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Interview: Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer is the author of The Diabolist’s Library trilogy: Creatures of Will and Temper, the Locus Award-nominated Creatures of Want and Ruin, and the forthcoming Creatures of Charm and Hunger. She is also the author of the weird western Vermilion, an io9 and NPR “Best Book” of 2015, and the British Fantasy Award-nominated collection, A Pretty Mouth. For more information about her critically acclaimed short fiction, visit mollytanzer.com, or follow her @molly_the_tanz on Twitter or @molly_tanzer on Instagram. She lives outside  Boulder, CO, with her cat, the Toad.

First off, congratulations on the release of Creatures of Charm and Hunger! This is the third book in your Diabolist’s Library series; although I think readers could very likely start here and still be fully immersed. Could you tell us a little bit about the book and whether people need to have read the first two—Creatures of Will and Temper and Creatures of Want and Ruin—to pick up with this one?

I pitched Creatures of Charm and Hunger as “Jewish teen witch fights Nazis with astral projection” and while that’s not a particularly thorough description of the text, I maintain that if that sounds cool to you, you will like Creatures of Charm and Hunger. Anyone who has ever owned a cat should probably also read it, because this book is definitely a love letter to the strange madness that is domestic cat ownership.

But no, you don’t have to read the first two.

Having been fortunate enough to have read all three books in the series, I thought the relationship between them felt more like siblings rather than a linear grandparent-parent-child line. There are some callbacks and returns that reward repeat visitors, but the books have different characters, settings on different continents and in different decades, and—crucially, I think—humans with different relationships to their “demons.” Was this part of your original design, or was it a workaround as an author so that you didn’t get tired with any one setting?

When I began to consider the idea of writing a sequel to Creatures of Will and Temper I knew I’d have to make it about different people in a different time. I mean, I dropped out of my PhD program when I realized I’d never be able to focus on a dissertation long enough to research, write, and edit one. Three standalone novels seemed doable, though. All this to say, the trilogy can be read in any order, though I like to think it rewards people who complete it in whatever fashion they choose. There are crossover characters and references, for example, but I purposefully made them complete stories within themselves.

Because we’ve established that linearity is a mug’s game, I’ll shift for a moment and build on that idea of exploring similar themes in different settings by dipping back to your first collection, A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist Press, 2012). Although a collection of actually quite disparate short stories, they share a link in that they are all presented as the fictional histories of the aristocratic Calipash family. Is there a force that draws you as an artist to these linked-but-not-linear fictional worlds, or are they driven more by practicalities? Do you find them to be a channel or a constraint, or both?

I love narratives that happen around one another, whether we’re talking something like Blackadder, or Vance’s The Dying Earth . . . I suppose the works of H.P. Lovecraft also qualify, in that they sometimes have crossover, but more just exist in the same universe as one another. Hell, that’s probably why I spent so much of the last twelve years being interested in Marvel movies, come to think of it.

I like getting sucked into a linear storyline, don’t get me wrong, but I also enjoy things that together become a chord, enhancing one another, in spite of the odd dissonant note here or there. Texts that do that sort of thing, for me, work each to enhance our understanding of the other, and that means the form of the art is reinforcing its intended function, which is pretty dope when you think about it.

As an aside, have you exhausted your store of Calipash family secrets, or do you anticipate revisiting that crypt one day?

I’d certainly love to see the collection come back into print one day, for sure! As for new stories, I’ve asked myself the same question a few times, but I haven’t felt the call. It feels a little like going backwards, but I’ll never say never.

Back to Creatures of Charm and Hunger, in which you have done a lot of worldbuilding in the Diabolist’s Library mythos. It’s an interesting shift because in the first book the demons and diabolists existed at the margins, while in the second, the diabolism was largely obscured until the very end. In this final story, however, we learn much more about the Société de Éclairées—the international organization of diabolists—whereas the first two books featured more rogue, farmhouse ale-style practitioners. In that way, your last book contains the kind of worldbuilding one might expect from a first book. Was this a choice driven by the structure—e.g., to tie it together at the end? Or is it just that this felt like the right thing to write at this time, since the plot and themes of this book required it whereas the previous ones did not?

I wish I had some grand vision to share! But the truth is, I got bored of “omg, wait, demons are real?” as a beat I had to hit in these books, so I started thinking how that wouldn’t have to be the case.

That sounds flippant, but it’s actually true—and it led me back to thinking about the rival demons featured in the first novel. Surely there would be alliances, as well. And it would actually be in the best interest of diabolists everywhere to help one another out, for the advancement of the art. No wait—the Art! And it just sort of spun out from there.

