By Jeff Walsh
With A Density of Souls, Christopher Rice has sculpted an ambitious first novel that's deftly crafted with rich characters, an intriguing plot, and beautiful, articulate language. Unfortunately, most of the attention given to Rice in the media is due not to his creation, but to his creator: best-selling author Anne Rice.
Anne Rice, as you most likely know, is the author of Interview with a Vampire, and countless other supernatural thrillers, all of which top the bestseller list upon their release. On a recent book tour through San Francisco, Rice spent nearly an hour talking candidly with Oasis about his famous mother, his sexuality, and his writing.
Rice is the first person to admit that he had no qualms about using his famous last name to get his manuscript read. "It helped in the beginning, because it's so hard to get attention for a first novel, that if you have a recognizable last name, it's an angle for people to play up," he says. "My attitude from the beginning was that if I felt I had finished something that was as good as I could make it and that I had the utmost confidence in, I had no ethical dilemma with having people regard me as Anne Rice's son and using that to get attention for the novel. I was always of the belief that if the book couldn't stand on its own, and wasn't good enough, that the sales would vaporize and all of the press would disappear. Luckily, that hasn't happened. The book has found a definite audience.
"So, the short and simple answer is that being Anne Rice's kid helps in the beginning and it can hurt when the book is released."
A Density of Souls is the sweeping tale of four friends whose lives change forever after one commits suicide. The story is set in the Garden District of New Orleans and one of the main characters, Stephen, is gay. Rice manages to keep this epic story flowing brilliantly, and creates a story that balances sexuality within the context of a larger tapestry of interesting characters and settings.
"The book is a psychosexual murder mystery... that's what I like to call it," Rice says. "People say it's two books in one, that it has this whole beginning high school section and then it flashes forward and turns into a murder mystery."
Rice then hesitates, takes a drag off his cigarette, and slides down in his chair. "I don't want to describe it. I feel like every time I've done it, I've done an injustice to the book. This is an author's least favorite question in the world, what is your book about? I want people to read it and tell me. I don't know what it's about, I just wrote it."
Be careful what you wish for... Rice is getting a decidedly mixed critical reaction to the book, which has become a New York Times Bestseller. "From the beginning, I was afraid that the critics would have their knives drawn, and I think they definitely did," Rice says. "But even the bad reviews of the book were surprisingly focused on the story and didn't turn into bitchsnaps about Anne Rice's son publishing a novel. There were a few reviews that were like that, and my response to them is that it was much easier to say that than to actually review the book."
Of course, Rice admits that he wasn't as thick-skinned when some of the first bad reviews hit. "The first couple bad ones I read were like train wrecks, and it would take me like a day to recover," he says. Rice has also noticed a difference between what critics are saying about the book and how actual readers are responding to it.
"There's been such a disparity between the customer reviews that get posted on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, which are mostly glowing, and the official reviews, that it's suspicious to me," he says. "There are books you know critics will not like, because there are parameters of what is acceptable. And I knew going into it that this book was over the top, fantastical and hyperbolic, and those are things that get you shot down by reviewers. But I don't think I read a single bad review that didn't at least say they found it compelling or intriguing. I remember a terrible review otherwise that called it an intriguing tale, and then going on to say nothing makes sense, and blah blah blah. But I would rather a bad review be really bad, because then at least I know I'd gotten under their skin. The worst fear would be to write something forgettable or plain."
As for being open about being gay, Rice says it was never an option for him to conceal it. "I could just never do it. If I were ever asked, I would answer honestly. I knew it was just inevitable that I would be open."
He is quick to point out, though, that he is not Stephen in the book.
"I always answer that obtusely by saying I put myself into Stephen. I am not Stephen. Stephen is a character in the book," he says. "If I look through a single character's set of eyes, personally it was Stephen's. I was never subject to the brutality that Stephen was subject to. I never endured that kind of misery for that long. But Stephen's anger, and pain, and sense of isolation are all pretty much me. At the same time, I didn't sleep with nearly as many football players as Stephen did in the book."
