At C2E2 (Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo) 2016, I had the opportunity to meet Lauren Jankowski, asexual activist and founder of the asexualartists. She is a feminist writer and author of the Shape Shifter Chronicles. After attending her “Where are the Asexual Voices?” panel (watch the full presentation on her website), I knew I had to contact her for an interview. As an asexual author myself, it was a pleasure getting to speak with her about ace representation and her writing journey.
CW: We’re often taught to use person-first language and I’m curious how this affects how you identify to the writing and publishing community. Do you prefer to refer to yourself as an asexual author? As an author who happens to be asexual? Something else entirely?
LJ: Oh wow, that’s an interesting question and hopefully I have a good answer. I have always identified as a feminist author and then, after I came out as asexual and saw how dehumanized and erased asexuals were in the arts, I started referring to myself as an asexual feminist author. Now I tend to refer to myself as an aro-ace feminist author. I have fought so hard to get to a place where I’m comfortable referring to myself as aromantic asexual, something I’m proud of, and so I’m unlikely to give that up in the future. Same goes for being a feminist, though I have always openly identified as such.
CW: As the founder of Asexual Artists, does your sexual orientation factor into your work as a writer? If so, how?
LJ: It definitely does. I started writing my own novels after I had trouble finding women like me in the fantasy novels I loved so much. There simply weren’t any asexual women, much less any asexual feminist authors. So when I started writing my own series, I created a couple characters that I could identify with as a reader: strong, badass ace women (Alex, aro-ace, and Isis, Gray-A, are my original asexuals. There are more aces that show up as the series progresses). Of course, I couldn’t be explicit about their orientation for reasons I will get into later. Strangely, these characters were also a comfort to me as a young writer: they may have only existed in my mind, but at least I could feel like I wasn’t entirely alone.
I haven’t written much non-fiction, but I do have a chapter in the recent sex-positivity book Embraceable by August McLaughlin (who is just a wonderful, empowered woman) about my experiences growing up asexual. I jokingly refer to it as my origin story, which it kind of is in a manner of speaking. It was a difficult piece to write because I had to recall a time in my life when I was just surrounded by toxicity and being torn down constantly. I felt it important to write because I don’t think my experience is a unique one. Asexuals need to know they’re not alone.
I also wrote an essay for Jim C. Hines’ anthology Invisible 2 about asexual invisibility in speculative fiction. That was really fun to write, particularly because I got to write about the first time I encountered an asexual woman protagonist: Eden Sinclair in the movie Doomsday. It was originally posted on Hines’ blog and a few of the comments reminded me of why I started Asexual Artists to begin with. A lot of people were asking “Have you read this book by so-and-so? There’s totally an asexual in it.” You know what those comments had in common? Every suggestion was for an allosexual author. I kept thinking, “Um, do you guys see a bit of a problem here?” Of course, there was one person who said I should read a recent anthology that was all “bisexual, pansexual, and asexual authors.” I kind of had to massage my temples after that one. I thought, “Really? You can’t dedicate an anthology to each group? You’ve got to smush us all together?” Bisexuals, pansexuals, and asexuals: we’re the holy trinity of invisible/ignored orientations.
CW: You’ve self-published The Shape Shifter Chronicles. Can you speak to what prompted your decision to go the self-publishing route?
LJ: This is probably the answer that will get me a fair amount of hate. My ex-mentor had planted this horrible prejudice in my mind that self-published authors weren’t real authors and were doomed to fail, so I was absolutely terrified of the notion of self-publishing. I kept querying agents and publishing houses after getting free from my ex-mentor, but I didn’t run in the right groups or know the right people. I was also rather poor and I’m a woman, a queer woman. None of these are endearing to traditional publishing houses. Add in all four of my main characters being queer women? It wasn’t something traditional publishing houses or agents would represent.
When I graduated from Beloit and finally embraced being aro-ace, something I wrote about extensively, I then got the added bonus of blatantly acephobic rejection letters. Including one agent who flat out said, “Asexuality is too niche to move books.” At that point, I was completely done with traditional publishing. I couldn’t stomach the misogyny or acephobia and I sure as hell wasn’t going to hide who I was. My experiences at conventions have only further soured me on the whole notion of traditional publishing.
I really love that self-publishing has allowed me to keep my story entirely mine. I have complete control of my plot and characters. I am able to interact more with my readers. I can publish on my own schedule. I was able to release three novels in a year, though I don’t recommend doing that (unless you can somehow miraculously not sleep). Marketing is tricky and traditional publishing still has a stranglehold on most publications, so interviews tend to be rather scarce. There’s still a lot of prejudice against indie authors. It’s frustrating at times, but I imagine traditional publishing is the same.
CW: How has your writing changed from your first novel Sere in the Green, to the later works in The Shape Shifter Chronicles? What advice do you have for writers working on their first novel?
LJ: I hope you’re ready for a lengthy answer, because this one is a bit of a journey.
Sere from the Green was my first novel and it really shows. I was working with an extremely acephobic writing mentor and so there is a fair amount of self-loathing in the book, which I hope to eventually re-release at some point after giving it a good polishing (which it sorely needs). I was so concerned about pleasing him that I chose to suppress my own voice. This resulted in a rocky novel with just way too much description and not enough . . . me for lack of a better word. Interestingly, a lot of this roughness is partly because I was so desperate to hide my ace characters. I did whatever I could to keep them safe: dialed up emotions to about a hundred, threw in a few too many shocking moments and sloppy reveals, and basically wrote every last thing he “suggested.” Here’s a lesson kids: an acephobe is never going to be accepting of an asexual, no matter how much you try to bend and mold to their every whim.
