When Queen of the Damned Anne Rice and her son Christopher Rice came to San Francisco promoting their newest novels (The Wolves of Midwinter for her, The Heavens Rise for him) we knew that KQED Pop had to be there for our first ever mother-son author interview. The bestselling pair's bantering, Big and Little Edie-esque rapport (they responded to the Grey Gardens comparison with good humor, for the record) was exactly what we hoped the creator of the Vampire Chronicles and her equally prolific author son (both gay icons in their own rights) would be like in person. We spoke to them shortly before their jam packed signing at the Opera Plaza Books Inc. about everything from their loves of New Orleans and San Francisco (Christopher is a native of the Castro), hitting the road together as a team and what it would be like if the authors' gay fanbases ever got into an old fashioned rumble.
Since you're touring together have you done a lot of joint interviews?
Christopher: On this one, we have
Anne: We've done a few. Not as many as many as you would think though.
Christopher: There was that one interview where you got the first 30 minutes and I got the second 30 minutes but we were both sitting there in the radio studio. It was taped. So I had to sit there and was like "he's never going to ask me a question, I'm just going to sit here." Then he turned to me and ignored her for 30 minutes. It was strange.
I'd like to avoid that situation.
Christopher: So far so good!
Tell me about the fun and perils of doing mother-son appearances. Do you get to spend a lot of time together regularly or is this a bit of a reunion?
Anne: I'll tell you what's great for me. We've done stage events together where we interview each other: Chris interviews me, I talk to him and I love doing them with him because Chris keeps the audience laughing and keeps the whole thing very relaxed. If I have to do stage events alone, they're generally extremely stressful for me and I'm going to miss that if we have to tour separately. I'd like to have them bring him in for all the stage events.
Christopher: [in a comically exaggerated deadpan] Basically, I'm the comedy relief.
With two writers in the family, does it ever get competitive about Times listings when you have books out at the same time?
Anne and Chris: No.
Christopher: She sells so many more books than I do and she always has. It's sweet that people ask that question but she's in a completely different league.
Anne: There will come a time when they say "Anne, guess who is number three and guess who is number eight?" and I'll say "Okay, I couldn't be happier!" He's my son. My heir.
Christopher: Also, they give you a New York Times ranking so you don't really get to fight over it.
Anne: But that would be something if they called and said "Okay..."
Christopher: "Who's going to take three and who's going to take four?"
Duel for it.
Anne and Christopher: Exactly.
Anne, this is your second book since returning to the supernatural genre and the second book in the new wolves series. What prompted you, after so famously exploring vampires and witches, to look at the werewolf, um, "community?"
Anne: Jeff Eastin, the television producer who created White Collar, suggested it. Jeff sent me an email one day that said he had seen a special on werewolves and if I ever decided to tackle the subject he would certainly buy the book and for some reason he just said that at the right time. I was stuck on what I was doing and didn't like it and I thought "why don't I try that? It's something completely different." It was brand new and it worked and that's why I dedicated The Wolf Gift to Jeff, among other people.
You said in another interview it was a challenge to make werewolves sexy at first.
Anne: I made my wolves real primates, a man-wolf that was conscious and talking and sensitive. I can't imagine anything more sexy than that: a beast that can talk to you and sing. I had seen a movie called Greystoke and there's a scene in it where Tarzan goes into the bedroom with Andie MacDowell...
Christopher: That's the movie where Andie is dubbed entirely by Glenn Close.
Anne: There's a scene by a four-poster bed and he lets out this growl that could come out of a lion and I thought: "That's what I want with my man-wolf."
Christopher: Did you know that? Did you know Glenn Close dubbed that entire role?
Anne: I did, they both talked about it.
Christopher: You had to carry me out of that movie, I was traumatized by it. I was four.
Chris, you were born in San Francisco while your parents were living here in the '70s and spent your childhood here. How does it feel to come back on tours? Is it still home in some ways?
Christopher: It's very emotional to go back to the Castro where we lived; we were in a grey Victorian on 17th and Noe and the Castro doesn't look that different. The rest of the city has changed dramatically--you never went south of Market--but the Castro is very much the same. The view looking up from my bedroom was really looking up at Sutro Tower. You couldn't see the tower but there was a giant pink apartment building on the hill that I looked at as a child and that view is completely unchanged. We left in 1988 and it was a dark time here; lots of people were sick [with AIDS]. It was a while before I came back but I come back frequently and I have a new impression of San Francisco. I love it here. I would love to live here again someday.
Anne: We're trying to figure out if we could live here part of the year.
Speaking of living arrangements, Anne, it's rumored you're considering a move back to New Orleans.
Anne: Right now I live right outside Los Angeles. I'd like to live in New Orleans maybe part of the year.
Christopher: I'm not letting her move back to New Orleans full time.
Would you consider another historic property?
Anne: Those days are over for me. I would love just a lovely little apartment in the French Quarter where I could walk to everything.
Christopher: Hopefully where the roof isn't falling in...
Anne: The French Quarter people are way ahead of everyone--they started preservation of the historic buildings way back.