Although the book is not a "gay book," per se, it deals openly and honestly with gay themes and Stephen's sexuality, which has led to the book finding a definite gay audience.
"I think that's in large part because I was on the cover of The Advocate," Rice says. "To be honest, though, the way the book has been selling right now, which is extremely well, they can't represent everyone who's buying the book and reading the book."
Rice did note that a large number of young gay men have been showing up at his readings, and that he seems to be reaching people who don't typically relate to the bulk of gay fiction.
"They're gay men who do not feel reached by the huge quantity of fiction out there about men who live in the Castro district or Chelsea who go out to bars and sleep with each other, get a flat with their boyfriend, and all of that stuff," he says. "It's young gay men who are saying 'Thanks for writing an entertaining story with gay characters in it.'"
Rice counters that he ended up writing the book he wishes he could have read when he was growing up and sorting out his sexuality.
"When I was 17, gay, and in high school, I didn't want to read sexual memoirs by gay New Yorkers. I didn't care," he says. "I wanted something that would thrill me. I wanted a story where the gay kid did sleep with the football player and it wasn't tragic.
"Last night here in San Francisco, someone asked me if I had in mind that I was writing this novel for gay youth all over the country, which was very sweet and flattering. But my response was, 'No.' I had no one in mind other than myself. I was writing the book I wanted to read. But also, the disclaimer I had to put on the end of that, to the 17 year olds who were saying, 'This is the first book like this,' no, it isn't. It has that degree of wish fulfillment in it, sleeping with the jock and all of that, but there are many gay-themed titles out there as well that are not getting the kind of promotional push that I got. And that speaks well for Talk Miramax Books and they took a risk on a book heavily gay in content and they didn't market it specifically to a gay audience.
"So, I have to remind these kids that are showing up that I'm not the only one. I'm just the most visible one right now. (Click here for Chris' recommendations on other good books to read)
Rice describes coming to terms with his sexuality as "really uneventful."
"I turned 18 and I thought all along, 'Oh, I'm bisexual.' And then I went to my first gay bar and I said, 'Oh, I'm gay,'" he says. "I started dating this guy and he was really the reason I came out to my parents, because suddenly someone else's feelings were involved and it was no longer a personal issue. And he dumped me two weeks later, but we're still friends. There was nothing really traumatic or painful about it."
I interject that his mother should have taken things well, considering the number of people I know who have told me how homoerotic some of her writing is.
"That doesn't mean she wanted her son to be gay," Rice says. "When any mother, regardless of anything, hears that their child is gay, their first thought is 'I've spent the majority of my life as a mother trying to protect my child from pain and now my child at an adult age is telling me he's going to pick a significantly more painful life path than he would have as a straight person.'
"And when you tell your parents at the age of 18, they automatically think you are picking. It doesn't sink in right away that you are that way, because it seems like you're suddenly telling them and you just came to this decision, when really you've just come to the decision to tell them," he says. "So, any parent has to work through that, and my mother had to work through it. And that was perfectly fine with me. She never reacted with hatred or bigotry of any kind. But a lot of this is generational, and much of it, when it comes to parents, is what their fixed image of a gay person is. They're going to try to match up who they think their child is with who they think a gay person is and imagine their child becoming that person, whether that person is dying of AIDS or a drug-addled disco queen. These are the images that were in my mother's head, because she made her gay friends in the 70s and 80s, and they were very frozen in time for her. And she thought I was going to lead a lonely life... none of which happened. But that's a first instinct and fear that you don't really, as someone who's just coming out, want to waste your time fighting. Just let it run its course, that's what I did, at least."
Rice also has had to develop a "bullshit screen" because of people who want to engage him in conversation (or something more carnal) because he is Anne Rice's kid. "That's a problem with continuing to live in New Orleans, where she's a well-known public figure. It takes a while for me to get comfortable with anyone."
Rice began writing the novel when he got a phone call that his mother had gone into a diabetic coma.
