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An Interview with Alix E. Harrow

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.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January CoverWelcome, 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!

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Other Worlds Than These

Portal fantasies – stories that begin in the world we know but find their characters venturing through wardrobes, or tumbling down rabbit holes, into a world where animals talk and magic is real – can seem like pure escapism. But they’ve always been more than that. Portal fantasies teach us about our own world. Some serve as a means of exploring and deconstructing tropes; some reinforce certain rules and dominant narratives while seeming to throw logic out the window. And sometimes, portal fantasies are simply necessary. They are not about running away; they are about learning how to to survive.

Riverland by Fran Wilde and The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow are both novels about survival. They are necessary. While they’re very different – one historic, one contemporary, one spanning a few weeks, one spanning years – they also share many similarities. They are both stories about the power of narratives to shape our lives, and they both teach their protagonists how to live in a world that isn’t always kind to them. They are important.

As anyone who reads my reviews regularly likely knows, I enjoy finding common threads among works. I like books and stories that talk to each other, either intentionally or not. So here I am, applying that lens to The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland, opening the doors between them, and listening to them speak. Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned…

Riverland begins with sisters Mike and Eleanor hiding under Eleanor’s bed, telling stories. Their stories are a form of escape from a house where things break, where there are raised hands and raised voices, and telling anyone about family business and “bringing trouble” is the worst offense imaginable. Their stories are also a wish, and a form of magic. They are a way of understanding the world; in stories, they can safely say “one day, our real parents will come for us” and never have to directly address the horrible situation they’re in and are afraid to speak of out loud.

“Once upon a time…”

“Why do you always start like that? Why not someday, or tomorrow?”

“Because that’s how stories start, Mike. They’re already over when you tell them. They’re safer that way.”

Mike and Eleanor occupy a liminal space. They yearn for magic to be real, and they are almost young enough to believe it. Yet they are both older than their years, and beneath their  yearning, there is a sense of hopelessness. Eleanor especially is old enough to feel a burden and unfairness to her life that seems to preclude the possibility of magic. She’s trying to protect Mike, but has no real resources to do so; she’s expected be quiet and behave and never get angry, even when she’s surrounded by anger every day; and she’s asked to lie to protect her family’s secrets, even though those secret put her in danger.  She feels trapped, powerless, and the reader feels those things right along with her.

Then the world of her stories manifests as real, and she and Mike tumble from the space under her bed into a river that can’t possibly exist. They meet a pony made of dishrags, and a heron made of sea glass and driftwood. They’re asked to honor a compact their family made before they were ever born and save a world they only just discovered existed. Eleanor and Mike learn that even magical worlds come with unfair expectations and burdens that they will be asked to carry, despite their young age. There is danger in the river, and the consequences they face there threaten to spill over into the real world as well.

Riverland CoverRiverland is beautifully-written. It is painful, and it is also necessary. Ultimately, it is a story about sisters learning to save themselves and  each other. Even though they’re young, even though they shouldn’t have to do it, even though it’s impossible as a reader to stop hoping that someone will swoop in and intervene – a neighbor, a teacher, another family member, even a heron made of driftwood – they are on their own. Riverland gives us the hard truth that sometimes there isn’t anyone else. Sometimes you have to do the scary and terrible thing on your own, even though it hurts and you’re afraid.

One of the most beautiful lessons Eleanor learns over the course of her journey is that there are good kinds of mad, and bad kinds of mad. The bad kind makes you lash out at other people. The good kind leads you to stand up against what is unfair, to speak out even when you’ve been told to keep quiet. It is an important lesson for girls especially, who are too often conditioned by society not to make a fuss, to go along and keep everyone happy. They are taught that their own pain and discomfort is secondary, and the worst thing they can do is make someone else upset, even if staying silent means putting themselves in danger. It isn’t only an important lesson for girls however, it’s an important lesson for everyone. Abusers thrive on making people feel powerless, isolated, and as though speaking up will only bring more pain. The lesson applies to adults on the outside of a bad situation as well. It’s easy to see something wrong and assume someone else will take care of it. It’s easy to feel it isn’t our place to fix it, or that the problem will go away on its own. It’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do to help, so why bother to try? It’s easy to convince ourselves we’re imagining things, and maybe there isn’t anything wrong at all. That’s the problem. It’s easy. And so bad things are allowed to continue, because it’s easier to look the other way and pretend not to see them happening.But as Eleanor learns, doing the right thing is scary, and hard.

