By their own description, Alex Harrow is a genderqueer, pansexual, and demisexual author of queer science fiction and fantasy
When not writing “queerness with a chance of explosions,” Alex is a high school English teacher, waging epic battles against comma splices, misused apostrophes, and anyone under the delusion that the singular ‘they’ is grammatically incorrect.
A German immigrant, Alex has always been drawn to language and stories. They began to write when they realized the best guarantee to see more books with queer characters was to create them.
Their science fiction debut, EMPIRE OF LIGHT, released on February 25, 2019.
ABOUT EMPIRE OF LIGHT
Damian Nettoyer is the Empire’s go-to gun. He kills whoever they want him to kill. In exchange, he and his rag-tag gang of crooks get to live, and Damian’s psychokinetic partner and lover, Aris, isn’t issued a one-way ticket to an Empire-sanctioned lobotomy.
Then Damian’s latest mark, a suave revolutionary named Raeyn, kicks his ass and demands his help. The first item on the new agenda: take out Damian’s old boss—or Raeyn will take out Damian’s crew.
To protect his friends and save his own skin, Damian teams up with Raeyn to make his revolution work. As Aris slips away from Damian and his control over his powers crumbles, the Watch catches on. Damian gets way too close to Raeyn, torn between the need to shoot him one minute and kiss him the next.
With the Empire, Damian had two policies: shoot first and don’t ask questions. But to save the guy he loves, he’ll set the world on fire.
We had a chance to speak with Alex about their book, what brought them to telling stories, and their experience in publishing.
BSR: What are two surprising or intriguing facts about you that most people don’t know?
AH: I’m multilingual with an odd brain with a really good memory for languages. So far, I know seven, though some more fluently than others: German, English, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and Ancient Greek are currently on the list. I’d love to add Japanese, Russian, and ASL to the list at some point, but I’m barely getting started on those.
I got into writing through fanfiction, including a terrible Buffy: the Vampire Slayer fic I wrote on an electric typewriter because this was 1999 and my parents couldn’t afford a computer at the time. Incidentally, that was the only piece of writing I ever wrote in German. And no, sending that straight to a publisher probably wasn’t the best idea 13-year-old me ever had. I’m really glad they never got back to me.
BSR: When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer? What early passion nudgedㅡor even shovedㅡyou in that direction?
AH: I was 20 when I came across my first fantasy book featuring queer main characters (shout-out to Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series!) and this opened completely new worlds to me. I went on an epic quest to find as many books featuring queer main characters (not just sassy sidekicks or tragic stories) as protagonists in their own right and from there I discovered things like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or Elizabeth Bear’s work, including a collaborative project called Shadow Unit, which featured a hugely diverse cast of characters, including queer characters. From there, I realized that I wanted more like this. I wanted to write things like the stories I loved, except gayer. And the best way to ensure I’d find more books like this was to write them.
BSR: Where are the best places for readers and writers to find youㅡan author’s website, a blog, a social media account?
AH: I’m probably loudest on Twitter, as @AlexHarrowSFF, which is also my handle on Facebook and Instagram, but I also keep an active blog on my author website, alexharrow.com, which features weekly interviews with queer authors called Queering Up Your Bookshelf, with new features going live every Wednesday. I also host a monthly Twitter chat called #QueerSpec, where writers and readers of queer speculative fiction discuss anything from writing advice, to current trends, or ways to write more inclusively.
Damian – Art by Grace P. Fong (@Fictograph)
BSR: What was the driving force behind this book’s creation?
AH: I often say that I wrote Empire of Light out of spite. It’s a great motivator really, and kept me going through some hard times, like when a creative writing professor advised me to “consider what will offend your audience and don’t write that” during an intro session of an advanced fiction writing class I was incredibly excited to takeㅡuntil she stressed how she specifically didn’t want to see “any homosexual content, vulgarity, violence, and things like that.” I left that intro session incredibly disheartened but also angry and determined to show her the error of her ways. This was definitely during a time when queer genre fiction very much only existed as a niche and I honestly had no idea if anyone but me would ever even want to read it. But I knew I needed stories like thisㅡand fortunately over the years, I met many people who agreed, and so I kept writing, and learning and fully embracing queerness with a chance of explosions as my personal writing style, especially because I only made it queerer and queerer as I went.
