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 Colorado Book Award finalist“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.” Her critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Transcendent: The Year’s Best Trans and Nonbinary Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @molly_tanzer or @wickedmilkhotel on Twitter. She lives outside of Boulder, CO with her cat, Toad.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
“Creatures of Charm and Hunger” is set at the tail-end of World War II, and is in part the story of Miriam Cantor, a young Jewish woman who has been living with friends in England after escaping the Nazis. Miriam is special in a few ways, the most notable perhaps being that she’s an apprentice diabolist—a scientist who can work with demonic beings. When she hears her parents have gone missing, and are suspected of working for the enemy, she decides to use her talents to discover what happened to them and clear their names.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Miriam decides to search for her parents by learning astral projection and possessing the bodies of others. This is her first real success. I selected this scene because the moment where Miriam realizes she’s looking at her father’s jawbone in a dark forest was one of the first scenes I saw clearly in my mind as I began to plan “Creatures of Charm and Hunger.”
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Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
Each book in my Diabolist’s Library trilogy can be read as a standalone, but they do fit together in various subtle ways. In “Creatures of Charm and Hunger” I wanted to tie up some of the loose ends of my second book, “Creatures of Want and Ruin,” but I also wanted to write a story of individual resistance in the face of seemingly overwhelming, destructive evil.
I think the last five years have taken an enormous toll, psychic and physical, on those of us who disagreed with Trump and continue to disagree with the GOP and their awful agenda. I know my friends and I, who began the Trump era by marching at the Women’s March and who ended it in solidarity with BLM, have spent these years seeking ways to make a difference when it felt like there was nothing we could do. I believe we are starting to reap the benefits of that effort, but the cost has been high; for many, the cost was their life.
Miriam’s story was inspired by the amazing efforts of my friends, family, and strangers I read about in the news; that she makes a difference all from inside her house, where she’s locked up with only her immediate family for company, was written before we knew about COVID, but feels apropos given that “Creatures of Charm and Hunger” came out in April of 2020.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
I think the most unexpected thing about “Creatures of Charm and Hunger” was Edith’s voice. Initially I didn’t plan for her to be a point-of-view character, but the narrative demanded a broader context. The two main characters, Miriam and Jane, are cooped up in their house. I realized the book needed someone who could go beyond and see what everybody was talking about and fighting for.
Edith was also fun to expand as a character; she’s a master diabolist with cool powers, and writing a bit of that inside this otherwise quiet narrative was a real treat.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I’d say the biggest surprise was trying to decide how to market a book about staying indoors with your family for your own safety in the spring of 2020. Thankfully most people didn’t hold that against me!
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I’m mostly a night-writer these days. I like the quiet of the evening, when all my chores are done and my emails are responded to. I put on KUVO, our amazing local jazz station here in Colorado, make a cup of tea, and settle in.
I’ll do writing sprints at other times; I’ve been trying out setting aside one day a week to “only write” and that’s been working well. This summer I hope to get back to taking my laptop to my favorite local bar and having a cocktail on the patio as I type.
And these days I’m trying to be better to my body when I write, too. I have an actual desk chair with actual back support, and I treated myself to a sit-stand desk last year, when I transitioned to being a full-time, stay-at-home freelancer and writer (I had a side-hustle as a barista pre-pandemic). All this and my yoga routine mean I’m no longer shaped like a C—well, not as dramatically, at least.
As a writer of historical fantasy, do you consider yourself a historian first, or a fantasist?
Twelve years ago when I was just getting back into fiction-writing while getting my MA in Humanities (and dropping out of my PhD for same) I would have said historian. I was very interested in layering historical accuracy with the supernatural, and also in finding those lacunae in the record where we could find new stories to tell about ourselves and our past.
Since the dawn of the novel, women’s fiction has always sought to find those secret histories, and I liked to add to that tradition by also adding ghosts, monsters, and magic. These days, accuracy remains important to me, but I find myself chasing different aesthetic goals. In fact, the project I’m working on now is entirely fantastical!
Tell us about that project.
My work-in-progress is quite a departure for me. So far, all my novels have been historical fantasy/alternate history. My new novel is purely speculative. It’s set in another world, in a city that’s had no outside contact for three hundred years.
I’m really enjoying writing it; it’s a new set of challenges for me. I can’t wait to go back over it and edit it. I suspect a lot of the scenes where my protagonist goes out and orders brunch with her friends will read quite wistful after this last year of lockdown…