Today I have the exquisite pleasure of interviewing Alix E. Harrow here on Off The TBR! Alix is the author or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, set to be released by Redhook/Orbit on September 10, 2019.
By now you’ve probably seen at least one review for this beautiful new book. If not you can read my review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January which I absolutely loved and gave 5 Stars, but be sure to come back to the interview after!
OTTBR: Hey Alix! Welcome to Off The TBR. For readers of the blog who aren’t familiar with you tell us a little bit about yourself.
AEH: I’m an ex-history-adjunct now writing almost-full-time in Berea, Kentucky. I have two small, semi-feral children, a part-time-librarian for a husband, and an absolutely out-of-control garden.
OTTBR: Before we talk about your new book I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t point out you’re not new to writing. In fact you’ve written a number of short stories, one of which “A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies” from the February 2018 edition of Apex Magazine was nominated for multiple awards including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award. What has the whole award nomination experience been like? Does it feel real?
AEH: Mostly I think it’s an elaborate setup orchestrated by my mom and husband, or a glitch in the matrix. And even on the days it seems plausible, I understand that it’s the product of luck, timing, happenstance, and pixie dust. We live in the golden age of speculative fiction, and there are a hundred excellent stories out every month; it takes a lot of luck and very generous readers to have a chance of ending up on a ballot.
OTTBR: Your book The Ten Thousand Doors Of January is set to be released September 10th by Orbit. For anyone who hasn’t seen a review of it yet, what’s the book about?
AEH: A girl finds a Door. Adventures ensue.
Or, with more detail: A girl finds a Door to another world before it’s closed forever. Years later she receives a leather-bound book that reveals impossible secrets about Doors, the forces working to close them, and even her own past. It’s about fathers and daughters and imperialism and power and good friends and bad dogs and the stories we all inherit.
OTTBR: Why a portal fantasy? What drew you to that sub-genre? Did you love portal fantasies as a kid or was this an affinity that came later in life? I asked the previous question because this isn’t your first portal fantasy. I first discovered your writing after reading “A Witch’s Guide To Escape”. I was curious when reading The Ten Thousand Doors how much “A Witch’s Guide To Escape” influenced it. Were they totally separate ideas or did one spring from the other?
AEH: Like most lonely oddball kids who read too much, I loved portal fantasies, but I hated their final chapters. You know–where the Kings and Queens of Narnia tumble back through the wardrobe and Alice wakes up on the lawn and the Darlings fly out of Neverland. It’s garbage.
And then when I hit grad school I studied children’s literature in light of British imperialism, and found that many of them doubled as colonial fantasies (as in: a fantasy realm of placid animals waiting for four white foreign kids to come rule them?? yikes).
So The Ten Thousand Doors is in some ways an effort to invert the problems that plagued my childhood fantasies books. To turn them inside-out and backwards, to make them about home-going rather than conquest.
And “A Witch’s Guide” came from a completely different place, believe it or not! I was thinking about my best friend in college, and how we used to text each other call numbers to find one another in the library, and then I started thinking about telling a story through call numbers…
OTTBR: Is your writing style the same for your novel as it was for your short stories?
AEH: Sort of? I mean every piece has its own voice, but I’m still me! Writing very slowly, wasting too much time on twitter!
OTTBR: One thing I’ve noticed in your writing beyond the exquisite prose is your knack for simile and metaphor. You’re a master at it. You use them throughout the book in many different ways, but one persistent way you do so is discussing the shape of letters. The D in Door (“the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing”), or the T in Threshold (“the line of the T splitting two empty spaces”) for instance. What was the inspiration for this, and do you have an example for every letter of the alphabet, and if so when will you publish them for our enjoyment?
AEH: Oh, that’s so generous of you. I don’t know if I’m a master—I just do what Orwell told me: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (And the letter-stuff just sort of happened. It showed up in the very first draft of the very first page, before I knew who January was or where she was going, and it stayed, because I’m insufferable. I didn’t do the entire alphabet, but I’m sure January has it written down somewhere…)
OTTBR: Besides simile and metaphor you paint really vivid scenes that a reader can just fall into with all their senses. One of my favorites was January trying to cook on a wood burning stove for the first time and I was like, “YES! That’s exactly what it’s like!” Does writing your scenes flow naturally or is it a ton of work? And have you had that cooking experience yourself?
AEH: Writing is a ton of work (for me—there are geniuses like Scalzi or Valente who write entire books in a couple of weeks! It’s fine! I’m not jealous!). I write each scene three or four times during a first draft.
And absolutely I’ve had that cooking experience myself. After college I lived in a cabin with no electricity for about six months, cooking on a tiny propane burner or on the woodstove.
OTTBR: Much of the book is set in rural Kentucky and Vermont. What was appealing about those settings as opposed to some other state or say an urban location?
AEH: I wrote about Kentucky and Vermont and the coast of Maine and (briefly) Colorado because those are all places I’ve lived and I am plagued by the constant certainty that a reader is going to spot a mistake or inaccuracy and shout, “WAIT, SHE MADE ALL THIS UP!!” So I stuck to places I knew. Also, I’m terrified of cities and don’t understand how they work. I went to visit the Hachette office in Manhattan and got yelled at by four separate security guards because I didn’t know how to use their fancy elevators.
