Molly Tanzer: Five Things I Learned Writing Creatures of Want and Ruin

Amityville baywoman Ellie West fishes by day and bootlegs moonshine by night. It’s dangerous work under Prohibition—independent operators like her are despised by federal agents and mobsters alike—but Ellie’s brother was accepted to college and Ellie’s desperate to see him go. So desperate that when wealthy strangers ask her to procure libations for an extravagant party Ellie sells them everything she has, including some booze she acquired under unusual circumstances.

What Ellie doesn’t know is that this booze is special. Distilled from foul mushrooms by a cult of diabolists, those who drink it see terrible things—like the destruction of Long Island in fire and flood. The cult is masquerading as a church promising salvation through temperance and a return to “the good old days,” so it’s hard for Ellie to take a stand against them, especially when her father joins, but Ellie loves Long Island, and she loves her family, and she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure neither is torn apart.

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What We Read is Who We Are

Let me say first that this whole post is going be a little political, because my novel is a little political. Great, you’re probably thinking, as you’ll be reading this a week after the election, and are more than likely over reading, talking, or thinking about politics. But you see, I’m writing all this a little more than one week before the election—so how could this post, this novel, fail to be anything but political? After all, I came up with the idea for Creatures of Want and Ruin in the late summer before the 2016 election and started writing it in earnest a few weeks into November, after it was all over and America was trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. All I was thinking about at that time was politics—well, that and my good friends had a baby four days after that fateful night. But even that joyous event was politicized for me. As I held their amazing, sweet child in my arms for the first time, not 48 hours after she was born, I remember whispering to her “I will fix this for you, little girl.” I haven’t made good on that promise yet, but this novel is one the ways in which I am trying.

Anyway, Creatures of Want and Ruin is a book about a lot of things, including politics—but it is also about reading. My co-tagonists (I just learned that word!) are very different people but they are both avid readers. Ellie West fishes and bootlegs to support her struggling family; Delphine “Fin” Coulthead is a socialite who’s lost her way, but they both take time to curl up with a book—and because of that, they find some common ground; see their similarities instead of their differences. The enjoyment of the written word links them—and even ends up saving them, after a fashion. We’ve all had to take a harder look at what we’re reading over the last two years, where it comes from, and if it is written in the spirit of truth or with the desire to spread lies. But I take comfort in the fact that even in times like these one may still find pleasure and hope within the pages of a book, still be refreshed and changed by the simple act of reading, so I wanted to honor that.

Sometimes, You Have to Lose Your Way to Find Your Way

As I mentioned above, Creatures of Want and Ruin has dual protagonists, Ellie and Fin. Ellie the baywoman and bootlegger was pretty easy for me to write, in part because she’s a pulp reboot of my maternal grandmother and in part because while she is a complex character, Ellie a straightforward thinker who needs to grow in her understanding of the world, but starts and finishes the novel knowing who she is inside.

Not so much the socialite Fin Coulthead. I had to wrestle with Fin the entire time I was writing the book. I felt like every time I tried to write her I was staring at a puzzle with no edge pieces. I knew who she was, but not why. I’d gone too far down the path of writing a careless person in the vein of Daisy from The Great Gatsby… but Daisy was no heroine, and Fin is supposed to be. It was only after I had a solid enough draft to show to my agent did I figure it out… after she told me she hated Fin. And not the cool “Katniss sure is hard to like!” kind of hatred. Given how my agent has close to a 100% record of being right when it comes to problems with my drafts, I went back to Fin. I listened to what my agent disliked—basically, Fin’s absence of any interest in the world beyond herself—and worked backwards from that. In the end, I’m really happy with Fin, and I hope readers will be, too.

