Breaking Ground: A Debut Author Feature with Alix E. Harrow
F(r)iction is delighted to introduce our readers to Alix E. Harrow and her debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Even though this is her first full-length novel, Alix is no stranger to the literary world with writing previously appearing in such esteemed venues as Apex, Shimmer, and Strange Horizons.
Coming from Hachette this fall, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is already amassing considerable attention, being called “absolutely enchanting” (Christina Henry, national bestselling author of Lost Boy and Alice) and “. . . an adventure in the best and grandest sense.” (Erika Swyler, national bestselling author of The Book of Speculation).
In this fresh take on portal fantasy, we follow January Scaller in her search for her missing father when, after finding an odd book, January begins to realize that the story it contains may be interlaced with her own. Full of adventure, love, and seemingly impossible journeys, Alix has crafted a novel showing one young woman’s odyssey into many worlds to find her place in this one.
In our interview, Alix discusses race, colonialism, her writing process, and the magic combination of literary magazines and Twitter. After the interview, stick around and check out the first chapter. Trust us, this is one door you don’t want to leave unopened.
An Interview with Alix E. Harrow
By Dani Hedlund
What inspired you to write this book?
A big chunk of it came from the process of getting my master’s in history. My thesis focused on the British Empire, cultures of imperialism, and children’s literature in the role of propagating imperial culture. As part of that, I read a lot of kids’ books that were portal fantasies. If you think of the Narnia narrative, it is, in one light, about little domestic civilized British children who go find this wild untamed place that needs these white kids to come and manage it. I started thinking then about how you could take a portal fantasy narrative and turn it inside out—make it less about conquest and more about going home.
More personally, I think a lot of it comes from looking for home myself. Until I was ten, I grew up on this gorgeous 140 acres in Western Kentucky. Then my family had to sell the land and move, and we never really settled down after that. It’s kind of clear to me, looking back on the book, that it’s a psychologically unsubtle attempt to write myself a way home.
How was the character of January formed?
January is mostly just me at a certain stage of my life. That sort of awkward, sheltered, naïve-but-fairly-sharp person. Someone more comfortable with books than people, who doesn’t have many friends. A lot of that just comes from my own personal experiences. But some of it also comes from that graduate school work and thinking about how colonialism and racial structures work, particularly at the turn of the century.
Your novel spans many different worlds. How did you map all of the worlds in your head?
I drew it out a lot, but there was also a lot of logistical planning for this book. I did a lot of traveling at a certain period in my life. It was a certain kind of low-budget semi-homeless rambling for many years. It’s how the narrative of my life has gone. I graduated college in 2009 and there were no jobs at that moment, so I had a van and a dog and I just drove around. I harvested blueberries in Maine, met my husband there, and then we drove to Belize. Then we lived in Virginia for a while, then New York for a while. The way the book-within-the-book travels around and catches glimpses of different places is familiar to me.
When writing, we’re typically told to not use ourselves for the main character because we won’t think about things objectively. How did you create and maintain objectivity while writing this character?
It helps that she’s a younger version of me. It’s a lot easier to look back on your fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old self and see, not necessarily objectively, but with a little bit of empathy, slightly cringing at times. You don’t necessarily understand yourself in the moment, but looking back on things, you see what was making you tick and you’re like, “Ohhhhh.”
How did you take that first spark of an idea and create a plot around it?
Really slowly and organically! I’d been having all these vague thoughts, and then I sat down and wrote the first two pages, and those have remained more or less unchanged. I liked that first little chunk, so then I invented a plot that would explain it all. I had a feeling about it, like this kind of wistful desire for there to be doors around every corner, to be able to just wander into other worlds and find adventures.
There’s an element that allows January to access a portal into these portals, which are the ten thousand doors. What was it like using that as a plot device?
I think I decided to do that because I had this feeling that I started the plot far too late in the story. I was already a generation in and we’d moved on from all these things that I knew happened and writing a book within a book would be a cheating way to never have somebody sit down and monologue about everything that had already happened. It felt very true to have her experiencing her life interrupted and interspersed with other people’s stories.
Which narrative was easier for you to delve into?
The process of writing it was actually difficult. January’s narrative was easier for the voice, and the book-within-the-book was easier for plot. I had a lot of events that I knew needed to happen and a clear driving purpose for the book-within-the-book.
I like having an obvious narrator, if that makes sense. I think a lot of really excellent third-person fiction is trying so hard to erase the feeling of a narrator. But I like being told stories. It’s very fun to just indulge in a person who can easily skip over years, who can summarize things in one sentence. They can freely tell you a story and I enjoy that.
I am fascinated by January’s narrative because you spend a lot of time talking about grammar and what letters look like. It’s not pretentious, but rather endearing. How did you achieve that?