OTTBR: As I was reading I thought to myself that your book is like a love letter to people who love books. There’s the way you describe page-riffling as being a necessary way to introduce yourself to a book, and how it’s about “reading the smell” of a book. What do you say to the idea that experiencing a book is more than just reading it?
AEH: So here’s the thing: I love reading physical books. I love the smell and texture of them, the stains from spilled coffee and the hint of tobacco and the old lines of highlighter.
But of course what I actually love about books is the stories they tell. And I don’t ever want to get to precious about demanding that others consume their stories in the exact ways and mediums that I did as a kid. I don’t want my personal nostalgia to become a measuring stick or a scale for which stories matter. If you listen to podcasts or radio shows or audiobooks? Awesome. If you adore the branching narratives of video games? Sweet. If the stories you love best are the ones your neighbor-lady tells on her back-porch before her shift starts? That, too, is valid.
OTTBR: There’s also the way you root January in the literature of her age with references to what she’s reading, whether it be White Fang (in installments), Anne Of Green Gables, The Jungle Book, or even Mr. Audubon’s book. Were the books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries favorites of yours growing up? What about them is important to January’s story?
AEH: Those books are important to January partly because they were the popular adventure fiction of the era, but mostly because they’re important to me. They’re the books my English Lit-grad Mom handed me when I was young. They’re the books I studied in grad school. And they’re the books that I’m at-least-partly responding to. The Jungle Book was one of my early favorite books—and I’m still in love with the idea of the Law of the Jungle, as old and true as the sky—but it was also a hideous imperial fantasy that positioned an Indian boy as part of the natural world, written by a famously racist asshat. One of the questions I found myself asking myself was: what would a classic turn-of-the-century adventure look like, if it reflected the actual politics of the era? If the tired stereotypes and assumptions were inverted?
OTTBR: One of the overarching themes of the book is the idea that Doors bring change, chaos, revolution, and upheaval, and that without Doors change doesn’t happen, that Doors are necessary. Part of me sees that as a metaphor for books as Doors but there seems to be more to it than that. Why was this theme so important to you in writing this story?
AEH: Because of those classic portal fantasies I was talking about before. If those Doors were about invasion and conquest and orderly rule, I wanted Doors that were the opposite. I wanted my Doors to lead to revolutions.
OTTBR: You also critique imperialism and capitalism, and modernity in The Ten Thousand Doors. The history major in me loved some of those asides of the novel like, “our new President had just advised us to speak softly but carry big sticks, which apparently meant we should invade Panama.” Was this critique part of your original idea for the story along with Doors and change or did it bubble up as you wrote? What do you hope readers take away from it?
AEH: It’s connected to the last idea. The turn of the twentieth century was in some ways the peak of Western imperial power–a moment when the British and American empires believed their suns would never set, their economies would never crash, their power would never wane. A couple of World Wars and a wave of independence movements would puncture their dreams pretty thoroughly, but I wanted to dig into that worldview, to show the sickness of stasis.
OTTBR: One of the themes that gutted me when I was reading was father/daughter relationships. There’s a few in the book, January and Julian, January and Mr. Locke, Ade and her father and they’re all broken in one way or another. Other than you obviously wanting to make me think about my daughter and make me cry, why this recurring theme?
AEH: Some themes you plan (Doors, stories, social change) and some sneak up and blindside you. This one blindsided me a bit. Without getting too personal: I have a wonderful, loving father who I admire hugely, but who sometimes struggled to be fully present for us. And then I also have the inherited stories from my mother, whose father failed her far more profoundly. So yes, my father-daughter relationships are a little broken. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, broken things can be mended.
OTTBR: What did you enjoy most about writing The Ten Thousand Doors and what did you enjoy least?
AEH: Most: Footnotes!!! There were roughly three times as many in the original draft.
Least: The asylum! If you start looking deeply into the historical treatment of women, and especially women of color, and especially women of color who failed in some way to adhere to social expectations—there’s no bottom, no floor, to the evil you uncover.
OTTBR: As a soon to be newly published author what have been the highs and lows of this whole experience? Does it feel real yet?
AEH: The highs—knowing that authors I have adored since I was a literal child have read my book!—don’t feel real. The lows—those one or two-stars on Goodreads, the long wait, the uncertainty—feel all too real.
OTTBR: Finally, what’s next for you? Anything you can tell us or is it all secret hush-hush?
AEH: I turned my second book in to Orbit! It’s a standalone fantasy, pitched succinctly as “suffragettes, but witches.” It concerns three sisters, a rose-eaten tower, and rather a lot of nursery rhymes. The first line is: “There’s no such thing as witches. But there used to be.”
Thanks so much Jason! These are great questions, and it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Thank you Alix! I’m so glad you were able to drop in and chat. And suffragette witches…just take my money and send it when the book is ready.
If you’d like to keep up with Alix and what she’s got in the works you can follow her on the following media: