Christopher Rice offers more density with "The Snow Garden"

By Jeff Walsh

Christopher Rice has been through a lot since I last interviewed him for Oasis. When we talked to him last in November 2000, he had just recently published his first book, A Density of Souls, an ambitious book that seemed to go the opposite direction of most first-time novelists. The book had an epic sense to it, complex characters, and a mysterious mood that helped it end up on the New York Times' Bestseller List.

At the time, Oasis and every other publication under the sun focused on Rice's famous mother which, albeit interesting, overshadowed his own achievement. I mean, look at the facts: he's a writer in his early 20s, writing dense books with sophisticated, ambitious plots, openly gay, and on the New York Times Bestseller List.

So, this time, the interview is focused exclusively on Christopher. His reaction to the success of his first book, how that influenced the second book, The Snow Garden, and some insight into how not to interview him (thankfully not at my expense) and the point of book reviews.

Rice seems very at ease doing the interview, definitely less guarded than last time and having more fun. And the whole thing just flowed like a casual conversation. (I was certainly amazed at how much there was to transcribe afterward!)

I was able to catch Rice in his hotel room prior to his departure for the last reading on his tour, in Stockton, California. If you think this is some big city in California you've never heard of, it's not. It was definitely the odd city of the tour, and Rice is confused, but somewhat amused, by its inclusion. Having read to a packed house in San Francisco the night before, Stockton does seem a strange venue to close out the tour. But, it's on his itinerary, so he's on his way after he talks to me.

How did last night go?

Very well. A very serious crowd. A lot of the other cities I've gone to, they've been raucous. But the questions were serious, the expressions on their faces were just grave. So, it kind of caught me off guard.

So, what are these tours like? What number interview is this for you?

I don't even know. I wish I could show you the schedule, but I throw out the page once the day is done and crossed out. They are a string of wonderful experiences in a row you're too exhausted to enjoy. Every morning at 7, I'm on a plane to somewhere else. This is the longest I've spent in any city on the tour, and I got here yesterday afternoon. It was the first time I didn't have to leave in the morning. And it's non-stop. And you're never performing at a level you know you could be, because you're so tired. At the same time, there are authors out there who would kill to be sent on a book tour by their company, because it does help your sales so much. Just putting your face to the book and being there and present is incredibly important. This one wasn't as exhausting as the last one, because I didn't have to do as much during the day, like phone interviews and interviews in the hotel room, because I did all that on the first tour.

Did you ever have any bad readings where just four people were waiting there? Oh, that's tonight!

Exactly, it's going to be tonight! Maybe the morning show I did will get some people there, but... Jesus. Stockton, California?

Is that the most oddball place on the tour?

Totally odd. I was in all major cities. Last tour, I drove through the South, which was... scary. Like, up through Mississippi, so those were hit and miss, in small bookstores. But, this time it was all Denver, Chicago, Atlanta... Stockton?! I don't even know why.

You think it would almost be better for you to read twice in San Francisco.

I know, last time I did read twice here. And it was good crowds both places. But Stockton's not going to get people there. Even the interviewer from like The Stockton Record was, like, 'Why are you coming to Stockton?' I said, 'I don't know. I go where they tell me.'

Were you surprised by the success of Density of Souls? I know when we talked last it was right before it took off.

We talked in the middle of the tour and the book hadn't been out that long. But I was even surprised at that point. I don't know if it was coming through. The amount of attention it got still blows me away, just like the amount of attention this one is getting. Honestly, I expected Density of Souls to be a really small book. I knew there would be some curiosity in the beginning because it was Anne Rice's son, but I really underestimated the groundswell of support that would come from young gay men. Also, when I was in high school, there were no out 16-year-olds and that's who I'm meeting at signings, who read the book and are the book's biggest fans.

So, what is like going from Density, which was so successful, does that add pressure in writing the second one? Or are you able to shut all of that external stuff out and just write?

That would be a lovely thing to believe, that my writing had nothing to do with external forces. But, absolutely, there was a tremendous amount of pressure. Not only the pressure of just writing a second book and deciding whether you were going to able to replicate the process of writing the first one, but I was also under a deadline, a contract, and the book had to be in.

And I had also gone out on the road, and met the readers, so there was image of this audience in my head and what they were expecting, and what they had liked about the first book and might not like in a second book. So, I would try to push all of that out of my head while I was writing, but once I left the computer, those questions would come to me full-force. It was a big relief when I walked into my first reading in New York and there were like 200 people there, and it was a moment of me saying, 'OK, this wasn't just a flash in the pan. I reached them again.'

It was very affirming compared to the last tour, which was very exhausting and I felt very vulnerable, because I was in a position of waiting to be told what I had done. I didn't feel very secure and I wasn't sure what the book was or how it was going to be received, so I was biding my time until someone told me. That made for a very arduous experience. This tour has been very positive, just because they came back. The people who loved the first book came back for what I think is a different book, very different in tone.

The thing about A Density of Souls, it really tapped into a main vein of emotions for young gay readers because there was a dreamy, kind of fantastical element to it, the gay guy getting the football player, the scenes of heightened romance. All that. And the Snow Garden doesn't have that. Snow Garden is a much darker, more unflattering depiction of young gay life. In Density of Souls, the gay kid is a victim, he's been beaten. In Snow Garden, Randall is not a victim, he's a manipulator and he's devious and doing what he can to survive. So, I was concerned the readers who loved Density would be turned off by that, and it also has a much darker ending, I think.

Can you give us the high-level take on the book... I know it's a murder-mystery...

Yeah, it's a murder-mystery, but not in the conventional sense where you have a detective walk in a find a dead body and go out and search for the killer. The greatest challenge of writing the book, and maybe of reading it, is that it's written from the point of views of the characters who have the biggest mysteries. They're holding back these incredible secrets about themselves. The plot centers on two best friends, Katherine and Randal. Katherine is a straight girl, Randal is a gay boy. They become instant friends after a few months of being in college together, but what Katherine doesn't know is that Randal is carrying on a sexual affair with one of his married professors, and the book begins with that professor's wife, who is a notorious drunk, driving off a bridge and drowning in the river. And, soon, Randal has cause to believe this car accident was not an accident. So, the suspense comes from: a) was this woman murdered; b) will Randal be able to find out who did it; and c) will he be able to keep all of this a secret from Katherine and maintain her love and respect? That's the book in a nutshell, but there are a lot of other characters in it.

How much control do you have of the both the names and the look of your books? It seems that between the names and the artwork, it definitely evokes a mood even before you open it...

They give me a lot of approval. Legally, no, I have no approval. I would have to do whatever they want. But they sent me four images for potential covers for The Snow Garden, and the majority of them, with the exception of the one that ended up being the cover, were very cliché, "footprints in the snow," "walking into the woods," Blair Witch type images. And that one just leapt out. But, yeah, they were very conscious in going for the same style.

So, what is your writing process? What do you have to do when you're writing?

I have to shut out the rest of the world. I have to prepare to be unpleasant for months. I'm one of those people, especially with The Snow Garden, when people ask me 'How's the book going?' I would fall apart. I would be, 'Shut up! I don't know! Ask me when it's finished.' Because it was so stressful, because of the external pressures I mentioned earlier. And, how are you even supposed to respond to a question like How is the book going? I don't know how the book is going. I'm still writing it. There's no way to give a truthful response, or a chit-chatty truthful response, because people ask in passing like they ask 'How's your day?' So, you can't say, well, I think the one character is completely faulty and they may fall apart by the end of the book...

The process for me with The Snow Garden was a lot of note-taking. I spent more time away from the computer plotting out scenes and keeping track of what character knew what than I did actually sitting at the keyboard writing. It is just a much more tightly-wound book as A Density of Souls. It takes place over a couple of weeks in a claustrophobic college campus, and so I had to keep track of everyone at all times. And the majority of suspense at the beginning of the book comes from three freshmen living together in this dorm, and you know every one of them has this deep, dire secret, but they have no room to keep secrets in this place, so you know something is going to give.

Did you do that with both books, as far as the plotting?

No, a made very vague general outlines for parts of a Density of Souls, when I was unsure how they were going to go, but Density of Souls started out as an experiment. I just took a short story and wanted to see if I could lengthen it. So, when I started writing, I didn't have any plans for where it was going to end up. I didn't even think I was going to publish it.

