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Interview with Molly Tanzer, Author of A Pretty Mouth
Bastard of History

Molly Tanzer and I go way back, being friends, neighbors, collaborators, rivals, etc., so I'm happy to announce that her brilliant, weirdass debut, A Pretty Mouth, just dropped from Lazy Fascist Press last week. For serious, if you have any interest in fiction that is positively iconoclastic, pick up this tome ASAP--it'll be utterly unlike anything else you read this year, guaranteed. As I wrote in my Amazon review, for fans of historical fiction, Victorian pornography, Mythos horror, Tom Jones, sword-and-sandal epics, Jeeves and Wooster, the poetry of John Wilmot, and/or boys' school romps, this is the book you've been waiting for!

When I read her initial draft of the project I was gobsmacked by the manifest quality of the specimen, and so seeing it evolve into an even sleeker, stranger, more complex beast has been most exciting...and lest you find my recommendation to be of dubious worth, everyone from Caitlín R. Kiernan to Laird Barron to Nick Mamatas to Stephen Graham Jones has been singing its praises.

Without (much) further ado, here's the Q&A I put to Molly regarding her Pretty Mouth (I warned her that would happen, by the by). For those who use Spotify, you can cue up the soundtrack she made for the book as you read the interview:

1) A Pretty Mouth, which is something like the illegitimate offspring of a novel and a short story collection, grew out of your original story "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins." In expanding the genealogy and universe of the Calipash line, did you find yourself referring to “Infernal History” as the canon that all the other material had to conform to, or did you take a more free-form approach, where each epoch existed independently of the others?

Uh … both? Is that possible?

I knew in a general sense that each pair of twins would have their own set of personalities, environments, and concerns, because I really wanted to avoid being boring and repetitious when attempting a generational work. (Whether I am successful in avoiding such is up to my readers.) But certainly “Infernal History,” as the foundational piece, determined certain major elements used in the rest of the stories, those elements being evil twins, hammy stage villainy, the use of pastiche or leitmotif appropriate to whatever time period I was writing about, and, I dunno … aristocratic flakiness.

It’s funny, when I first started thinking about the project, I never meant for Lovecraftian/Mythos elements to appear in all the stories. Certainly in “Infernal History” and its direct sequel “The Hour of the Tortoise” that stuff was supposed to play a major part, but it was only after my editor at Lazy Fascist commented on something he saw as being Lovecraftian in “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs” (I hadn’t really thought about it that way) did I really, you know, go for that as an overarching thematic element.

2) The project obviously takes a cue from Blackadder, with each section picking up in a different time period with different members of the Calipash line. Did the temporal settings you chose, and their respective styles (be they overt pastiche or not), line up fairly organically, or did you work up a serious brainsweat over which time periods and styles would best balance out what you wanted to do with the overall project, as well as the individual pieces?

I really appreciate your faith that I thought any of this through!

With the first story, when the good people at Innsmouth Free Press put out a call for Historical Lovecraft, my first thought was basically “fuck yes, I can finally write a picaresque and stand a chance at an editor doing more than laughing herself into a fit of tears before sending me a form rejection.” (I selected the picaresque because I wanted to finally use my Master’s degree for something.) By the time Cameron Pierce queried me about potentially doing more with the Calipash twins idea I’d already fantasized about doing this sort of, yeah, Blackadderish collection of stories about different generations of evil twins.

I selected the various eras half out of laziness, half out of love. Since I’d already cashed in my 18th century chips, I needed to pick my runner-up favorites of centuries and styles, which immediately meant something Victorian and something Restoration. I’m less interested in Medieval lit than I could be; same goes for Elizabethan drama. I’ve always been a huge fan of meat-head sword and sandal idiocy, and I was on a big Wodehouse kick when I signed the contract, so that, as they say, was that.

As for the writing of said stories … well, some came together more smoothly than others, as they always do!

3) Was there any time period, setting, and/or literary style that you might have liked to cover, but didn't? If so, why not?

Oh sure. I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, but I dismissed the possibility of an Austenian piece because her style is too distinct and crisp to bear imitation. People have tried, of course, but it’s usually dreadful. And despite my earlier trash-talking of English medieval lit, a Canterbury Calipash tale would have been really fun. I didn’t do that … because I just now thought about it. Damn.

4) The four shorter sections of the project, whether we consider them chapters or stories, each do their own thing with aplomb, but also frame the titular novella in sundry ways—when you were initially mapping out the project, did you plan on having “A Pretty Mouth” take center stage?

I think so? I wanted a capstone for the collection, and that idea seemed the most fruitful for a longer piece.

5) Readers familiar with John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, might be surprised by your portrayal of him in A Pretty Mouth. When you first conceived of the idea, did you picture him playing the part that he does, or was his role and character something that evolved as you researched and wrote the novella?

I always wanted to have a pre-debauched Wilmot in the book. It’s something I’ve never encountered in the wild, probably because it’s so fun to write about Wilmot when he’s being a crazy asshole. It makes sense; when presented with the option of writing about a meek little schoolboy who’s (literally) afraid of the dark … and a man who actually formed a “sexual society” with his friends called, I swear this is true, “The Ballers,” who are you going to pick? Yeah.

Anyways, to answer your question more thoroughly, Wilmot was originally going to be the protagonist of A Pretty Mouth but after reading a sobering biography about his early life (and realizing he’d have been, um, twelve years old to be historically accurate) I decided to make him a side-character, and create an older, more loathsome protagonist to punish.

6) Without going into detail, which character in the book do you feel the worst for?

Wilmot, actually, because the majority of bad stuff that happens to him is based on the real history of his life. Bleh.

7) Do you have one or more favorite Calipash? Describe your dream-date with him/her/them.

This is a tricky question, because any date with a Calipash would probably result in a serious loss of sanity. Or death. Or worse, whatever “worse” might mean.

But since you asked, well … my first impulse was to choose St John Clement from the title novella, because he seems like he could be a lot of fun if he was in a decent mood. Plus he’s an angsty bad boy, who (in my mind) looks like a blonder, girlier version of Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. In a wig. Yum. What can I say, I have a type. Don’t judge me.

I think ultimately, however, I’d pick Basil and Rosemary, of the original Ivybridge fame. I love those crazy kids. It’s had to shake that crush on your first, amiright? So I figure here’s how our date would go: They’d pick me up in a coach driven by Rosemary’s sex-golem, and we’d go out to a public house for a bite and some beer. Then we’d hie back to the family manse, whereupon we’d get sloppy drunk on expensive hooch whilst discussing some of the more interesting conjugations of R’lyehian and ancient Greek verbs. After that they’d let me try on all their wigs and stays and tight pants and frock coats until it was time for me to go home. And then they’d actually let me go home … without murdering me or selling my soul to the Old Ones.

You gotta manage your expectations when dealing with the Lords Calipash, that’s the secret.

Many thanks to Molly for humoring me with this interview! Now get thee some Calipash, with the quickness!

[Cross-posted to my website]


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