Alix E. Harrow is a part-time historian with a full-time desk job, a lot of opinions, and excessive library fines. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Apex, and other venues, and been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. She and her husband live in Kentucky under the cheerful tyranny of their kids and pets. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is her first novel and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Ten Thousand Doors of January?
Like a lot of wistful rural kids, I grew up on a hearty diet of classic kid-finds-a-magic-door fantasies—your Narnias and Oz’s, your Neverlands and Wonderlands. When I hit grad school I studied children’s literature, race, and imperialism, and found that many of my childhood fantasies doubled as colonial fantasies. (I mean, seen in one light, Narnia was an imaginary colony full of placid animal-citizens waiting for four white foreigners to come rule them.)
It was during grad school that I started wondering what a portal fantasy might look like if I turned it inside out and backward. If, instead of a story about invasion and conquest, it was a story about justice and homegoing.
Are January, Jane, Samuel, Ade, Yule Ian, Mr. Locke or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Apparently you’re not supposed to base characters off yourself, but the fact is that January and I share a lot of DNA. We’re both lonely misfit kids who were always looking for ways-out and ways-in. We both have a weakness for nineteenth-century adventure fiction and boys with crinkles at the corners of their eyes. We both have dogs of questionable character; we both found our ways home.
And like, not to make it weird, but Samuel is my husband.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The basic shape of the thing has remained more or less the same. The biggest change happened after my first child was born when I found I could no longer casually wave away the failures of January’s father. How could he leave his child, again and again? The plot didn’t change substantially, but January’s father was suddenly obliged to explain himself more fully on the page.
I didn’t lose any darlings during edits, except for a few of the (excessive) footnotes. The whole thing actually gained ten thousand (ha) words, because my editor is a brilliant and generous deity.
Is there a world from classic “portal fantasy” (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, etc...) that you would like to visit? Which one and why?
I don’t much like the roles that girls are given in Neverland or Narnia (surrogate mothers, worriers, housekeepers, healers), so those are off the list. Wonderland has a monstrous, dark undertone to it, so I suppose that leaves Oz? Honestly, give me Valente’s Fairyland, or Lyra’s Oxford.
If you could find a door that opened into a perfect world for you, what would that world be like? (Is it Yule Ian’s world (which sounds amazing!)? or somewhere else?)
Yule’s world is unsubtly similar to Earthsea—I think I’d love to keep goats on the isle of Gont, or see dragons on the wind of morning.
Or maybe my door would lead to a vast library, with infinite coffee and comfy chairs and courtyards for the kids to play in, and doors that open to my friends’ backyards.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Three pacifiers, a Kindle, one hairband the cat chewed through, one unmolested hairband, a small plastic figure of Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, and an early copy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, which comes out this November. I’m halfway through and it’s an absolute dream—books within books, mysterious doors, long-lost lovers...Clearly, it’s my thing.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
This question always makes me sweaty! What if I answer wrong? What if my books peek over my shoulder and have their feelings hurt? Each of these was at one point my favorite book: My Father’s Dragon, Watership Down, Wise Child, Wild Magic, The Blue Crown, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, A Wizard of Earthsea.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Absolutely not. My parents were and are the human opposites of the Dursleys. Me and my brothers were given access to every book, movie, questionable TV show, game, or Google search to our hearts desired. We turned out okay.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
This is even more stressful! I don’t know about ranking them, but here are five authors whose books are grooved very deeply into my brain: Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke.
What is a book you've faked reading?
Wow, I did not expect to be dragged by a public library today, but here we are! Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. My college boyfriend gave it to me; I made it to a weirdly sexual passage about a woman’s ear and never touched it again.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
As a person who grew up reading ’90s fantasy paperbacks, I like to think I am well-trained against cover-prejudice. But I did come very close to buying the UK versions of Uprooted and Spinning Silver, because A) Naomi Novik is a genius, and B) they’re stunning.
Is there a book that changed your life?
There are at least a dozen books that changed my life. As a kid, I think His Dark Materials were the first books to really shake me, to overturn the hierarchy of the world in my head. Alanna was the first time I saw a girl become a knight of the realm. Stamp Paid’s passage in Beloved was the first time I saw whiteness exposed, laid bare in all its sickness.
In more practical terms I gave a guy American Gods once and he was so horrified by Bilquis’s scene he stopped speaking to me. I’m so grateful.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
As a dedicated book evangelist and genre-hopper, my ministry is always tailored to my audience. But there are some books I shove at everyone regardless of their interests: Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, McKinley’s Deerskin, Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Duncan’s The Brothers K, Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Right now it’s Strange the Dreamer and its sequel, Muse of Nightmares. I usually have a pretty good guess where books are headed—which I don’t mind!—but these two were so unusual, so original, that it felt like falling into fantasy for the first time.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
At the risk of sounding unbearably smug, it would look a lot like my current, actual life: I sit on the porch with my coffee and write stories about witches and wanderers and true love, with the cicadas squalling above me and the laundry drying on the line, while my beloved husband wrangles our kids.
I would make small adjustments (my children sleep through the night and take naps without protest; I write much faster; there’s an extra hour in the evening to read; rhubarb is always in season), but on the whole it doesn’t get better than this.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
I have a ton of rhubarb and I just don’t know what to do with it! I’m baffled! Do you have any advice?
Strawberry rhubarb pie, my dear! All-butter crusts are superior. Pre-cooking the rhubarb is a waste of your time. Gelatin is for the faithless. Lattice tops are pretty, but we all know a crumble top is better.
What are you working on now?
I just handed in my second book! It’s a standalone historical fantasy with a three-word pitch: suffragettes, but witches. It involves three sisters fighting for women’s rights and women’s magic, a mysterious tower covered in roses, and lots of nursery rhymes.
January Scaller is living a life of which many can only dream. Her father, Julian, is a scholar and adventurer, who travels the globe looking for interesting and unique items for his employer, Mr. Locke. Because Julian’s trips are deemed too dangerous for January to accompany him, she becomes Mr. Locke’s ward, living in his Vermont mansion, which is filled with treasures of every shape, size, and origin. January travels with Mr. Locke when he takes trips and attends the functions he hosts in his home. She has tutors to teach her and, after her studies, she is able to spend her days reading (primarily penny novels of fantasy, adventure, and mystery). All of her needs are met, but January misses her father terribly. Then, one day while traveling in Kentucky with Mr. Locke, January finds a Door. When she opens it, it doesn’t lead into the building of which it seemed to be a part, but rather into a different world. A world with a high stone bluff, a bright sun, and an endless ocean laid out before her. When she steps back through it, she is back in Kentucky. This is the first Door that January discovers, but it will not be her last. And, as she learns more about them, she will also come to realize that her life, her very existence, is inextricably tied to these Doors.
In The Ten Thousand Doors of January, debut author Alix E. Harrow tells a story that is both as grand and large as the multiple worlds it encompasses and also as intimate as a young woman’s desperate need for the love and attention her absent father rarely provides. It is also a wild adventure, a sharp critique of our cultural norms, both past, and present, and a wickedly funny and powerful exploration of the power of words and stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a triumphant debut!