Molly Tanzer’s easy-to-love novel Vermilion has been a highlight of the literary year for many: first grabbing our attention thanks to a sumptuous cover illustration by Dalton Rose, but charming us further – the c-word is not incidental here – with its picaresque journey into an (alternate) Wild West, courtesy of young psychopomp Lou Merriwether. The debut novelist and short story writer speaks to us about what inspired Vermilion’s literary brew, her early days as a writer, and what’s in store for her in the near future.
Do you remember the point at which writing became a prevailing passion for you? Could you describe what motivated you to keep writing in those early days?
I don’t remember any specific “eureka!” moment with writing, not really. I’ve always written. Though (this is a silly story) I do recall a feeling of dismay after finishing The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I really enjoyed as a kid. I couldn’t believe it was over, that there was no more story, so I wrote some fanfiction about Halloween Town and its residents. It felt very empowering, to be able to tell a story I wanted to read, and that’s always stayed with me.
It wasn’t really until high school, when I began a creative writing program, that I began to write with the goal of getting better. As to what motivated me, well, then and now, it’s been about the joy I feel when I’m writing – or more accurately, after I’ve written and I’m editing something, and it’s coming together into something exciting. Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed practicing regularly, that makes me proud but profoundly dissatisfied with my level. It’s the only thing like that, for me. I’ve given up on several musical instruments, I’ve enjoyed dabbling in the visual arts but have always let various projects fall by the wayside, I’ve tried and enjoyed a few different sports, but nothing has ever consistently captivated me like writing.
Vermilion is your debut novel, but not your debut publication, and from what we understand, it isn’t even the first novel you wrote. How do you feel now that it’s published? Would you say this is a bona-fide career highlight you have been building towards?
Of course! It feels wonderful, knowing Vermilion is out there in the world. I’ve always had the goal of being a published novelist, so seeing Vermilion out in the world feels like the culmination of a dream, but also the start of a new journey.
What would say are some of the dogged themes/obsessions you address in your writing?
It’s true that I am an obsessive when it comes to certain things, like time periods (the 18th century is a place I return to time and again) and in terms of themes. Freedom to and freedom from are something I find myself writing about often.
I enjoy playing with expectations of gender, certainly… it’s sort of a rule with my writing that if you can find a character who might be tangentially described by Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Holland, 1945’ you’ve found my darling. And I suppose other people’s obsessions always find a way in, too – whether it’s health, personal/social aspirations, sex, pleasure, obsessions with someone or something specific.
You’ve commented on this before, but we were wondering if you could expand on it. Vermilion is a novel that addresses the issue of national, ethnic and racial diversity from various angles, not least its Chinese-British protagonist, who is also shamelessly androgynous in the way she presents herself to others. It is also an unashamedly ‘fun’ romp that draws on various traditions of what we could broadly describe as ‘pulp fiction’. Having been unleashed onto the world – for better or for worse – slap-bang in the middle of the Sad Puppies Hugos controversy, do you think that Vermilion is now performing double duty: telling a story, while also challenging genre perspectives?
I feel it’s for readers and critics to decide if Vermilion is either (1) fun, or (2) challenging to genre perspectives! That said, it seems like so far people do think it’s fun and challenging “romp” (thank you!), and I’ve been thrilled to see what a positive reception it has received so far.
I certainly hoped it would be considered a fun and exciting adventure story, but it was certainly on purpose that I wrote it to be one in which women, people of color, LGTBQ and genderfluid individuals, and other outsiders were the “good guys.” Far too often, “othered” individuals are relegated to background status if not cast in villainous roles in genre fiction—and when I say genre, I mean all the genres I drew on, including the Western, noir, classic adventure stories, detective fiction, the bildungsroman, the supernatural thriller, and the good old fashioned fantasy novel.
Given the historical setting of the novel (however ‘alternate’ it may be) and the various cultural backgrounds at play within it, how did you approach researching it? Was it a challenge to figure out whether you were doing too little research, or too much of it, at any point?
Researching Vermilion was challenging but exciting. Fortunately, I live in Colorado, so a lot of my research involved taking scenic trips to local history museums, such as the Estes Park Museum and the Colorado Railroad Museum. I even went up to the Cheyenne Depot Museum to see where Lou would have disembarked from the Transcontinental, and then took a lovely drive down one of the original highways (it runs along a railroad spur that doesn’t exist in my alternate history).
As for the cultural research, when it came to the history of Chinese Americans, I started online, specifically with various cultural organizations like the Chinese Historical Society of America, and the site sanfrancisochinatown.com. Thankfully, I was quickly directed to several wonderful books (I wrote a whole post about it here). As for the Taoist religious stuff, I read quite a bit, but I also drew on the series of Chinese vampire (geung si/jiangshi) films from the 1980s.
I didn’t think it was possible for me to do too much research; the bigger question was, how much of what I discovered went into the book! It’s very easy when writing historical fiction to overwhelm the reader with details that aren’t actually important to the story. I tried therefore to keep the observations about setting and culture limited to what the characters would observe or ask naturalistically. I found out so much more than went into Vermilion – maybe I’ll get to use it in the future!
Playing with such a hodgepodge of genres, styles and sub-genres runs the risk of slipping into shallow ‘postmodern’ collage: the ‘Tarantino effect’, perhaps. Lou’s journey and voice certainly helps to humanize these elements of course – did you see these things as separate, or did they feed off each other?
That’s an interesting question! I hope that Lou’s voice changes from the beginning to the end of the novel – she grows up a lot, and learns a lot, too. I always wanted her to be a very human character, flawed and interesting to observe, but still fun to root for, even when she makes deeply stupid decisions.
As for her journey, it changed a lot from my first imagining of her as a character to the final book on the page, but when I decided she would be a person who deals with the dead, but unable to deal with death in her personal life, it created a very human backbone for all the disparate and potentially disjointed elements I wanted to incorporate in the story.
Doubtlessly the question on many readers’ lips: will there be a sequel?
I certainly hope so – I’ll keep you updated!
More generally speaking though – what’s next for you?
My second novel, The Pleasure Merchant, is out this November. I think people who liked Vermilion will find it an enjoyable read: it’s another picaresque with elements of genre mish-mash, this time historical and crime fiction, set in the 18th century.
And I just found out that next spring Lazy Fascist Press will also be re-publishing my novella Rumbullion, which I once pitched as “Rashomon with fops.” I think that will be of particular interest to Vermilion readers, as it tangentially deals with some old history of some of the more, ah, villainous characters in Vermilion. Oh, and I guess it’s a good time to mention that a story of mine, ‘Qi Sport’, will be appearing in Nightmare Magazine this August, which is about Lou’s first big adventure.
I’m also currently co-editing with Jesse Bullington an anthology called Swords v. Cthulhu, and I’m working on an entirely new novel as well.