Your writing career started with short stories, then novellas, then standalone novels (such as the much-loved Vermilion and the criminally under-discussed The Pleasure Merchant), and most recently a trilogy in the Diabolist’s Library series. Having gone longer and longer, more and more complicated, how does it feel to have concluded this trilogy for now and to be at—if not a stopping point, at least a resting point—with this milieu? Are you already plotting a return, or do you look forward to shifting gears for a bit? Was working in a fixed structure for so long liberating or chafing?

Thanks for the shout out to The Pleasure Merchant! That book . . . I love it so much, and it just did not sell. Turns out the masses didn’t want a picaresque about a social-climbing apprentice wig-maker trying to get laid. C’est la vie! But, maybe one day the world will be ready, and it will come back into print.

I’ve been in the midst of a gear-shift for a while without even realizing it, I think; I find I intuitively know what I need, artistically speaking, and if I listen to that, I do better than if I make myself do this or that for whatever foolish reason I’ve come up with. I wrote a novelette a bit ago, just totally on impulse, and now I’m toying around with a novella as I plot out my next novel. But that novel too is a swerve, in that it’s not historical, and I intend it to be a one-off. We shall see!

Speaking of structures, for those who haven’t yet read the first book in the series, Creatures of Will and Temper, the series titles are taken from a quote from a manual of demonology, describing demons as: “[C]reatures of will and temper, of want and ruin, of charm and hunger, of pique and cunning as we mere mortals are, and yet fundamentally different.” Part of what the book titles convey, however, is that the “creatures” they refer to are the human characters as much as the demons, and that even the people who do not harness the demonic power are as interesting and complicated as the supernatural. I was wondering how you view the nature of your “demons” and their relation to the humans that channel them?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of demons—or rather, by the diverse group of cross-cultural beings that are translated into English as “demons.” It covers such a wide range, doesn’t it? Religious or otherwise, they tend to be beings with an agenda, which makes them fun.

I chose the word “demon” to describe the extraplanar beings I wanted to use in my trilogy because I thought it would be the word my characters would use, if that makes sense. What I hoped it would convey was an otherworldliness (for that’s how I envision them) with maybe a hint of disapproval. Humans love to disapprove of things, which is what makes them so different from the demons in my series. Humans and demons alike are indeed creatures of will, of temper and of ruin and hunger, but there the similarity ends, for demons—my demons, at least—are not moralists. It’s surprising what a difference that can really make in the end.

Of course, I buried the real question, because what I really want to know is if you are planning a Creatures of Pique and Cunning? While we’re discussing hypothetical sequels, at some point, do you see exploring this premise in the present day or even the future? Is a Diabolist’s Digital Library, perhaps, something you’re interested in, or is the “secret history” setting integral to the stories?

Oh, I’m done with diablerie for the moment! And it’s funny, I hadn’t thought about in modern day, but I mean, I did spend a long time inventing Magic Skype (essentially) for Creatures of Charm and Hunger, so . . .

Leaving the Diabolists to the side for a moment (if you’d like), I wanted to ask more generally about how your prior academic knowledge and lived experiences inform your work. For example, in other interviews you’ve mentioned how The Pleasure Merchant was informed by your historical interest in Thomas Day and his “wife training project” (as Wikipedia demurely refers to it), yet writing Vermilion was influenced by the work you were doing with Asian American groups at the time. Because these are sort of underlying experiences that then get expressed in your fiction, rather than research you conduct in order to use in fiction, I was wondering if you notice a difference in how they express themselves or how you choose to integrate and develop them?

One of my favorite mythological creatures is the ouroboros, always consuming itself. That’s writing, for me, right there. Whether I’m traveling, or researching, or making lattes at the coffee shop where I work, I’m the one taking all that in, and then processing it into what I write, even when what I write is fantastical, or beyond my experience. A friend of mine once said he noticed my characters think about their own thoughts a lot, and it gave me pause because I didn’t realize that wasn’t something everyone did. It’s true that I am both vain and lazy!

On a slightly different note, I was hoping to ask about how you research new things. For example, Creatures of Want and Ruin involves a significant amount of swordplay, and in the Acknowledgments you thank your local fencing school. Elsewhere, too, you’ve talked about the touring you’ve done to develop particular settings for some of your other books. How do you approach these kinds of directed research tasks—do you set out to learn what you’ll need after you’ve conceived of the novel, or do you enter into it with fewer preconceptions of how the information you glean will be used?

It’s a case by case basis, honestly. I wanted a martial element in Creatures of Will and Temper to serve as a counterpoint for all those enthralling scenes where people stand around talking to each other about their feelings about Titian or whatever, and fencing was a martial art that a girl could respectably participate in during that time. I also happened to have a friend who had fenced for decades with a respected fencing school local to me. So, it seemed like fate—why not take advantage of an opportunity like that?

