The Next Chapter

Emily Schultz on making her characters do bad things

The author of The Blondes is back, with a historical novel set in the working-class city of Detroit during Prohibition.
Emily Schultz's grandfather was a rum-runner in the 1920s, which inspired her novel Men Walking on Water. (Sara Maria Salamone/Knopf Canada)

Men Walking on Water takes place in Detroit during Prohibition. The novel follows a cast of colourful characters who are all affected by one bootlegger's suspicious disappearance on a cold winter's night. Emily Schultz was inspired to write the novel by her own family's ties to bootlegging — her grandfather dropped out of school at 14 to get into the family's the rum-running business. He and his brothers smuggled liquor from Windsor, Ont. across the frozen river that separates Canada and the United States.

The appeal of immoral characters

We don't need characters to be completely moral and we still relate to them. That's something I wanted to try to achieve here — a lot of the characters do bad things. They're not necessarily bad people but they do very bad things. I think we're drawn to this because literature and fiction is a way for us to explore things that we ourselves wouldn't do in a given situation.

The Gatsby delusion

Detroit and Windsor have always been these working cities. We have this idea of Prohibition — I think probably because of [The Great Gatsby] — as being like the high life. I think it was for some people certainly, but a lot of people were just like today, where they're struggling economically and they're just trying to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads. So that was really what I wanted to get at with this book — that most of the people, with the exception of the big gangs, were trying to make ends meet.

Liberation and limitations

It was such a time of liberation for some people. But then at the same time, there was the desire to put restraints on what people could and couldn't do, and personal freedoms. And it's not just to do with alcohol. During that time, it would've been leading up to the rise of Hitler and World War II, with border patrols, fear of immigration and wanting to keep certain people in and certain people out. You have intellectuals and you have huge jumps in arts, film, music and literature, and then at the same time, these restrictive feelings are creeping in around the edges.

Emily Schultz's comments have been edited and condensed.