Many advocates for Prohibition believed that alcohol was sinful—but in Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin, one particular batch of moonshine is quite literally demonic. The second book in a loose trilogy that began with last year’s Creatures of Will and Temper, Tanzer’s latest historical fantasy follows Long Island bootlegger Ellie West as she tries to uncover the secrets of the dangerous hooch. During her quest to protect her family and community from the diabolical people who brewed it, Ellie joins forces with visiting socialite Fin, who has her own struggles to overcome. We talked to Tanzer about why she shifted the supernatural action in her series from Victorian London to Roaring ’20s America and what demonic alcohol would taste like.
One of the things I loved about this book is the yin and yang relationship of Ellie and Fin. Do you see them as two sides to the same coin? Or shades of the same sort of person?
Thank you so much! I really enjoyed writing their dynamic, and was eager to showcase two women on Long Island living very different lives while living only one or two streets away from one another, so I’m glad it works.
That said, I’m really not sure how to answer this! I don’t think I intended them to be yin/yang . . . they both have flexible ethics and believe in doing the right thing even when it’s hard—though, understandably, their different backgrounds mean they come at those problems in different ways.
It’s funny—Fin’s character was so hard for me to get right. I really struggled with finding her a believable toehold with Ellie, in spite of their similarities. It really didn’t “get there” for me until I realized that giving Fin a mild criminal past would do a lot to soften Ellie up.
Prohibition, as we know, didn’t mean the absence of alcohol. It seems like everyone had a bottle at home. Did this historical perspective make for some interesting character decisions? For example, having the character of Jones, a cop who was meant to enforce the law but was still buying booze from Ellie?
Creatures of Want and Ruin is taking its cues from H.P. Lovecraft and F. Scott Fitzgerald but also crime fiction of the era. I love the trope of the cop on the take . . . the combination of risk and safety a corrupt law enforcement official presents to a protagonist is always so delicious. Keeping Ellie off balance in regards to not knowing Jones’ feelings about her added even more spice, I like to think!
I think my favorite perspective I gained while researching Amityville under Prohibition informed setting rather than character. When I visited the Amityville Historical Society, I got talking with them about the volume of tunnels in Amityville that were all purely for bootlegging liquor. They pointed out a few homes that still have them today, and when I heard about that, I knew I had to incorporate a shed and tunnel into the novel as at least a minor set piece!
What was it like being a woman in Long Island during this time? Are Fin and Ellie direct reflections of those experiences?
The Roaring ’20s is a favorite time period for writers and readers—it’s a period of social change and transition, the art and literature of the time still feel very modern and relevant and frankly, the clothes were super cool. Long Island is the setting of one of the most iconic novels of the period for a reason: The disparity between the working-class and moneyed residents made it a compelling “America in miniature,” and what could be better for someone commenting on the American dream?
I picked it as a setting for some of the same reasons—Long Island’s population in the 1920s was made up of the rich and the poor, people of various races and religions, those who came to America on the Mayflower and those who emigrated somewhat more recently. And of course, it also had women and men that fit into all those different groups! What I’m getting at here is that “being a woman” on Long Island was deeply informed by race, class and social standing, and I’ve definitely done my best to represent and honor that in the book. That said, I was indeed inspired by the real lives of the women of Long Island! Ellie is a pulp reboot of my own grandmother, who was a baywoman of Amityville and a nature poet. While my grandmother might not recognize herself in some of Ellie’s more hard-boiled character traits, she was the “tomboy” of her family, who used to hunt duck with her father and always went out with my grandfather to fish for snook and dig for clams.
In the same vein, Fin and Ellie are both sexually empowered women and their sexual experiences help inform each one’s sense of self. What was it like writing about this freedom with this particular era in mind?
In Creatures of Will and Temper, I had two fairly traditional romance plotlines, so in Creatures of Want and Ruin, I wanted to do something a little different. I had been thinking about how it’s easy to get people together in books, but it’s harder to keep that spark alive between two established characters. Thus, I gave Ellie a fiancé, and gave them both some specific but fairly common deviant interests, just to keep things interesting—for them and for us. Fin’s romances are a bit less wholesome, it’s true, but the thing is every generation thinks they invented sex and scandal. Matters of the heart were just as lurid back then; they just weren’t spoken about or spoken about in ways we can easily understand.
Basically—and speaking more to my drawing on the pulps—I wanted to create two co-tagonists who behave like the pulp protagonists they’re modeled on. Sex was a big part of the pulps, and while it might have been a little less explicit—or, well, “consent-forward,” let’s call it—I wanted to incorporate that same element into Creatures of Want and Ruin in honest and naturalistic ways.
Something I found myself thinking about while reading was belief. That is, the threshold at which we believe what we see. And the characters here see some pretty unbelievable things. How do you navigate what is believable for the character? Is it a conscious choice you make as a writer to say, “This character has to believe what they see now?”
I struggle with this every time I write a novel about supernatural or fantastical things happening to everyday people!
Truthfully, I think I’d melt down and experience a psychic break if I had to deal with pretty much anything my protagonists need to deal with, but hey, fiction is often aspirational! And people are actually so much more capable of coping with the absurd and the terrifying than we give ourselves credit for. So, in the interest of moving a story along, I often draw on the strength of my characters and do a bit of hand waving. While I have enjoyed stories about people being unable to cope with the paranormal—I mean, I did in part base this book on the works of H.P. Lovecraft—at the end of the day, I was telling a story about people rising to the occasion, not failing to.
Both Ellie and Fin are compelling, intriguing people. Do you see more pieces of yourself in one versus the other? What’s the benefit of writing multiple perspectives in a story like this?
I do tend to incorporate my experiences into my writing, but it’s rarely autobiographical. That said, I do identify more with Fin than Ellie. Ellie is so self-confident; she’s so sure of herself and secure in her identity. While that’s #goals for me, it’s not my reality. Fin’s struggle to figure out who she is is much more relatable to my life. But it isn’t activism that is my core, it’s writing. The multiple times I’ve lost my way in my life, writing has brought me back to myself in the way that activism does for Fin.
As for the other part of your question, the benefit of multiple perspectives is just that—multiple perspectives! I couldn’t have told this story just from Ellie’s point of view, or just from Fin’s. At its core, this is a book about how we must not set aside, but rather work through our differences in order to come together and effectively fight our battles, thus I had to make that bridge-building a part of the tale.
When you look back on the writing process, what moments in the story do you remember writing most vividly?
I remember writing the summer luau sequence during a freak late-season snowstorm here in Colorado. I built up a fire in the fireplace to warm my place up, put on ukulele music and tried to imagine summer!
What do you imagine Ellie’s demon-hooch really tastes like?
Probably super gross! You know, a few years ago, there was a movement to make moonshine whiskey the hot new artisanal booze out there on the better liquor store shelves. I’ve had exactly one fancy white dog worth drinking; the rest always makes me feel like someone is hammering nails into my eyes but through the back of my head. (Also, none of it can hold a candle to the apple pie moonshine a friend’s former roommate used to make in a pressure cooker on the stove, but that still also made me feel like nails were being driven into my skull.) I imagine the usual moonshine “tasting notes” of Gojo and burning hair would be augmented if not enhanced by the taste of the water you pour off canned mushrooms. I think I also invoke kerosene, so let’s go with that!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Creatures of Want and Ruin.
Author photo © Max Campanella.