"I got a phone call from home that my mother had gone into a diabetic coma," he says. "I was living out in L.A. and I had to drop everything I was doing and fly home. When it became clear that she was going to recover, I had to work on something. So, I took this short story that I had written, and it was the story of how this young gay kid in high school gets [spoiler deleted]. It was pretty insane and out there, but I wanted to take that story and inject it with mystery and make it the big secret of this book. I shouldn't even put it that way, because I didn't know I was writing a book.
"So, I wanted to see if I could come up with a cast of characters that advanced them toward this story, and I didn't think it would happen or that it was going to work," he says. "I thought I was going to run out of energy. But I began to write it anyway, and once I started, I couldn't stop."
Once the manuscript was finished, he didn't run it by his mother for any advice. In fact, she was the last person to read it.
"I wanted her to read it when it was at its most finished," he says. "Her reaction was really good. She stayed up all night to finish reading it, and slid a note under my door telling me how good she thought it was. She thought it was heartbreakingly beautiful. That was really great, and a great capper moment to a very long, arduous editorial process."
Rice is very clear that he doesn't view his mother as competition. "I regard her as being in the separate stratosphere of best-selling, million-dollar authors. In no way did I ever think I was competing with her," he says. "I was always so convinced that my subject matter would be so distinct from hers and my focus is different from hers, that it wouldn't be an issue, because I'm not working in the supernatural and I don't have an interest in the supernatural. I think my tone and my style are a lot more terse and clipped than her style of prose. So, really, it wasn't a worry for me from the beginning."
He also thinks his name was only able to get him in the doors of the publishing world, and the quality of the book is what kept those doors open.
"I don't believe my editor would have been able to buy the book if he felt there was no real story there," he says. "So, I don't think it got me published. But, if you look at it from the equation of 'Well, there are great novels out there, and the only reason they don't get published is that they don't make it to the right desk,' well then, yeah. My response to that is that it's not fair. It isn't fair and there is a myriad of connections in the publishing industry that are used all over that don't get spotlighted the way these kinds of connections do because a lot of manuscripts get read because so-and-so's father went to Yale with so-and-so at an agency. It's like any business."
He also wants to avoid being pigeonholed as a gay writer, and encourages anyone with literary aspirations that read Oasis from writing stories that don't have universal appeal.
"I'm gay and I'm a writer, but I don't know if that makes me a gay writer," he says. "I was also writing about straight characters and parents. The book was gay-themed, but if the only thing you have to write about is a group of gay men living in the ghetto, then no one cares other than gay men. It's not bigotry, it's not hatred, and you're just limiting your audience. And that's fine if what you want to say is to that audience, which is the case with a lot of writers. But not with me. I want to make points outside that sphere. If being a gay novelist meant that I could only write stuff that is by and for gay men, that would be a problem for me.
Rice is already planning his second novel, and says it's likely it will also focus on gay issues.
"Right now, I'm still working through issues regarding my own sexuality. Not issues, but I'm still pondering the nature of homosexuality and the ramifications of living a gay lifestyle outside of gay ghettos," he says. "So, as long as I'm still debating that personally, it will show up in different characters in my book. But at some point I would hope to write something that is not about gay things at all..."
"I have no interest in vampires at all," Rice says, smirking. "I never have. I don't know if it's a natural reflex on my part, but I don't give a shit. I mean, I love her books, but the vampire books are not my favorite. Witches are more interesting to me."
Click here for an excerpt of A Density of Souls.
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One of the great ones out there is "Toby's Lie," by Daniel Vilmure, who is also from Louisiana. That's a great book about a young man in high school, in that case an all boy's Catholic school, which is the other norm for high schools in New Orleans.
There is also something to be said for young gay men reading the sexual memoir-type books. Edmund White is not solely a sexual memoir, he's above and beyond that and may be a little difficult for younger readers to wrap their heads around. But he's read some powerful stuff that appeals universally.
A book that was personally important for me to read was "Like People in History," by Felice Picano, simply because it was like a gay history lesson. It went all the way through the decades, from Woodstock, to the 70s, the Disco Era, Fire Island, to AIDS, to now almost. It was important for me to read that. That might seem contradictory, because I just said the negative thing about the sexual memoirs. But I hope my book can find a place among those books, like a different shelf on the same rack.