So, what is it like for young gay people to see you as not only a writer, but also some sort of a role model?

It's very disconcerting. I don't want anyone looking at my personal life to take cues on how to live their own life. I'm not a good enough person for that. But, the reason I guess I get labeled with terms like role model is just the fact that I'm out, young, visible, and successful in what I do. And I know when I was 16, I would have loved to have someone who is my age right now that I could look to, and say, 'Oh, he's successful and yet he's out of the closet and it's not a problem.' But, for me, it's got to end there. I'm not political. I'm not going to get on TV and tell someone to vote for a certain candidate. It's just not my place. It really bugs me when people who have some sort of celebrity status use it to voice an opinion that really, at the end of the day, no more valid than Joe Schmo on the street. I'm not going to name individual celebrities, but they do it. Unless you have, like, a Ph.D. in foreign policy, I don't care. I would rather hear what my friends have to say.

So, if people some of the people at Oasis want to be writers, see someone young and successful like you, and decide they start writing books, what advice do you have for them about the publishing world?

Keep writing. Don't take any dismissal as a sign from God that you should stop. It never is. No one person, no one publishing house, no one agent has the authority to tell you your book will never be published. If they do, they're lying. They don't know. They're just saying it's not right for them.

Did you have trouble getting started?

Yeah, A Density of Souls went out to eight publishers and only two came back with interest. And I had to meet with them and sell myself to them before they agreed.

So, you have moved to Los Angeles since our last talk. I know last time you were warning me against ever moving to New Orleans, since it was a ... creative wasteland?

Yeah. It's just an awful place to be young. It's an awful place unless you're 60 and retiring from some job and you have this huge coffer of money. But, it's got nothing that a big city has. I mean, compared to San Francisco, Jesus Christ, don't leave. Or, at least, don't go to New Orleans.

So, you're liking it in L.A. now?

Yeah, I've been out there a year. And every day I learn what it isn't, and I learn to be less disappointed in it and learn to look for what I need in other cities, like culture. But I'm out there for a pretty specific reason, in that I'd like to write screenplays. And if you're trying to start out in that business, you have to be in L.A. Everyone says, 'Well, you can live in New York.' No. Screenwriters who are established and who have made it live in New York and go to L.A. when they are called. People who are starting out have to be in L.A. You have to be able to go to a meeting at the drop of a hat. That's why I'm there.

Would you like to write screenplays of your own novels? Or standalone screenplays?

Both. I would love to write the screen adaptation of The Snow Garden. I think it lends itself to a two-hour film long before A Density of Souls does. So, I'm kind of attached to that idea right now. But it's something that might never happen. It's not something I'm banking on.

Would you try and make that part of someone optioning the book?

No, I think it's best if I just say, give me a first draft and a rewrite. And then beyond that, there wouldn't be much I could do. I talk to people about books being made into movies, and they ask about my mother's experiences and stuff like that, and they don't understand how little say authors get. They won't even buy your book if you put some clause in your contract that you need final approval. The writer in L.A. doesn't get final approval on anything.

Essentially, you're out of the loop when you cash the check.

Exactly.

Yeah, I figure once I write my book, if it gets optioned, I'll move to L.A., and if it makes waves in publishing, I'll move to New York City, I'll go wherever I'm wanted... have either of your books been optioned?

The Snow Garden... the jury's not back in yet. There's been some interest and I have some meetings set up.

Is Miramax getting its first look again (Rice is published on Talk/Miramax books)?

Miramax had its first look, they passed again.

I thought that was the whole point of them having an interest in publishing?

It never turned into that synergy machine that they thought it would. They barely bought any book, or any magazine articles when Talk magazine was still around.

So, is this your vein? To kind of have this tone and have a supernatural feel...

I'll tell you what... I just did this interview in Berkeley and this guy just lit into me, which is why I'm kind of still dazed, saying 'You could be so much of a better writer than you are. You have such great characters and then you turn your books into these thrillers. They're so Hollywood...' And I was just like... 'Dude, I have had four hours of sleep in the past three weeks, I'm not going to get into this with you.' But, it really affected me, maybe because I'm so tired. But, it's weird, because I get people saying to me that my books are 50-50, that they start out like slow-moving character dramas and then they turn into a Hollywood thriller at the end.

