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Nonfiction

Interview: Molly Tanzer

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Available now from John Joseph Adams Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Molly Tanzer is the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of Creatures of Will and TemperVermilion, and The Pleasure Merchant. She is also the co-editor of Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader). Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare, Lightspeed, and She Walks in Shadows, as well as many other locations. For more information about her critically acclaimed novels and short fiction, visit her website, mollytanzer.com, or follow her @molly_the_tanz on Twitter or @molly_tanzer on Instagram.

Your new novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, is just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s the story of two very different sisters, Evadne and Dorina Gray, who discover that Victorian London is rife with demonologists. The book is packed with nineteenth-century cultural references, fantastical foods and plants, and super-charged fencing scenes. What can you tell us about Creatures’ “origin story”?

 I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray on my porch one summer morning, drinking a little absinthe, and got to thinking about that scene where Lord Henry Wotton gives Dorian Gray a mysterious and debauched French novel that sends Dorian into his famous libertine tailspin. What if the book in question had been a book on how to traffic with demons? Well, that sounded so delightful I started sketching out the novel that would become Creatures of Will and Temper right then and there!

Your editor for this book was Lightspeed’s very own John Joseph Adams. You two worked together at Fantasy and Lightspeed years ago. What was it like working together again?

 John was fun to work with at Lightspeed all those years ago, but I’ve actually enjoyed having him as my editor even more. I knew it would be great during our first phone call, as he came at me with an amazing idea to make the book a lot better, and then was super cool about some other idea that I’ve forgotten that I elected not to use. So, we work well together (I think) because we’re eager to listen to one another.

I really enjoyed the way demons were handled in the novelthey’re not the same variety of demon you see in a lot of current pop culture (fans of The Conjuring universe may be a little surprised). How did you develop your vision of demons and demonology?

 I wanted the demons in the book to be more like elementals . . . but for things other than the elements, if that makes sense. So, they’re elementals of aesthetics, rage, truth, and so on. Most of all, I wanted them to be ineffable and incomprehensible; beings that live in some universe other than ours, with lives and passions and desires of their own that make them dangerous as well as alluring and powerful. So, a bit elemental spirit, a bit daimon/daemon in the Classical sense, a bit of the more traditional demon that’s tempting, crafty, unknowably motivated, and so on.

I love the way every chapter opens with a quotation from the fictional book On the Summoning of Demons. Can you tell us more about the book and how you came up with all these wonderful passages?

 That aforementioned amazing idea of John’s was that I include those passages! True story, most of them are altered passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray. I mean, I came up with the idea of Lord Henry Wotton as a diabolist just by reading the original, so making the book Lady Henry Wotton owns based on Wilde’s original felt pretty natural!

Creatures has some really vivid and exciting fight scenes. I know that you’re a martial artist and you’ve taken some fencing lessons. Can you talk a little bit about the way you approach writing fight scenes? I know it’s really easy for a fight scene to become boring or the choreography to get muddled. How do you avoid those pitfalls?

 Fight scenes are so hard! Mostly I try to keep them short, my sentences shorter, and my viewpoint very tight. Fights in real life are confusing, and capturing some of that can be good, but I try to keep things brief and clear because I am really guilty of skimming a lot of fights in novels. I also totally set out pieces, like on my desk, for the characters and move them around to get a sense of the real space of things. While I usually try to resist the impulse to write a novel like it’s a movie in my mind, I always stage fight scenes as if they were.

Part of Creatures’ charm is the way it plays with Oscar Wilde’s classic tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray. You focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature when you were in grad school. What do you think draws you to that time period and those works? And are there any other texts (British, historical, or otherwise!) that influenced this project?

 Man, this is a huge question! But honestly I think what draws me to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are the ladies. Women writers were doing amazing work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and yet so many of them have been all but forgotten as modern syllabi focus on the men writing at the time (Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, then Dickens, Poe, Melville). But I’d take The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph over Clarissa any day, Sarah Fielding over Henry Fielding, and anything Austen wrote over . . . well, just about anyone.

And then you have such massive social upheaval going on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that novels—especially women’s novels, in my experience—always have some fascinating clue about the times, whether it’s abolition, women’s sexual rights, advances in science and technology, social responsibility . . . it’s amazing stuff.

As to what novels influenced Creatures of Will and Temper, I definitely studied Sense and Sensibility, as it’s my favorite text about sisters and sisterhood!

Historical fiction, like second-world fantasy or hard SF, really demands precise and careful worldbuilding. When you’re writing, what kinds of details do you include to make sure your world feels real? When you’re reading (or watching or playing . . . however you like to enjoy your texts!), what worldbuilding failures really bother you?

 I rely pretty heavily on a series called “Daily Life In . . .” for historical research, because they’re great go-to guides for basic things like currency, food, social roles, historical touchstones, and so on. I find it’s everyday elements like these that locate a reader very well in a story, but I also try not to provide excess detail. I do my best to only note what people of the time would have noticed, and specifically the point-of-view character, so what they were eating, what people are wearing if it’s exceptional (but not if it’s not), where they’re going if it’s new and fresh (and they’d have the language to describe it—not every character will be familiar with architectural terminology, etc.), and so on and so forth.

Worldbuilding failures . . . honestly, I’m most bothered by the assumption that every society, even fantastical ones, would be sexist, racist, heteronormative, repressive, etc. We’re supposed to be writing speculative fiction—why speculate that everyone, everywhere, would always be horrible to women, for example?

I saw an interview where you said you did more research for some of your other historical pieces than you did for Creatures. Which one of your works do you think took the most research? Do you have any terrific research stories?