You Can’t Escape Yourself, And That’s Okay

These days, I mostly write fantasy… but I got my start in horror. Lovecraftian horror, to be precise. My first collection, A Pretty Mouth, is a series of interconnected Lovecraftian tales set in different time periods; the only story I’ve ever had anthologized as a Best Of is “The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad,” a riff on Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” but set in 1990 at a high school. That said, I don’t write so much cosmic horror these days, a decision that was both conscious and not. I wanted to explore different themes, different settings, different possibilities. And yet, one of the early reviews of Creatures of Will and Temper (the first, but largely unrelated book in this series), described the demons as “Lovecraftian,” which I found surprising as I hadn’t thought of them that way. I mean, the reviewer liked that, so good…

But it gave me pause just the same, and that’s when I realized I was writing a novel in which foul mushrooms sprout from the earth as masked, mysterious cultists terrorize the night, lighting fires and demanding a return to “the old ways”… even if the old ways they’re talking about are backwards, para-religious sentiments like keeping women at home and marginalized communities as marginalized as possible. Ah well! We all have our muses that we follow, consciously or otherwise.

America Is Hungrier Than We Knew For Hatred and Lies

In taking a “break” from writing this essay I clicked over to Facebook and saw that Florida’s agriculture secretary, Donny Purdue, described the Florida gubernatorial race as “so cotton-pickin’ important” at a GOP rally. As noted above, by the time you’re reading this we shall have seen the power of such rhetoric—whether it has rallied more to the Trumpist cause, or driven people away from it. Regardless, the last two years have been an alarming wake-up call for many as to the divided state of American ideas on race, class, gender, sexuality… even the need for a government at all.

When I began Creatures of Want and Ruin Trump was the GOP nominee; all the statisticians predicted a win for Hillary Clinton. And yet, Trump’s rhetoric, his presence, had begun to cause ripples in the ponds of my friends’ lives. We didn’t know then that those ripples would become a tsunami—we just knew that the summer of 2016 was a period in which many of us became vastly more uneasy around our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends, whether we were at family gatherings like barbecues and pool parties, or on Facebook.

I’m one of the lucky ones; I don’t have to watch my tongue or risk a goodwill apocalypse around my family, but many of my friends have not been so fortunate. Perhaps it seems odd to talk about all this in a “Five Things I Learned Writing…” essay, but this hunger I saw on the news, heard about in my friends’ stories, saw on social media—it informed a crucial family dynamic as I was outlining Creatures of Want and Ruin. I wanted to write a story with a protagonist struggling with tensions similar to what so many of my friends were dealing with, because seeing them standing up to those closest to them when the stakes were so high was one of the most heroic things I’ve ever witnessed. I wanted to write something to them, and for them, because of that.

America Is Starving For Love and Truth and Justice

While it’s true that I wrote Creatures of Want and Ruin while in a dark place, it is still a novel of strength and of hope. Yes, during this essay I’ve foregrounded a lot of the pain I’ve felt post-2016, for my friends and my country, but now I’ll talk about why I had the novel end in a decidedly non-Lovecraftian way, with the promise of the possibility of positive change.

Why? I’ll tell you: Because I attended the Women’s March last year and this year, where had the honor of walking beside thousands upon thousands of dissenters in Denver—and five million worldwide. Because my small rural city held a Charlottesville vigil, a Pride march that was better attended than the one held by a certain notoriously liberal city to our southwest, and our own Families Belong Together rally. Because I’ve seen friends standing tall by creating art, running for public office (and winning!), volunteering until they’re dog tired, reaching out in amazing ways to friends and strangers, and really just resisting in any and every way they can.  They take their kids to rallies, host dance parties against Trump, moderate debates between local candidates.  They aren’t backing down, so why would my characters, when faced with similar (if admittedly more supernatural) turmoil in their communities? I couldn’t dishonor the love and passion and determination I’ve seen over the last two years with a dour tale of defeat. Instead, I wanted to praise it with a pot-boiler about bootlegging liquor, kissing who you want, and fighting tyranny. It’s a novel about the power of freedom—the real kind, “freedom to,” not “freedom from,” as the all too prophetic Margaret Atwood would put it in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a book meant to be as inspirational as it is cautionary, but it is up to you to decide if I succeeded.

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MOLLY TANZER is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award–nominated author of Vermilion (an NPR and io9 Best Book of 2015), A Pretty Mouth, the historical crime novel The Pleasure Merchant, and other works. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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