By Benjamin Scuglia
Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2013 3:00 AM ET
Best-selling novelist Christopher Rice is back with the supernatural thriller The Heavens Rise, his first foray — believe it or not — into a genre that his mother, Anne Rice, has dominated since before he was born. (His father, the late poet Stan Rice, was also widely celebrated.) In a wide-ranging discussion with The Advocate, Rice reveals that he was once “actively discouraged” from writing in the supernatural or paranormal genre, and how the mysterious forces at play in The Heavens Rise, which toggles between pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, came about, in part, due to a desire to make amends to a city he loves and that he feels was unduly punished in his debut novel, A Density of Souls, which was published when he was 22 years old.
The onetime Advocate cover subject, now 35, is not unduly concerned about intruding onto his mother’s turf. In fact, he will soon embark on a co-headlining book tour with his mother as she promotes her forthcoming fantasy thriller, The Wolves of Midwinter. He informally kicked off the promotional blitz last month at KillerCon in Las Vegas and the West Hollywood Book Fair, and his first solo stop is Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, October 19. However, Rice notes the tour will really start “when Mom and I get on a plane on October 13 and fly to Minneapolis together to do an event [the next day] at the Mall of America, which is not something I thought I would say in my lifetime.”
In the meantime, Rice is preparing for next month’s one-year anniversary of The Dinner Party Show — billed as “the Internet’s first live comedy/variety show” — which he writes, produces, and hosts every Sunday night with his best friend, business partner and fellow novelist Eric Shaw Quinn. “It was started as a marketing endeavor,” he notes, “but it’s evolved into this bigger thing that we enjoy doing. We call our listeners Party People. They interact with us on Facebook and we have we our regulars now. We know them by name; it’s become a community.”
The Advocate: Your book is going to be published soon. How are you feeling? I know this is the sixth time you’ve gone through this, but do you have any rituals or anything you do beforehand?
Christopher Rice: Well, usually the pre-book tour ritual is to completely lose your mind and become irrationally upset over insignificant things that happen over the course of your day. So I’m trying to take a contrary approach to this book tour. I’ve actually continued working on my next book, which has been new behavior for me. Usually I just descend into worry about how this one is going to perform and be reviewed and all of that stuff. I feel like I’ve hit a groove with supernatural stories set in the Deep South and I don’t want to lose my creative momentum. I’m about a quarter of the way through my new novel and all I can say about it is that it is a supernatural thriller set in the Deep South, just like The Heavens Rise.
Speaking of which, this was the first time you’ve gone into this genre. Did you have any trepidation about it? Was it a specific decision on your part, or did the story evolve and take you in that direction?
I had been actively discouraged by people in publishing from writing a supernatural thriller for years. There was great fear that if I couldn’t mimic exactly what my mother was doing, or if I couldn’t reinvent a genre the way that she did, however unintentionally, that there was no point in me even trying. And so people said things that were very cutting and discouraging on that front, so I didn’t set out to consciously do it. I was going to write another terrestrial thriller and this one was going to be about the world of riverboat pilots in New Orleans, who are in charge of navigating the giant container ships and chemical tankers that pass by New Orleans on an almost minute-to-minute basis. In exploring the group of characters that I wanted to write about, I discovered organically that one of them had a supernatural ability. I knew that she was shrouded in mystery in my head every time I thought of her; I knew that she had gone missing at the outset of our story, that her disappearance was a shadow that hung over everyone. But I couldn’t really crack what her deal was until I sat down with a pen and paper and started outlining who she was and [I realized], Oh, she’s got a gift. She’s got a supernatural ability — so the initial doorway into the supernatural with this idea was very small, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger. You know, I look back in retrospect and I see that every time I had tried to approach a supernatural idea that it was entirely in terms of concept and it wasn’t working, it wasn’t breaking through because my stories are really very character-driven. No matter how many monsters I introduce, none of them will be bigger than the characters, in a metaphorical sense.
To go back to something you said earlier about being actively discouraged from writing supernatural thrillers: How could they expect you, or anyone, to replicate what your mom did?
That’s what I’ve said all along. I’ve had people at book signings ask me what it feels like to follow in my mother’s footsteps, and what I say to them is that just becoming a writer is not following in my mother’s footsteps. My mother’s footsteps are a little bit more specific than that and they cover a lot of territory. If I had sat down and said that I am going to completely bring new life to a genre that is sort of clichéd and taken for granted, that would have been crazy-making. I would have literally driven myself out of my mind. And that’s what I consider following in my mother’s footsteps. There are a lot of writers out there. Who’s to say I wasn’t following in John Irving’s footsteps? Or Stephen King’s or Stieg Larsson’s? I think that where writers ultimately arrive in their career is not that conscious or deliberate. There are cases of writers who have been able to calculate the arc and the trajectory of their career, but very few. I mean, Mom was this dismissed wife of a celebrated Bay Area poet who was not taken very seriously by his writer friends because she was in the back room writing stories about vampires that nobody thought were relevant to the time they were living in.
