Books bound in yellow

Molly Tanzer writes of sensualist demons in reframed Victorian London

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Molly Tanzer is the author of 'Creatures of Will and Temper,' 'Vermilion' and 'The Pleasure Merchant.'
Courtesy of Molly Tanzer

Through works of fantasy and what she calls “alt-history,” Longmont-based author Molly Tanzer pushes forgotten narratives to the forefront. With her novels Vermilion, The Pleasure Merchant, and the newest Creatures of Will and Temper, Tanzer attempts to redesign history with just a taste of the fantastical.

Originally from Marietta, Georgia, Tanzer says she has considered herself a feminist from a young age. When she was pursuing her master’s degree in humanities at the University of Florida, she focused on 18th- and 19th-century novels written by women about the transatlantic slave trade.

“The product of slavery tended to be luxury items that women would engage with,” such as fine cottons, sugar and tea, Tanzer says. Because of this, she says female authors were guiding the conversation around abolitionism in many ways.

While learning about these authors fascinated her, ultimately she preferred writing stories to writing papers. She started writing novels, and after around “two-and-a-half” attempts, she got one published.

Historical fantasy itself appeals to her because it gives her “the opportunity to explore what’s real from a different angle,” she says. “Fantasy is often a reflection of our fears and anxieties about the real, so using it can cast whatever issue or idea I’m writing about into sharper relief.”

Her first novel, Vermilion, was an “inclusive Western” centered on a genderfluid, half-Chinese protagonist named Lou. Although Tanzer herself is not half-Chinese, she says she understands feeling “torn between two worlds at a time when one is viewed with suspicion,” as her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish. 

Tanzer says she feels self-conscious about veering into cultural appropriation with her work.

Still, she says, stories of marginalized people are important to tell. While some authors refuse to write about people of color, LGBT people or strong-willed women in their historical fantasy for fear of historical inaccuracy, she doesn’t see it as an issue.

“I figured if I was going to put demons in the book anyway, I could give myself a little leeway with other ‘historical facts,’” Tanzer says.

The author says she ultimately aims for inclusivity in all of her novels.

“The books I grew up reading were very white and very straight. I would like future generations to have more options,” Tanzer says. She says she is interested in “the queering of history,” and queer fiction in general. “The way that desire drives us,” she says, is “endlessly fascinating.”

Her latest novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, is the first in a trilogy about diabolists — demon worshippers — across human history. Set in Victorian London, the novel uses The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde as a foundation to tell a story of fencer Evadne Gray and her 17-year-old aspiring art critic sister, Dorina Gray, who descends into amoral behavior by way of demon-summoning. While reading Wilde’s original version, Tanzer says she imagined the “book bound in yellow” that Henry gives Dorian could be a book of diabolism, which inspired her to write Creatures of Will and Temper.

Tanzer’s novel features several prominent LGBT characters: Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton dresses as a man and does not consider herself bound to femininity; Dorina becomes enamored with Henry and the two develop a happy, fulfilling relationship.

“I wanted Dorina to be explicitly queer and for Henry to be openly living her best life,” Tanzer says. “I didn’t want to write a book in which the gay characters were oppressed and constantly sad and constantly put upon. I wanted to write a book in which they find one another and find happiness. It’s important to acknowledge how oppressive societies have been and still are towards queer members of society, but that doesn’t have to be every single story.”

Tanzer says she has received an overall warm response to her novels in the past, especially from people in marginalized communities who yearn to see themselves represented in fantasy. Over social media, she says the reception of Creatures of Will and Temper has been positive from members of the LGBT community. 

Most of Tanzer’s works carry some form of a political message, she says. Creatures of Will and Temper, for example, is “definitely political in that it is about freedom and living the life that you want to live, even if it’s on the margins.”

Although the novel is a tale of amorality, Tanzer says there are still lessons to be learned. There are clear moral rights and wrongs. She says the message of this particular novel is simple:

“Mind your own business. Fight for what you have to fight for. Happiness is a noble pursuit.”

The sequel forthcoming to Creatures of Will and Temper, titled Creatures of Want and Ruin, is set on Long Island in 1927, where the thread of underground diabolist society continues.

Tanzer says this installment promises to be even more overtly political, as it deals directly with “anti-immigrant sentiment overtaking a community.”

“Everything I write is extremely left,” Tanzer says. She started writing Creatures of Want and Ruin in November 2016 during the presidential campaign. “I wrote the novel, in part, for all of my friends who have been wrestling — ever since Trump got the nomination — with their Trump-supporting families.”

Creatures of Want and Ruin is set to be published in November 2018.