Interview with Alix E. Harrow (THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY)
I’ve been a student and a teacher, a farm-worker and a cashier, an ice-cream-scooper and a 9-to-5 office-dweller. I’ve lived in tents and cars, cramped city apartments and lonely cabins, and spent a summer in a really sweet ’79 VW Vanagon Westfalia. I have library cards in at least five states.
Now I’m a full-time writer living in with my husband and two semi-feral kids in Berea, Kentucky. It is, I’m very sure, the best of all possible worlds.
Hi Alix and welcome to the Hive!
Your books The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches, which isn’t even out until October, have made some big waves in the blogger community! Did you have an inkling, when writing them, how well they’d be received?
Absolutely not. That feels disingenuous or flip, but it’s the flat-out straight-up truth. The standard of the field is so high, and the competition is so splendid, that I am genuinely surprised that anyone makes time to read anything I write. I can’t keep up with my reading pile and I refuse to believe anyone else can.
Your writing style is beautifully evocative and so rich – could you tell us something about your process?
Well, I write a sentence and then I delete the second half of it, followed by the first. I write it again, then I switch the predicate and subject. I add a semi-colon and subtract an em dash. I try out six or seven metaphors, choose the very best, and then cut the entire thing in the next pass. I copy and paste, write and rewrite, read it out loud, and sometimes, occasionally, it rings right.
What’s funny (read: heartbreaking) is that it’s never the sentences I sweat over that I love the most—it’s the ones that just sort of happen, half-accidentally. I am absolutely haunted by that Salinger scene when Seymour Glass tells his little brother to stop aiming so hard at marbles.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January has such an expansive world, do you think you may revisit it–or any of the worlds one accesses through the countless doors–and write another novel/explore these stories further?
The thing about writing an infinite multiverse is that there’s always room for more stories! I have one about a certain door in British East Africa that I’d love a chance to write, but who knows!
The Once and Future Witches and The Ten Thousand Doors of January both draw heavily on the themes of how stories shape us and connect us. Are there any stories in particular you feel drawn to?
Apparently the story I can’t let go of is the one about how important stories are, as desperately cheesy as that is. I just think narrative is baked deep in our DNA, and there’s a certain power in drawing those stories to the surface. In saying, here is the story you’ve always been told, and here is a better one.
Personally my most deeply baked stories are probably Western fairy tales, because I was born in 1989, right when the Disney princess train was leaving the station. And I’ve always had a weakness for The Six Swans, because I had two brothers and liked to imagine I was the kind of sister who would nobly sew shirts from nettles to free them from a curse.
You’ve added some fantastic female characters to the canon of Strong Independent Women in Fantasy, but who are your favourites? Are there any fictional women who inspired and influenced you?
This is a picking-your-favorite kid situation, in that you might have one but it’s impolite to say it out loud. I’ll just say I have a real weakness for hard-jawed tough-talking trouble-makers from Kentucky, like Adelaide Lee and James Juniper, who I think could be distant cousins.
And they were influenced by a truly uncountable number of better and brighter women in fiction. All the Tortall girls. Cordelia Naismith, naturally. Starbuck and Serafina Pekkala. Sissy Hankshaw from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (which absolutely does not hold up) and Lauren Olamina from Parable of the Sower (which totally does).
Although The Once and Future Witches is set post-American Civil War, your messages of equality and standing against discrimination are still, unfortunately, so relevant to today. How important a role do you feel fantasy has in holding up a mirror to real life struggles?
I don’t know if I think about that kind of thing as a duty so much as an absolute inevitability. If you’re writing about humans, they have a race and a class and a gender, which means you’re writing about power. And there’s no way to write about power, even in the most fictionalized, imaginative space, without talking about power as it actually is. We live in the world, and so does our work.
I’m sure you’ve already been asked this, but which witch would you be?
I totally haven’t been asked this!! If you mean which of my witches, the annoying-but-true answer is that the Eastwood sisters are myself split in three equal parts. The bookish librarian who wants to be left alone in her tower, the aimless, angry kid who wants to set something on fire, the working mother who just wants a nap.
If you meant witches writ large then I would be Serafina because I want to fly through the northern lights without ever feeling the cold.
Before we wrap this up… one of the most striking sentences in The Ten Thousand Doors of January goes a little like this:
“there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges.”
We can’t help but ask, what pushed you past the threshold of our world to the literary one, what drove you to tell these wonderful stories? When did you first see that particular door?
Hubris. Pure, unfiltered ego. There are very few things in this world that I love more than the sensation of falling into a book, of tumbling down into a story head-over-heels. Writers strike me as people who make sense of the world even as they help you leave it, and I can’t think of a higher ambition.
Finally, what one thing do you hope readers take from your stories?
The same wistful lifting of your heart that made you reach through the winter coats and press the back of the closet, just in case it led to snowy woods and a lonely lamppost. A sense of wonder, I guess.
Thank you so much Alix for joining us today!
The Once and Future Witches is due to hit shelves on 13th October 2020