So, he said, 'You had all these things in it that weren't real, like murder?' And, I said, 'Murder isn't real?' And was he was all, 'You know what I mean...' And, I said, 'I don't know what you mean.' He said these characters could have been so great outside of this kind of plot. You didn't have to put a plot in. And then I was like, 'OK, now you're just stoned...' But he was trying to make a point, which is that I don't have a genre. I don't fit into a genre. What I tried to do with The Snow Garden was write a thriller that had deep, fleshed-out characters, more fleshed-out than A Density of Souls. And I've got people telling me either that I tried to write a mystery and muddled it with too much drama and characterization or that I tried to write a great character story and fucked it up with a mystery. So, I'm not going to make either group happy. Why don't you guys go read The Corrections? (laughs) So, I guess the point is that I'm comfortable with what I'm writing, but people have a problem labeling it.

It seems to me that their role is to talk about what you did write...

Exactly, that's how I feel.

I mean, that's like asking why you don't have Bel Ami models on the cover of your book if you want to be a gay author... and why you're not writing happy stories about the beach now that you live in L.A. The jumping off point is not what you want it to be, but what it is.

Exactly. This guy today, saying, 'I just think you can be so much of a better writer. I want to save you.' I'm like, you're a DJ in Berkeley?! I don't need you to save me! I'm doing alright.

I guess it is a progress, though, since on this round you are one step removed from Anne. But then again, there are a lot of backhanded reviews like 'I really liked it, unlike that last book he wrote. It didn't have all the muddy characterization...'

Yeah, that was the one from Out. The other thing is when reviewers spend the majority of their review summarizing the plot. It's like, that's on the jacket flap. You know what they're doing is proving they read it, because a lot of reviewers don't finish the book. That's common knowledge, that they don't finish the books but they review them anyway. I have a very-well known author, whom I won't name to protect him, he knew a very famous theater critic in New York who didn't see half the shows he reviewed. He just talked to friends who had seen them. So, it is annoying when they summarize the plot, give back-handed reviews, and when it's a personality review and it has nothing to do with the book, where it becomes an attack on me or my mother. It's just so easy to write that kind of review. I mean, I enjoy reading well-written bad reviews of my book. Like, The New York Times ran a horrible review of A Density of Souls, but it was well-written and the reviewer justified her points very solidly.

Well, as an artist, I'm guessing you think Snow Garden is better-written than Density of Souls...

I do...

... and that your next book will be even better. You're not just coming on the scene like 'Here I am, I've got all my shit together.' You're learning and you'll just keep getting better.

Exactly.

So, are you one of these authors who go to amazon.com and know that you have the 2,346th most-popular book that hour?

Yes, and I should not go to amazon.com. Because then you end up going to the customer reviews, and it can be totally devastating. It can be like eavesdropping on a conversation about your book.

Too bad they don't have a feature where you can go in and comment on their comments.

That would be nice. 'Fuck you!' Actually, it's interesting because the people who post reviews on amazon.com either really, really loved it, or really, really hated it and want you killed. There's never any middle ground. So, they aren't objective, because they are either written by people who were so bowled over by the book that they are just gushing with praise, or some big, invective with vitriol. The majority of the ones there now for The Snow Garden are positive, we're at four stars. But, hopefully, in a week, I won't know, because I'm going to stop looking at it.

Do you have books in your head that you don't think you're ready to write?

Oh yeah. Tons. I just need more time to grow.

Yeah, I recently stopped writing my first novel and switched gears to something else because I didn't think I was at a place where I could write it yet. I thought it was too important for me to write it with the skills I have now.

That makes perfect sense.

And what's the plan now? Is there a book three?

I don't have a contract, so I have to renegotiate.

You don't need a contract to write a book...

Yeah, I do. I need to live.

Oh, you need the cash...

Yeah, I don't want to live off my parents for the rest of my life. I've gotten in a rut. Writing took time away from technical school.

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Addendum: Christopher Rice has informed Oasis that the Stockton reading was actually very well-attended. He would like to thank the fine city for its overwhelming and unexpected support.