A Conversation with Jade Shyback
Updated: May 1
Q: You had a long career in the finance industry. What made you switch to writing? Was it always part of the plan?
Writing was always part of the plan, but never part of my career. I had no understanding of the industry, no network, no mentor. At best, despite my degree in English literature, I felt that I could employ good business writing practices in financial services, hoping to someday write creatively, for fun. If I could go back, I would encourage my twenty-year-old self to write creatively as a career, from the start.
Q: What writers inspired you as a child and teen? Now?
As a Canadian farm kid on the prairies I read Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and other classics like Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. My girlfriends and I read every word of every teenage magazine in circulation, attempting to connect with an outside world. Then, as a teen, George Orwell’s 1984 fascinated me. I still pity those who don’t understand the references. The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy was completely different—empathy created through the POV of an elephant? My mind was blown. Then I exhausted Philippa Gregory and had a long stint with feminine memoir, mostly stories documenting the plight of Arabic women across the Middle East while I was an expat in the UAE. More recently, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller stole my heart, and I’m trying to read the works of Canadian authors I have met: Bryn Turnbull, Sonya Singh, Marissa Stapley, Iain Reid, and Kerry Schafer. I cannot be bound to one genre and prefer good storytelling above anything else.
Q: Aqueous is rather hopeful in comparison to other post-apocalyptic novels. Was this an important decision for you? Do you truly believe humans could design such a well-engineered “new world”?
I think humans could and are designing such worlds. Didn’t I read that somewhere? The ocean is a vast promise land. It’s the next emerging market. Everything we need to survive is down there, so in that respect, Aqueous is hopeful despite its dark setting.
I am not a dark writer. I could never create something like You by Caroline Kepnes, despite binge-watching the entire series. That’s not how my brain works even though I plan to kill more of my darlings (the heartwarming characters that I have endeared to my readers) to perpetuate plot, evoke emotion, and create tension. Aside from that, Aqueous is full of light because I believe that humankind is good. With the exception of a few bad apples, we are learning, we are accepting, we are communicating, and we are sharing ideas to create global solutions for our ever-changing climate.
Q: You’ve mentioned a strong love of nature. Are you worried about an ecological collapse similar to the one at the start of the book?
I am worried about ecological collapse, and I believe it will begin with largescale famine. Historically our species is slow to react, but the pandemic was a profound example of our efficiency under pressure. We have sustainable technologies that can increase the yield of commodities with less negative, environmental impact. It’s simply a matter of willingness. Unfortunately, individual economic prosperity clouds good judgement. It’s the frightening reality that the film, Don’t Look Up (a movie I thoroughly enjoyed), humorously exposes. Collective, drastic change is needed, and it will come, but likely at the last second.
Q: Did your own three daughters influence how you wrote the lead character, Marisol? If so, how? If not, who or what affected her traits?
There is a bit of Marisol in each of us. Male or female, young or old, everyone has moments of self-doubt and loneliness. Marisol’s resolve to prove her worth stems from her need to belong, as all of us want to belong. We are social creatures, it is the core of our existence, and understanding that unites us.
Q: You describe the substation, Aqueous, in meticulous detail. Did this require research? Were you inspired by post-apocalyptic worlds of the past, in print or on screen?
To be clear, Aqueous is one of three “merstations.” It’s a word I coined, that anyone with basic French can crack, and yes, my merstations required a massive amount of research. I am not an engineer, chemist, botanist, or physicist, and because of that I would lay awake at night wondering if I got the science right. My solace came from the fact that I could excuse any errors with a single word: speculative. Aqueous is young adult, speculative fiction. Whatever scientific methods we have today (and I hope I have done them justice) may differ in the sci-fi world of tomorrow, so that reduced my construction-related anxiety. As for inspiration, Aqueous likely shares the characteristics of space stations, realized or fictional, more than imagined aquatic worlds, but the creation of Aqueous was merely me working the problem backwards—what would be required for human survival at the deepest depths, and how could I provide that using known science and resources. Of course, I tried to make Aqueous pretty. If I was forced to live down there (call me Duanra) I’d want it to be pretty.
Q: What inspired the grueling mental and physical tests the Y10s undertake?
The trials provide the culture surrounding the transition from trainee to assignee. They are the buy-in to the submarine world of Aqueous. I wanted a combination of psychological and physical tasks evoking common fears: heights; darkness; small spaces; creepy crawlies; the death of oneself or a loved one; or being inadequate, so I created challenges that would trigger those fears. Heights was never going to work because I didn’t have a suitable setting, but the five trials I did concoct tapped into the others, and though the trials are ingrained in Aqueous tradition, they seem glaringly unnecessary after Marisol’s cohort participates in them.
Q: This is very much a feminist story. The women and girls are capable and respected leaders. Was that important to you?
I have three outrageously capable daughters and outstanding female friends. In my life, and life in general, women are amazing. Mothers are amazing. We do it all. I have never thought, “Oh wait, we need a man for that.”
Then there’s the beekeeping. I am a beekeeper to colonies of honeybees—another species embodying feminism.
I never set out to write a feminist story. I simply write what I know.
Q: This is also a story of mothers and daughters. How did your journey through motherhood influence the themes of Aqueous?
There is no greater love than a parent for a child. Aqueous tests the strength of biological versus adopted parenthood. It illuminates how far parents will go to protect the ones they love and what happens when those two worlds collide. My daughters are biologically mine, but similar fears arose during my divorce. Custody battles are the greatest wars waged in modern day society. Fought from a place of love, they can result in horrible decision-making with devastating consequences. If Aqueous teaches us anything, it is that a child can be loved by many people. Cooperate, keep them safe, and let the collective love for them lift them toward their dreams.
Q: There is an unexpected love triangle in this coming-of-age story. Was that planned?
The strongest characters are those who are misunderstood and then develop with the story, so yes, it was deliberate, as was the importance of the teenagers becoming the leaders.
Q: Did you explore other locations for your post-dystopia world? What made you ultimately choose two and a half kilometers under the sea?
I liked the notion of the deep ocean as a place of unknown. There are several deep ocean trenches that geographically supported my idea—creating sustainable, unified merstations to rebirth humankind—but I am most familiar with the West Coast. The twists and turns of Monterey Canyon stretch four hundred kilometers in length, with the deepest sections plummeting to four kilometers below sea level. Aqueous is not situated at the very bottom. It’s nestled deep enough to escape the sun, capture the usable energy of various currents, and avoid being buried by sediment from the canyon walls. The only thing missing were hydrothermal vents, like the one in the Gulf of California, so I had the Aqueous residents assigned in Mining & Minerals drill site-specific vents, creating hydrothermal fields.
Q: The book ends on an enormous cliffhanger. Is there a sequel in the works?
The ending of Aqueous still gives me goosebumps. It’s a well-constructed disaster that will require two more books to resolve.