The Beatrice Interview

Christopher Rice

"I always thought that I wouldn't write novels, that I wasn't cut out for it."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I met Christopher Rice in his family's high-rise apartment; a cursory glance around the living room offers me a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline, and at least half a dozen paintings by his father, Stan Rice, but there's nothing that indicates that his mom is megastar author Anne Rice. (Hell, I don't even know what you'd begin to look for, other than copies of her books--long velvet capes hanging on a coat stand, maybe?) He offers me a glass of water and takes a seat on the couch, lighting the first of a steady series of Marlboro Lights. His first novel, A Density of Souls, has been out for a few weeks now, and he's in the midst of a whirlwind promotional tour. About those family connections--he knows who he is, and where he comes from, and though he's proud of his family, he doesn't make a big deal about the situation. For the most part, we talk about his parents' influence and support in more general terms. "You think of other kids, who didn't have writers for parents," he muses, "and basically dropped out of college twice, then written a novel... They'd probably have been sent back to school." Luckily, Rice was able to keep working on the book and now, at the tender age of 22, he's gold a solid foundation as a writer of melodramatic family thrillers.

RH: Your parents supported your creativity, but they didn't steer you towards becoming a writer.

CR: Absolutely. In high school, it was almost completely theatre. I thought I wanted to be an actor and they were very supportive of that. I was actually the one, when it came time to pick a university, that didn't go out for a drama conservatory because I wanted a liberal arts education. I didn't even really pick a major in theatre school; Brown University had a good theatre program, but it wasn't an acting factory. Going to Brown and auditioning for that first play and not even being called back was really what spurred me to write. After that experience, I went back to my dorm and began to write screenplays. I always thought that I wouldn't write novels, that I wasn't cut out for it. I was too impatient, I thought my talent was for... not even so much screenwriting but with the way that it just gives the clues and other people come in and fill in the rest of the vision.

RH: But you ended up working on this novel as a reaction to a very upsetting time in your family life.

CR: I was living in Los Angeles, just working on screenplays, when I got a phone call that Mom had gone into a diabetic coma. We didn't even know she was diabetic, and everyone I was talking to on the phone from New Orleans was still in shock. They weren't making any sense over the phone and I said, "I have to come home." So I got on a plane and flew all night, leaving everything I was working on behind.

There I was in New Orleans, and it was clear she was going to make it, but it was going to be a long recovery. Being back home and confronting all the very vivid memories that came pouring back, and having everything around me spinning completely out of control, I needed an environment I could control. That was the world of this novel.

A year earlier, I had written a short story which was basically about a football jock and a sensitive gay kid who had been friends during childhood, then drifted apart in high school. [What happens in that story is the secret at the core of A Density of Souls, so I'm editing his description of the story out of the interview. --RH]. I read it at a reading series in LA, and the reception was incredible. So, when I needed to write again, I went back and I resurrected that story. And I decided that what happened in [the story's climactic scene] be a big secret, and I'd see if I could come up with a cast of characters and move them towards the revelation of the secret.

RH: Steven, the gay theatre boy in your novel, is sort of an emotionally autobiographical character, but not really autobiographical in any other sense.

CR: That's the perfect way to put it. I've taken great pains to stress that this book is not a memoir or autobiography. I did physically model the major character after myself: I gave him blonde hair, I made him tall, I gave him blue eyes. And he is gay. But I wasn't subject to half the brutality he is in the book and I didn't sleep with nearly as many football players as he has.

I read negative reviews, even though people tell me not to, and I sometimes take good criticisms away from negative reviews, but when they start out with, "This is obviously a thinly-veiled memoir," it just pisses me off. Who could think that [what happens in the novel's climactic scenes] is the stuff of a memoir? I mean, give me a break. It's a thriller.

RH: You had braced yourself for bad reviews anyway, though. You knew that part of the critical reaction was going to be, "Oh, Anne Rice's 22-year-old kid has written a book."

