Queen’s student’s debut work parodies dystopian fiction

Q & A with student author, Jake Caldera on his novel The Elephant on Fire

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Editor's note: This article may contain spoilers. 

What do you get when you cross The Hunger Games with a wicked sense of humour? An outrageous novel with immoral characters and a whiplash-inducing plotline.

Queen’s student Jake Caldera’s The Elephant on Fire is just that. The novel, which was released in April, follows Hollywood actress Ember Gold on her journey across a developing country where she accidentally starts a revolution. 

The Journal sat down with Caldera to talk about his debut novel and future aspirations as a humour novelist. 

Q: This novel is a clear satire of the genre, so do you even like dystopian novels like The Hunger Games or the Divergent series?

A: You know what, I’m actually a huge fan of dystopian fiction … they all seemed to have a similar protagonist with similar problems, love triangles and futuristic trains. I just started to notice these similarities and I guess it kind of built up in my head. I’m a huge Hunger Games fan, though. I’ve even got the little Mockingjay pin I wear sometimes.

Q: Were you trying to make references to The Hunger Games, or did you use that as a base to create something totally different?

A: I would definitely say that because The Hunger Games is the biggest name in dystopian fiction right now, it certainly was the biggest of my inspirations when writing the novel, but I didn’t want it to be just a direct parody of it. I wanted to write my own stories making fun of all those dystopian tropes as a backdrop; I didn’t want people to know what was happening next, I wanted them to fall in love with my own characters, and when I say fall in love with the characters, I mean love to hate them because they’re all terrible people.

Q: What were your inspirations behind the creation of these characters?

A: I read a lot, but I don’t tend to read comedy, I read sci-fi and fantasy. When I watch TV or movies, I love the terrible female antagonists, they’re absolutely my favourite — one of my favourite movies is Mean Girls — they can be so hilarious and enjoyable to watch, and I wanted a character who was not a good person. The first thing I realized when I started writing is that the only way anyone was ever going to read this book and get behind Ember Gold as a protagonist was if every other character around her was a hundred times worse. I mean, they’re all just terrible! What I was going for was, “oh Ember’s the worst!” and then someone else talks and then it’s like “oh my god, get back to Ember, I can’t stand this person,” — that sort of thing.

Q: You make jokes about race, class and gender and you don’t hold back on any of these issues that people face now. Were you trying to create a socially conscious novel? 

A: Humour is a huge driving force, but I definitely was thinking a little bit about feminism. I find that a lot of these so-called feminist characters, like Katniss are very one-dimensional for the most part. I wouldn’t consider Ember a role model — obviously, she isn’t supposed to be. But in a way, she’s a feminist character in that she’s her own character — she’s the boss and she’s controlling everything around her. There’s obviously this element of her being interested in Dak, but she’s mostly interested in him for her career, and even though she’s not a good person, that doesn’t mean she can’t be a feminist, and I like that aspect of her. I wanted to have someone who was a feminist, but not necessarily a good person — I think it’s important to have roles like that and it’s actually the same thing with Dak. As a gay man myself, I was tired of seeing all these one-dimensional characters. I told myself, I want to have an antagonist be a really terrible person who is also gay and has more dimension to him. I don’t want these perfect cookie-cutter people to have to incorporate other cultures or races into my novel.

Q: What are your plans for your future as a writer? Are you going to make this your career?

A: I would be lying if I said I never thought about it. I really do enjoy writing and I have a lot of ideas even for future books in this series and other books as well. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s something I want to do necessarily, as my primary source of income for the rest of my life. I think what’s great is I go to Queen’s, I have this career building on the side so I have something to fall back on. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope something came of this, I love to entertain people, and I would love if more people read my work.

The Elephant on Fire is available at Novel Idea, or online at www.jakecaldera.com. All proceeds will be donated to various fire and burn-related charities in Canada (seriously).

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