BSR: Please speak on the importance of queer characters in your fiction and in fiction as a whole?
AH: Queer characters don’t ever exist in a vacuum, which is why everything I write is populated by queer characters all across the queer spectrum. One thing I very deliberately want to go against in my fiction is tokenism, and one of the best ways to do this is to consider ways to write as inclusively as possible and consider how characters identify or are marginalized across many axes. My goal is to feature queer characters as more than their coming out stories, because queer life is about so much more than that, so I try to build worlds where my character’s queerness is just part of who they are and where queer pain doesn’t factor into their stories.
BSR: What are the themes and ideas you want to explore with Empire of Light?
AH: Empire of Light is very much a book about found families and all the messiness this frequently implies. I wanted to show how even in dark and gritty futuristic worlds, people still find each other, still work through their issues (or not), and have adventures that can both bring them together and tear them apart. Empire of Light generally features characters who are all in the morally gray spectrum. It’s a story where good people do awful things and awful people might still have some good intentions. When it comes down to it, playing with the idea of how far people are willing to go to protect those they love is very much central to this book.
Aris – Art by Grace P. Fong (@Fictograph)
BSR: What do you hope your readers will get out of this book?
AH: I primarily wrote Empire of Light as as story to suck readers in and get lost for a while. I hope readers will connect to Damian, Aris, Raeyn, and the rest of the crew and have fun reading about them, but also get to think about some of the deeper underlying issues in this book, like the meaning of family, friendship, and love and how fragile all of this can be if pushed too hard.
BSR: How common are the pyschokinetic powers (Voyance) in this universe?
AH: The Voyance very much acts like a virus that latches onto its host and once manifested, slowly eats at them both mentally and physically. In a way I definitely drew some subconscious parallels between the Voyance and autoimmune viruses like HIV, but I also wanted to show how magic usually comes with a costㅡand that the way people go about dealing with said cost varies vastly. Throughout Empire of Light, as well as in following books, the issue of the Voyance and what it allows people to do, but also the ways in which people try to use or even “cure” it, very much takes center stage because like with many issues, there is definitely more than one way for people to approachㅡand in many cases exploitㅡVoyants to pursue their own ends.
BSR: This is book oneㅡhow many other books are planned?
AH: Right now I have three books, and a number of spin-off short stories that explore some of the minor characters in more detail, planned. I hope to release one book a year and continue the series arc along further developments of the Voyance, the Empire, and Damian, Raeyn, and Aris’ stories within it all, because their actions in book one very definitely have wide-reaching consequences and I can’t wait to explore those in more detail.
BSR: If you had to choose one favorite character in this book, who would you choose and why?
AH: Choosing is hard, but honestly, Raeyn is probably my absolute favorite, because I had so much fun writing his calculating snark, but also his more softer side, and because he just really gets Damian in ways Damian doesn’t get himself. He also is the character who sort of happened by accident, crashed this Damian and Aris party, and refused to stop stealing scenes, so the best way to deal with him was to just let him do his thing.
BSR: Please describe the Empire of Light universeㅡis it the future, an alternate universe?
AH: Empire of Light is set on a near-future alternate Earth in the year 2092. I didn’t want to set this too far in the future, because I wanted to explore some of the issues our current world is dealing with: from discrimination, to the one percent, and most of all the question of what would happen if we eventually run out of essential resources. The Empire is the fictional (and massively problematic) answer to a world that tore itself apart over wealth and resources and ultimately lacked those same resources to put itself together again. In many ways the world of Empire of Light is an extreme take on the world we are currently living inㅡplus deadly magic and a lot of shootings and explosions.
BSR: Tell us a little about your initial journey into the publishing world.
AH: I started getting serious about publishing my work back in 2011 when I went to my very first writing conference, the now defunct Backspace Conference in New York. It was honestly a crash course in learning what it takes to get my work out there and I was both incredibly intimidated and elated because of the positive responses I got from agents on my initial query and first page. But more importantly, I met great friends at the same conference, namely fellow queer fantasy authors David R. Slayton and Helen Corcoran, who continued pushing me and my writing to the next level and got me involved in the Speculators, a fantastic online critique and writing support group that formed after the 2014 Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference. I honestly can’t overstress the role getting involved in the writing community played for me. Back in 2008, when I first started getting serious about my writing, I checked out a lot of places online, one of which was the Absolute Write forums where I’ve found lifelong friends and learned from so many debut authors who I’m still lucky to consider amazing friends who both cheer and commiserate with me on the long haul that is publishing.