Riverland is a portal fantasy about travel to another world, but it is very much about this world as well. It is about fighting back and standing up, and not staying silent. It is about getting angry at unfairness, and turning that anger into fuel to save yourself and those around you. It is necessary, and it is beautiful.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January CoverThe Ten Thousand Doors of January follows the journey of January Scaller, a character whose life seems very different from Eleanor and Mike’s. She’s an only child, with a father she rarely sees, being raised by father’s employer, Mr. Locke. While her father is off in far corners of the world, searching for rare artifacts for Mr. Locke’s collection, January rambles around Mr. Locke’s house, usually with only her own imagination for company. Mr. Locke cares for her, but at the same time, he also treats her as part of his collection, a clever curiosity he can show off as long as she behaves.

Like Mike and Eleanor, January lives a kind of liminal existence. Her guardian is wealthy, but she possesses nothing of her own. She’s too brown to belong in white society, too female to have true independence and worth. She doesn’t belong anywhere, until she stumbles through a door in the middle of a field that leads to another world. Until she discovers a book hidden in a chest in Mr. Locke’s house, which speaks of otherworldly and magical places, telling the story of a young woman who once found a door very much like the one January found, and spent all her life trying to find her way back to it and to the young man who stepped through it and into her world one day. Until January discovers she does indeed have power, the kind of power that terrifies men like Mr. Locke.

Mr. Locke keeps secrets from January. He tries to control her. Like Eleanor and Mike, she’s constantly being told that anger, stubbornness, and standing up for herself are all unacceptable qualities in a young woman. When January learns she has the power to open doors between worlds, the knowledge comes with danger from those who fear change and would do anything to maintain the status quo. Stories, narratives, other worlds with other ways of being – where women and people with brown skin are not second-class citizens – have the power to affect change in this world, and that is something that Mr. Locke and his friends can’t bear to have happen. They’ll do anything to stop those stories from being told, and those doors from being opened, including burning the doors, and killing January.

“If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moment when the doors open, when things flow between them, that stories happen.”

While January starts off largely alone, she builds her own family along the way – including her neighbor Samuel, who used to slip her adventure magazines along with the groceries he delivered from his family’s store when they were young, Jane Imiru, hired by Mr. Locke to be January’s companion, and Bad, the best dog ever. While they may not be family by birth, they are still family, and they fight for each other, and rescue each other the way Eleanor and Mike do.

Harrow does a fantastic job of making the face of evil look like the face of reason at times, and of casting doubt as to who has January’s best interests at heart. There is gaslighting at play, and over the course of the novel, January learns to trust her instincts and trust herself, even if that means flying in the face of everything she’s taught is right and proper for a young woman to do.

In both Riverland and The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the worlds the protagonists escape to are vital in teaching them how to survive their own world. They learn how to fight back, question authority, and stand up for what they believe in. Most importantly, they learn how to fight against the status quo, and those who are invested in keeping certain power structures in place. Whether it’s white men running the world, or a parent with absolute control over their family, Eleanor, Mike, and January’s worlds are all designed to be a closed system until another world breaks through and changes everything.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Riverland are both rife with magic and moments of heartbreak as well. Bravery is on display, as is fear and the feeling of being trapped and powerless. But Eleanor and January are both character who get back up, who do the hard thing, even when they are afraid, and shout back at the unfairness of the world. By the end of their respective journeys, they both know that portals can be a means of escape, but they can also be a means to bring you more fully in the world and teach you how to claim your space in it and not let anyone take that space away from you.

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