Alix E. Harrow "...every story begins by the seat of my pants...."
Alix talks about her influences as a writer and how everything she writes will eventually return to a reflection on narratives, storytelling, and books.
I don’t know about you, but I am a lover of stories — all kinds. The brutality of grimdark or the magic of portal fantasy, they all appeal to me. Stories can be magical. This, in essence, is what attracted me to the writing of Alix E. Harrow. Alix loves the written word and, by extension, stories. You can tell if you have ever read any of her short stories or her novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January. There is just something about the language she uses to explain things.
She gets what it means to be a nerdy lover of books.
I had the great fortune of asking her some questions via email, and fangirl for a bit. She was kind enough to answer me during a stressful holiday/writing season.
BWGB: Hey Alix! Thank you for taking some time to answer my questions and chat with me. As a longtime fan, I get to have some fan-girl moments here. So for the uninitiated, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Hi Elizabeth! It is so profoundly strange and unlikely that anyone should identify themselves as a fan of mine, first of all. But, in a nutshell: I’m a former academic turned full-time writer, currently living in rural Kentucky with my husband and our two young kids.
BWGB: You have described your mom as a “stone-cold badass.” She hunts with a falcon, so yup absolute badass. Could you tell me a little bit about her? Has her source of badass-attitude been an influence in your writing?
Ha! I am reminded that what I write on twitter is, in fact, very public knowledge! Yes, my mom
is, like most decent moms, a stone-cold badass. She’s a falconer and a college instructor and an archer and a good cook. Her influence on my life is so huge it feels impossible to squash into a sentence—but in very practical and visible terms, she’s the main inspiration behind Adelaide Larson in The Ten Thousand Doors.
BWGB: Before we talk about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I would love to talk a little bit about your short stories. What is the process for writing a short story? Do you plan it or pants it?
I was about to declare that I’ve never pantsed anything in my life, that I outline my emails for chrissake, but I think the more honest truth is that every story begins by the seat of my pants. I think of ideas by writing them. I sit down and just start. And eventually a sentence arrives that tells me where I’m headed, which seems to contain not only the beginning of a story but the hint of an ending. Then I stop everything and outline the ever-loving hell out of it.
BWGB: A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies makes me smile when I think of it. I have such fond memories of libraries as a place to worship stories as a young child. I notice that it is a familiar theme in your stories. Were libraries an integral part of your childhood?
No. Isn’t that a bummer? I think there’s a Neil Gaiman essay where he talks about growing up
semi-neglected and lonely, adopted and raised by the books in his local library, and it’s romantic and tragic and just right. But I grew up largely in rural Kentucky, where the library was tiny and all the books smelled of cigarette smoke. I read about libraries in books and waited in vain to find one suitably grand–something sprawling and magical with stone lions out front, like the one
from The Pagemaster. Now my husband works part time at our local library and I take the kids at least twice a week. It doesn’t have stone statues of lions out front, but it doesn’t smell like cigarettes either.
It’s honestly pretty magical.
“I hope you will find the cracks in the world and wedge them wider, so the light of other suns shines through; I hope you will keep the world unruly, messy, full of strange magics; I hope you will run through every open Door and tell stories when you return.”
The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
BWGB: The Ten Thousand Doors of January has been described as a love letter to readers and stories. Did it start out that way?
Not at all!
It just turns out that everything I write will eventually, obsessively return to a reflection on narratives and storytelling and books. I am a snake constantly swallowing her own tail.
BWGB: The character January is written so richly she honestly seems like she is alive. Did you base her on a real person?
It’s apparently uncool to admit this, but honestly? She and I share a lot of DNA. We’re both lonely bookish kids who grew up sheltered and awkward. We both found ourselves by writing our stories.
We both fell in love with dashing young Italian boys whose eyes crinkle just so at the corners.
BWGB: In The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage, the lead character Oona is a woman who spans multiple worlds. The librarian from A Witch's Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies spans both the mundane and magical world as a witch, and January spans multiple worlds as she moves from door to door. Do you, as a writer, gravitate towards duality in characters?
Oh. Wow. This is one of those interview questions that makes me feel like a flashlight was just shined into some unused cupboard in my chest. Huh.
The obvious answer is yes, I am. I’m interested in people who have no clear place, who are in-between, who spend their lives striving and searching for a place to call home. My own life narrative is a muddled one—my parents were academics but also blue-collar. I grew up on a farm but then in an apartment complex. I was restless, wistful, always watching the horizon but never certain what I was looking for.
I still feel that way, to be honest.
BWGB: You recently won a Hugo award for A Witch’s Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium Of Portal Fantasies. What was that like?
Utterly surreal. Profoundly unlikely. I think maybe in twenty or thirty years I might be
comfortable with it.
BWGB: Do you find writing to be energizing or exhausting?
Both. Mostly it’s just work like any other kind of work, easier than retail but harder than admin. But then on the good days—when it just flows out and you know you got it right—there’s no better feeling in the world.
BWGB: Have you ever read a book in one part of your life, then reread a book at another time in your life, and had a much different experience with it? I like to think of this as the Ayn Rand affect. My experience with Ayn Rand as an 18-year-old and the now 39-year-old me is very different.
See, the thing is that I’m almost constantly re-reading the same books over and over again, so I
rarely get to experience much of a shock. I grow up slowly with books. I read The Vorkosigan
Saga at 15 and 16 and probably 16 and a half and 17, etc all the way up to 30. Weirdly the only
one that comes to mind is Elvenbane by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey, which I loved at 12 and recently tried to re-read. It….doesn’t hold up.
“In our language, the word for mapmaker is also the word for traitor.”
The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage by Alix E. Harrow