Alix E. Harrow follows up her engaging debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with a sprawling saga that adds magic to history. The Once and Future Witches binds fairy-tale elements with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and is a tribute to women’s stories in all their complexity. Harrow discusses her new book, her place in the literary world and the power and challenges of feminine archetypes.
The Once and Future Witches is structured very differently from your debut. It’s much longer, has three main characters and arguably enough story to extend across multiple books. How did you plan the book’s structure?
I would like to officially blame human history for the length of this book. The pitch—suffragists, but witches—sounded so slick and obvious, but the actual history of the suffrage movement spans several centuries and at least two continents. If you broaden your definition of suffrage to include the vastness of women’s struggles for political rights and social power, it gets bigger; if you add the history of witchcraft and folklore, you have five books and a spinoff series.
I tried very hard to whittle it down. The first draft was rushed and claustrophobic; it felt like a mattress somehow shoved into a pillowcase. My edit letter was full of questions and tangents and sentences that began with let us see _____. During the rewrite, I pictured myself slashing the seams of the pillowcase: I added backstories and side characters and entire folktales. I also accidentally (or at least subconsciously) turned off the word count on Scrivener, for which I would like to apologize to my agent.
“I wrote the first draft of this book with a newborn strapped to my chest and my first gray hairs frazzling around my face, feeling simultaneously old and young and neither.”
You do a marvelous job of weaving witchcraft into the real history of the women’s suffrage movement, in all its complexity (including infighting over strategy and the reluctance to include nonwhite women). Likewise, the way you imagine race having an effect on witchcraft is grounded in the African American experience. Can you talk about these and other ways your experience as an academic and an instructor of African and African American history influenced this book?
Witchcraft is a fantasy of power. It’s most often envisioned as a gendered, feminist power fantasy, and it is, but you just can’t think about power in American history without thinking about race. That’s all I ever hoped my students left the classroom with, really—the sense that race is not a regrettable footnote to the American story; it is the American story.
The suffrage movement is one of the starkest places to see this. It’s told as a triumphal march toward victory, but whose victory? We say we won the vote in 1920, but who is we? If you were a Chinese American woman, you couldn’t vote until 1943. If you were a black woman in the South, you couldn’t really vote until 1965. If you’re a woman convicted of a felony in Kentucky, you still can’t vote today.
So I decided the existence of witching would change a lot about late 19th-century America, but not everything. It might exaggerate their victories. It might bridge the gap between what they had and what they needed. It might even reach across the lines between race and class—but it wouldn’t erase them.
Your writing has an old-fashioned feel that reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, E. Nesbit’s Psammead books and classic fairy tales, none of which were afraid to deal with the darker side of magic. The Once and Future Witches also recalls Naomi Alderman’s The Power in its exploration of challenging the male-female power dynamic. What books influenced you as a writer, and how do you think of your work’s place in the literary world?
This book is definitely what happens when a dreamy wistful kid grows up on fairy tales and classic children’s literature, encounters reality and spends the rest of her life grumpy about it. It’s the anger of someone who doesn’t believe in magic but wants to, who wishes for a world much better than the one she has. I don’t know where (or if!) my work fits in the literary world, but it’s surely somewhere in the vast space between Nesbit and Alderman, caught between fairy tales and fury.
Science fiction and fantasy is experiencing a critical and creative revival lately. To what do you attribute this? What draws you to the genre as a writer and reader?
It’s hard for me to imagine discovering sci-fi and fantasy—how do you discover the house you were born in? I grew up surrounded by Anne McCaffrey and C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold, Margaret Atwood and Octavia E. Butler, Nicola Griffith and Jane Yolen. I expected my houses to be haunted and my skies filled with dragons. It was mostly escapism for me as a kid, but the older I got, the more I saw the way fantasy revealed reality just as often as it obscured it. The best speculative fiction seemed to function both as a mirror, to show you the truth, and a door, to let you run from it. So I don’t know if the genre is having a revival or just a recognition of long-running excellence, but I’m thrilled either way.
The three female archetypes—Crone, Mother, Maiden—are pivotal to this story. They relate to the three Eastwood sisters and are relevant in other ways that shall remain unspoiled here! What did you take from historical portrayals? How do these archetypes still influence how women are seen today?
Intellectually, I hate the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad. It’s a rigid framework that reduces a woman’s identity and significance to the state of her uterus. It’s garbage. And yet, I feel the pull of it as a mythos. I like threes. I’m vulnerable to tradition. I wrote the first draft of this book with a newborn strapped to my chest and my first gray hairs frazzling around my face, feeling simultaneously old and young and neither. So I wanted to find a way to keep the power of feminine archetypes while getting rid of their simplicity, their cruelty. I wanted those words to matter exactly as much as we want them to, and not a bit more.
What do you most admire about each Eastwood sister?
It’s funny—in the beginning, I thought I loved them for their obvious strengths? Bella’s brains, Agnes’ independence, Juniper’s recklessness. But in the end I think I liked them more for the moments when they acted against their natures for the sake of others: when Bella took stupid risks, when Agnes needed others, when Juniper learned caution. It’s the sort of maturation I’m still waiting for in my own self.
Stories of female anger have a particular resonance these days. As one of your characters says, “History is a circle.” What similarities do you see between the suffrage movement and modern political movements?
Not enough and too many. Sometimes I see the better side of it—millions of women flooding the streets in the largest demonstration in American history. The survivors who lead the #MeToo movement. Elizabeth Warren, persisting nevertheless, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her white suit, an iron-jawed angel for the new century. But I also see the old failures and divides, especially along class and race lines: white women mourning the pay gap but failing to acknowledge that Latinas make 30% less than white women; cis women turning their backs on trans women; rich women advising poor women to simply “lean in.”
In those times I remember the 1913 women’s march on Washington, when Ida B. Wells was asked to march at the back so as not to offend the white southern participants, and I hope to god history doesn’t repeat itself.
Do you have a favorite book about witches?
We live in such a rich moment of witch books! I’ve recently loved Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching and Molly Ostertag’s graphic novel The Witch Boy. But the witch book I’ve read the most is almost certainly Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom.
What are you working on next?
I have a Sleeping Beauty novella coming out from Tor.com next year! The pitch was “I want to Spider-Verse a fairy tale,” which is a real thing that professional publishers let me do. It’s a bunch of Sleeping Beauties colliding into one another’s storylines, trying to bust out.
Author photo © Nick Stiner.