 I think Vermilion took the most research. I really wanted to do well by my biracial protagonist, and I also wanted the Chinese language elements in the book to be (mostly) Cantonese, because that would have been more historically accurate for the mid-nineteenth century in San Francisco. But there were far fewer resources about Cantonese available to me at the time I was researching, so that got tricky.

I think my favorite research story right now is one from my most recent research trip, this time to Long Island for the sequel to Creatures of Will and Temper. I was at the William T. Lauder Museum in Amityville. The people there had such amazing stories to tell about the 1920s in town, especially including one about Al Capone demanding a local Italian grocer go into town and buy 300 pounds of sugar. (Obviously, he wanted it for moonshining.) Anyway, the still exploded, the feds came looking, and they traced the sugar back to the grocer. He pretended not to speak English, but the feds wouldn’t buy it, until his wife came into the room and shooed them out of the place, insisting she’d bought it so all her friends could make jam that year. Amazing!

Connected to this, the descriptions of food and drink in Creatures of Will and Temper are really compelling and seem very authentic. Did you have to do a lot of research on food during the Victorian era? And have you experimented with cooking or brewing historical foods and drinks?

 I’m definitely a home-brewer (mead), but in terms of cooking, not so much. I’m “beegan” (vegan + honey), and while you can find some vegan nineteenth-century resources on cookery, so much Victorian food is all about like . . . meat pies. That’s reductive, but it’s also sort of true.

I did a bit of food research, for sure, helped out by my love of the Great British Bake-Off and the old BBC cooking show Two Fat Ladies (those ladies were always cooking up something from the nineteenth century), because I freaking love food scenes in novels. From Laura Ingalls Wilder to George R.R. Martin, food scenes stand out to me in novels because people sitting and eating together is such an amazing opportunity for drama as well as characters being fully present enough to take stock of their surroundings.

I may have paid extra attention to the food descriptions since I know you best as a foodie. What foods are inspiring you right now? And will you be making anything special for Thanksgiving this year?

 Jam! Jam is inspiring me. I home-preserved a summer harvest this year and I couldn’t be happier. Colorado has wonderful fruit, and I always long for Colorado peaches when they’re not in season, so this year I took matters into my own hands. (And yes, Colorado peaches specifically—this Georgia girl says they’re the best.) I made two batches of peach-bourbon-vanilla jam, a batch of pear-plum jam with port wine, and a mixed-fruit batch with apples, pears, and berries. I am so proud of myself, I always say I’m going to do this, but this year I actually did it!

For the holidays, I’ll home-culture a vegan cashew cheese and bake it en croute with some of the port-pear-plum jam, but I’ll be spending this Thanksgiving with my mom at a spa where they cook for you, so I won’t be making anything special . . . or doing dishes, for the first time in my life!

This month you’re also releasing the anthology Mixed Up, a flash-fiction-anthology-meets-cocktail-recipe book you co-edited with Nick Mamatas. Can you tell us a little more about the project and the process you used for blending the fiction with the cocktails? And most importantly, did you taste-test all the drinks?

 I did taste-test the drinks; they’re all my tried-and-true recipes! So, now you know all my secrets.

While I did recruit one or two of our authors, the fiction side was Nick’s business. Mine was the mixology and the philosophy of drinks-making presented in the book. It was great to have a chance to finally say all I have to say on the subject! Or at least a big chunk of it!

This isn’t your first editorial project. You’ve been involved with a few magazines, and of course, just last year you co-edited Swords v. Cthulhu with Jesse Bullington. What do you think draws you to editing? How do you balance it with your writing? Do you have plans to do more editorial projects?

 Actually . . . so, shh, okay. I don’t really like editing! Nick got me on board with Mixed Up because he promised he’d do the editing, and I’d just do the cocktail writing. While I’ve enjoyed parts of being an editor, I’d really just rather write! So no, no plans.

There’s a second book in the Creatures universe set to come out in 2018. What can you tell us about it?

 Creatures of Want and Ruin isn’t a direct sequel to Creatures of Will and Temper; it’s set in the 1920s, during prohibition, on Long Island, NY—specifically in Amityville, which is where I used to spend my summers. My mom’s side of the family is from there, and so the place means a lot to me. I have a lot of history there. The protagonist, Ellie West, is actually a badass pulp version of my grandmother, whose poetry inspired a lot of the descriptions and mood of the novel! The demons are different, too . . . though there are direct references/overlap with the first one!

From period enactment to studying art history in college to writing a lot of historical fiction: It really seems like history excites you. Do you see yourself sticking with historical milieus? Are there any periods and places you’d like to explore that you haven’t had a chance to?

 I don’t see myself quitting historical fiction any time soon! I’d definitely like to write something at the end of or just after WWII, and at some point I’d like to do a 1980s period piece. One of my favorite stories, “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” was set in 1990 and it was really fun to write.

Are there any ways you’d like to grow or change as a writer? Any genres or styles that you think would really push your craft? And what’s next for you?

 I’m always seeking to do better with each project, whether it’s improving my pacing, my dialogue, my plotting, my characters . . . but yeah, one of these days I’m going to write a crime novel I’ve had in mind for a while now. No supernatural element, just a bunch of nerds who are into D&D and Star Wars trying to solve a murder, plus some trashy, kinky sex as a subplot. A total beach read, basically!

That’s not next, though; next is editing Creatures of Want and Ruin, and then . . . I’m not quite sure!

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Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy-N.-Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is the author of more than forty short stories and has also written two novels for the Pathfinder role-playing game. Her third novel, An Oath of Dogs, is a sci-fi thriller from Angry Robot Books. She serves as the managing/associate editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines. She is also the non-fiction editor of Women Destroy Science Fiction!, which was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014, and the guest editor of Queers Destroy Horror! She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family.