Marion Chats with Molly Tanzer about writing, hiking, and bears

In 2013, Molly Tanzer was nominated for the Sidney J. Bounds award, selected by the British Fantasy Society, for her linked story collection A Pretty Mouth. Her short fiction has appeared in Lovecraft eZine and other horror/dark fantasy markets. Vermilion is her debut novel. Tanzer has a Master’s in Humanities from Florida State University and currently lives in Colorado. Vermilion explores the adventures of Lou Merriwether; a half-Chinese, half-English psychopomp in a Weird West unlike ones we’ve seen before. Vermilion is available directly from the publisher Word Horde and via Amazon. Molly graciously set aside some time to chat with me about the book, which I enjoyed. Her publicist has contributed a copy of Vermilion which we’ll send to one random commenter with a U.S address.

Marion Deeds: Molly, much of your short fiction gets labeled as Lovecraftian fantasy/horror. Vermilion has some horrific aspects (like the Chinese vampires) but I read it more as a fantasy detective adventure novel. (And steampunk of course.) What do you think of all the categories, and where would you categorize Vermilion?

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Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer: As modern people, we love categories. We love to fit things into boxes, make sure everything is on the shelf in its proper place. Obviously, this is fundamentally futile (if not outright hurtful) in many instances, and helpful in others. For example, the (fairly accurate) labeling of the bulk of my short fiction as “Lovecraftian” has helped it find an audience that has enjoyed it, so that’s great. But at the same time… if I’m known at all, it’s as a horror writer, and for those outside the horror community, “horror” most of the time means “scary stuff” which is decidedly what I don’t write. I tend toward irreverent treatments of my subjects, even when they are horrifying.

I’ve always seen Vermilion first and foremost as a Weird Western, but of course, there is some Steampunk-y stuff in there. I’m really very glad to hear that the detective adventure novel came through in execution, the novel Lou is reading in Vermilion, The Cases of Judge Dee, is a real Chinese detective novel, and one widely available in translation. It’s great, and was definitely an influence on me when I was drafting.

 

I was glad to see The Cases of Judge Dee in your book, because it fit so perfectly.

While some of your short fiction has involved necromancy, Lou is a psychopomp, which is slightly different. She helps the spirits of the dead find their way to the afterlife. I loved your depiction of a world where the dead don’t automatically move on, and some areas have laws about getting rid of your ghosts. You specifically mention the 1985 movie Mr. Vampire as an inspiration. How did that provide the springboard for this adventure?

Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, PsychopompMr. Vampire was a game-changer for me, when I saw it… it blew my mind! I’d never seen a movie like it. It’s funny, “spooky” (not scary), personal, action-focused, and has this amazing Taoist geomancy/feng shui element (interestingly, being placed specifically in opposition to Confucianism) that is important for the plot’s resolution.

I think when people think of Taoism they think of contemplative Taoism — The Tao that cannot be named, the fundamental illusion of separateness, all that kind of thing — but there are many facets of Taoism, including a later school concerned with alchemy, immortality, and magic. I first encountered this school via a class on Japanese art, actually, where we looked at depictions of the Taoist sages. While Mr. Vampire is obviously a Hong Kong film, some of the stuff in there resonated with things I was already a little familiar with, and gave me a (teeny-tiny) place to dig in and hold on during the wild ride.

All this to say, I became fascinated by this aspect of Taoism, concerned with taming the unruly dead, and it planted the seed in my mind that would eventually become Vermilion.

The rhythm of a short piece is quite different from a novel. Was that a struggle for you?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLike many authors, Vermilion — while my debut — is not the first novel I’ve written. I wrote two and a half garbagewater efforts, one of which I completely deleted from the world, yes… it was that bad. Anyways, all this to say, short fiction and novels present their own challenges for me. My two most popular short stories are both around 10k words; writing short is actually the greater struggle. I think my two ~50k novellas, A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion (which is actually a prequel to Vermilion, in a weird roundabout way) were my most comfortable writing experiences, for whatever reason.

I don’t know, that’s not an answer at all, maybe because writing itself is a struggle for me, honestly — I’m a slow writer, I’m always in awe of people who consistently write over 5k a day… like, what? It takes me a week to draft a 5k short story, sometimes longer. And when I’m deep in the heart of noveling, 2-3k a day is a solid day for me. Writing is a rewarding effort, but an effort nonetheless.

Lou Merriwether is half Chinese and half English. That gives her some problems in the book and it also allows her to function in two different societies. Lou is such a great threshold character; which do you think is a greater challenge; her androgyny or her mixed cultural background?

A greater challenge for me as a writer, or for Lou the character?

That’s actually a much better question! Let’s do both.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI don’t know if it would be possible to define which would be the “greater” challenge for Lou. While “on the page” in Vermilion Lou may appear to have many more unpleasant interactions regarding her racial background, for people who possess multiple marginalized identities, their various experiences of oppression tend to stack, reinforcing one another over time. Eventually they become indistinguishable from one another.

