Alix E. Harrow on opening doors to other worlds

Alix E. Harrow can spin a tale. Her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, is a no holds barred adventure full of heart and imagination in which a young girl discovers magic doors that lead to other worlds and must learn to harness her power to write changes into reality itself in order to untangle the secret history of her own origins. This is Indiana Jones meets Narnia, but smarter, subtler, and more culturally informed.

In the following conversation, we discuss what makes a great adventure great, the power of thresholds, and the creative process behind The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

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What is the origin story of The Ten Thousand Doors of January? How did it go from the first glimmer of an idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

“Origin story” makes my book sound like a superhero or a notorious bank robber! The tidy comic book version of the story goes something like this: as a kid I fell in love with classic escapist children’s fantasy—Narnia, Oz, Wonderland, Neverland—and as a grad student I reevaluated them in a less flattering light. I began to see the cracks in their foundations, the shadows behind their smiles; they seemed less like escapism and more like imperialism. I started to wonder what it might look like to invert the power dynamics of a portal fantasy, to take out the cruelty but keep the wistful whimsy I’d loved as a kid.

I wrote the first draft over about three years, interrupted by the birth of my first kid. Somewhere in there I wrote a short story about librarian witches, published by Apex Magazine; an editor at Orbit read it and DM-ed me on Twitter to ask if, by chance, I had anything novel length, and then in a year and a half I got to see my book on a Barnes & Noble shelf.

There is an intoxicating amount of unabashed, unadulterated adventure in this story. What makes a great adventure great?

What I find really delightful about this question is that it reveals how subjective our reading experiences are. Readers who are accustomed to spy novels or thrillers or young adult fantasies might find The Ten Thousand Doors dull, but compared to, say, The Secret Garden, it’s a legit romp.

But I think what makes adventure great is more about what isn’t on the page than what is—it’s ships sailing toward unknown horizons, horses galloping into sunsets, the promise of something even grander and stranger off the margins of the map, unwritten.

Why are doors to other worlds such a powerful metaphor? What personal thresholds have you crossed that changed the course of your life?

Doors are the ultimate promise, aren’t they? Every closed door in a story is a perfect little Chekov’s gun, begging to be opened.

My personal thresholds are all the ordinary kind: new houses and apartments and cars, schools and colleges and office buildings. The one I remember best is the enormous arch where I married my husband, a tangle of grapevines and saplings my father lashed together especially for the occasion. He planted cardinal flowers around the base, so we were married on the threshold of a green and crimson door.

The story beautifully subverts many tropes, throwing the cultural assumptions behind them into stark relief. What anomalies did you notice in our world that you wanted to weave into this one?

There’s a part in Barrayara sci-fi romance I’ve read a very reasonable fifty or sixty times—where an outsider attempts to make a list of all the gender-specific social rules of a new planet. It’s a planet that was isolated for centuries and fell into a sort of faux-medieval feudalism, so all the rules on her list are very familiar to readers—about virginity and chastity, marriage and propriety--but seeing them through the eyes of an outsider makes them all so much weirder. So arbitrary and unfair, so transparently constructed. I read that book young, and it was one of the first times I really got that culture is just long-running group project, that things like patriarchy and racism are choices rather than inevitabilities.

And then in grad school I studied the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it felt like a moment when our present-day social hierarchies were being set in stone. So I guess I wanted readers to be able to see that, to see a culture in process, and the people who profited from it and the people who resisted it.

As January grew and changed throughout the story, how did you grow and change alongside her? How has she impacted your life or point of view?

Apparently it’s tacky to admit, but the truth is that January and I share more than a little DNA. I grew up bookish and isolated and wistful, longing for adventure; I fell in love with a good-hearted man with adorable crow’s-feet; I learned the (unbearably cheesy but very real) power of writing my own story.

But I also grew up a lot during the years I was writing this book. I got married. I had my first child. I found my sympathies splitting, and the story of January’s parents becoming more and more important to me.

What did writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January teach you about craft?

That it’s not necessarily advisable to do a multigenerational book-within-a-book with footnotes and alternating chapters for your first-ever novel! That I have to draft with absolute indulgence and edit with absolute sobriety; that em dashes are the coward’s semicolon.

What books do you love as much as January and Samuel love their story papers? What other books might fans of The Ten Thousand Doors of January enjoy?

Too many to list! I’m re-reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted right now, which might be followed by a relapse into Robin McKinley. I’m clinging pretty hard to happily ever afters and true loves, these days.

As far as further reading for fans… If you like weird structures and magic doors, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea is the perfect companion. If you like plucky Edwardian girls I recommend the 1995 movie version of A Little Princess. If you like books about books, H.G. Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is so smart and lovely. If you mostly just like the dog, I recommend the out-of-print, impossible-to-find Sinbad and Me by Kin Platt.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels that explore the intersection of technology and culture. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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