BSR: Did you hit any roadblocks, and how did you overcome them?
AH: Getting published definitely was a long and winding road for me. Including a nearly two-year break from writing from 2013-14 when I realized that the only way I could possibly finish my degree and keep my day job along with bits of my sanity was to put writing on the back burner for a while. Thankfully, and thanks to continued pushing from my friends and fellow authors, I found my way back into writing and figured out what I wanted to do with my work in the first place. After attending multiple writing conferences and learning to pitch to agents and editors, I started querying Empire of Light in 2015 and signed with an agent in 2016. Unfortunately things did not work out with that agent due to health issues and we parted ways in 2017, just a few months before I negotiated my contract with NineStar Press.
BSR: Were there any things that were surprising to you?
AH: The biggest thing I learned along this process definitely was that publishing milestones are constantly changing. Initially all I wanted was to get an agent. Then, I wanted a book deal. Then, when things didn’t work out with my former agent, I had to re-orient myself and decide how to proceed from there. I think the biggest piece of advice I have to give when it comes to publishing is that you never know what is going to happen and that this is definitely a lengthy process that will teach you a lot, and ultimately, you do what works best for you. I’m really happy having found a publisher that is as familial and supportive as NineStar Press, but I also learned the value in just writing the next book. Which coincidentally, I hope to query in a month or two. This is definitely an industry that never stops and neither should you.
Raeyn – Art by Grace P. Fong (@Fictograph)
BSR: How have you gone about promoting Empire of Light, getting the word out, and getting readers hyped?
AH: I talk about Empire of Light and my writing process a lot on Twitter, where I’ve been fortunate to connect with a lot of other writers and creators who were interested in hosting me on podcasts, interviewing me on their blogs, or giving me a platform for guest posts. Ultimately, one of the most successful ways of promotion has been to team up withㅡand learn fromㅡother authors. The writing community is incredibly generous when it comes to sharing tips and experiences and I am incredibly grateful for the fantastic people I’ve met along the way.
Beyond interviews, podcasts, and blog posts, I’ve also done a lot of teaser quotes and character aesthetics, including commissioning character art, which has been a lot of fun and is a cool, creative way to get readers hooked on your characters.
Finally, I’m doing some online and in-person launch events like a virtual launch party with fellow NineStar authors Tash McAdam and L.A. Ashton who are both sharing a book birthday with Empire of Light and I’m doing a local launch party on March 1 at 7:30 pm at High Point Coffee in West Jordan with fellow local debut fantasy author Sarah Chorn. Other than that, you’re likely to find me at local conventions as well as some cons and Pride festivals in surrounding states.
BSR: Have you experienced any challenges?
AH: Being a small press author definitely means I have to take charge of a lot of my own promotion and marketing, so both budget and time are certainly an issue since I also teach full time, and there are only so many spoons for any given day. Still, I loved dealing with that aspect of writing because it gave me an opportunity to deepen some of the connections I have with folks both online and IRL, and to get creative in thinking outside of the box when it comes to marketing and creating promo materials and swag.
BSR: Any pleasant surprises you’ve experienced?
AH: Honestly, the best thing is to see how many people are excited about this book and to see them post their thoughts or pictures of my book in the wild. It’s been a wild ride and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me along the way and who is willing to read, review, and give my little queer book full of boy-kissing and explosions a space. I’m prone to having a lot of anxiety about how my work is going to be received and all of this is certainly a huge learning experience for me, but the people I meet along the way and the reactions I’m getting make it all so very much worth it.
BSR: What is some advice you wish you had gotten earlier in your career, or when you first ventured into the publishing world?
AH: Publishing moves at a glacial speed. Until it doesn’t. It’s definitely a balancing act and a process of managing expectations. It definitely doesn’t end when you land your agentㅡor when things with an agent don’t pan out. But during all the ups and downs, people really are right when they tell you to keep writing that next book, because in all of this the writing is the only thing we can control.