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.