Alix Harrow on Her Next Novel, The Once and Future Witches

Last year, Alix E. Harrow published her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a fantasy novel about a young woman named January Scaller, as she works to uncover her family’s history and the power dynamics of the world. The novel earned Harrow a Best Novel nomination for this year’s Nebula Awards, but she already is poised to release her sophtomore novel: The Once and Future Witches, which is set to hit stores on October 13th.

BookRiot unveiled the cover for the novel yesterday, along with a brief synopsis:

There’s no such thing as witches…

There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But, in 1893, when the three Eastwood sisters—James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna—join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to purse the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into a witch’s movement…and set the world ablaze.

But there will be.

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was probably my favorite fantasy novel of 2019, and needless to say, a new book about women seeking to upend oppressive forces and witches looking to join the suffragette movement sounded fantastic. I spoke with her about her upcoming novel, and what to expect from it.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Andrew Liptak: I wanted to start off by looking at your debut novel: What got you started on this particular story?

Alix E. Harrow: I have a nice canned answer for this, about encountering classic English portal fantasies as a kid and then reexamining them through a postcolonial lens in grad school, and it’s all true—but the more distance I get from this book, the more I realize how many starting points it had. How many of my own personal wells and experiences I mined to write it.

So, it also came from growing up enamored with my parents’ stories and youthful adventures, and watching The Journey of Natty Gann, and spending time in archives piecing together narratives from bits and pieces of other stories. Even the title is stolen from All the Pretty Horses, from a line about two young men going out into the world like two thieves in an endless orchard, with “ten thousand worlds” for the choosing.

AL: It felt very much like Ten Thousand Doors of January hit right in the middle of the growing public discourse about the treatment of women in society.

AH: It did, but it wasn’t written during that conversation (except in the sense that existing as a woman in the world is a constant conversation about power and privilege and danger and autonomy).

It was written in a much more optimistic moment, and I almost wonder if it functioned as a certain kind of escape for some readers—a story where the controlling men are toppled and the young women are freed. Where their (our) words are assigned a literal power to reshape the world. I wish it didn’t feel so escapist to me now.

AL: It looks as though you’re covering some similar territory with The Once and Future Witches. Where did this story come from?

AH: There’s definitely a lot of thematic overlap—every story I write seems to be plucky girls vs. the powers that be—but this one came from a much angrier, darker, toothier, post-2016 place. It came from joining the women’s march and not understanding how there could be so many of us shouting so loudly to so little effect. I wanted something to happen. I wanted buildings to shake on their foundations and congressmen to sweat into their white collars.

So I dreamed a world where women had more than just their voices—they had just a little bit of witching, and the memory of a time when they had more. One of the ideas in this book is that magic is the distance between what you have and what you need; this book is absolutely the reality I needed, but didn’t have.

AL: How would you describe the story?

AH: Oh, I’m not very good at this yet! The short version: three sister-witches fight the patriarchy in an alternate American women’s movement!

But that leaves out the alternate fairy tale retellings woven throughout, and the politicking, and the two (2!) romances, and the family traumas, and the shadows that creep and watch from every corner….

AL: Can you tell me a bit about the characters and where they come from?

AH: Our main girls are the Eastwoods: James Juniper (the wild one), Beatrice Belladonna (the wise one), and Agnes Amaranth (the strong one). They’re angry and bitter and tired as hell of living under all the various thumbs that pin them down. They don’t trust each other, or anybody else, but they better learn fast.

AL: I can’t help but notice that it’s going to hit bookstores just before the November Presidential Election. How has the events of the last couple of years influenced it?

AH: Mainly the events of the Trump presidency just made it all harder. Harder to write, harder to pour my heart into, harder to face the future for myself and my children. Like everybody else who reads the news, I’m tired.

In more specific terms, there may or may not be a corrupt political candidate who fans the most noxious tendencies of his followers for personal gain, and an election night that leaves a roomful of women gutted and silent, staring at one another in speechless horror.

AL: I’m fascinated by the long history of witches as a sort of intersection of female power and persecution. How does this manifest itself in this story?

AH: I mean, that’s it. That’s the whole book. I spent a year writing this thing and you just….tweeted it out. The main thing that makes this alternate history really alternate is that the witch burnings of the late medieval period were genuine; there were once witches, until they were blamed for the Black Plague and collectively burned.

So it’s both things at once: the memory of power, and the horror of what happens when you wield it. Which really isn’t that dissimilar from the history of women’s suffrage movements, is it? Every step forward came at a terrible cost—women institutionalized and imprisoned, starved and silenced.

AL: What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?

AH: Hurt and hope. You know the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road when Furiosa falls to her knees, keening her rage and pain? And then the moment when she stands the hell back up? I want it to feel like that.

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