Did you think of going the Joe Hill route? [Novelist Hill is now known to be the son of Stephen King.]
I did think about it. It was offered to me at the time. If I hadn’t been as young as I was, I might have seriously considered it. I was also — to be completely honest — I was into being a celebrity. I was into photo shoots; I was into being in front of the camera. I liked the attention.
Do you get sick of being asked about [your mother]?
If I really get sick of being asked, there is another line of work waiting for me at any turn. You have to get OK with the fact that people will never stop asking it. And if you’re gonna have a big attitude, step aside and give your publishing contract to somebody else.
The Rices are particularly associated with New Orleans, and The Heavens Rise specifically toggles between pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. How did you end up there for this story, because it figures very particularly into how the story unfolds?
I decided to write another novel set in southern Louisiana before I decided to write a supernatural novel. I had said I would never do it again. I said my first novel put the city through such hell, both figuratively and literally, at least certain neighborhoods. But honestly, what happened to me is that I grew up. And I saw my perspective on the city and some of its communities in A Density of Souls to be youthful and unforgiving. And I had a desire to back and write a kinder, gentler New Orleans story, which, because I’m a Rice, turned into a horror novel [laughs]. So many of the characters in A Density of Souls were moral failures [and most of] the characters in The Heavens Rise don’t have that problem. They’re better people, I hate to say it. And their love for the city unites them and draws them all together. Ultimately, what happens is the city itself comes under assault from this supernatural force that’s running out of control, and in their own various ways, they all try to protect it. And that seemed like a very relevant post-Katrina theme for me. I wasn’t willing to back and write another book about all the people who were shitty to me in high school, which is basically what A Density of Souls is about. This time I wanted to present a loving vision of the city I came from.
This particular story couldn’t be set anywhere else. It wouldn’t work in Los Angeles or Boston or Toronto. Maybe it’s a cliché, but it doesn’t feel odd to have a supernatural story set in New Orleans.
No, never! This season of American Horror Story is set in New Orleans. It’s always been a city of intense spirituality, and [there is] a sense that the ordinary rules of Western civilization don’t quite apply. It’s a Caribbean city, really. There’s a sense that the ghosts are just closer to the ground.
One of the main characters in the book is gay, but his sexuality is incidental to the plot. I wonder if you feel an obligation to make a character gay, as you did here.
No, I don’t feel that it’s an obligation. Honestly, my interest as a writer begins to wane if there isn’t a gay character somewhere in the mix. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the gay character has to do certain things. I’m not really all that interested in writing books about gay characters who are looking for a boyfriend. I think the closest I’ll ever get to that is Light Before Day, and it’s very Riceian version of that — you know, my boyfriend might be a mass murderer [laughs]. I write thrillers. I don’t write romance novels. What my characters are expected to do is different from what a character might be expected to do in a [so-called] gay novel, which is come out, find himself, try to find a relationship or love or sex — all of those things just bore the life out of me. I wanted to write big, mainstream thrillers in which gay people had a place at the table. And so the question that I had to answer for this character was how did he advance the plot? And he advances the plot by being very much distraught and grief-stricken over the disappearance of his best girlfriend. And all the depictions of his sexuality that are in there — and there is a pretty explicit scene of a Grindr hookup that goes terribly wrong — they’re in there because it serves the story and because it touches upon the supernatural powers at work.
I agree, and yet I think, at the same time, given this kind of platform and the opportunity it presents, should you try to do more with a gay character?
I just don’t think that type of consideration is very conducive to good art. That sense of social obligation — at times I’ve wrestled with it, and I’m not going to say I’m above considering it — I just don’t think it makes for good storytelling. My job, first and foremost, is to tell an enthralling story, I hope. The reality is that the best career path for me from a marketing standpoint would have been to repeat A Density of Souls over and over again, which means in every book the central character would have been a damaged, abused young gay kid who eventually ends up in the arms of a gorgeous football player. I didn’t want to write that book over and over again. And people were pissed that I didn’t. I got mail about it. I really got it over Light Before Day because that was a thriller in which the villains were gay. I wrote a column in The Advocate years ago where I said if we’re going to accept our Michelangelos, we have to accept our Jeffrey Dahmers. I gave you a gay hero and I gave you some gay villains. I don’t write talking points for political organizations. If you want politics, go look at the GLAAD website. That’s not my job. What I shoot for in my books is a matter-of-factness [about sexuality] and an inclusion.
The Heavens Rise will be published October 15. Visit Rice’s website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page for ordering information and details about his book tour. The Dinner Party Show airs Sunday nights and streams online at www.thedinnerpartyshow.com or via free mobile app.