Writing a novel is very much indulging yourself. I think any previous attempts I’ve had at writing—which never really went anywhere—are because I was writing myself in a little bit and had a sense of, “Nobody wants to hear two paragraphs about how you feel about finding old books in bookstores. That’s a little bit much, back it off.” Something that writing short stories has taught me is just to follow your cheesy heart. Just go all in with the absurdities.
Talk to me about some of the other characters. How did the secondary characters come to life as you were making this book?
I am not going to pretend that I have a natural flair for character writing. I think it’s one of my biggest weaknesses. I read and admire so many writers who create characters that they know and adore. For me, it takes a long time to get to know people—other than the one or two I can see clearly. January’s mentor/father figure started out a little villainous and then kind of swung the other way. It probably took writing through the entire first draft—until he was able to fully explain himself at the end—that I understood his motivations. And the same thing for January’s own father. He’s an absent father in many ways and the first time I wrote about his character, I kind of treated him the way Disney treats its parents. Which is basically, “Ehhh, he’s not around, don’t worry about it.”
In the middle of drafting this book, I had my first kid and that really changed things. I became unable to forgive him for being an absent father. It refocused a lot of the wrenching parts of his character on that decision and what drove him. I hope I rewrote him in a way that’s a bit more empathetic and understanding.
What was your writing process like? How did this book come about?
I want to say it was about three and a half years total. When I first started it, I was an adjunct, so I had no money but some spare time. Then, at the halfway mark in the first draft, I got a full-time job and also had my first kid, so then I had no time at all.
I think I had a big rewrite at the halfway point and also at the end. After I sold it, I worked with my editor and the biggest revision was to add to it rather than cut. It started out around 105,000 words and it ended up around 112,000. That felt like a lot to me because I started out writing short fiction where you have to be very tight and if you feel the presence of anything like a side quest coming you have to head toward the ending at top speed. But my editor said, “You know, you could take a second to breathe with these characters.”
Talk to me about actually selling the book. What was your process like?
This is a very obnoxious answer, but I published “A Witches Guide to Escape” in Apex and an editor at Orbit read it and DM’d me on Twitter and asked, “Hey, you don’t happen to have a novel, do you?” I said, “I’m finishing that revision this week. I’ll get back to you.” And I sent it to her. She showed it to an agent friend of hers and I sent it to the agent too. Then I signed the agent and the publishing contract in a week.
Before this magical DM-ing Twitter incident, what was the plan? Were you just planning on researching literary agents and throwing your query out into the ether?
I had truly just started the process of, “Now I have to read a lot of blog posts about how you find your agent and write a query letter.” I hadn’t written a query letter yet but I knew it was going to be a long hard slog with many rejections, all while trying really hard in that impossible way to prepare myself for the possibility of trunking the book. It’s really hard to pour your whole heart into a draft, knowing in the back of your head that first novels are often trunked. It’s not uncommon to write a whole book and think, “Well that was good practice.” I greatly admire writers who go through that process and keep going.
What are you working on next?
When I signed that deal with Orbit, my editor casually asked me over the phone, “Do you have any other ideas for future books?” I said, “Yes. Suffragettes but witches.” My three word pitch. She actually signed me for a two-book deal because of the suffragettes-but-witches idea so I have spent the last year writing that and I have a first draft. I am now mid-way through the revisions.
How did the two books compare in terms of the writing process?
As hard as it is to write with the knowledge that you might have to trunk your book, I have found it a lot more nerve-wracking to write with the knowledge that you might disappoint a specific editor or a specific audience. I feel very lucky with this first book and very nervous about wasting the opportunity or not being able to write a book as good as the last one. It’s been nerve-wracking and a struggle. It’s an amazing privilege and I was able to quit my full-time job. My husband watches both of our kids full time while I hide upstairs and write and it is amazing and I am so lucky. But it’s been more stressful for sure.
Have you returned to short fiction since your now-love-affair with incredibly long fiction?
I haven’t had that much spare creative brain power for that. I’ve had one short story published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a couple more that I’m sending out, but it’s definitely not my main focus.
What is it like to have a galley of your very own book in your hand?
Just extremely surreal. Maybe not everyone does this, maybe it’s my problem, but you kind of fantasize about it being a book one day. By the time you get a galley in your hand, it’s been a year and a half since you finished the book and it just feels like, Who wrote this? How did I get here? It’s also very gratifying. I have a two and a half-year-old and to have him carry around my book and show it to strangers who come over saying, “This is momma’s book. There’s just words in it.” because he’s disappointed there are no pictures in it is great. It’s awesome.
How did you react when you received the first critical quotes about it?