We’re obviously talking about alt-history rather than real history here, but socially speaking Lou’s San Francisco isn’t all that different from our historical San Francisco. What I mean to say is, a wealthy 19th c. white woman would not have had as much freedom or as many opportunities as a similar but male counterpart, but her day to day experience of the way people treated her due to her gender would likely be entirely different than Lou’s. She would also likely be able to attribute her frustrations specifically to her gender, rather than wondering if her limited opportunities were due to her race, her economic status, and so on. Lou, as part of an ethnic and cultural minority, a woman, and someone whose gender falls outside the binary norm, would not have as easy a time of determining why people were actively trying to prevent her success, nor would it necessarily matter — whatever the reason, she knows too well she’ll have to fight harder than she might if she looked or acted differently.

Now, as a writer, the challenge for me was to try to represent these intersecting axes within Lou’s psychology in an honest and open way in terms of the reality of the time, but also play off of the reader’s expectations: I wanted Lou’s liminality to actually work as an advantage for her at times, instead of being an impermeable barrier.

I think it did work as both barrier and advantage.

When we first started discussing this interview, you were on a hiking trip. Nature is a big inspiration for you, clearly! Tell us what nature does for you as a writer, and how it finds its way into your work.

I grew up running around the woods in Georgia. The neighborhood where I grew up was very green, and the other kids and I would always build forts and make up stories about defending them. Then, my parents and I moved into a house that backed up to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. It was a great, weird old house, in a wonderful location, and while I still bussed in to the same school, there really weren’t many other kids around in the afternoons, or on weekends. I mean, they were probably only a few miles off, but it seemed like a long way to me at the time. So I still ran around the woods, but mostly by myself, and still making up stories. It was a little lonely — I was an only child — but I believe that situation led me down the path of self-reliance and the tolerance for solitary creativity that has aided me greatly as a writer.

When I moved to Colorado, I was amazed by the pristine nature as well as the scale of the natural spaces out here. I’d never hiked more than a few miles before, ever in my life, and I began to enjoy longer strolls, and hardier ones. There’s not a lot to do on hikes other than think and look. I find I do my best story planning while walking, even if I’m not directly writing about the woods, or Colorado.

A large part of Vermilion takes place in the Colorado Rockies, in an amazing cave complex. I wondered if you borrowed an actual location, or several, for the valley and the caves where the “sanitarium” is placed.

The cave complex is imaginary, though there are some amazing caves in Glenwood Springs that I took an inspiring but cheesy tour through once. Much of the rest of the landscape is a composite, inspired by actual hikes I’ve done in Rocky Mountain National Park, and other locales too, and the Devil’s Gulch Road is similar to one I’ve driven up.

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Mt. Bross

The valley beneath Fountain of Youth is also directly inspired by a real location, too — I once summited Mt. Bross, one of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains over 14k feet), on an out of use mining road/unapproved trail (long story, and I absolutely do not condone this behavior — I thought it was a real, legitimate trail at the time, or I would never, ever have done it! Do not hike off-trail, you may be contributing to erosion and/or impacting delicate restoration areas!). On this route, whatever it was (no idea if I could find it again) before beginning the actual ascent we arrived at a pristine valley beneath the summit of the mountain, dotted with lakes and swaths of gentle green turf, the mountain in the distance. It was glorious, and I thought to myself, this is it, this is where the San would be.

I loved the bears and the pinnipeds in Vermilion. The bears, of course, play a bigger role, and they provide a rich vein of humor in the book. Were the bears also inspired by your hikes?

Bears are the real deal in Colorado. You have to be very careful hiking and camping around here. Bears won’t usually just up and attack you, but if you surprise them by going off trail, or if they decide they want the food you for some reason put in your tent, they can be extremely dangerous. They’re also highly intelligent — for example, friends of mine, who have a cabin in the woods (not in Colorado, but in another bear-heavy environment) had a bear break into their home. The bears in that area are so smart, if they see a refrigerator through the window, they know you have food in your house, even if they can’t smell it. The bear broke in through a window, tore the door off their fridge, ate their food, and had climbed up on the stove to eat flour and honey out of their cabinets before they think it knocked the gas on the stove, burning itself, which is when it fled. Thankfully they came home not long after and more damage wasn’t done!

I was astonished by this tale when I heard it, years ago, and did a bit of reading about bears. I find animals like bears, raccoons, and house swallows fascinating, because of the way they’ve learned to adapt to life around humans. Because of their size and their opportunism, bears specifically seemed like a natural choice to add to the world of Vermilion. And since sea lions are evolutionary cousins to bears, and San Francisco is obviously famous for its sea lions, that seemed a fun element to distinguish her reality from our historical past, as well.

