descend from the thirsty Topper world to the underground world of the Water Rats to make the annual trade: light from above for freshwater from below. The exchange fails. The world mourns. The government demands Luca reveal the route to the Aquifer that he alone knows. For Luca, the choices begin. In dystopians, they can. I think a passion for freedom, if not the reason for the appeal, lies very near the heart of it.
There is a lot of terminology in Aquifer: “Toppers,” “Water Rats,” etc. How much planning goes into inventing that sort of language?
I wouldn’t call it planning. I would call it imagining the type of term that would fit into the vernacular of the day. The terms you mention are significant. The Toppers are a paranoid culture, dependent on, but developing independent of, the culture below the surface. They hate those below, and the term “Water Rats” felt like it captured the sense of what they would call them. It is, however, one of the unique joys of writing a futuristic. I had the opportunity to play with words to make them fit the reality I created. As my MA was in linguistics, I had a great deal of fun with that!
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