It’s a little like, “Wait, hold on, how did you get that? That’s mine, I wrote that. That’s very private.” Even though the whole goal has been publicly selling this story, it does feel a little bit like somebody snuck onto your laptop and stole your most private things. My first reaction is always a little bit of a nervous, “Oh, yikes. That’s out in the world. That’s amazing.”
What is the one thing you hope readers get out of this book?
I actually get to say this at the end of the book, where the narrator is reflecting on why they wrote the book, and it is essentially so that you can have a sense of wonder. You can wander through the world hoping that you will look around the corner and find your door waiting for you. And I guess I hope that you are able to have this wistful, almost childlike sense of wonder and magic.
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. She and her husband live in Kentucky under the cheerful tyranny of their kids and pets. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.
An Excerpt from The Ten Thousand Doors of January
by Alix E. Harrow
1: The Blue Door
When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden- or common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.
When I was seven, I found a Door. There—look how tall and proud the word stands on the page now, the belly of that D like a black archway leading into white nothing. When you see that word, I imagine a little prickle of familiarity makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You don’t know a thing about me; you can’t see me sitting at this yellow-wood desk, the salt-sweet breeze riffling these pages like a reader looking for her bookmark. You can’t see the scars that twist and knot across my skin. You don’t even know my name (it’s January Scaller; so now I suppose you do know a little something about me and I’ve ruined my point).
But you know what it means when you see the word Door. Maybe you’ve even seen one for yourself, standing half-ajar and rotted in an old church, or oiled and shining in a brick wall. Maybe, if you’re one of those fanciful persons who find their feet running toward unexpected places, you’ve even walked through one and found yourself in a very unexpected place indeed.
Or maybe you’ve never so much as glimpsed a Door in your life. There aren’t as many of them as there used to be.
But you still know about Doors, don’t you? Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know them as well as we know our names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere. My father—who is a true scholar and not just a young lady with an ink pen and a series of things she has to say—puts it much better: “If we address stories as archaeological sites, and dust through their layers with meticulous care, we find at some level there is always a doorway. A dividing point between here and there, us and them, mundane and magical. It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.”
He never capitalized doors. But perhaps scholars don’t capitalize words just because of the shapes they make on the page.
It was the summer of 1901, although the arrangement of four numbers on a page didn’t mean much to me then. I think of it now as a swaggering, full-of-itself sort of year, shining with the gold-plated promises of a new century. It had shed all the mess and fuss of the nineteenth century—all those wars and revolutions and uncertainties, all those imperial growing pains—and now there was nothing but promise and prosperity wherever one looked. Mr. J. P. Morgan had recently become the richest man in the entire history of the world; Queen Victoria had finally expired and left her vast empire to her kingly looking son; those unruly Boxers had been subdued in China, and Cuba had been tucked neatly beneath America’s civilized wing. Reason and rationality reigned supreme, and there was no room for magic or mystery.
There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.
I found it on the raggedy western edge of Kentucky, right where the state dips its toe into the Mississippi. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find anything mysterious or even mildly interesting: it’s flat and scrubby-looking, populated by flat, scrubby-looking people. The sun hangs twice as hot and three times as bright as it does in the rest of the country, even at the very end of August, and everything feels damp and sticky, like the soap scum left on your skin when you’re the last one to use the bath.
But Doors, like murder suspects in cheap mysteries, are often where you least expect them.
I was only in Kentucky at all because Mr. Locke had taken me along on one of his business trips. He said it was a “real treat” and a “chance to see how things are done,” but really it was because my nursemaid was teetering on the edge of hysteria and had threatened to quit at least four times in the last month. I was a difficult child, back then.
Or maybe it was because Mr. Locke was trying to cheer me up. A postcard had arrived last week from my father. It had a picture of a brown girl wearing a pointy gold hat and a resentful expression, with the words AUTHENTIC BURMESE COSTUME stamped alongside her. On the back were three lines in tidy brown ink: Extending my stay, back in October. Thinking of you. JS. Mr. Locke had read it over my shoulder and patted my arm in a clumsy, keep-your-chin-up sort of way.
A week later I was stuffed in the velvet and wood-paneled coffin of a Pullman sleeper car reading The Rover Boys in the Jungle while Mr. Locke read the business section of the Times and Mr. Stirling stared into space with a valet’s professional blankness.
I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a casual, slantwise way. Allow me to present Mr. William Cornelius Locke, self-made not-quite-billionaire, head of W. C. Locke & Co., owner of no less than three stately homes along the Eastern Seaboard, proponent of the virtues of Order and Propriety (words that he certainly would prefer to see capitalized—see that P, like a woman with her hand on her hip?), and chairman of the New England Archaeological Society, a sort of social club for rich, powerful men who were also amateur collectors. I say “amateur” only because it was fashionable for wealthy men to refer to their passions in this dismissive way, with a little flick of their fingers, as if admitting to a profession other than moneymaking might sully their reputations.
