The cult section of the literary world

Writing the Human Experience: Guest Blogger Molly Tanzer on her Debut, A Pretty Mouth

(With Molly Tanzer’s permission, I have copied here her guest blog post from my Imagination Fully Dilated Blog.  If you’d like to see her post on my blog, here’s a link.  In her post, there’s a link to her blog where you can read my part of our exchange. —Alan M. Clark)

I asked Alan Clark about the possibility of doing a blog-exchange to give readers (and potential readers) some insight into our most recent works—my debut, A Pretty Mouth, and his 5th novel, A Parliament of Crows. He graciously agreed, so huzzah! Today, you can read my post on his blog—actually, I guess you already are—and his on mine.

I specifically asked Alan about doing a blog exchange because his 5th novel, Of Thimble and Threat, was one of the best books I read last year. Oh, and his latest has a bit of overlap with mine. (Alan talks about this very thing over on my blog, so that’s another reason to go read it!)

I read Thimble because our mutual publisher, Cameron Pierce, sent me an ARC. He thought I would like it, and I did, I did indeed. It’s a wonderful book, perfectly appealing to avid readers of genre and those who prefer straight literary/historical fiction. It also had the effect of forcing me to ratchet up my game for Mouth. I knew if I was going to be published side-by-side with Alan I needed to get real and start taking things seriously. It was extremely intimidating, but in that way that gets me excited about a challenge. (That said, if Cameron had sent me Parliament, I might have just thrown in the towel and given up on writing. Yeah, it’s that good.)

Anyways, blog exchange! As it turned out, I got the easy job. Alan wrote his piece first, and I liked it so much I decided to just riff off his. Which, if you must know, is pretty much how I wrote the largest chunk of A Pretty Mouth. More on that after a brilliant quote from Alan’s post that I found so inspiring:

“… The period a writer chooses for a story will define the characters in it to some extent. Obviously, some experiences we have today are not possible for characters set within a time, say, 100 or 500 years ago. This can present real limitations unless the writer is willing to learn about the period and really open up the character’s world, discover the possibilities, and share that with the reading audience. … No matter the period, the emotional characteristics of human beings are just as subtle and complex as those of human beings today. The everyday realities and events that shape their feelings and motivations can be very different, however. In creating characters, I try to take advantage of the similarities and the differences, setting up parallels and contrasts with what we know today to express something about human experience.”

That’s Alan for you. Saying pretty much everything there is to say on a subject, and more concisely than I, perhaps especially, could ever dream of doing. I mean, read Of Thimble and Threat and tell me there’s more to write on the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper. (I mean, his introduction to the book was shocking in its simplicity, honesty, and wisdom.)

I suppose the above quote struck me in particular, because it’s talking about exactly what I wanted to do with the biggest portion of A Pretty Mouth, which, depending on what you want to call it, is a novel told in parts, or a collection of related short stories. You see, the title novella is a (hopefully) witty Restoration comedy re-envisioned as an 80s teen sex romp.

Huh? What? Yeah, I know. I figured I was going buck-wild with genre in the book anyways, so why not have a “school story” kind of thing? I love school stories, always have. But how do you write something realistic and fresh about school experience when writing about a educational system long gone?

Wadham College, in 1660, was an interesting community of intellectuals, half middle/high school, half university. Boys from 12 years old were required to take courses in Astronomy, Physics, Logic, and Latin; older students attended more college-style classes, as we might think of them. Girls were not allowed. In fact, at that time the only female servant employed by the college was the laundress, who was required by the statutes to be older (and lower-class) as to not distract the students. And she was only allowed to come to the gate of the college, lest her presence inflame the boys’ passions. Kind of hard to stage a panty raid, or whatever, under those circumstances, you know?

And yet, when you read Restoration-era texts—let’s say, for example, the poetry of John Wilmot, the novels/plays of Aphra Behn, or the diary of Samuel Pepys—it’s obvious that some things haven’t changed that much. Worrying over things like popularity, academic performance, uncertainty over one’s future, all those concerns existed then, as they do now. So I hoped to exploit those similarities to make an unusual setting familiar.

Now, my stuff is more anachronistic than Alan’s, deliberately so. Alan’s the kind of writer who shocks you with the horror of reality; I’m the kind of writer who thinks it’s funny when 17th century schoolboys say things like “Busted!” and, I dunno, “motherfucker.” Which let me walk that line between historical drama and 80s comedy.

Maybe. I say that, but you, dear reader, must be the judge of that.

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