Other times, like with travel opportunities I’ve taken, it’s been a mixture of luck and mercenary opportunity-taking. My mom loves to travel, and fortunately we travel well together—the widow and the divorcée, that’s some classic energy right there—so I’ll often end up setting things in places I go with her, or I’ll take a bit of a side-trip for research after she’s headed home. It’s all about what you’re open to, I find; the last thing I wrote was based on an experience I had playing a board game in my own home, and now I’m writing something set in Barcelona, which I visited without any specific intent of setting anything there.

Dipping back into the idea of how background experience emerges in one’s work, I wanted to go back—way back—to your roots in Lovecraftian fiction. A lot of your early bibliography reflects appearances in various Lovecraft-inspired anthologies. For readers who are only familiar with your more recent output, however, “Lovecraftian” probably isn’t something they would necessarily associate with you. What was the Lovecraftian to you, then, and where do you see it in your work now?

The Lovecraftian, to me, was at first merely an opportunity. When I was trying to break into writing, no one was publishing much historical fiction, which has ever been my scene. Then came an opportunity to submit to an anthology called Historical Lovecraft, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The problem was, I’d never read Lovecraft. I’d seen Re-Animator and various other adaptations, but as for going back to the original stories, I didn’t have a pedigree. I did have a friend with a bunch of Lovecraft paperbacks, however, so I started on those and quickly realized I’d been missing out.

While I don’t write as much overtly Lovecraftian fiction anymore, I am really happy to be influenced by him, and he still shows up in my work. Though I didn’t mean for it to be, Creatures of Want and Ruin is as much “Dagon” as it is The Great Gatsby . . .

While we’re talking about influences, I was wondering where else you might see your own influences? Are there any that you see that other people find surprising? Are there any that other people point to, but that you don’t see yourself?

Gosh, I sure wish people were out there debating my influences! That would be wild.

I guess I’d have to say that I’m influenced more by individual works than individual authors, though Dahl, Lovecraft, Wodehouse, and Austen would be the exceptions to that rule. More commonly I just get super into one thing by an author—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, most recently William Gibson’s Neuromancer (you’re never too old to read the books other people were obsessed with when they were 16!). It’s weird; once an author punches my heart right in its gut, I have a hard time reading them again. I haven’t been able to pick up anything of Lev Grossman’s beyond The Magicians Trilogy after the first two books murdered me to death; more recently, Neuromancer eviscerated me, and since then, I’ve bounced off every other Gibson I’ve tried, and after Eugenides’ Middlesex cut me to ribbons I couldn’t get into The Marriage Plot (I’d read The Virgin Suicides before and liked it, but it didn’t get me). Heck, I could never really read much Atwood after The Handmaid’s Tale. My loss! But it’s true.

Before we leave influences, I wanted to dig a little into your experience with pen and paper roleplaying games. Elsewhere you’ve mentioned that you’re a fan of Warhammer and other games, so I was wondering if or how you find RPGs work into your creative process as an author. Some writers make stories out of their campaigns, but Warhammer is—on its face—quite different from your work. Do you see this kind of extracurricular creativity directly influencing your work? Is it more like creative cross-training, perhaps, or is there no overlap?

It’s odd to consider myself an avid gamer, given how late I came to RPGs, but these days I’m kicking around in two D&D 5e campaigns (The Curse of Strahd, and a homebrew that began as a Waterdeep campaign called Dragon Heist), and a years-long Warhammer Fantasy Role Play campaign. But, while I love the term “creative cross-training,” I’m not sure if I’d use it to apply to my gaming habits. Gaming gives me a chance to be regularly and creatively social; to have something to look forward to when the relative isolation of being a nearly full-time writer/freelancer gets to me. And I don’t run games, most of the time—I just play in them. I’ve tried twice now, and it turns out I don’t cope well on my feet with characters who don’t do what I want them to do!

A palate cleanser before we proceed: Which of your books has been the most enjoyable to research and to learn more about? If you could pick one of the historical settings that you’ve written about to visit, which would it be? Which character would you share a demon-infused ginger lozenge with, and what would you go experience?

Oh, I don’t know if I’d choose to visit any historical setting I’ve written about, because even though I answer this question in a time when every other social media post is about COVID-19, the risk of casually dying from just about anything was far higher in every previous era. Just going and having a drink with my beloved Tabula Rasa or visiting the British with Lady Henry could end up being a shocking disaster with little warning.

