View Full Version : The passion of the Rices, a literary mother-son team

03-06-08, 09:13 AM
The passion of the Rices, a literary mother-son team
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Streets named for Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope. Hundreds of lush golf courses. Brilliant sunshine blasting through a cloudless sky. This is no country for Anne Rice.

Or so you'd think.

In truth, the onetime literary queen of darkness and mother to the vampire Lestat (Interview With the Vampire) adores her new home here, where she moved two years ago after a lifetime in New Orleans and one too-chilly year in coastal San Diego. This tamed desert retiree retreat reminds her of God's country.

"I look out and immediately think of the Jordan Valley in Israel," says Rice, 66, her petite frame swallowed by an oversized sofa. "I instantly felt at home here. And it's nice to be closer to him."

By "him" she doesn't mean a higher power but her only child, Christopher, 29, who smiles as he sips a Diet Coke at the end of the couch.

These are good times for the writing Rices. Although still sorely missing their patriarch — poet and painter Stan Rice died of a brain tumor in 2002, and his image and works line the house — mother and son are releasing new and wildly different novels.

Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana (Knopf, $25.95) is the second of four planned works chronicling the life of Jesus Christ, intriguingly told from the protagonist's point of view. The series is the result of a church-pew epiphany in 2002 when Rice decided "all my future work would be dedicated to the Lord."

By contrast, Christopher Rice's Blind Fall (Scribner, $26) is a story of murder and gay love among Marines shattered by the Iraq war. Rice, who has been out for a decade, says his mission is to "weave gay themes and characters into universal stories."

In fact, his protagonist is straight.

Christopher's attempt to bridge both worlds is well-timed given that "younger gay people increasingly see less of a distinction between gay and straight," says Aaron Hicklin, editor of Out magazine.

Hicklin says Rice "is not seen as someone riding his mother's coattails, but as a writer who's really struck out on his own."

Different writing routines

On a winter day that is channeling summer, both Rices open up about their writing and relationship, about politics and religion. They laugh about how Anne, who famously used to write all through the night, slowly has taken to Christopher's afternoon routine.

And about how despite her temptation to weigh in on her son's work, Christopher has a rule: No reading his stuff until it's finished.

When Anne does read it, she's impressed. "He writes so well about the people and places that surround him, which I can't do," she says. "I have always been about going away to another time and place."

The surroundings Christopher had to explore for Blind Fall, his fourth book, included gatherings of Marines, an experience he walked into with some trepidation. "I wasn't quite sure how that whole world would relate to a gay writer," he says.

In a rare move, he decided to take advantage of his celebrated name.

"It turns out Anne Rice is very popular with military men and women, because they're all such big readers," he says. "So let's just say when I mentioned who I was, the Marines I met were eager to talk."

Getting into the military head of his main character, John Houck, proved more difficult than getting into the mind of a heterosexual.

"Forget writing straight, writing Marine was like learning a whole other language. What was great, though, was finding that attitudes among Marines (about homosexuality) were really generational. The young guys don't have an issue. It's the higher-ups, the generals, that often have the problem."

Mom's larger-than-life personality

While Christopher is no wallflower, he often cedes the floor in his mother's presence. Rice's outsized persona precedes her. Her frank nature — whether weighing in on Mel Gibson, Barack Obama or the possibility of another Lestat book — defines her.

Asked whether his beach-fare novels deliberately skew pop in contrast to his mother's explorations of the soul, Christopher tosses a boyish blond head back and lets out an are-you-kidding-me laugh.

"She has created her own myth-ology," he says. "There's no following in those footsteps. So I keep my work a lot smaller and more focused. I would go insane comparing myself to her."

For her part, Anne says some vampire-book fans continue to e-mail, asking if her return to the church isn't downright loony.

Her response is calm and measured. She was a practicing Catholic until she started drifting away in her late teens; Stan, an atheist, was an influence. When a daughter, Michele, died in 1972 at age 5 of leukemia, Rice conjured up Lestat out of her grief.

"In the vampire books I was writing about lost souls looking for answers, so in a sense I was always on this journey back," she says, looking like a younger Joan Didion with her shoulder-length hair, pressed black skirt and red turtleneck. A large gold cross hangs from her neck, symbol of the faith she returned to about 10 years ago.