CR: When I first came up to New York, after Lynn Nesbit, my mother's agent, had read A Density of Souls and agreed to represent it, I met with two publishers that were interested in it, and they really stressed, "Are you prepared for what they're going to say? Are you prepared for what the critics are going to do?" And I wasn't. The thought hadn't even entered my mind. And they were really saying, "They're going to be brutal, but if you want to go ahead with this, you can." And I said, "Fuck it, let's go ahead with it."

Because there was a long period of time between the signing of the contract and the actual publication, I had time to think about how I was going to deal with those allegations and I kept coming back to my belief that the material I had addressed, what I had written about, was distinctly different in focus than everything my mother has done. It was not supernatural; it had a cast of younger characters in a very real, contemporary world, as opposed to an historical or haunted environment. It was the same landscape [New Orleans] that my mother had worked in for years, but it was a different window onto that landscape. So I thought that would make it distinct--and its has; even the major bad reviews have been on the basis of the story itself. You know, They say things like it's excessive, it's over the top, it's got too many points of view. They don't just dismiss it as a product of nepotism. Saying, "Oh, this was only published because this is Anne Rice's son," is a lot easier than actually reviewing the book. That's a cop-out. I'm willing to read negative criticism, but [saying] that disqualifies someone as a critic who has actually done their homework; they don't even matter.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers?

CR: John Irving is really one of my favorites. The Cider House Rules was the first book of his that I had ever read, and I hadn't yet encountered a contemporary author who took the number of characters that he did, and moved them across a large span of time, and yet you never felt as if you were losing touch with them. That was very influential in writing A Density of Souls, which has five equally major characters for the reader to follow and keep track of.

The other one is Stephen King, who gives incredibly clearly-etched and vivid characterizations. He has a gift for brining you into the mind of, say, the waitress in the diner who you would only, sort of, glance at when you're eating, and he brings you into her world. And that's something I picked up on from him very young. I think that's what made his books very readable to me as a teenager.

RH: When you came out, how supportive were your folks?

CR: My mother had trouble believing it,but she didn't react with anger or hatred. She just thought it was something I was going to pass through, because she had seen me have relationships with girls in high school. But it's finally sunk in with her that I am gay. It sunk in with my father right away, and he had absolutely no problem with it.

RH: You're obviously comfortable enough with your homosexuality to come out and say, "Okay, I'm a young, gay author. This is my book and it's got lots of gay sex in it," and not be bashful about that.

CR: It was never an issue for me. I have never assumed it was going to be something I could even conceal. And Talk Miramax [Rice's publisher] has not marketed this as a gay book, so it startles me when people draw attention to it and say, "What does it feel like to be a gay author?"

But the other thing people keep saying is, "Do you realize the impact this book has had?" Young, gay men come up to me and tell me that it speaks to their feelings of alienation the way no other book has. But I know there are other books out the that speak to their alienation; their authors just didn't get a 21-city tour, their books haven't been as aggressively promoted as this book is. The reason this book is making such an impact is because its previously subversive subject matter has been put out in the mainstream. It's not marketed as a "gay book." You've got to pick it up and really read the jacket flap to learn that Steven becomes a target and an outcast because of homophobia. Otherwise, you would just walk right past it if you were looking for a gay title.

When I was 16 and I kept going to the library to look for gay titles, I didn't want to read about a bunch of guys fucking each other in Chelsea anymore. I was just sick of it. I didn't want to read any more sexual memoirs from gay men. There was a time for those, and some of them are very well written, but for me, at age 16, not living in Manhattan or LA., it didn't really press any buttons. So for young gay men to be able to read a story about homosexuality in a larger context, of family members and straight society in a city where not all the characters are living in flats in, you know, the gay part of town... Even the thriller aspects of the novel comes from a young gay man's fear, and the more fantastical elements come from a young gay man's desire and wish fulfillment.

RH: That actually brings something up a question I had about the fantastical plot twists. Did you ever say to yourself, "Oh my God, am I too far over the top here? I have to bring this down a notch. . ."

CR: I thought [one particular revelation I won't spoil for readers --ed] I was going too far. It was in the back of my head, and then one day I just decided to write it. The moments when I thought, "Oh, this is really insane," were in editing. When I was writing, it just all sort of came out in a rush.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Emma Forrest | Complete Interview Index | Molly Jong-Fast

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan