Alix E. Harrow is best known for her short fiction, especially her recently Hugo-award-winning story, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape; A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” Alix’s debut novel is due out today, September 10, 2019. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a portal fantasy itself, filled with beautiful descriptions, witty writing, fearsome dilemmas, corrupt leaders, and the power of words. Here’s our review.
Before she broke into the fiction field herself, Alix reviewed for our blog for a time. She took time out of her busy schedule, both writing her second book and getting ready to promote The Ten Thousand Doors of January, to answer some questions for us.
One commenter with a USA or Canadian mailing address, who will be chosen at random, will win a copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Marion Deeds: First of all, Alix, congratulations on your Hugo win! Tell us where you were and what you were doing when you found out you had won a Hugo for “A Witch’s Guide to Escape; a Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.”
Alix Harrow: I was visiting my in-laws in upstate New York, trying to get a million-year-old VHS of Toy Story to play for my three-year-old and his cousins, un-casually checking the live feed on the Hugo site every three or four seconds.
When I got the nomination my husband had suggested a watch party, but the idea sort of made my skin crawl—like if I set aside a space to celebrate I would have to look directly at it, acknowledge that I had hopes and ambitions. It was easier to keep it in the corner of my eye, especially after I lost the Nebula and Locus Awards to P. Djeli Clark’s phenomenally deserving story, “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.”
What made you set The Ten Thousand Doors of January in the USA’s Long Gilded Age?
Two reasons: First, because I am a fundamentally lazy person and I’d studied the turn of the 20th century in grad school, and didn’t want to start from scratch in some other time period.
Second, because it was in many ways the height of Western imperial power and capital. Because there was a sense — at least among the powerful — that the true and right order of the world had been established and nothing would ever change it again. They believed their suns would never set, their empires never fall, their progress never falter. One of the conceits of The Ten Thousand Doors is that doors breed change — so it made sense to put them in an era that was obsessed with stagnation and stability.
There are at least two books within the book, and each one tells part of the story. There is a nested quality to the storytelling. What drew you to a metafictional structure? And were there technical challenges in telling a story this way?
It’s funny — you don’t really see your motivations clearly until the book is finished. It’s only looking back that I realize I wanted to do a book within a book because I was scared of jumping from short to long-form fiction and was less-intimidated by writing two short books and squashing them together.
That part certainly worked.
Plus I wanted to write about how it feels to fall into a story, to escape into someone else’s adventure — what better way than to follow January into a book?
As far as technical challenges… I can now say with some authority that writing your first novel in alternating chapters, juggling two generations and shifting from first to third-person and back to first — was actually not the easiest structure to pick.
I don’t usually ask if characters are based on people from the writer’s life, but I will make an exception. Is Bad based on a dog you’ve known?
I may or may not have gotten an ill-behaved puppy in my teens that I named after a famous explorer who became my dearest and best companion on all my adventures. Magellan mostly goes by Jelly.
Mr. Locke’s house seems, at various times, like a maze, like a mansion, like a prison and like a gilded cage. Is it based on an historical mansion, or did you imagine it entirely? How did you create it?
I’M SO GLAD SOMEONE ASKED!!! It’s based on Shelburne Farms in Vermont, which is a massive, sprawling estate built with Vanderbilt money in the 1880s, perched right on the edge of Lake Champlain. Everything is red brick and green copper roofs and rolling green “farmland” designed by Olmstead. It’s the image of Gilded Age faux-rural-living. In grad school I went there all the time, and found myself filled with a resentment and longing, both wishing it was my personal castle and wanting to tear it all down brick by brick. Sort of how January feels about Locke House.
I just looked at some photos and… Wow.
Alix, you have called some of your work “sugary” instead of using the word sweet. What connotation does “sugary” have for you? And what do you see as the difference, if any, between those two descriptors?
I guess when someone calls something sweet, I think of something small and silly, something trying its best but ultimately a little pitiable. Like: oh, isn’t she such a sweet thing.
When I say my writing is sugary, I mean: it feeds your sweet-tooth. It satisfies and sates. I mean: all my endings are happy ones; (highlight this spoiler if you want to read it) the dog will never die; most of the wrongs will be righted.
Tell us what you are currently working on.
I’m working on [redacted] right now, and I just submitted a second book to the Orbit editorial team and am waiting sweatily for their feedback. It’s another historical fantasy standalone, pitched as suffragists, but witches. It’s about the American women’s movement, the restoration of witching, and three sundered sisters.
Give us a sense of your writing process.
Wouldn’t it be comforting if writing had a process? Like a neat set of steps which, if followed, would result in a book?
My set of steps for this book went something like this: I wrote the first two pages, which are still the first two pages in the book. I liked them. I outlined an entire novel to support the things I’d made up — the scars on her arm, the smell of the sea, the doors that lead elsewhere. Over the next three years I inched my way through it, starting over two or three times, sometimes writing half a sentence a day. My first child was born in the middle and it hit a giant reset button on everything and made me reevaluate the perspective of January’s parents. Once it sold I added another ten thousand words and subtracted 50% of the footnotes, under my editor’s genius guidance.
About those footnotes… Part of the story employs them. How fun were those to write? What do you see them doing for the story?
Everything I have ever written has had footnotes at some point in its drafting process. I learned in grad-school to use footnotes to corral my wandering asides and thought processes, to leave a bread-crumb trail of sources and ideas behind myself, and the habit stuck. I justified leaving (some of) them in The Ten Thousand Doors as a way of distinguishing the book-within-the-book from January’s voice, and of hinting at broader histories and worlds without disrupting the narrative.
I thought it also reminded the readers that one of our narrator characters was a scholar, and thought (and wrote) like one.
This is a traditional question we here at Fantasy Literature like to ask: Is there a beverage you are particularly enjoying now, that you’d like to share with our readers?
As a Kentuckian, and a person with an absolutely out-of-control mint patch, I can recommend homemade mint syrup with bourbon. It’s my summertime jam.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks so much for the invitation! When I started thinking seriously about writing, I thought I should try to read up in the field first and Fantasy Literature was kind enough to let me be one of your reviewers, until I realized that book-reviewing is exhausting and ran off to write short stories instead. I’m so grateful for that experience.
We are glad for the time you spent reviewing, and delighted that your fiction career is soaring.
One commenter with a USA/Canadian mailing address will receive a copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January.