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  • Nikky Lee

10 Questions with Jae Waller

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Author Jae Waller profile picture

Jae Waller was born and raised in a lumber town in northern British Columbia, Canada. She was involved in local punk music and didn’t plan to attend university. Inexplicably, she now has a BFA in creative writing and fine art from UNBC and Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

She also studied Japanese and French, and briefly attended UBC to study linguistics. Her life goal is to be quintilingual. Most interesting past job: streetside florist with a charity for homeless citizens in Vancouver.

Currently, she lives in Melbourne and works as a novelist and freelance artist.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?

Home for me is currently Melbourne, but originally it’s northwestern Canada, which is the setting for most of my fiction. I’ve dabbled in various genres and mediums over the years, but primarily I write YA fantasy.

2. What drew you to that particular genre and age group?

I’ve loved fantasy my whole life, starting with the children’s classics: the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Redwall, and so on. I was fascinated by the thought of other worlds that maybe we can get to, maybe we can’t. I’ve evolved from wanting my own Narnia wardrobe to thinking of parallel worlds in a more metaphysical sense, but I still love sword-and-sorcery as wholeheartedly as ever.

I’m drawn to YA because adolescence is such a challenging and formative period. Everything’s heightened at that age; everything matters so much more. Yet as a teenager, I rarely saw any aspect of myself—a bisexual Canadian metalhead—reflected in media. I also had Indigenous friends who definitely weren’t seeing positive representation of themselves. So I’m writing the books that I wish my friends and I had as teenagers, and maybe my books will become a space where other teen readers can see themselves.

3. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a series titled The Call of the Rift, an alt-historic fantasy set in the Canadian coastal rainforest circa the 1600s. It’s a hypothetical world where Vikings and Spanish conquistadors settled in Canada permanently (as opposed to our world, where their settlements didn’t last.) The main character is an Indigenous girl caught up in a war with the colonial nations and with ancient nature spirits. The first two books, Flight and Veil, follow one version of the protagonist; the third book Crest starts anew with another version of the same character in a parallel world.

4. What inspired you to write it?

I’ve played with the core story and characters in several mediums over the years, including short and long fiction, screenplay, poetry, and visual art. The turning point was in university where I read Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach for a Canadian Literature course. It was the first time I’d read a book set in my province and the first time I’d read a novel by an Indigenous author. It inspired me to shift my story from a generic fantasy setting to my homeland. The new setting added new themes to the series, such as colonialism and humanity’s relationship with the land. (In a surprise twist, my audiobook narrator Sera-Lys McArthur acted in the recent film adaptation of Monkey Beach!)

5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between? How do you research?

I’m a plantser, somewhere in between the extremes. For each novel, I write a skeleton outline that breaks the story into eighths, so I have a rough idea of the plot points I need to hit and when. From there, I mostly pants it. I’ve tried writing more detailed outlines, but they go off the rails whenever I get new, better ideas!

One benefit to writing a story set in my homeland is I didn’t need to do a ton of research upfront. The more I write, though, the more I identify things I don’t know and need to look up. As well, I’m constantly doing broad research, from reading work by Indigenous authors to learning about historical food and medicine.

The process for The Call of the Rift has been incredibly odd because by the time I started seriously writing it for publication, I’d moved to Australia. So I have to rely on memory for things like snowy winter scenes, but it’s fascinating to do research here in Australia and identify similarities and differences with Canada. Colonization happened in much the same way, but things like architecture and agriculture are totally different.

6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?

I’ve researched plenty of disturbing things for my books, like the decomposition of bodies, but that’s pretty common for writers! I’d say the most bizarre things are the flora and fauna in my setting. Most people don’t know Canada has a temperate rainforest, let alone what lives there: all-white ‘spirit bears’, turquoise-fleshed lingcod, wildly toxic newts, ancient groves of massive cedar trees, parasitic ‘ghost plants’ that don’t need sun… the list goes on.

7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?

Strangely, the most personal storyline I’ve written turned out that way by accident. In Crest, the protagonist leaves home and winds up separated from her family due to circumstances beyond her control. I was drawing on my own experience as an expat, but it got even more personal when the pandemic hit. I had planned to visit my family in Canada in mid-2020, and a year later, I still haven’t been able to go home. It was incredibly weird and emotionally draining to work on the book in those circumstances.

8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?

Philip Pullman is probably my most significant influence – directly because His Dark Materials inspired my take on parallel worlds, and indirectly because that series inspires me to be ambitious with my work. As mentioned before, Eden Robinson is also a strong influence. I adore her YA fantasy series Trickster: it’s funny, powerful, heartfelt, imaginative, and it feels like reading about people I knew back home.

9. What books are on your bedside table right now?

I mostly read ebooks these days, so I guess my bedside books are those on my iPad! I just finished Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories by Drew Hayden Taylor, a short story collection of Indigenous sci-fi. I don’t usually read sci-fi, but I loved how the author put a new spin on classic tropes. Up next is probably the third and last book of Eden Robinson’s Trickster series, which I’m super stoked for!

10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?

You can find The Call of the Rift wherever you get your books, in print, ebook, or audiobook. Crest will be out May 18th. (My publisher, ECW Press, also offers a neat deal where if you buy a print copy and email them the receipt, you can get the ebook for free!)

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