You have another novel coming out in August 2015. Is that right?

Actually, it’s November, 2015. The Pleasure Merchant, or the Modern Pygmalion, is the title, and it will come out from Lazy Fascist Press, who published A Pretty Mouth. It’s set in the 18th century and it’s about a wigmasters’ apprentice turned gentleman. It has no speculative element but it’s also a mishmash of genres, like most of what I write — crime fiction, Bildungsroman, references to the Pygmalion myth… all that fun stuff.

It sounds like fun!

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Vermilion ingredients

I understand that you enjoy cocktails, especially the classic ones. Will you leave us with the perfect mixed drink to sip while we read Vermilion?

Always a pleasure!

It’s warming up here in Colorado, which is making me start to crave amari. While there’s much to be said for a crisp, perfectly chilled G&T in the warm weather, when the temperature rises there’s little I enjoy more than an Americano or a Negroni. Plus, the color of Campari is the right color for the theme. This cocktail is basically a Negroni with a few extras and specific recommendations to get the flavor correct. It’s bitter and cold and sweet and a bit floral, everything I like in a cocktail.

A few notes on the ingredients — there are a lot of vermouths out there, and many are absolutely dreadful. It’s given vermouth a rotten reputation, which is regrettable — good vermouth is delicious on its own! I’ve recommended Cocci here because it’s a little more floral and less assertive than Punt e Mes, which is my usual go-to.

The other more esoteric ingredient is Mui Kwe Lu, which I first encountered in Chinatown, at Li Po’s, a bar famous for its delicious but deadly Mai Tais. It has a subtle essence of roses and gasoline that might not sound delightful, but it is. If you can’t find it — and be careful substituting, because a lot of Chinese rose-wines are meant for cooking, and that means they’re salty! — just add a dash (not a teaspoon!) of rosewater, which is widely available.

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The Vermilion Cocktail

Vermilion

1 oz Campari
¾ oz Cocci Vermouth
1 oz London Dry Gin
1 tsp. Mui Kwe Lu
several dashes Angostura bitters

Shake all ingredients with lots of cracked ice, and serve up in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a squared-off lemon twist in honor of Lou’s vermilion-inked wards.

NB: If amari aren’t your thing, you can of course accompany Vermilion with my riff on the Corpse Reviver #2, the Chinese Necromancer, which I concocted to celebrate singing with my agent, many years ago.

Molly, thanks for spending time with me. I hope we can expect the further adventures of Lou Merriwether!

Readers, we’re giving away a copy of Vermilion to one random commenter with a US address.


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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17 comments

  1. any interview with a cocktail recipe is a great interview–thanks!

    Plus, now I have to go research that Taoism strand . . .

  2. Presumably while sipping your cocktail.

  3. I’m going to stop by my local liquor store and see if I can find that Mui Kwe Lu. I’m going to try the Chinese Necromancer, too. I’ve got everything but the Lillet Blanc. (Yes, I already have ginger liquor and even a bottle of absinthe in my cabinet.)

    • April /

      So when is your next party?? ;-)

      I already had this book on my radar and this interview definitely made me want to promote it up the list.

    • Yes, I was going to check at a specialty store nearby. Rosewater just doesn’t seem like the thing. And I think this is the first review/interview where I’ve talked more about booze in the comments than about the book!

  4. Kayla /

    Sounds like an awesome book, and an awesome drink!

  5. Lou sounds like a fascinating character.
    It’s not shown here, but I thought the synopsis for this book was great! The first sentence sold me.

  6. “fantasy detective adventure novel” is a really apt description, which I wish I’d thought to include when trying to summarize/categorize it for folks.

    Categories (or tags, maybe?) are helpful and painful at the same time.

    Now I know what ‘booze’ to recommend to my book club, if I can convince them that we ought to read Vermilion! (And I think we ought to – even though I already have.)

  7. Barbara Elness /

    As soon as I first heard about Vermilion I put the book on my wish list. I think it sounds like a fantastic story and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  8. Melanie Goldmund /

    “Fantasy detective adventure novel”? I’m in!

  9. Ooh, VERMILION sounds fabulous!

  10. Margo Hurwicz /

    I hadn’t heard about Vermillion & now I have, so thank you. Sounds like something I’d enjoy. And that cocktail sounds pretty interesting (and worth a try) too. Coincidentally, I tasted my first drinks of that type (negroni, americano) in San Francisco in little bar somewhere between Chinatown & the Italian (North Beach?) neighborhood. But there are no coincidences, and I feel the presence of the ghost who lead me to that bar.

  11. Jenna Bird, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of Vermilion!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  12. And DJ, you win a copy of Marie Brennan’s TROPIC OF SERPENTS, if you want it. Why? Because I can. (We didn’t have a non-staff commenter for our FogCON column.)

    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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