The unfortunate thing is that he eventually completely decimated my self-esteem and I lost any sense I had of my voice. I didn’t write for quite some time after getting out of that toxic mentorship. I was convinced that I would never be able to be a good writer because I was asexual. I even became resentful of other authors for a time because I was so angry that they got to be “normal” and create these amazing worlds of fantasy. Ridiculous, right?
It’s really thanks to the Classical Mythology professor I had my first year at Beloit that I found the courage to write again. That class just had such a massive impact on my life. It reminded me of the stories I had loved so much. It made me remember Artemis, possibly the original aro-ace. I figured if a goddess like that had existed, and was remembered, then there must have been creative aces.
So after completely mucking up my first book and making every single mistake a first-time author could possibly make, including mixing up “proofreading” and editing,” I asked my brother to help me edit my second book. My brother majored in English and knew how to edit things to make them move along better. Plus, he also knew me and he knew how to bring out my own voice (namely by not using random lengthy descriptions that were ultimately pointless). God, I really loved working with my brother.
Through Storm and Night is a book I’m super proud of because I can hear my own voice in it. And readers agree as I’ve been told a few times that it’s like someone else wrote it. I’m also incredibly proud of From the Ashes, which I feel was my way of saying that I wouldn’t be owned or beaten down again. I wrote that book at a time when I swore to myself I would never let anyone make me feel ashamed of myself again. It’s a violent book, but there’s also a lot of imagery of breaking free that I’m quite proud of.
Sere from the Green was written by a scared young woman who was just starting to find her own voice again after being beaten down completely for trying to be herself.
Every subsequent book has been written by the fearless badass aro-ace feminist who is finally confident in her own voice. The characters have evolved in a similar way: I now use the term asexual freely when before I was afraid to do so and the number of ace characters grows as the series goes on. Their bonds are stronger, healthier. There is so much love and understanding, something it took me quite a while to find.
My advice to writers working on their first novel is to not be super hard on yourself. Take your time, find your own voice. I know it’s frustrating and there are times when it seems like brick wall after brick wall, but trust me, it does get better. I think first novels should be looked at as testing the waters. We make mistakes, screw things up completely, and believe me you will always cringe reading your first book again. But try to have fun with it. And take pride in small victories. Writing is always an uphill battle. Most writers write because they have to. And remember, we’re all unique: only you can write your story.
CW: Do you have any new projects in the works?
LJ: Oh yes. The fifth novel of The Shape Shifter Chronicles will hopefully be out this year and it’s a doozy. I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun writing it and I cannot wait to get readers’ reactions. It’s the continuing adventures of the Four. After a disaster, they’re forced to work with a trickster. Easier said than done, obviously.
I have a massive background project that I work on whenever I experience writers block: a complete history of the Meadows, land of the guardians in the series. So I’ve been working on that for the past couple years. I’m hoping to publish it one day because it’s a super interesting project and I have a lot of fun working on it.
CW: I’m curious, what books (or media) have been most influential to your writing?
LJ: Perhaps it will come as no surprise to find out that I’m a massive, massive Tolkien nerd. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a major source of inspiration (I just got a massive map of Middle Earth at a recent convention, which is going to be hung up next to my writing desk), but also the way he loved his characters. A lot of modern fantasy has become so sadistic and body counts seem to be more important than actually writing characters readers can connect with. In Tolkien’s work, there’s this wonderful gentleness to it. There’s still violence and characters do die, but there’s always this beautiful sense of hope in his books. You know things will get better and you never feel emotionally manipulated or drained. My personal belief is that fantasy should never leave you depressed.
Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain is another major influence on my writing. Eilonwy was the first girl character I ever encountered who went out on adventures with the guys. Before then, I had only seen doe-eyed Disney princesses. Eilonwy was a badass: no one was leaving her behind, she could hold her own in a fight, she was clever, and she was allowed to be feminine without being mocked. She was adorable and I still have such a fondness for the character and the series. Eilonwy is probably the reason I became such a hardcore genre feminist. After reading that series, I was thirsty for more strong women kicking ass in fantasy.
Obviously I’m a major myth nerd. I’ve been reading myths practically since I learned how to read. Myths were what I always turned to in my darkest and loneliest moments. I absolutely loved reading about gods and goddesses. The guardians are modeled on a lot of gods and goddesses from different pantheons. Artemis obviously turns up and Electra, the muses. One of my all-time favorite goddesses is Isis, who I named my main character after. Isis always fascinated me, just being as mysterious as she is. Also, she was pretty freaking fearless. Most goddesses were.
CW: Who are you reading right now?
LJ: Oh god, I have a reading list about a mile and a half long.
My best friend and I are re-reading The Silmarillion together. I’m also reading Emmy Jackson’s Empty Cradle series because his work is phenomenal. After that, I’ll probably move onto The Sea Stone Sword by Joel Cornah (which I’ve been dying to read ever since interviewing Joel for Asexual Artists), Fourth World by Lyssa Chiavari, and Viral Airwaves by Claudie Arseneault.
I also keep up with Shining Ascension, an online webcomic by Darcie Little Badger and T. Hueston with artwork by Nick Robles.
Thanks so much, Lauren!