Welcome to another installment of Other Halves, our irregular interview series in which authors are interviewed about their books, writing process, and the weirdness of the literary life by their spouse/partner/significant other. Today we’re joined by newly minted Hugo winner Alix E. Harrow and her husband Nick.
Alix E. Harrow is an ex-historian with excessive library fines and a lot of opinions. This year, her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Locus awards and she was this year’s winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January (out September 10 from Orbit) is a Fall 2019 Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection.
Alix and Nick met harvesting blueberries in Maine. Now they live in rural Kentucky, where Alix writes full-time while Nick raises their two semi-feral toddlers and still finds the patience to read her first drafts. (His canonization is pending.)
Nick: Pretend I’m a stranger and you have ten seconds to sell me your book.
Alix: Please, sir, my children are hungry! Look at them—waifish, ragged—
Nick: I was thinking more like a quick plot summary.
Alix: In 1901, a girl finds a Door (that’s Door with a capital-D, the kind that leads to Narnia or Fairyland or Atlantis), but someone closes it forever. Ten years later she’s given a leather-bound book that promises to explain everything—the ways between worlds, the secret power of words, and even her own past. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about good friends and bad dogs, history and power, adventure and true love and the stories we all inherit. It’s about finding your way out, and finding your way home.
Nick: It’s also a book within a book, with two stories intertwined. Why didn’t you choose a more straightforward structure, for your first novel?
Alix: I’m sure you’re remembering the number of times I lay face-first on the living room floor and moaned “WHY DIDN’T I CHOOSE A MORE STRAIGHTFORWARD STRUCTURE???” while you nodded not-very-sympathetically.
In part I think I was scared of moving from short fiction to long, and it seemed less intimidating to write two short books and stuff them into a novel-shaped suit. And that second perspective was also emotionally important to me, especially after our oldest son was born.
But it also just felt right. I wanted to talk about stories, especially the ones we inherit—and what happens when we take the narrative into our own hands.
Nick: You are a million wonderful things—
Alix: Aw, thanks doll.
Nick: —and one of them is an ex-academic historian. How does your historical training factor into this book and your writing? Did you try to make it 100% historically accurate, or did you take any liberties?
Alix: How about this: anything I messed up, we’ll say was an intentional liberty taken in the name of fiction. Anything I got right was due to my talent and dedication as a researcher.
What I loved about studying history was never the granular details. I didn’t care when gas lamps were introduced or what kinds of buttons were popular in the 1880s or even who inherited the throne after whom. I cared about the deeper, harder-to-see stuff—the cultural narratives and changing ideologies, the invisible mythologies that underpinned everything. The stories we whispered to ourselves. I hope some of those stories are made visible in The Ten Thousand Doors.
Grad school also gave me:
- A debilitating reliance on Chicago Style footnoting. Every first draft I’ve ever written has footnotes.
- A long and happy relationship with Zotero.
- The belief that aggressively-stated opinions are a fine and normal way to make friends.
- The ability to write tens of thousands of words for keen-eyed and jaded audiences who will rate me on a five-point scale.
Nick: You have several—although not ten thousand—different worlds in your story. What was your inspiration for each place?
Alix: One of the conceits of the book is that Doors leak. Ideas, people, objects—and especially change. So I mostly worked backwards, beginning with a story or event in our world and imagining the secret Door that might exist behind it. The Indian Rebellion of 1857. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution. Selkie stories in Maine and boo-hangs in New Orleans. And there may or may not be references to a couple of other fantasy worlds. (Readers, your clue is: alabaster.)
Nick: There’s magic in your book, but it all feels natural, almost simple. Unencumbered by rules or ingredients or limitations. Why?
Alix: I have a strong, possibly childish preference for magic that feels magical. The point of magic is that it exists outside the physics and rubrics of reality, that it slips past the rigid boundary of the possible and impossible, that no one knows quite what it could do. I hate video games with little green meters for magic.
(Although if you make your magic too airy-fairy loosey-goosey, you end up with god-like powers and a lot of plot problems. Like say if you created a set of powerful stones that could control time, space, reality, etc., and handed them to the villain. It would be difficult to imagine how everyday heroes could fight him for more than like four seconds! It would be a very short movie!)
Nick: Did you pull any of your characters from real life?
Alix: Are you referring to the handsome young Italian-American gentleman with eyes that crinkle charmingly at the corners? Who supports the heroine through every battle and believes above all in the power of her voice? He is the purest fiction, my dear. Any resemblance to actual husbands is purely coincidental.
Nick: When you wrote this book you were working full-time with a newborn at home. I can’t fathom how you had the time to write it! How did you do it?
Alix: Sheer determination and resolve, of course! If one is a real writer one simply gets up at 3:15AM sharp and writes ten thousand words before breakfast! One types on lunch-breaks and Sundays! One subsists only on black coffee and purest American grit!
That, of course, is horsehockey. I managed to write my book, work, and have two children the same way most other writers do: by having someone else manage the basic labor of living. You cleaned. You cooked. You made the grocery list and paid the gas bill. You Googled teething remedies and slept with your neck all crooked because even the slightest movement would wake the baby.
I didn’t dedicate the book to you just because I have a crush on you, you know. I did it because without you, there wouldn’t be a book to dedicate.