Hello, everyone! Celeste here for Novel Notions, bringing you an interview with author Alix E. Harrow. We’re celebrating the publication of her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. As soon as the synopsis and cover art dropped in 2018, this book became my most anticipated of 2019. From its very first page, I knew that my expectations were not only going to be met, but far exceeded. January’s story is utterly delightful and charming, and Harrow’s novel is a lavish love letter to the power of the written word and the people who love words so completely. It’s thrilling and romantic and breathtakingly beautiful, and is a wonderful blend of so many genres, like magical realism and historical fiction and portal fantasy. It’s a book that I can’t wait for the world to read, and I’m incredibly humbled to have been given the opportunity to interview its author. Without further ado, here is my interview with Alix E. Harrow!
Hi, Alix! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Before we get started, I wanted to congratulate you on winning a Hugo for your lovely short story, A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies. It was definitely worthy of the award.
Thank you so much for having me! The thing about the Hugos is that all the stories were deserving of awards this year. I’m glad the finalists and winners are spread out a bit this year, between the Nebula/Locus/Hugo/Eugie Foster, because there are so many excellent authors that deserve it.
- Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you know that you wanted to become and author, and how did you first get into writing?
Writing books is one of those dreams so big and deep I couldn’t tell you where it begins or ends. It just is, like a whale swimming beneath the tiny rowboat of my conscious life. Which is a really dramatic way of saying: I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I realized it was a thing a person could be.
But I didn’t always admit it. I didn’t take any creative writing classes in college or join any writing groups or even write any stories. I just read a lot of books and re-wrote my favorite passages and didn’t look down at the whale beneath the rowboat.
- Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your (wonderful) debut?
I saw a tweet once that went something like: People ask me how I came up with the idea for my novel and the truth is that I spent weeks trying really really hard to think of an idea for a novel. And that’s a little bit true. I wrote a bunch of short stories and felt like I was ready to try something longer, and sat down and wrote the first two pages of The Ten Thousand Doors.
But the real question is how those pages got in my head in the first place. I figure they started with a childhood love of portal fantasies and a lonely kid’s longing to find a door on the back acres of her Kentucky hayfield, and then got sideswiped by postcolonial theory. In grad school I studied race and empire in turn of the century British children’s literature, which meant I reevaluated a lot of my formative books, and started to wonder what it would look like if I turned a portal fantasy inside out.
- What were the biggest challenges you faced while writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January?
Pacing. Structure. I wouldn’t advise writing a book-within-a-book stretching across two generations and alternating timelines for your first attempt at a novel, myself.
- January’s story feels like a children’s fantasy for grown ups. It delivers all the magic and joy and innocence of beloved middle grade portal fantasies, and yet is obviously written for an adult audience. Are there any novels that you love which served to inspire this book, children’s fiction or otherwise?
Not consciously, but subconsciously of course every book I love has influenced me. I found myself thinking about Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane while writing, maybe because it’s also an adult book dressed up as a children’s book. And the movie Secondhand Lions, which is cheesy and perfect, and involves a boy coming of age through handed-down tales of adventure.
- I think all book lovers are enchanted by books about books, but your debut actually takes that idea a bit further. I’ve never read anything that was as much of an ode to the written word as this book. The way you wrote about how the shape of a word mimics its meaning, and how capitalizing the first letter of an important word can alter that meaning, was one of the most charming additions to any story I’ve come across. Where did this idea come from?
So, I know you’re not supposed to write yourself into your main characters, because it’s tacky and transparent, but I totally did. January and I are both bookish, lonely kids longing for adventure, who have a tendency to narrate their own experiences. I wanted some shorthand way to show how important words are to us, how even our internal monologues come with punctuation and capitalization. Plus, I wrote that third or fourth sentence about the D of Door swinging open into white nothing, and I liked it.
- Your bio lists a delightfully varied work history. Besides your current career as author, what is your favorite job that you’ve held?
Harvesting blueberries in Maine. I mean it was shit work, hunched over in the sun all day filling box after box, then standing on an assembly line the next day tossing out the soft berries, listening to metal or country and wishing you’d brought an extra sweater from home. But it’s where I met my husband, so it was and remains the best work in the world. If you’re looking for love, and have a weakness for scruffy dreamers with cheap guitars and worn-thin t-shirts, I recommend blueberry season.
- How did you end up with Orbit/Redhook, and what has been the most surprising aspect of becoming a traditionally published author? Were you expecting the level of promotion and excitement your book has received?
I got very, very, very lucky. Stupid lucky. The kind of lucky that makes people dislike you a little. I published a short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”), and it got passed around on Twitter a little bit. I got a DM from an editor at Orbit, and an agent at Howard Morhaim, asking if I happened to have anything longer. “Why,” I said, “Give me a week to polish this manuscript.” Then I sent it to them and they liked it and all my childhood dreams came true at once.
The Orbit team has been unbelievably good to me, and unflagging in their support and love for this book. Obviously I’m brand new at this and have nothing to compare it to, but I can tell you that any author would be lucky to have Nivia Evans and Emily Byron as their editors, or Ellen Wright as their publicist, or Lisa Pompilio as their cover designer, or Kate McKean as their agent. They’re all solid gold.
The cover art for The Ten Thousand Doors of January is exquisite. Did you have a hand in its conception? How did you end up teaming up with your cover artist?
The Orbit team asked me early on if I had any thoughts on a cover, and I wrote back a very excitable list of mostly bad ideas, which they politely ignored. A few weeks later the current cover showed up in my inbox, and it was so obviously good and right and fitting that there was nothing to discuss. Like I said: lucky.
What’s next for you? Are you already in the process of writing your next book? If so, can you tell us a bit about that?
Orbit very generously and trustingly gave me a two-book deal when I signed for The Ten Thousand Doors, with the second book pitched as “suffragettes, but witches.” Over the last year I quit my day-job, my husband wrangled the kids, and I just handed in a book-shaped draft to Orbit. It’s flawed and messy and too angry, and it needs a ton of work, but there are pieces of it I think I might actually like. Some day.
- Do you have any tips, tricks, or writing quirks you’d like to share with those looking to make the leap into authorship?
I wish I could say that I did, but my own route has been made of pixie dust, luck, and happenstance, and I’m not sure it’s a repeatable experiment. I mean, obviously: read and read and then read some more. Rewrite passages of your favorite books again and again until you hear the rhythms of someone else’s prose thudding in your skull. Maybe start with short stories, until you begin to hear your own rhythm.
And maybe the hardest thing for me has been getting real comfy with the concept of failure. To expect rejection and harsh feedback and two-star reviews, and choose to improve rather than give up. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by the equally great Jesmyn Ward, and he talked about handing early chapters of his novel to Michael Chabon, who told him it was failing. “I think so much of writing happens in those moments,” Coates says, “Talent is important, but perseverance and high threshold for humiliation is maybe even more important?” I’ve been repeating this to myself since I got my edit letter for the second book.
- Would you share some of your favorite books? If you could push three books into the hands of everyone you ever met, what would they be?
My book recommendations are specifically tailored to the reader, of course!! No three books could possibly be right for everyone in the world!! If you need a warm blanket against these cold, cruel political times, I would give you Red, White, & Royal Blue. If you want to disappear into fairytales for grownups I would give you Uprooted and Spinning Silver. If you want to see what science fiction and fantasy can truly be, pushed to their limits, I’d hand you Ancillary Justice and The Fifth Season. A family drama, with brains and heart? We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or A Spool of Blue Thread or Little Fires Everywhere. Do you have a high tolerance for footnotes and a weakness for Austen and/or Dickens? Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. Perhaps you would like to see a girl coming of age without softness or sentiment, discovering the limits of her assigned place in the world? The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Or sink into a searing history about loss and love and the sins of our past? The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Sing, Unburied, Sing.
I’m cutting myself off, but understand that I spend my life waiting for some innocent bystander to ask, foolishly, “Read anything good lately?”
- Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Alix. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
Thanks for such smart, insightful questions, for your early love and support for this book!
Be on the lookout for Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, on its September 10th release date!