As to which character of mine with whom I’d be most likely to take a bunch of drugs and then go do whatever, the answer is, unequivocally, Shai from Vermilion. True story—Vermilion, as it stands, is a massively rewritten version of a manuscript once called Come and Take the Cure. Not much remains in Vermilion exactly as it was in the earlier version, save for one bit: Shai shotgunning Lou a hit of hashish-smoke before telling her all about his very unusual past. So, he’s the natural choice. As to what we’d do, I’m sure he’d have a suggestion, and I’m sure I’d say yes—whether it seemed like a good idea or not.

I also wanted to talk a little about your editorial work. In the past few years, you’ve co-edited two books—Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) with Nick Mamatas and Swords v. Cthulhu with Jesse Bullington. What was it like working on these? Having been on the author-side of anthologies before, what sort of guiding principles did you bring to your editorial role?

It was super stressful in ways I found I didn’t particularly like, actually! I’m not saying I’d never edit anything again—I mean, I happily edited my sex rag Congress until I got too busy and too sad about the shocking state of my love life to edit porn anymore. But there, too, I really felt a tension being on the editorial side of things. I believe in my taste, but imposing it upon fellow writers by deciding in a real way if they made the cut . . . it just gave me the willies. I’m happier in the role of artist or critic.

Along those lines, has doing that kind of curatorial work influenced how you view your own work? More than just thoughts about how your work compares to other people’s, did it give you a sense of the broader field and how your own particular work fits in with that?

I don’t know if I learned anything about my own work in a comparative sense, but it did give me a bit more empathy for editors. Not that I ever viewed them in a combative way—except for in my most grouchy, insecure, self-indulgent moments, I suppose—but it never occurred to me how tough it would be to send rejections. Pass! I’d rather just get rejected!

Back to the Diabolist’s Library, then! I want to draw a comparison between that series and your earlier fiction, as exemplified by A Pretty Mouth, especially “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins.” In the earliest works, you focused very much on family—but of the lineal, blood-related variety. There were ways in which those stories appeared to side-step this—I think of the transfusions and soul-shifts of some of the Calipashes and their victims—but it was very much insular.

Later, however, your work seems to have focused more on fictive kinships and “found families.” Most recently, there’s a clear transition point in the commune at the end of Creatures of Will and Temper, but we see this front and center in Creatures of Want and Ruin and Creatures of Charm and Hunger, but the antecedents are certainly there in your earlier novels. Is there a point you can identify where this kind of “found family” became something you focused on? Do you also see a transition from how “forced family” as a weakness with the Calipashes transitioned to “forced family, but found community” in Creatures of Will and Temper, to “found family as strength” in Creatures of Want and Ruin and beyond?

The importance of community is indeed a leitmotif in my work, but I’m not sure if I can look at myself, my work, and my life in such an autocritical manner. I’m also not sure if I’ve intended to imply that traditional family is a weakness, but I must stick to my guns here. My art must be its own comment, so I’ll let other people draw what conclusions and parallels they so choose!

Part of my interest with “found family” versus “forced families,” is the way that you’ve used those to foreground characters from a variety of sexual orientations, gender expressions, and lifestyles—but you give them all a place to be accepted for themselves. By normalizing them, it seems, subtext becomes text becomes background in a way that represents and reflects diverse groups of people. Could you talk a little bit about why this is an area you work in?

I write about people, first and foremost. It’s true, most of my work has a fantastical or supernatural element, but it’s people I start with and people I end with, always. When I’m not trying to be Stylish—purposefully working within the picaresque or the screwball modes for example—I want all non-speculative elements of my stories to feel plausible; the way characters speak to one another, how they think and react, and so on and so forth. In order to achieve that realism, the characters have to be realistic, and it’s just not realistic to have everyone be straight, monogamous, middle-class moralists.

Of course, now that I’ve said all this, I’ll be judged on whether or not I succeed . . .

On a less grand note, are there any of your previous characters or worlds that you’d like to visit again but to explore in different ways? Do you have a sense of what your characters’ lives are like after you leave them, or are they out of sight and out of mind?

I usually know a bit. Evadne has a hard time letting herself be happy, but she manages in spite of herself. Lou has a healthy romance! Fin never stops trying to find ways not to fit in with other people, but she obviously enjoys being sad and extra, so it’s okay.

As to whether I want to go back . . . I get asked often if I’ll ever return to the world of Vermilion, but the answer is not at this point. It feels a bit similar to my ambivalence about the Calipash family—it’s going back, not forward, at this point. But who knows!

Finally, what’s next on the horizon for you? Beyond just your concrete schedule, what unexplored spaces do you think you might want to chart a course for?

I’m working on a lot of things right now, one of which is a novel, as I mentioned; the other is a novella that seems like it might—and hear me out—be about men. Weird! But, you know, this year marks the ten-year anniversary of my very first story sale, so I think it’s time I got around to trying to write a little about men. I hope I do okay with it.

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Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He also contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, Hellnotes, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com.