In truth, I sometimes suspected that all Locke’s moneymaking was specifically designed to fuel his collecting hobby. His home in Vermont—the one we actually lived in, as opposed to the two other pristine structures intended mainly to impress his significance
upon the world—was a
vast, private Smithsonian packed so tightly it seemed
to be constructed of artifacts rather than mortar and stones. There was little organization: limestone figures of wide-
hipped women kept company with Indonesian screens carved like lace, and obsidian arrowheads shared a glass case with the taxidermied arm of an Edo warrior (I hated that arm but couldn’t stop looking at it, wondering what it had looked like alive and muscled, how its owner would have felt about a little girl in America looking at his paper-dry flesh without even knowing his name).
My father was one of Mr. Locke’s field agents, hired when I was nothing but an eggplant-sized bundle wrapped in an old traveling coat. “Your mother had just died, you know, very sad case,” Mr. Locke liked to recite to me, “and there was your father—this odd-colored, scarecrow-looking fellow with God-help-him tattoos up and down his arms—in the absolute middle of nowhere with a baby. I said to myself: Cornelius, there’s a man in need of a little charity!”
Father was hired before dusk. Now he gallivants around the world collecting objects “of particular unique value” and mailing them to Mr. Locke so he can put them in glass cases with brass plaques and shout at me when I touch them or play with them or steal the Aztec coins to re-create scenes from Treasure Island. And I stay in my little gray room in Locke House and harass the nursemaids Locke hires to civilize me and wait for Father to come home.
At seven, I’d spent considerably more time with Mr. Locke than with my own biological father and, insofar as it was possible to love someone so naturally comfortable in three-piece suits, I loved him.
As was his custom, Mr. Locke had taken rooms for us in the nicest establishment available; in Kentucky, that translated to a sprawling pinewood hotel on the edge of the Mississippi, clearly built by someone who wanted to open a grand hotel but hadn’t ever met one in real life. There was candy-striped wallpaper and electric chandeliers, but a sour catfish smell seeped up from the floorboards.
Mr. Locke waved past the manager with a fly-swatting gesture, told him to “Keep an eye on the girl, that’s a good fellow,” and swept into the lobby with Mr. Stirling trailing like a man-shaped dog at his heels. Locke greeted a bow-tied man waiting on one of the flowery couches. “Governor Dockery, a pleasure! I read your last missive with greatest attention, I assure you—and how is your cranium collection coming?”
Ah. So that was why we came: Mr. Locke was meeting one of his Archaeological Society pals for an evening of drinking, cigar-smoking, and boasting. They had an annual Society meeting every summer at Locke House—a fancy party followed by a stuffy, members-only affair that neither I nor my father were permitted to attend—but some of the real enthusiasts couldn’t wait the full year and sought one another out wherever they could.
The manager smiled at me in that forced, panicky way of childless adults, and I smiled toothily back. “I’m going out,” I told him confidently. He smiled a little harder, blinking with uncertainty. People are always uncertain about me: my skin is sort of coppery-red, as if it’s covered all over with cedar sawdust, but my eyes are round and light and my clothes are expensive. Was I a pampered pet or a serving girl? Should the poor manager serve me tea or toss me in the kitchens with the maids? I was what Mr. Locke called “an in-between sort of thing.”
I tipped over a tall vase of flowers, gasped an insincere “oh dear,” and slunk away while the manager swore and mopped at the mess with his coat. I escaped outdoors (see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).
The streets were nothing but sun-baked stripes crisscrossing themselves before they ended in the muddy river, but the people of Ninley, Kentucky, seemed inclined to stroll along them as if they were proper city streets. They stared and muttered as I went by.
An idle dockworker pointed and nudged his companion. “That’s a little Chickasaw girl, I’ll bet you.” His workmate shook his head, citing his extensive personal experience with Indian girls, and speculated, “West Indian, maybe. Or a half-breed.”
I kept walking. People were always guessing like that, categorizing me as one thing or another, but Mr. Locke assured me they were all equally incorrect. “A perfectly unique specimen,” he called me. Once after a comment from one of the maids I’d asked him if I was colored and he’d snorted. “Odd-colored, perhaps, but hardly colored.” I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he said it made me glad I wasn’t.
The speculating was worse when my father was with me. His skin is darker than mine, a lustrous red-black, and his eyes are so black even the whites are threaded with brown. Once you factor in the tattoos—ink spirals twisting up both wrists—and the shabby suit and the spectacles and the muddled-up accent and—well. People stared.
I still wished he were with me.
I was so busy walking and not looking back at all those white faces that I thudded into someone. “Sorry, ma’am, I—” An old woman, hunched and seamed like a pale walnut, glared down at me. It was a practiced, grandmotherly glare, especially made for children who moved too fast and knocked into her. “Sorry,” I said again.
