A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral toddlers. She is the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Hugo award-winning short fiction. “The Sycamore and the Sybil” is Harrow’s first appearance in Uncanny, a dark and beautiful myth that looks at women and witchcraft, power and pain.
Uncanny Magazine: This is a beautifully crafted story of pain both old and new, trees and wolves, power and magic. What was the inspiration or starting point for the story?
Alix E. Harrow: Oh, thank you so much! It’s hard to remember the exact origin of this idea—that’s the thing about myths, isn’t it? We hear them so young and so often that they just are, beginning-less and endless.
I was thinking about a bigger, messier idea (the one that became my second novel), and asking myself what the world would look like with witchcraft in it. How our stories and fairy tales and myths about women might be different. I thought of that story about Apollo pursuing the nymph who turned herself into a tree—I couldn’t remember her name without Googling it—and then I thought: not in my world.
Uncanny Magazine: Witchcraft and magic are recurring themes in your work. What draws you to writing about magic? How did you decide on the specific rules for how magic works in “The Sycamore and the Sybil”?
Alix E. Harrow: I think the main reason I write about magic is that I’m a coward. I can’t stand to look at the world straight on, with all its cruelties and failures. I’ve come to believe that magic, for me, is the distance between what a person has and what they need; it’s the thing that fills the slim gap between the possible and impossible, that makes a way when there isn’t one.
The specific rules of magic in this story came from looking at historical and popular witchcraft. There were always words, it seemed, rhymes or chants or prayers. I figured it didn’t matter so much what the words were—ancient Latin or presto! or abracadabra—so much as it mattered that some people knew them and others didn’t. So much of power seems to be about the uneven distribution of knowledge.
Uncanny Magazine: Your debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January came out last fall. Do you find it difficult to switch between writing short stories and writing longer fiction? What do you like best about each form?
Alix E. Harrow: It’s been surprisingly easy to flip between them, thank goodness. My favorite thing about short stories is the sense of freedom. Is this a terrible idea? Is this worldbuilding fully realized? Is this working? Who cares! It’s only 5,000 words and two weeks of your life wasted. I sometimes get paralyzed by the weight of an entire novel—not so much the words themselves as the investment of time and work they represent. Every hour I spend writing my husband spends wrangling our toddlers; I desperately want the writing to be worth that labor.
Uncanny Magazine: How much research did you do for this story? Did you turn up anything interesting that didn’t fit into the finished story?
Alix E. Harrow: I used to be rigorous about research—still clinging to my grad school days, half convinced I would need to defend my fiction before a panel of professors—but now I try to let the narrative do more of the steering and use the research to fill in the gaps. So: I read Ovid. I inter-library loaned a stack of books on early modern witch-hunting. I Googled barred owls. I wish there was some way I could logically reference Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, where her toes are taking root and her fingers are leafing into laurel branches—but I didn’t figure anybody in this story would have seen much Baroque sculpture. I wish there had been any reason to mention that the genus Strix—including Strix varia, the barred owl—is named after the Strix of Greek mythology: another woman punished by metamorphosis, transformed into a vicious, man-eating bird.
Uncanny Magazine: Do you have a favorite type of tree?
Alix E. Harrow: A sycamore, of course. The sycamore in this story is stolen from one that grew on my great-grandmother’s farm on the Kentucky side of the Big Sandy. And a little from Wendell Berry’s poem “The Sycamore.” (Especially the lines There is no year it has flourished in/that has not harmed it and later It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate./ It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable).
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
Alix E. Harrow: Right now I’m hip-deep in my interdimensional Sleeping Beauty retelling for Tor.com, which is so much fun it should be illegal. And I just turned in the final edits for The Once and Future Witches—a novel set in the same world as this story!—forthcoming from Orbit/Redhook this fall.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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