"I do get people saying, 'How can you be such a fool to believe in God?' I sense many are young Goth kids who feel abandoned. I just say, look, you're looking for the same things that I was, transcendence and redemption. I found what my characters were looking for."

Rice may appear to have been playing in the shadows of life, not only with her homoerotic vampire novels, but also with her erotic fiction written under a pseudonym.

But "the truth is that all those past books were very moral," says Jana Riess, who reviews religion-themed books for Publishers Weekly.

"Rice never celebrated villainy. So the leap she's made to these pious Christian novels isn't as huge as it might seem."

Evidence of the link between her past and present work is the possibility of one more book in the Lestat chronicles, which began in 1976 with Interview With the Vampire and left off with 2003's Blood Canticle. "I'm thinking about it seriously," she says. "But that book, if I do it, would be a Christian book, dedicated to the Lord just like the others. I'm not going to go back to writing about lost souls searching in the night."

Rice is a curious kind of Christian. On the one hand, she is resolutely orthodox when it comes to scripture. She "loved" Gibson's controversial movie about Jesus' last hours, The Passion of the Christ, and though she has never met him calls herself "very much a fan" of the often-embattled star.

"Hollywood is furious because they don't know how to replicate his success, to cash in on the audience he revealed," she says. "But they can't do it. That movie was only a success because (Gibson) believes in Christ."

Rice says despite her connections in Hollywood, there's as yet no interest in adapting her Christ books for the screen. "I think executives are just scared of the Christian audience, of jammed fax machines and pickets."

Unlike Gibson, however, Rice is decidedly progressive politically, a longtime Democrat and staunch Hillary Clinton supporter who practically levitates at the mention of Barack Obama.

"Hillary is so qualified, and yet she can't challenge this 46-year-old man with no experience because she'll be accused of being against hope. It's tragic."

Rice's liberal politics also apply to hot-button church issues such as women in the clergy and homosexuality.

"I did wonder for a bit, 'How can I go back to a church that says my son will go to hell?' But in the end, I left it all in God's hands," she says. "I went back for the man at the top, Jesus Christ. I go to my local church weekly, I pray daily, but I stay away from the politics."

She jokes that she's a "baby Christian," because a real one would have followed St. Francis' lead and shed all earthly possessions. "I couldn't do that, because I have a number of people depending on me financially," including a small staff here and an office in New Orleans. "But I realized, 'Hey, just give the Lord the work.' "

Christopher laughs. "We Rices, we don't do things halfway. We're all about passion."

When it comes to his faith, Christopher calls himself "a seeker, but I do feel people use religion to frighten people. But who knows, maybe in 20 years I'll feel differently."

Anne tilts her head. "I think Jesus Christ gets his message to people, how and when we don't know. But I don't proselytize to Christopher. I dedicate the (Christ the Lord) books to him."

Christopher offers a compromise: "I also think the whole message of Christ is beyond having to believe he rose from the dead."

The message is what matters

"Well, no," says Anne resolutely. "I believe he did rise from the dead and ascended into heaven and will be with us until the end of time. But I understand."

And they'll leave the polite discord at that. After all, the two mostly revel in each other's company. A few times a month, Christopher drives the two hours east from his Hollywood home to his mother's 8,000-square-foot modern ranch that is notched into the San Jacinto Mountains.

Every room is stuffed with antique furniture, paintings and photos. And everywhere there are dolls, part of Rice's vast — and admittedly eerie, come nightfall — collection. She also has a large office with two 30-inch computer screens, one for e-mail, the other for writing.

Christopher, meanwhile, takes over an imposing guest suite stuffed with mementos, including the first antique his parents ever bought, a low-slung armchair.

Usually, if he's here over a weekend, Anne will ask him to come to Mass. Sometimes he does, often he doesn't. As much as religion now matters to her, what connects them more is blood and words.

"I came to California once before, about 10 years ago," says Christopher. "It didn't really work out, so I went back to New Orleans. But when I returned to California this last time (in 2001), driving through the desert, it just all felt so right. It is home for me now. And to have my mom follow me out here is a dream come true."

Anne looks down, then in a near whisper: "Well, that's nice of you to say." Pause. "Not every child wants their mother to follow them."