She didn’t answer, but something shifted in her eyes like a chasm cleaving open. Her mouth hung open, and her filmy eyes went wide as shutters. “Who—just who the hell are you?” she hissed at me. People don’t like in-between things, I suppose.
I should have scurried back to the catfish-smelling hotel and huddled in Mr. Locke’s safe, moneyed shadow, where none of these damn people could reach me; it would have been the proper thing to do. But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, willful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).
So I ran away.
I ran until my stick-thin legs shook and my chest heaved against the fine seams of my dress. I ran until the street turned to a winding lane and the buildings behind me were swallowed up by wisteria and honeysuckle. I ran and tried not to think about the old woman’s eyes on my face, or how much trouble I would be in for disappearing.
My feet stopped their churning only once they realized the dirt beneath them had turned to laid-over grasses. I found myself in a lonely, overgrown field beneath a sky so blue it reminded me of the tiles my father brought back from Persia: a majestic, world-swallowing blue you could fall into. Tall, rust-colored grasses rolled beneath it, and a few scattered cedars spiraled up toward it.
Something in the shape of the scene—the rich smell of dry cedar in the sun, the grass swaying against the sky like a tigress in orange and blue—made me want to curl into the dry stems like a fawn waiting for her mother. I waded deeper, wandering, letting my hands trail through the frilled tops of wild grains.
I almost didn’t notice the Door at all. All Doors are like that, half-shadowed and sideways until someone looks at them in just the right way.
This one was nothing but an old timber frame arranged in a shape like the start of a house of cards. Rust stains spotted the wood where hinges and nails had bled into nothing, and only a few brave planks remained of the door itself. Flaking paint still clung to it, the same royal blue as the sky.
Now, I didn’t know about Doors at the time, and wouldn’t have believed you even if you’d handed me an annotated three-volume collection of eyewitness reports. But when I saw that raggedy blue door standing so lonesome in the field, I wanted it to lead someplace else. Someplace other than Ninley, Kentucky, someplace new and unseen and so vast I would never come to the end of it.
I pushed my palm against the blue paint. The hinges groaned, just like the doors to haunted houses in all my penny papers and adventure stories. My heart pat-patted in my chest, and some naive corner of my soul was holding its breath in expectation, waiting for something magical to happen.
There was nothing on the other side of the Door, of course: just the cobalt-and-cinnamon colors of my own world, sky and field. And—God knows why—the sight of it broke my heart. I sat down in my nice linen dress and wept with the loss of it. What had I expected? One of those magical passages children are always stumbling across in my books?
If Samuel had been there, we could’ve at least played pretend. Samuel Zappia was my only nonfictional friend: a dark-eyed boy with a clinical addiction to pulpy story papers and the faraway expression of a sailor watching the horizon. He visited Locke House twice a week in a red wagon with ZAPPIA FAMILY GROCERIES painted on the side in curlicued gold lettering, and usually contrived to sneak me the latest issue of The Argosy All-Story Weekly or The Halfpenny Marvel along with the flour and onions. On weekends he escaped his family’s shop to join me in elaborate games of make-believe involving ghosts and dragons on the lakeshore. Sognatore, his mother called him, which Samuel said was Italian for good-for-nothing-boy-who-breaks-his-mother’s-heart-by-dreaming-all-the-time.
But Samuel wasn’t with me that day in the field. So, I pulled out my little pocket diary and wrote a story instead.
When I was seven, that diary was the most precious thing I had ever owned, although whether I technically owned it is legally questionable. I hadn’t bought it, and no one had given it to me—I’d found it. I was playing in the Pharaoh Room just before I turned seven, opening and closing all the urns and trying on the jewelry, and I happened to open a pretty blue treasure chest (Box with vaulted lid, decorated with ivory, ebony, blue faience, Egypt; originally matched pair). And in the bottom of the chest was this diary: leather the color of burnt butter, creamy cotton pages as blank and inviting as fresh snow.
It seemed likely that Mr. Locke had left it for me to find, a secret gift he was too gruff to give directly, so I took it without hesitation. I wrote in it whenever I was lonely or lost-feeling, or when my father was away and Mr. Locke was busy and the nursemaid was being horrible. I wrote a lot.
Mostly I wrote stories like the ones I read in Samuel’s copies of The Argosy, about brave little boys with blond hair and names like Jack or Dick or Buddy. I spent a lot of time thinking of bloodcurdling titles and copying them out with extra-swirly lines (“The Mystery of the Skeleton Key”; “The Golden Dagger Society”; “The Flying Orphan Girl”), and no time at all worrying about plot. That afternoon, sitting in that lonely field beside the Door that didn’t lead anywhere, I wanted to write a different kind of story. A true kind of story, something I could crawl into if only I believed it hard enough.
Once there was a brave and temeraryous (sp?) girl who found a Door. It was a magic Door that’s why it has a capital D. She opened the Door.
For a single second—a stretched-out slice of time that began on the sinuous curve of the S and ended when my pencil made its final swirl around the period—I believed it. Not in the half-pretending way that children believe in Santa Claus or fairies, but in the marrow-deep way you believe in gravity or rain.
Something in the world shifted. I know that’s a shit description, pardon my unladylike language, but I don’t know how else to say it. It was like an earthquake that didn’t disturb a single blade of grass, a sudden eclipse that didn’t cast a single shadow, a vast but invisible change. A sudden breeze plucked the edge of the diary. It smelled of salt and warm stone and a dozen faraway scents that did not belong in a scrubby field beside the Mississippi.
I tucked my diary back in my skirts and stood. My legs shivered beneath me like birch trees in the wind, shaking with sudden exhaustion, but I ignored them because the Door seemed to be murmuring in a soft, clattering language made of wood rot and peeling paint. I reached toward it again, hesitated, and then—
I opened the Door and stepped through.
I wasn’t anywhere at all. An echoing in-betweenness pressed against my eardrums, as if I’d swum to the bottom of a vast lake. My reaching hand disappeared into the emptiness; my boot swung in an arc that never ended.
I call that in-between place the threshold, now (Threshold, the line of the T splitting two empty spaces). Thresholds are dangerous places, neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt. You can’t fear the in-between.
My foot landed on the other side of the door. The cedar and sunlight smell was replaced by a coppery taste in my mouth. I opened my eyes.
It was a world made of salt water and stone. I stood on a high bluff surrounded on all sides by an endless silver sea. Far below me, cupped by the curving shore of the island like a pebble in a palm, was a city.
At least, I supposed it was a city. It didn’t have any of the usual trappings of one: no streetcars hummed and buzzed through it, and no haze of coal smoke curtained above it. Instead, there were whitewashed stone buildings arranged in artful spirals, dotted with open windows like black eyes. A few towers raised their heads above the crowd and the masts of small ships made a tiny forest along the coast.
I was crying again. Without theater or flair, just—crying, as if there were something I badly wanted and couldn’t have. As my father did sometimes when he thought he was alone.
“January! January!” My name sounded like it was coming from a cheap gramophone several miles away, but I recognized Mr. Locke’s voice echoing after me through the doorway. I didn’t know how he’d found me, but I knew I was in trouble.
Oh, I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to go back. How the sea smelled so full of promise, how the coiling streets in the city below seemed to make a kind of script. If it hadn’t been Mr. Locke calling me—the man who let me ride in fancy train cars and bought me nice linen dresses, the man who patted my arm when my father disappointed me and left pocket diaries for me to find—I might have stayed.
But I turned back to the Door. It looked different on this side, a tumbled-down arch of weathered basalt, without even the dignity of wooden planks to serve as a door. A gray curtain fluttered in the opening instead. I drew it aside.
Just before I stepped back through the arch, a glint of silver shimmered at my feet: a round coin lay half-buried in the soil, stamped with several words in a foreign language and the profile of a crowned woman. It felt warm in my palm. I slipped it into my dress pocket.
This time the threshold passed over me like the brief shadow of a bird’s wing. The dry smell of grass and sun returned.
“Janua—oh, there you are.” Mr. Locke stood in his shirtsleeves and vest, huffing a little, his mustache bristling like the tail of a recently offended cat. “Where were you? Been out here shouting myself hoarse, had to interrupt my meeting with Alexander—what’s this?” He was staring at the blue-flecked Door, his face gone slack.
His eyes snapped away from the Door and onto me, ice-sharp. “January. Tell me what you’ve been doing.”
I should’ve lied. It would have saved so much heartache. But you have to understand: when Mr. Locke looks at you in this particular way of his, with his moon-pale eyes, you mostly end up doing what he wants you to. I suspect it’s the reason W. C. Locke & Co. is so profitable.
I swallowed. “I—I was just playing, and I went through this door, see, and it leads to someplace else. There was a white city by the sea.” If I’d been older, I might’ve said: It smelled of salt and age and adventure. It smelled like another world, and I want to return right this minute and walk those strange streets. Instead, I added articulately, “I liked it.”
“Tell the truth.” His eyes pressed me flat.
“I am, I swear!”
He stared for another long moment. I watched the muscles of his jaw roll and unroll. “And where did this door come from? Did you, did you build it? Stick it together out of this rubbish?” He gestured, and I noticed the overgrown pile of rotted lumber behind the Door, the scattered bones of a house.