Chris, your new book again starts in a high school setting, a motif that's reoccurred in many of your novels.
Christopher: A lot of writers spend a lot of time writing about their youth. I think it's a southern tradition to write a story where there's a great trauma in your early years that gets healed through a series of painful revelations. My first novel, A Density of Souls, was very much an angry young man's novel; there were some groups of people I wanted to get back at through fiction. This was not that book. I wanted to write another book that was set in New Orleans and I wanted to write a kinder, gentler perspective on the city and the characters. It wasn't going to be a kinder, gentler story. It was going to be a dark, supernatural thriller, but it was very much a desire to celebrate the city even in the context of something that was thematically very dark.
You deal with one of the darkest chapters in New Orleans history with the novel's allusions to Hurricane Katrina.
Christopher: I do and what was important to me was not to set a story in the midst of Katrina; it's one of those strange tragedies that everyone thinks they lived through because of the news coverage. It was a desire to explore the impact of it and I did that by hopscotching in the chronology of the book. You see the characters before as you know Katrina is coming and you get them after as they deal with the fallout of what they've been through.
The supernatural element of The Heavens Rise is almost somewhere between supernatural and science fiction.
Christopher: I knew early on the book was going to be about mind control but I didn't want to identify the source of the power. I was on the hunt for an explanation that was as clear and elegant as her explanation of what tied the vampires together. More and more people are responding to it as science fiction because I think they're expecting the more ethereal worlds of her books but it's not that: it's muddy, down here on earth cosmology. It's Lovecraftian even though I don't like Lovecraft but it's true.
You've both written stories that really use New Orleans as characters. You do it in such different ways as such different writers. What's it like writing about the city post-Katrina?
Anne: For me it's the same city. Everything I love about it is still there: the oak trees, the French Quarter, the crazy spirit of the people. I don't see any change.
Christopher: The emotional and spiritual recovery of the city is so much better than people ever expected it could be at the time of the flood. People were really writing the obituary for the city; they never thought it would stand up again, that it had been really destroyed. There are still real problems we have to talk about but at the same time we have to recognize the extent to which it's come back. I write about it differently because I'm older: I'm 35 and I was 21 when I wrote my first book so my perspective has changed, Katrina or no Katrina.
Let's talk about titles, Chris. You have amazing, Tennessee Williams-Douglas Sirk poetic titles.
Christopher: I get titles before I get books. They don't necessarily yield the story and a lot of times they are vague and roomy enough to accommodate a lot of stories. A Density of Souls was originally the title of a very self-indulgent one-act play I wrote as an angry young gay man: "they all should have slept with me and they didn't" sort of thing.
Let's talk about fan experiences. Anne Rice fans certainly know how to decorate themselves for a signing. Any fabulous recent fan encounters?
Christopher: They're so emotional if they haven't met her before. It's very moving to see because it's something great her work brings out in people, this love between people who felt like outsiders. With me the funniest thing was the first person in the Minneapolis line skipping past her because he didn't have her book. That's very rare but it was very cute; she had a great reaction.
Anne: And then the only two gay guys who were married didn't know who you were!
Christopher: It was at The Mall of America...it was super weird. We were in the bowels of The Mall of America and looking around at the pictures of the authors who had been there and it was like...Sarah Palin and the cast of The Hunger Games...it was really strange. I think the weirdest experience I had was being asked to sign a young man's stomach with a Sharpie and looking up and realizing he was about 15 as I was writing my name on his stomach.
I, on the other hand, Chris, am completely of age if it comes up later.
Christopher: [laughing] Then we're good. Do you have a pen?
Your relationship with your fans, Anne, has been one of the most open author-fan relationships in recent memory. What's the reaction been like in your return to the genre that made you famous?
Anne: It's been wonderful, overwhelmingly positive.
I feel like being the gay son of Anne Rice must be a little like being the gay son of Cher in terms of gay iconography. Have there been any weird situations that have arisen from that?
Christopher: There was a period there where I don't think I went out on a date with anyone who hadn't read her Sleeping Beauty books. I haven't read them so that was kind of weird...I can't read my mother's erotica. I might someday! I always feel like I'm not gay enough for Anne Rice. Her gay friends were always more sophisticated and interesting than I am. Generationally, we've gotten Kei$ha-fied.
With your huge gay fanbases, what would it look like if there was a rumble?
Christopher: I don't know! That's something to think about.
Anne: That's an interesting question.
Christopher: I think it would be like, discreet, military looking gay guys on my side verses goths. Preppy guys who could maybe pass for straight on my team mostly.
You both write so extensively about outsider experiences. How does that continue to evolve in your work?
Anne: It's going to continue in my work no matter what. It just happens and there's nothing I can do about it. Even when I wrote about Jesus I wrote about him as an outsider. The ultimate outsider walking around in Nazareth, feeling very alone.
Christopher: My outsiders are no longer gay; my gay characters have assimilated with the times. My outsiders feel guilt; that's what renders them outsiders. They feel a great sense of guilt over something they haven't made amends for. Once they make that reparation they can return to the light.