Alix E. Harrow was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, among other things. To get started, I will shamelessly steal from Alix’s author bio in order to make introductions.
Alix E. Harrow is an ex-historian with lots of opinions and excessive library fines, currently living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral children. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards; The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her first novel.
Welcome, Alix, and congratulations on the publication of The Ten Thousand Doors of January! It’s a wonderful book, and I feel lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it! For those who haven’t experienced it yet, would you care to give a sense of what it’s about?
Is there any question more terrifying to a writer than “so, what is your book about?” So innocent! So devastating! But the short version is: it’s 1901, and a girl catches a glimpse of another world through a blue door in a field. Ten years later, she and her terrible dog have to find their way back to through the door with nothing but a mysterious book to help them. It’s about family and history, nowheres and somewheres and in-betweens, bad dogs and good friends and the stories we all inherit.
January is a fantastic character, among many fantastic characters (Bad!) in the novel, and her journey through its pages is magical. What came first in terms of inspiration for this story – the character, the setting, the plot, or some combination of all three?
The first two pages have remained more or less unchanged since the very beginning of everything. I wrote them before I had a plot or an outline or anything at all but the image of a young woman watching the sea, writing her own story. Her story started in an overgrown hayfield in western Kentucky and ended somewhere-very-much else. Most of writing this book was just filling in the gap between point A and point B, which I did by jumbling together everything I love most: a book within a book, a father-quest, footnotes, anticolonial sympathies, dogs, true love.
Doors to other worlds are obviously a key part of your novel, and you also wrote about portal fantasies in your beautiful and bittersweet short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” What draws you to the theme of portal fantasies? Do you have a favorite portal fantasy novel or story? If you a had the opportunity to travel another world, what would your ideal fantasy realm look like, and what means would you use to access it?
So, the thing that attracts me to portal fantasies is that I don’t like them. That’s a lie—I loved Narnia and Wonderland and Peter Pan and Oz as a kid, but I hated each of their endings. Dorothy and Alice waking up; the Pevensies tumbling back through the wardrobe, crown-less; Wendy growing old. They left me with this hollow, haunted feeling—what Neil Gaiman refers to as “a hole in your heart” in The Ocean at the End of the Lane—and I’ve spent more time than I’d really like to think about trying to fill it.
And then in grad school I studied empire through the lens of children’s literature, and realized that portal fantasies were often actually colonial fantasies, imagining chaotic foreign lands that needed civilized white children to take them firmly in hand. And after that I started thinking about turning portal fantasies inside out and backwards—making them about home-going rather than escape, about belonging rather than conquering.
(My ideal fantasy realm is something like Earthsea, where I would tend goats and work women’s magic and no one would ever know my name. Or maybe it’s Hogwarts, where I teach the History of Magic properly. Or maybe it’s Novik’s Wood in Uprooted? Anyway, I live in a house like Howl’s and have doors leading to every realm on different days of the week).
Your novel, and many of your short stories, make use of historical settings. What appeals to you most about writing about the past? When choosing a setting for a story, do you pick a period you’re already familiar with, or one that gives you an excuse to learn something new, or does it all depend on the story? Is there a particular time period you’re more drawn to than others?
What appeals to me about the past is the illusion that I can fully know it. The present feels too complex and ever-changing and vast to ever accurately represent it, while the past feels comfortably finite. The past can be divided into eras and periods; it can be assembled into sixteen-week syllabi; it can be footnoted in Chicago style and peer-reviewed. That’s why I tend to cling nervously to the end of the nineteenth century—it’s what I studied in grad school, and I feel more confident stomping around in it, tossing fairy dust in the corners.
You’re currently based in Kentucky, and I admit it’s an area I don’t know much about. What are some of your favorite places in the area to visit in order to recharge your creative energy and draw inspiration, or places you like to recommend to those visiting for the first time?
Kentucky is beautiful and terrible and broke as hell. I both love it and hate it, several times a day—I suspect lots of people feel that way about the places they’re from.
Here are the places that make me love it:
• Lake Nolin (a dammed river south of Elizabethtown that smells like catfish and sycamores and my entire childhood)
• Red River Gorge (obviously)
• Farm Market (a tienda/tamale place on New Circle Road in Lexington. Last week the owner had a new grandbaby, got emotional, and ended up giving my kids two free pinatas. 10/10 would recommend)
• Noodle Nirvana in Berea (a donut shop by day and a noodle place by night)
• A certain overgrown hayfield just south of Bowling Green (Door not guaranteed)
Here are the places I strongly do not recommend:
• The Creation Museum (obviously)
• The World’s Only Museum of Ventriloquism (due to the obvious haunting)
One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?
Blueberry raking in Maine. I learned how to keep my shirt tucked in so I didn’t burn the everloving hell out of my lower back; how to play Dutch Blitz; how to jump an ancient VW van; how to fall in love. Every love story I ever write will be that one, I think.
Now that The Ten Thousand Doors of January is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?
My next book was pitched as “suffragettes, but witches,” and follows three sisters working to bring witching back into the world. I just handed its primordial first-draft to my agent. By fall of 2020, maybe it will have evolved into an actual, readable book.
It sounds fabulous! Thanks for stopping by!
Thank you for all the work and service you give the SFF community—and your own lovely stories!