July 31, 2015

Psychopomp and Circumstance: an interview with Molly Tanzer, author of "Vermilion"

Molly Tanzer is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012), Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013), Vermilion (Word Horde, 2015), and The Pleasure Merchant (forthcoming, Lazy Fascist 2015). She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, experimenting with Korean cooking, and (as of recently) training for triathlons.

About VermilionGunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise "Lou" Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she's too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It's an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well... they're not wrong. 

When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it's the right thing to do, and she's the only one willing to do it. 

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive... 

From British Fantasy Award nominee Molly Tanzer comes debut novel Vermilion, a spirited weird Western adventure that puts the punk back into steampunk.

Available at Amazon, other book sellers, or even direct from the publisher, Word Horde.

Gef: Okay, right off the bat, any novel that takes inspiration from Big Trouble In Little China is already in my good books. But with Vermilion, you had your mind set on something of a historical tale. Where does the allure of the Old West come from?

Molly: The allure of the Old West has always been there for me, ever since my mother read me the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series when I was pretty young. While my understanding of the actual history and conditions of pioneer-era America have necessarily changed and deepened over the years, that just means the site has become more intriguing to me, and more worthy of exploration.

Also, moving to Colorado and actually spending a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains really changed me. In a lot of the parks and on official trails out here, you stumble across old homesteads, fences, ruins, and I personally found it impossible not to be inspired by those sights and experiences.

Gef: Your protagonist, Lou, didn't start out as your main character, but she was part of an ensemble. As much as she took center stage for you, in your revisions of this novel, how much caretaking did you find yourself doing with the other characters, or was it a "murder your darlings" scenario?

Molly: It was tough, trimming the character list, but I did so in such a way that if I go back to Lou’s world, they’re there for me to use some other time. That was actually fun, planting seeds for future novels, if they happen. We’ll see—I would certainly love to write more about Lou!

As to murdering my darlings, I actually did the reverse during my revisions. Bo died in an early draft, but it never felt quite right. While Lou must work through her feelings about death and loss, she is on several journeys at once, and Bo riding off into the sunset happy and healthy I felt made for a more complicated finale to one of her catharses.

Gef: As I understand it, research got pretty heavy with this one. How much of a rabbit hole was it during the research phase of your writing? Were you getting lured away from the actual writing too much at times or are you pretty stringent on just what kind of information you're looking for?


Molly: I think because I finished a draft of the book before Lou’s story took center stage that at least gave me a foundation on which to build. That said, there were times when I realized I had spent hours looking up some obscure fact or detail that had no bearing on the story and had to back away because it’s easy to get sucked in.

Gef: As enigmatic and diverse as the characters are in Vermilion, aided by the fantastical elements, how much emphasis do you place on setting as a character?


Molly: The landscape is typically a character in the Western, at least in cinema, so I put a lot of time into researching where my characters were at any given time. This was fun, because it meant I got to go on a lot of hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, visit the Cheyenne Railroad Museum, and take some neat drives on old country roads around this area that I might not have discovered otherwise. I wanted the landscape to provide challenges and advantages for Lou, in the way of the traditional Western, even as I sought to invert those tropes (Lou goes east, not west; many Westerns begin in a claustrophobic setting and end in the open wilderness, and Vermilion also inverts that in many ways.)

I also took some time during a trip to San Francisco to poke around Chinatown and the surrounding area, which helped me give the San Francisco sections a more vibrant feel, and be more of a real city to contrast with the natural environments Lou encounters in the latter parts of the novel.

Gef: Do you find there is an openness by publishers towards genre mashups these days compared to the past, even the subversion of genre tropes, or was that side of writing something you didn't concern yourself with?

Molly: Honestly I just wrote the book I wanted to write!

Gef: What would you say is the saving grace of the western genre?

Molly: Revisionism. All the best Westerns are revisionist, whether it’s Deadwood characters cussin it up like cowboys never did, or Connie Willis getting everyone into gender trouble with Uncharted Territory, I think it is a possible and wonderful act to repurpose what can be a deeply problematic genre to show the history that’s never been shown, or the history that never was.

Gef: As far as cover art goes, you probably can't ask for much better than what Vermilion has going for it. How much input did you have in finding an artist and the final product?

Molly: Zero! Ross Lockhart has amazing taste and intuition. When he asked if I had any thoughts I requested my cover art not sexify Lou—not that I thought Ross would commission an artist who would have her sporting a midriff and pigtails or whatever, but because that was my only strong feeling. When I saw the very first draft, I knew Dalton Rose “got” the feel of the novel, and then Osiel Gomez did such an amazing job on the cover design… I still look at it and get excited, because it’s a book I’d buy instantly.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Molly: So much writing advice is terrible. People constantly repeat garbage like “write every day!” or “write short stories first if you want to write novels!” or “write what you know!” Seriously, none of that stuff is true.

That said, these played-out adages contain kernels of truth—it’s just our desire to pare down knowledge into sound bites that destroys their helpfulness. There’s no compelling reason to write every day, but making time to write is the only way you’ll ever have written something. Protecting your writing time is great, but if you have a job, or kids, or both, and you can’t do it every day, there’s no reason to feel guilty. Even full-time writers don’t necessarily write every day… but people who are successful writers make time to write. Likewise, short stories can be really fun. They’re a wonderful way to experiment with style or unique narrative structures, but if you hate them, and more importantly, don’t read them… then why bother? Plenty of people write and sell a novel without publishing a single short story. And “write what you know” is stupid, too, on it’s own. I write about vampires and necromancers and cannibals all the friggin time. But, I do try to draw my vampires, necromancers, and cannibals as finely as possible—to use my knowledge of human psychology and human experience to make them deep and realistic, so that is writing about what I know, after a fashion.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Molly: None. I don’t believe in ‘guilty’ pleasures! I’ve always found that diversity in my media is a good thing for my mind, as a consumer but also as a creator. I read modern horror and fantasy alongside Harry Potter and 18th century novels; I watch lots of awkward English period pieces, Criterion collection masterpieces, trashy 80s fantasy movies and Marvel Cinematic Universe nonsense. WWE and Hannibal are the two TV shows I’m actively following right now. I’m re-playing Dragon Age 2 (the best Dragon Age, don’t let the haters tell you otherwise). I think the only thing I ever feel guilty about is spending time on social media when I could be enjoying a show or video game or movie, honestly.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Molly: My second novel, The Pleasure Merchant, is out this November. It’s an 18th century crime novel and Pygmalion story set in London, mostly. It’s probably the most horrific thing I’ve written even if it’s the least speculative. I’m very pleased with it, even if it almost drove me insane.


I also write short stories—an imminent one is even about Lou’s first adventure! To keep up with that, I’m on Twitter (@molly_the_tanz), and I have a FB account. But my blog, mollytanzer.com, is usually the best way to find out what I’m up to!

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