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Interview: January 24, 2017

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories make for great stories --- who is hiding the truth, and why? In UNFOLDING, by Jonathan Friesen, a teenage boy named Jonah must investigate these and other questions when his town falls to chaos after a dangerous premonition made by his best friend, Stormi. With so many questions and complicated layers, UNFOLDING makes for a real page-turner, and we had to learn more from Friesen about his inspiration. Teen Board member Jeremy H., who reviewed the book, actually knew Friesen from his former writing course, so we were delighted when he agreed to answer some questions for us. In this interview with Teenreads.com's Jeremy H., Friesen discusses his writing style, which character he would love to meet and offers advice to up-and-coming YA authors.

Teenreads.com: You have written a few novels so far, such as AQUIFER and UNFOLDING, both of which include complicated characters with diverse motivations and interests. How do you come up with unique characters each time?

Jonathan Friesen: I’m often envious of authors who write great, simple stories, ones that travel neatly from A-Z. There is an elegance to that. However, I’ve never been able to follow that path. Complicated is an apt description of my own life, and the lives of those close to me. Perhaps that’s why my characters tend to be more multi-dimensional, with many conflicting struggles and issues yanking them in various directions. If you allow your characters to experience life in all its complexity, I think unique, vivid characters are the natural result.

TRC: The story of UNFOLDING may seem like a love story between Stormi and Jonah, but the plot dives much deeper than that. What gives you inspiration for your stories? How do you keep your themes and plotlines straight?

JF: A good question and a container. Each story begins with a rather existential question, and in the case of UNFOLDING, I found it while speaking in a prison. After my talk, one of the inmates broke down and told me all he had ever done. I stood there in awe of his honesty, and a little amazed that he could have kept that many secrets bound up within himself. The question I drove away with was, “I wonder what other secrets lay trapped inside that prison?” If you read UNFOLDING, you know how powerfully that question comes into play. Then, the container. That’s the setting and the plot, which for me are simply different angles from which to explore my question. With multi-dimensional plots, the best way to keep it all straight is to make certain every thread is winding around the same question. That question, then, is both inspiration and lifeline.

TRC: What was the main message or theme you were trying to convey while writing UNFOLDING? What do you hope readers take away from the book?

JF: A phrase kept running through my mind during the writing of UNFOLDING. “The truth will set you free … but it sure causes a lot of chaos along the way.” Now, I wonder if that wasn’t what I was essentially trying to convey. A secret, especially a group-held secret, carries such destructive potential; the truth is absolutely liberating. The truth will hurt, it is worth it, but it will hurt. Humans are pain averse, which is why we don’t like the idea of truth. We much prefer to hide. We much prefer the idea of many truths; there is safety in that. But there is not freedom.

TRC: Did you ever come across any challenges while writing Unfolding? If so, how could you possibly avoid these obstacles in another novel?

JF: The greatest challenge was writing a truthful account of what it feels like to have a seizure. I am an epileptic, and the placing of the seizure experience on paper was difficult. It is not a reality I enjoy revisiting. In giving Jonah epilepsy, I was, of course, allowing him to share in my pain. Pain sharing is never pleasant.  However, these aren’t obstacles to avoid; they are opportunities to embrace. Writing the painful parts of me gives that pain a purpose. It takes the scary and makes it sacred.

TRC: If you could spend time with one of your characters from any of your novels, who would it be and why? What would you do during the day with this character?

JF: Although he terrifies me a little, I would hang with Tres from UNFOLDING. I think I’d be more comfortable if we spoke through the bars of his cell. He’s that person who has seen things and done things from the darker side of my own nature, an example of what I very well could have been. Yet, he tells it straight. I wouldn’t want to hang with him on an insecure day, but if I needed someone to tell it to me straight, I’d go to Tres. Come to think of it, Tres would make an excellent book reviewer.

TRC: Which young adult novel has impacted you most in your life?

JF: It’s a crossover, but PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger was life-changing. I saw the power of words to bring life. If I had written that one book, it would have been enough, as I don’t know how a person could follow it up.

TRC: How and when did you realize your passion for writing? Were your family and friends encouraging?

JF: I do not have a passion to write. I have a passion to tell stories. Writing is one way to do that. It is also really hard work. I often wish I could just do an audio book and skip the text. Sure, it would ramble a bit, but I wouldn’t agonize over the blinking cursor. That said, when it all comes together on paper, and I read a paragraph that sings, wow. It is just, wow. The people in my life have all taken this crazy journey with me. Yes, they have been encouraging, my wife most of all.

TRC: What is one fun fact that people may not know about you?

JF: The ideas for five of my eight novels have come while I have been in the same room of our house: the bathroom. I don’t know if the shower and the sink and the toilet are sources of inspiration for other writers, but there you go!

TRC: Where do you see yourself as a writer in five years? Are you working on anything now?

JF: I am working on a book in secret. My wife doesn’t even know what it is about. It is mine. It is what I want to write, and how I want to write. People may be blown away, or disgusted; I really don’t care. I want to see that book published in five years.