An Interview with Molly Tanzer
- By Craig Laurance Gidney
- March 12, 2019
The author talks demons, liquor, and the allure of diabolism.
Set in Prohibition-era Long Island (Amityville, no less), Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want & Ruin is an intriguing hybrid: part historical novel, part pulpy supernatural adventure.
Bootlegger Ellie West is delivering hooch during a powerful storm when she comes across a crashed boat and its weirdly unhinged, violent operator, a fellow bootlegger. She also finds a cabin full of liquor and strange mushrooms. Meanwhile, Fin Coulthead, an ex-Suffragette and reluctant socialite, arrives for a summer vacation on Long Island, drinks the tainted hooch, and has a sinister, prophetic vision.
Creatures of Want & Ruin is a very loose sequel to Tanzer’s 2016 novel, Creatures of Will & Temper. Like that earlier novel, it concerns itself with “diabolists,” people who conjure demons and join with them in a symbiotic relationship. Creatures of Will & Temper was set among the aesthetics of London’s Belle Époque and offered more than a nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The demons conjured in Want & Ruin are more overtly evil, and the plot veers into political allegory, complete with a demagogic, Temperance-inspired villain. Where the first novel in the series had a touch of the literary gothic mode championed by Sarah Waters, the second is full of action.
How is your conception of demons different than the usual goat-horned, scaled kind?
I love me some goat-horned, scaly demons (with pitchforks!) but, really, the idea of a “demon” is so broad and so common across world cultures that I purposely tried to divorce the demons in my book from any specific religion, region, or time, and tried to suggest instead ways that these beings that show up in these books might be all (or none!) of what we’ve come to call demons. That said, it’s been pointed out by reviewers that there’s a bit of a Lovecraftian ineffability to my demons, which seems fair given how often I’ve found myself writing in the Lovecraftian mode over the years.
What things did you edit out of the novel?
Gosh, what didn’t I edit out? The first outline I did for Creatures of Will & Temper had the book set in a second-world fantasy setting with a state religion based on honeybee society. The first draft of Creatures of Want & Ruin had someone die who survives in the published version, and a person who dies survived. I’m a big believer in a rigorous drafting process!
How much of your grandmother is in the character of the protagonist/hero of the story, Elizabeth West? Was she a moonshiner?
My grandmother wasn’t a bootlegger, but my Uncle Jimmy was — there’s a throwaway line in Want & Ruin about running booze to an Episcopal priest who likes to pull a cork, and that came straight from family stories about Jimmy’s former clientele. (Whether or not they’re true…maybe? Everyone in Amityville has their family story about rum-running, so they’re part of a communal storytelling tradition, at least.)
But, Ellie’s baywoman’s wisdom, her willingness to get her hands dirty, her moral compass, and her love of Long Island are all from my grandmother. Her poetic side, as well — some of the snippets of the poems in the book are taken from or inspired by my grandmother’s nature poetry.
There’s a little bit of Zelda Fitzgerald in Creatures of Want & Ruin’s other protagonist, Fin. Who else is she modeled after?
That’s a bigger question than you might imagine! Delphine went through several enormous rewrites during the drafting process. She was always supposed to be, at least in part, someone who plausibly could be in the background of some party in The Great Gatsby, sure, but she wasn’t compelling reading for some reason when her story was one of a woozy socialite archery fan finally finding herself. Only when I gave Fin a past rooted in the social-justice movements of the early 1910s and 20s did she come together — she needed to rediscover herself, not find herself for the first time. So, it’s less that she’s modeled after anyone in particular, and is more supposed to be a woman of her time.
There is a Lovecraftian element in Creatures of Want & Ruin, and you have written Lovecraftian fiction peopled with folks the real Lovecraft wouldn’t like — the queer folk in Creatures of Will & Temper, and the African-American moonshiner in this book. What’s your draw to Lovecraftian themes?
I’m a brat? I wish I had a better answer than that, but it’s true, and Lovecraft really just brings it out in me. Not because I dislike his work — quite the contrary! It’s because the more one is into Lovecraft, the more frustrating he reveals himself to be, as a writer and as a person. He was brilliant. I mean, he invented an entire mode of storytelling, as well as a fictional religion with a pantheon of gods that have become household names.
But while I admire his creative output (with notable and obvious exceptions), his worldview and mine don’t align, so I always come away a little bit unsatisfied. Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back to Lovecraft, but then again, maybe not. Lovecraft’s enduring popularity proves that many of us are drawn to Lovecraftian themes — after all, a plushie Cthulhu, while cute, is still invoking the idea of a terrifying monster, dreaming, waiting to return and murder us all.
All that said, I didn’t intend to write a Lovecraftian novel! I was fairly deep into the book when I realized I was unconsciously falling into that mode. At that point, I just went for it — and why not? It makes sense for the era, and having a character be a Lovecraft fan, and thus less convinced of the reality of the supernatural, seemed like a fun inversion!
Can you give us a teaser about the next novel in the series, Creatures of Charm & Hunger?
Sure! Creatures of Charm & Hunger is set at the tail end of WWII, in the rural north of England. Similarly to the first two, it’s focused on women’s relationships, this time two younger women who are both apprentice diabolists. One is very witchy, the other more scientific, and as they grow up in close quarters against the backdrop of a war that’s affected them both in different ways, they begin to really grow up. But it’s also about summoning demons, familiars, killing Nazis with astral projection, and a bunch of other stuff, so it’s not all feels. There’s some action and motion in there, too, and I think fans of the first two books will find it a satisfying conclusion!
Craig Laurance Gidney is author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories and Skin Deep Magic, the YA novel Bereft, and The Nectar of Nightmares. He lives in his native Washington, DC. His new novel, A Spectral Hue, comes out from Word Horde next year. Find him on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter at @ethereallad.