Lauren Jankowski is an author and blogger best known for her sci-fi series The Shapeshifter Chronicles, and her work on Asexual Artists. She is a bright and staggeringly eloquent speaker, her most recent presentation was entitled “Where are the Asexual Voices” at C2E2. She has been in the industry for quite some time now and has plenty to say about it. With her Asexual Artists page having now featured nearly three hundred openly asexual artists.
She holds a B.A. in Women and Genders Studies from Beloit College. Aside from fiction, she has also dabbled in non-fiction, writing for sites like “The Next Family” and “Planet Fury.” She has been writing fiction since high school, when she noticed a lack of strong women in the popular genre books.
1) Your first book, Sere from the Green, is bursting with imagination and intrigue. What was the writing process like? Did you find yourself writing at the pace of the story?
Oh god, it feels like ages ago that I first started writing “Sere from the Green” (and I suppose technically it was). Writing “Sere” made me realize that I needed to have some sort of outline for future books because it was such a rocky process. I would just think of a cool scene, write it down somewhere, and then try to plug it into the story in a way that made sense. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to end up, but had no idea how to get there, so there were plenty of stretches of writers block and quite a bit of filler moments. I was such a young writer and could barely rein in my eagerness to write a coherent plot. My mind often moved faster than I could write, which proved to be rather trying at times.
As fun as it was writing “Sere,” I have learned to keep an outline next to me while I write. I don’t always follow it, but it helps keep me on track. I always know where I’m heading and have a general idea of how I’m going to get there.
2) You’re an activist with regards to diversity, feminism and asexual politics. How did you approach issues of representation of marginalised groups in your writing?
Originally I didn’t, not explicitly, after receiving some truly awful advice and suggestions. When I moved onto my second book, my brother pointed out that a lot of my voice was found in my feminism. I had to find some way to pour that into my books without being heavy-handed. I already had four queer women as main characters, two of whom are people of color. When I first became a writer, I wanted to create characters not often found in fiction. As an aromantic-asexual woman, I know what it’s like to constantly read books that don’t have any characters that represent you. I never wanted to do that to any of my readers.
I’ve learned to be a lot more explicit with representation. I’d say my books were always feminist because I never really had a problem being an outspoken feminist. It’s only been a few years since I’ve become the badass openly aro-ace activist I am today, so it took me a little longer to learn how to write explicitly asexual characters. They were always there in my books, but for a time, I was too afraid to use the term. Now there are almost more than I can count. Diversity is something one always has to work on. As I’ve had more opportunities to speak about my experiences with asexual activism and met more people as a result, I’ve found I’ve gotten better at writing more diverse characters.
3) How long have you been writing? Can you remember some of your early stories and did any of them lead into The Shapeshifter Chronicles?
Huh, you know, that’s a tricky question to answer. Most of the characters from “The Shape Shifter Chronicles” I thought up in my school years, so they’re well over 20 years old. Weirdly, I think Lilly might have been the first character I ever thought up. Her or Sly, then the twins were next. Those are probably the only vivid memories I have of my really early grade school days: thinking up these characters and the adventures they had.
I’m one of those unfortunate writers who has never been able to write anything shorter than a novel, so I never wrote down any of the stories in my head. It was only in high school when I really started writing seriously: sometimes at the expense of my school work. High school was a rough time, but I always had these stories to keep me occupied. Most of my spirals were half class notes and half novel fragments (or character background stories).
I haven’t written anything that didn’t take place in the universe my series takes place in. I have tried to write a few short stories, but could never write anything under 25,000 words. Even as a kid, I’ve just been really into epic stories. I have a lot to say, I guess.
4) What has been your favourite part about writing? What drives you to keep writing and gets you through writer’s block?
Writing is the closest we get to genuine magic. I am continually in awe to think how we’ve always been storytellers. Writers are following in the footsteps of the storytellers from ancient civilizations. That’s incredible to think about.
For me personally, writing has always been liberating. In my darkest moments, during tough times, I had this world I could escape to. There were times when I felt I had no voice, but in my writing, I could scream and break free. It’s really interesting to look back at my books and see how I evolved. I can see exactly where I rediscovered my own voice and when I started learning to be fearless.
There are so many things that drive me to keep writing, mostly that I can’t stop (even if I wanted to). There’s also a certain amount of spite: all my life, I’ve been told that I couldn’t be an artist for the most asinine reasons (including my gender and my asexuality). I am the kind of person where if you tell me I can’t do something, I will do it anyway, usually while giving naysayers the finger. I love my characters and the world they inhabit, which I think is where a great deal of my creativity comes from.
Ah, I have a secret for getting through writer’s block: I have a massive project that I work on whenever I’m stuck on the novel I’m working on. I’m writing a complete history of the Meadows, one of the worlds in my books. It’s a fun thing to work on when the muses aren’t singing and it has the added benefit of giving me a better idea of what drives some of the characters in the series.
5) What sort of tropes and clichés do you actively try to avoid, and are they things you think the genre needs to move away from? If so, how and why?
Oh good lord, I try to keep Tolkien’s gentleness in mind when I’m writing. I can’t read most modern fantasy, which has become unbearably grim and nihilistic. When did fantasy become so fixated on having the highest body count? What ever happened to wonder and hope? I never want to leave my readers depressed. Sad, yes, but not emotionally shattered or drained. Some characters do die in my series, but I try to avoid massacres.
Readers will never see a love triangle in my books. The idea just nauseates me and I have been known to give up on books if I see a hint of a love triangle. They’re boring as hell and totally cliché and I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, you know what I want more of? Love triangles!” We really need to move away from the whole idea that a romantic relationship is the most important relationship there is. Not only is this damaging to the asexual and aromantic communities, it’s damaging to the culture at large. I focus a lot on families of choice and friendships in my series. Friendships are just as important as romantic partners to my characters.
6) Tell us about your experience with publishing. What is the industry like at the moment, and what role does self publishing have?
I am the absolute worst person to pose this question to, because I always get in trouble on account of my cynicism. I grew so disillusioned with traditional publishing and the gatekeeping system. The amount of classism, acephobia, and sexism I experienced just completely soured me on the whole thing. Being told that I, as an asexual, was “too niche” to bother with by a literary agent was the last straw to my attempting to break into traditional publishing. The first convention I ever attended, I had a very unpleasant run-in with a well-known missing star in the industry who had a reputation for harassing women.
I honestly prefer self-publishing because it allows me to own my own story and characters. I can avoid participating in what I view as a terribly toxic system. Self-publishing is going through a kind of renaissance at the moment. We’re hearing voices we normally wouldn’t, voices that are ignored by the gatekeeper system. Self-publishing gives a lot of freedom to readers as well. Traditional publishing really only gives readers a few options regarding what they want to read. With self-publishing, pretty much anything goes. Whatever you’re looking for, you can usually find some version of it. Also, there’s something hilarious and cool about what happens when writers have complete creative freedom. Granted, sometimes it’s rather messy and borderline unreadable, but it’s almost always completely unique.
7) What can you tell us about the next book in the series? Any teasers?
Oh, book five, book five is allowing this author to have a ridiculous amount of fun (perhaps too much). Readers are going to meet a guardian named Eris, who is a trickster through and through. She has a very interesting backstory and she has been in the dungeons of the Meadows for hundreds of years on account of being one of the most dangerous and unpredictable guardians. The Four are forced to work with her after a disaster and of course, being a trickster, she doesn’t make it easy. You basically have the fate of the world and the Meadows resting on a person who is just as likely to watch your back as she is to bury a knife in it.
I’m hoping to get book five out later this year and I cannot wait to hear readers’ reactions to it.