It’s a risky proposition to change something about a famous character, especially when it’s something fundamental like their gender. Just ask the people behind the new Ghostbusters or anyone working on the new season of Doctor Who. But risk often walks hand-in-hand with reward, and swapping genders can, in the right hands, pay off creatively. Which seems to be what we’re getting from writer Molly Tanzer, whose new fantasy novel Creatures Of Will And Temper (paperback, Kindle) is a gender swapped version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Photo © Max Campanella
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is Creatures Of Will And Temper about?
Creatures Of Will And Temper is a fantastical retelling of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, but at its heart it’s the story of two sisters, Evadne and Dorina Gray. Seventeen-year-old Dorina is an aspiring art critic and longs to dwell in London full-time, while twenty-seven-year-old Evadne loves the country and would like to be left alone to practice her fencing. But after Evadne is sent to be Dorina’s chaperone while she stays with their artist uncle, both sisters discover something shocking: demons are real, as are those who would seek to bargain with them for wealth, power, and more arcane reasons. The novel remains true to Wilde’s themes of aesthetics, self-discovery, mentorship, and power relationships, but it’s definitely a feminist action-adventure romp.
Where did you get the idea for Creatures Of Will And Temper, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I was reading The Picture Of Dorian Gray and drinking absinthe on my porch one summer morning, and I got to the moment where Lord Henry Wotton gives Dorian a mysterious French novel that sends him spiraling into dark libertinism, and I found myself thinking how cool it would be if the novel was, instead, a manual on how to summon demons. Just how my mind works, I suppose. I was immediately bewitched by the idea, but knew if I wanted to pursue it I’d have to gender-swap Dorian, and also Lord Henry — who is Lady Henrietta in my version — and it really just came together in my mind.
The finished novel is actually extremely close to my original idea for it, even if the protagonist ended up being Dorina’s older sister Evadne, who has no counterpart in The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Why did you decide to gender swap some of the characters, and what impact did it have on the story?
Most of my work focuses on women’s relationships, and so I knew I’d need to tamper with Wilde’s original novel in any retelling I did because there aren’t a lot of compelling women characters. By dialing in the focus of Creatures Of Will And Temper to make it a novel that deals with personal relationships and struggles, I was able to really — hopefully! — make Dorina and Evadne’s evolving relationship interesting and enjoyable apart from the book’s action. Sure, there’s an epic struggle happening, but the real crux of the novel is how these two young women learn to get along and understand one another.
Given the current political climate, especially as it relates to gender identity politics, are you at all concerned that people might get mad that you made this kind of switch?
I ain’t afraid of no trolls. Plus, given the enthusiastic response on social every time someone cosplays gender-swapped Khal Drogo, it’s pretty clear to me that people are hungry for inversions and retellings with a gender-play twist.
And do you think that men will enjoy Creatures Of Will And Temper?
Why on Earth wouldn’t they? I read books about men all the time and enjoy them immensely; I assume men can and do enjoy books about women.
Creatures Of Will And Temper is fundamentally a story about siblings who come to understand one another better under unusual, fantastical circumstances. There’s action and adventure, magic, demons, swordplay, literary crossover, romance, and humor. The main characters are women, sure…if that puts male readers off it, that’s their problem, not mine.
More importantly, do you think someone needs to have read The Picture Of Dorian Gray to appreciate Creatures Of Will And Temper?
No! I think The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great read, but I explicitly set out to make Creatures Of Will And Temper an independent novel that stands on its own. The two books also diverge in a lot of ways. There is painting in my novel, and it is uncanny and magical, but it’s not of Dorina Gray. I think people who are familiar with Wilde’s book will get a kick out of the ways it engages in dialogue with the original, but I hope everyone enjoys my retelling on its own merits.
Aside from The Picture Of Dorian Gray, are there any other novels or writers that you feel were a big influence on Creatures Of Will And Temper, but ones that did not have a big impact on your other novels?
When I knew I wanted this to be a book about sisters I re-read Sense And Sensibility, which is one of my favorite texts about sisterhood. Elinor and Marianne’s relationship is so complicated, so strained, but so fundamentally full of love and loyalty to one another, that I absolutely studied how Austen achieved that.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or games that had an impact on Creatures Of Will And Temper?
Ooh, Impromptu definitely! Impromptu is a 1991 romance-comedy about George Sand and her relationship with Frederick Chopin, and it has this spectacular ensemble cast: Judy Davis is Sand, Hugh Grant is Chopin, and you also have Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Bernadette Peters as the Comtesse d’Agoult, Julian Sands as Franz Liszt, and Emma Thompson as Duchess d’Antan. The film is highly fictionalized, but the dialogue is amazing, and watching Judy Davis waltz around in 19th century men’s clothes, issuing bons mots on fools while her personal life is a total wreck, was definitely influential as I was writing the first draft of the novel.
Now, you’ve already said that there will be a sequel to Creatures Of Will And Temper out next year called Creatures Of Want And Ruin. How does that book connect, both chronologically and narratively, to Creatures Of Will And Temper?
I’ve been calling Creatures Of Want And Ruin a semi-sequel because it shares the same world with Creatures Of Will And Temper, but it’s set in the 1920s, on Long Island. It, too, follows two women: Ellie West, a bootlegger, and Delphine “Fin” Coulthead, an unhappily married socialite. Though they’re very different people, they both love Long Island very much, and when they discover that a cult of diabolists is trying to destroy it, they team up with a bunch of other social misfits to try and stop them.
Unlike the first, Creatures Of Want And Ruin isn’t a direct retelling of any novel in particular, but I read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald to prep for writing Fin’s character. Ellie was a bit easier as she’s in a lot of ways a pulp version of my grandmother.
So then is Creatures Of Will And Temper the first in a series, or will it just be the two books?
We shall see. I have another in mind already…
I asked earlier about movies, shows, and games that may have been an influence on Creatures Of Will And Temper. But has there any interest in the reverse, in turning Creatures Of Will And Temper into a movie, show, or game?
There’s a gender-swapped Dorian Gray movie in the works — I just saw an article about it — but it’s not based on Creatures Of Will And Temper. It seems a lot more true to the original. So far, no nibbles from Hollywood, but my dream is a Netflix original series, or something similar. Then the second season could be the sequel, which would be my dream come true of being involved with something Blackadder-like…
If it was going to be made into a TV show for Netflix or whoever, who would you like to see cast in the main roles?
I do have a cast in mind…I would certainly want Gwendoline Christie [Game Of Thrones] as Evadne, and Helen Mirren [Gosford Park] as Lady Henrietta Wotton. For Evadne’s uncle Basil I’d love to see David Thewlis [Wonder Woman] in that role. I’m not sure who would play Dorina.
Finally, if someone enjoys Creatures Of Will And Temper, and they’ve already read The Picture Of Dorian Gray, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I guess it depends on what they liked about it. If the action and motion is what appealed to them, I’d suggest my weird western Vermilion. Vermilion is the story of Lou Merriwether, a biracial genderfluid psychopomp — sort of a 19th century Ghostbuster — who heads to Colorado to find out what’s going on at a mysterious sanatorium up in the Rocky Mountains after a bunch of the Chinese workers on the Transcontinental railroad go missing. If the “fops bickering” angle of Creatures Of Will And Temper was the main draw, definitely my second novel, The Pleasure Merchant, which is about the adventures of a young wigmaker’s apprentice who is framed for a crime he didn’t commit.