“No, sir. I just found it. And wrote a story about it.”
“A story?” I could see him stumbling over each unlikely twist in our conversation and hating it; he liked to be in control of any given exchange.
I fumbled for my pocket diary and pressed it into his hands. “Look right there, see? I wrote a little story, and then the door was, was sort of open. It’s true, I swear it’s true.”
His eyes flicked over the page many more times than was necessary to read a three-sentence story. Then he removed a cigar stub from his coat pocket and struck a match, puffing until the end glowed at me like the hot orange eye of a dragon.
He sighed, the way he sighed when he was forced to deliver some bad news to his investors, and closed my diary. “What fanciful nonsense, January. How often have I tried to cure you of it?”
He ran his thumb across the cover of my diary and then deliberately, almost mournfully, tossed it into the messy heap of lumber behind him.
“No! You can’t—”
“I’m sorry, January. Truly.” He met my eyes and made an abortive movement with his hand, as if he wanted to reach toward me. “But this is simply what must be done, for your sake. I’ll expect you at dinner.”
I wanted to fight him. To argue, to snatch my diary out of the dirt—but I couldn’t.
I ran away, instead. Back across the field, back up winding dirt roads, back into the sour-smelling hotel lobby.
And so, the very beginning of my story features a skinny-legged girl on the run twice in the space of a few hours. It’s not a very heroic introduction, is it? But—if you’re an in-between sort of creature with no family and no money, with nothing but your own two legs and a silver coin—sometimes running away is the only thing you can do.
And anyway, if I hadn’t been the kind of girl who ran away, I wouldn’t have found the blue Door. And there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.
The fear of God and Mr. Locke kept me quiet that evening and the following day. I was well watched by Mr. Stirling and the nervous hotel manager, who herded me the way you might handle a valuable but dangerous zoo animal. I amused myself for a while by slamming the keys on the grand piano and watching him flinch, but eventually I was shepherded back into my room and advised to go to sleep.
I was out the low window and dodging through the alley before the sun had fully set. The road was scattered with shadows like shallow black pools, and by the time I reached the field, stars were shimmering through the hot haze of smoke and tobacco that hung over Ninley. I stumbled through the grass, squinting into the gloom for that house-of-cards shape.
The blue Door wasn’t there.
Instead, I found a ragged black circle in the grass. Ash and char were all that remained of my Door. My pocket diary lay among the coals, curled and blackened. I left it there.
When I stumbled back into the sagging, not-very-grand hotel, the sky was tar-black, and my knee socks were stained. Mr. Locke was sitting in an oily blue cloud of smoke in the lobby with his ledgers and papers spread before him and his favorite jade tumbler full of evening scotch.
“And where have you been this evening? Did you walk back through that door and find yourself on Mars? Or the moon, perhaps?” But his tone was gentle. The thing about Mr. Locke is that he really was kind to me. Even during the worst of it, he was always kind.
“No,” I admitted. “But I bet there are more Doors just like it. I bet I could find them and write about them and they’d all open. And I don’t care if you don’t believe me.” Why didn’t I just keep my stupid mouth closed? Why didn’t I shake my head and apologize with a hint of tears in my voice, and slink off to bed with the memory of the blue Door like a secret talisman in my pocket? Because I was seven and stubborn and didn’t yet understand the cost of true stories.
“Is that so,” was all Mr. Locke said, and I marched to my room under the impression that I’d evaded more severe punishment.
It wasn’t until we arrived back in Vermont a week later that I realized I was wrong.
Locke House was an immense red stone castle perched at the edge of Lake Champlain, topped with a forest of chimneys and copper-roofed towers. Its innards were wood-paneled and labyrinthine, bristling with the strange and rare and valuable; a Boston Herald columnist had once described it as “architecturally fanciful, more reminiscent of Ivanhoe than a modern man’s abode.” It was rumored that a mad Scotsman had commissioned it in the 1790s, spent a week living in it, and then vanished forevermore. Mr. Locke bought it at auction in the 1880s and began filling it with the world’s wonders.
Father and I were stuffed into two rooms on the third story: a tidy, square office for him, with a big desk and a single window, and a gray, musty-smelling room with two narrow beds for me and my nursemaid. The newest one was a German immigrant named Miss Wilda who wore heavy black woolen gowns and an expression that said she hadn’t seen much of the twentieth century yet but heartily disapproved of it thus far. She liked hymns and freshly folded laundry, and detested fuss, mess, and cheek. We were natural enemies.
Upon our return, Wilda and Mr. Locke had a hurried conversation in the hall. Her eyes glittered at me like overshined coat buttons.
“Mr. Locke tells me you’ve been overstimulated lately, nearly hysterical, little dove.” Miss Wilda often called me little dove; she was a believer in the power of suggestion.
