An Interview with Ascension Author Jacqueline Koyanagi

The first thing that struck me about Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel was the cover. It’s rare to see a person of colour – and a female at that – as the main protagonist in a science fiction/fantasy story. But in reading the book, I learned that there was far more to Alana Quick. And a lot more to her inspirational creator, Jacqueline Koyanagi.

Ascension was recently released in digital format and reviewed on Bibliosanctum but reading and enjoying the book wasn’t enough for me! Thankfully, Ms. Koyanagi very kindly agreed to satiate my curiosity about both book and author in this interview!

Jacqueline Koyanagi
Photo by Vasilion Photography
W: Tell us a little about how Alana came to life.
JK: All of my stories feature queer women of color, and I was delighted that my publisher had no qualms about featuring Alana on the cover. The whole Prime/Masque team is fantastic.

Beyond that, Alana’s chronic illness features heavily in her story. Between my own illness and those of several people I’ve been close to over the years, I’m intimately familiar with the toll invisible disabilities can take on a person’s life. In some cases, nothing goes untouched by its influence: eating, walking, working, even just showering.

The combination of chronic illness and poverty can mean pushing oneself to be productive through the pain. I wanted to feature a character whose chronic pain is deeply integrated into her day-to-day life, so much so that she has long since learned how to function in spite of it. When survival is at stake—obtaining food, medication, additional work—sometimes you have no choice but to push through the symptoms.

Alana is a character who lives at the junction of practical skill and intuition. Most of Alana’s life is, by necessity, focused on tangible, physical matters, from managing her illness to the mechanical aspects of her work as a sky surgeon. I wanted to give her something more than that, some driving passion that helped her push through to the next day; her connection to the Tangled Axon is her tether when her body rebels.

W: I love the idea that Alana isn’t the typical soldier or captain in a typical sci fi story. She’s a sky surgeon who has never even left the ground. Where did you get the idea to make this her occupation?
JK: Actually, it started with the idea of the Tangled Axon and its engine room. I knew I wanted to tell a story in which this ship was the setting, and I wanted the protagonist to be someone who would have an intimate connection to the spirit of the ship.

W: Were there aspects of Alana’s adventures and interactions that reflected real moments in your life?
JK: Mostly her experiences with her chronic illness. While the symptoms of my own illness are different from Alana’s, they certainly impair my day-to-day functioning. I channeled some of that into Alana’s story, particularly her determination to keep going regardless of what her body was telling her. It’s a stubbornness both I and many other chronically ill people I’ve known share.

There’s a little of me in many of the characters I write, I’m sure. Tev’s demeanor is probably the closest to my own for better or worse, and Marre’s circumstances are a metaphorical reflection on the long-term effects of psychological trauma, which is deeply connected to my own history and that of several people I’ve known.

Of course, another obvious corollary to my life is the non-monogamous nature of the relationships on the Tangled Axon, since I’m polyamorous as well. That said, the relationships in the novel aren’t direct mirrors of any of my own relationships.

W: Why was it so important to you to tell this story? What message did you want to deliver to your readers and to the science fiction genre in general?
Ascension is, at its heart, a story about eudaimonia. I chose a narrow focus for that reason: Alana’s story, her perspective, her desires. We see what’s relevant to Alana, and nothing more. When Alana lived in her home city, she was overwhelmed and overshadowed by the noise and oppression of the larger world. The Tangled Axon comes into her life, and she sees an opportunity to find a place for herself for the first time.

The ship is the main setting because that is the way Alana conceptualizes her reality: the Axon and its crew become her world, and everything else is incidental.

Beyond the aforementioned roles of disability and diverse relationships, gender obviously loomed large in this book. The common trope is that, while the world is populated by more than one gender, stories are often overwhelmed by male characters. Male protagonists, male antagonists, male background characters, with—at most, if we’re lucky—two or three women thrown in, usually orbiting the men. Even when a protagonist is a woman, we often see her surrounded by men, heavily influenced by the actions and desires of the men around her.

I deliberately inverted the trope, and this was important to me: I wanted to tell a story in which women just happened to dominate the protagonist’s experiences regardless of what the broader population looked like.

Depicting characters with diverse qualities was less about any one message and more about doing it for its own sake.

W: Who are your favourite authors? What are your favourite books? How have they influenced you as a writer?
JK: I’m going to have to go with Catherynne Valente for her soulful approaches to myth, Caitlin Kiernan for the way she depicted mental illness in The Drowning Girl, and China Mieville for his gorgeous worldbuilding.

W: If you could ask any one of your favourite authors a question about their characters and worlds, what would you ask them?
JK: I’d probably want to listen to Valente talk about the birth of Palimpsest, which remains one of my favorite novels for its unusual characters and surreality. I also have a bit of a thing for Palimpsest’s Casimira, so I’d be interested in learning more about where she came from in the development process.

W: What do you love about genre fiction? What do you hate? What would you like to see in the future of the genre?

JK: This is probably a cliché, but I love that SF/F is limitless in its potential. I’d like to see more authors capitalize on this in terms of gender and sexuality, though I think we do have some great voices accomplishing this right now. It’s an exciting time for genre fiction.

W: Describe your writing process. What gets you into a writing frame of mind?
JK: I choose a scent for each project I’m working on and use that to trigger the necessary mindset when I sit down to work. I’ll usually review my work from the previous day to create a sense of continuity, then get lost in the protagonist’s world and forget to eat.

W: What are your future writing plans?
JK: I’m currently working on a new novel that has a much darker mood. It’s more solidly science fiction than Ascension, though mythic elements certainly made their way into the worldbuilding as well. Most of my stories sit somewhere between science fiction and fantasy because I have a hard time conceptualizing a world primarily dominated by ingenuity or magic—both are relevant to me, so both appear in most of my writing in one way or another.

W: Any advice for aspiring writers? 
JK: Keep at it.

W: Tell me a little about Helix Chainmaille. It’s beautiful and it seems to have snuck into the story in its own unique and personal way! How long have you been designing the jewelry?

Helix Chainmaille | Photo by Vasilion Photography
JK: I hadn’t originally intended for Ovie to weave his own chainmaille jewelry, but I liked the idea of giving him a creative hobby to balance out his more detached personality. I’ve been weaving chainmaille for a couple of years now. I’m on the autism spectrum, so having a repetitive hobby that I can get lost in for hours at a time is helpful in mitigating some of the somatic elements of ASD.

W: Anything else you’d like to add?

JK: Thank you for taking the time to review Ascension and talk to me. It’s been a pleasure!
And thank you! 
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