Alix E. Harrow published her first short story with Shimmer. “A Whisper in the Weld” appeared in Issue #22 in November 2014. Now, we approach the publication of Alix’s debut novel! Alix was kind enough to spend some time with us ahead of her book’s release.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January lands in seven days and we’re pretty darn excited for it. What is this book’s origin story? How did it come to be?
Once upon a time, a little girl grew up in western Kentucky and played in the overgrown hayfield on the backacres of the farm and wished very much that she would find a door to elsewhere. (Not, you understand, because her life was so terrible, but just because she read a lot of books with wizard schools and magic lions and dragons flying on the winds of morning, and there were none of those things in western Kentucky). She never found her door, but when she grew up she wrote her own.
When I sat down at twenty-four to very self-consciously write a book, the first sentence that came out was: When I was seven, I found a door. Three-ish years later, I had a book-shaped draft. Very conveniently and absurdly, I also had a short story come out in Apex about librarian witches, and an editor DMed me on Twitter asking if I might, by chance, have a book-shaped thing.
Your work often layers the historical with the fantastic. Can you pinpoint where your love of history comes from and what is so appealing about it?
If you were a little girl looking for doors, and you went off to college and they asked you what you wanted to study, your first answer would be: books! Stories! English lit, of course! But then you might take some history courses and be seduced by true stories, instead, by the shifting narratives we tell about ourselves and the murky realities they both illuminate and obscure. I guess I fell in love with history because it seemed to be the intersection between story-telling and reality, the dusty factory where stories themselves are made.
Your work also extols the virtues and wonders of books (see: your recent Hugo Award win for your short story, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” Apex Magazine). How did you first fall in love with books?
It’s an inherited condition. My mom was finishing her senior year of a history and literature double major; she read me Civil Disobedience and Earthsea and the Ballad of Mulan and Watership Down when I was too young to understand that everybody’s mom wasn’t doing the same thing–handing their kid keys to all the locked doors in the world and giving them a little push between the shoulder blades.
But also: I remember reading the first Harry Potter and feeling like I’d finally made it. I’d finally opened a door and stepped all the way through it.
If you had a Door (or perhaps a Book) you could open onto Anywhere, where would it go?
Earthsea. Or maybe Lyra’s Oxford. Or Hogwarts. Or maybe just a vast library with warm wood floors and raggedy rugs and coffee that never tastes burnt, and lots of quiet courtyards so I can read with the sun on my face while the kids build castles of books or upend potted plants.
What Doors have you discovered with your boys?
THIS IS A GREAT QUESTION. WHY DOES NO ONE ASK ME ABOUT MY NEWFOUND LOVE OF PICTURE BOOKS, AS DISCOVERED THROUGH MY TODDLERS???
So one of my favorite picture book series is Aaron Becker’s Journey, Quest, and Return books, about a girl who draws herself a door into another world (what, I have a brand). We also like everything Oliver Jeffers, but especially A Child of Books, about a magic book-girl who leads a boy to a world of imagination (again, my brand, it’s strong). Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut has just about the best read-aloud rhythm in the history of books; King Baby by Kate Beaton is so, so damn funny; Wild by Emily Hughes is a quirky and sweet anti-Mowgli story; Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell is about a dragon with a library on his back, which is obviously perfect; Prince and Knight is about a handsome prince falling in love with a handsome knight and we’ve read it six hundred thousand times.
As you know, Bob, portal fantasies are an awesome part of speculative literature. Do you have a favorite story in the genre?
Favorite is a big word, Bob. It stresses me. So I’ll merely say: I loved Coraline, as a dark, twisted answer to the blond Disney-fied Alice I knew growing up. Valente’s Fairyland series is sugar and spice and everything nice, plus some not-nice things. I still love Peter Pan. I’m very excited to read Fran Wilde’s new Riverland.
When I imagine Doors, I think often of Hobbiton with its round portals, but also of Moria and “speak friend and enter,” of Dorothy opening her door to the colors of Oz, and of Alice with the tiny door she cannot yet fit through. Do you have a favorite fictional Door?
Look, it’s hard to beat speak friend and enter. Although there are some doors in Erin Morgenstern’s new book, Starless Sea—which isn’t out until November, she says with an artfully careless little laugh—that I fell absolutely head over heels in love with.
Speaking of Moria, does a balrog have wings?
Who—and I mean this is the gentlest, kindest of ways—cares??? I am often baffled by the granularity of debates in nerd-dom. Like, what matters is the darkness and terror of them, that they’re the shadowy things you wake if you mine too greedily and too deep. If you’re the nerd checking for literal wings on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, you’re the one that gets eaten first.
One very important aspect of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the gorgeous cover art and design, by Lisa Pompilio. This cover overflows with flowers and keys (and that doorknob!). What’s the key to growing a good garden?
Let me know if you find out. Our garden is on the verge of attaining sentience and eating the house in the night. Didn’t there used to be a little stone cottage there, people will say, with a tin roof and lots of bright plastic toys on the porch? But there will be nothing but uncaged tomatoes and weeds and butternuts like knee-bones.
Which Hogwarts house did you get sorted into?
Hufflepuff. Where else, dear badgers?
What have you read lately that’s been Great and Tremendous and more people should know about?
I mean, everyone already knows about Red, White, and Royal Blue, but if you don’t: it’s the hella gay political rom-com you need in your life. Preorder The Starless Sea. The sequel to Trail of Lightning is just as good as the first one, maybe better. Also–Kathleen Jennings’s 2020 novella, Flyaway, is Gothic and folksy and so, so good. If you’re a person who reads Tana French, and likes the bits where some dark, nameless creature skitters across the road or scratches at the walls, giving brief unsettling form to the darkest impulses of humanity—Flyaway is made of nothing but those bits.
What’s next for you?
For my next trick, I shall turn my second book-shaped draft—which is about the women’s suffrage movement except with lots more witching and less acronyms and meetings–into an actual book! It will take patience and fortitude and bravery! It will take the generous insights offered by wise early readers, some of whom may or may not be Hugo-nominated short-fiction editors!! It will take a lot, a lot, of coffee.
Alix, thank you for joining us — go get your coffee!
Readers, go get your copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January! You can still preorder, but the book will be in stores everywhere next Tuesday, September 10th!