“Ah, poor dear. We’ll have you right as the rain in no time at all.”
The cure for overstimulation was a calm, structured environment without distraction; my room was therefore summarily stripped of everything colorful or whimsical or dear. The curtains were drawn, and the bookshelf cleared of anything more exciting than A Child’s Illustrated Bible. My favorite pink-and-gold bedspread—Father had sent it to me from Bangalore the previous year—was exchanged for starched white sheets. Samuel was forbidden to visit.
Miss Wilda’s key slid and thunked in the keyhole, and I was alone.
At first, I imagined myself a prisoner of war resisting the redcoats or rebels and practiced my expression of stoic resistance. But by the second day the silence was like two thumbs pressing against my eardrums and my legs shuddered and shook with the desire to run and keep running, back to that cedar-spiraled field, through the ashes of the blue Door to some other world.
On the third day, my room became a cell, which became a cage, which became a coffin, and I discovered the very deepest fear that swam through my heart like eels in undersea caves: to be locked away, trapped and alone.
Something in the center of me cracked. I tore at the curtains with clawed nails, I ripped the knobs from dresser drawers, I beat my small fists against the locked door, and then I sat on the floor and wept great hiccupping rivers of tears until Miss Wilda returned with a syrupy spoonful of something that took me away from myself for a while. My muscles turned to oiled, languorous rivers and my head bobbed loosely along the surface. The creep of shadows across the rugs became a terrible drama so absorbing there wasn’t room for anything else in my head until I fell asleep.
When I woke, Mr. Locke was sitting at the side of my bed reading a newspaper. “Morning, my dear. And how are you feeling?”
I swallowed sour spit. “Better, sir.”
“I’m glad.” He folded his paper with architectural precision. “Listen to me very carefully, January. You are a girl of very great potential—immense, even!—but you’ve got to learn to behave yourself. From now on there will be no more fanciful nonsense, or running off, or doors that lead places they shouldn’t.”
His expression as he surveyed me made me think of old-timey illustrations of God: severely paternal, bestowing the kind of love that weighs and measures before it finds you worthy. His eyes were stones, pressing down. “You are going to mind your place and be a good girl.”
I wanted desperately to be worthy of Mr. Locke’s love. “Yes, sir,” I whispered. And I was.
My father didn’t return until November, looking as creased and tired as his luggage. His arrival followed its usual pattern: the wagon crunched its way up the drive and stopped before the stone majesty of Locke House. Mr. Locke went out to offer congratulatory backslapping and I waited in the front hall with Miss Wilda, dressed in a jumper so starched I felt like a turtle in an overlarge shell.
The door opened, and he stood silhouetted, looking very dark and foreign in the pale November light. He paused on the threshold because this was generally the moment fifty pounds of excited young girl rocketed into his kneecaps.
But I didn’t move. For the first time in my life, I didn’t run to him. The silhouette’s shoulders sagged.
It seems cruel to you, doesn’t it? A sullen child punishing her father for his absence. But I assure you my intentions at the time were thoroughly muddled; there was just something about the shape of him in the doorway that made me dizzy with anger. Maybe because he smelled like jungles and steamships and adventures, like shadowed caves and unseen wonders, and my world was so ferociously mundane. Or maybe just because I’d been locked away and he hadn’t been there to open the door.
He took three hesitant steps and crouched before me in the foyer. He looked older than I remembered, the stubble on his chin shining dull silver instead of black, as if every day he spent away from me were three days in his world. The sadness was the same as it always was, though, like a veil drawn over his eyes.
He rested a hand on my shoulder, black snakes of tattoos twisting around his wrists. “January, is something wrong?”
The familiar sound of my name in his mouth, his strange-but-not-strange accent, almost undid me. I wanted to tell him the truth—I stumbled over something grand and strange, something that rips a hole in the shape of the world. I wrote something and it was true—but I’d learned better. I was a good girl, now.
“Everything is fine, sir,” I answered, and watched the cool grown-up-ness of my voice hit my father like a slap.
I didn’t speak to him over the dinner table that evening, and I didn’t sneak into his room that night to beg stories from him (and he was a champion storyteller, let me tell you; he always said ninety-nine percent of his job was following the stories and seeing where they led).
But I was done with that fanciful nonsense. No more doors or Doors, no more dreams of silver seas and whitewashed cities. No more stories. I imagined this was just one of those lessons implicit in the process of growing up, which everyone learns eventually.
I’ll tell you a secret, though: I still had that silver coin with the portrait of the strange queen on it. I kept it in a tiny pocket sewed in my underskirt, flesh-warm against my waist, and when I held it I could smell the sea.
It was my most precious possession for ten years. Until I turned seventeen and found The Ten Thousand Doors.