This past year was a milestone author Anne Rice, as it marked 40 years since her first novel Interview with the Vampire came out. But when it first came out in hardcover, it wasn’t an instant hit, it was more of a cult book. Not until a complete Vampire Chronicles trilogy was released roughly 12 years later did the books became something akin to a cultural phenomenon. This is in stark contrast to authors like JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, who were instant overnight sensations. I couldn’t help but wonder if Rice benefited or suffered as a writer by having her work slowly become mainstream, as opposed to being an overnight household name.
“Hard to say. It is what happened” Rice says over the phone when posed with this question. “Interview with the Vampire was not a hardcover success, and in paperback it was a bestseller, but not a blockbuster. It hung on in the bookstores, largely because it found a place in “horror” on the genre shelves. I didn’t write a sequel for eight years–I was very much focused on doing other things–and when I did, The Vampire Chronicles was born with the emergence of Lestat (“The Vampire Lestat“) as a vampire hero, and with a focus on his quest which was wholly different from the doomed quest of Louis in Interview with the Vampire.”
“The Vampire Lestat was a hardcover bestseller, and did pave the way for the astonishing success of Queen of the Damned which came seemingly out of nowhere to become No.1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, which I certainly didn’t expect and which a lot of booksellers didn’t expect either. I remember hearing that it was selling so fast the booksellers couldn’t even unpack the boxes. It was all rather exciting, actually and it felt very good. But I have never really rivaled the sales of Tom Clancy, or Stephen King, or many other writers. I do very well. I have no complaints. But I am simply not in that category. My books are eccentric, highly unusual, and that they made mainstream success at all is something of a mystery.”
“MY BOOKS ARE ECCENTRIC, HIGHLY UNUSUAL, AND THAT THEY MADE MAINSTREAM SUCCESS AT ALL IS SOMETHING OF A MYSTERY.”
Rice’s novels have ranged from the supernatural to erotica to religious novels based on the life of Christ. Is there such a thing as the “typical Anne Rice fan?” Not really, according to Rice. “I write many different kinds of books, and have never enjoyed a united audience or an audience with any discernible full agreement on which is my best kind of book or my best kind of writing. I experiment. I change. There are fans of Interview who hated The Queen of the Damned. I remember one reader calling me years ago and telling me, ‘We don’t want all those other characters.’ There are readers who love Lestat’s trip to heaven and hell in Memnoch the Devil yet there are reviewers on Amazon who declare emphatically that Memnoch is not only a failure but the end of my career. The controversy never stops. I’m honored, grateful and at times feel like I’m going crazy as I listen to all the contending voices. I’m one person’s ‘great writer’ and another person’s ‘awful trash writer.’ It’s been that way since the beginning. One of the most venomous and vicious letters I ever received was from a fan of Interview, who felt I had betrayed [that novel] by writing The Vampire Lestat. I still get chills thinking about that letter.”
Aside from her supernatural books, Rice also has become well known for her erotica and S/M pornography, which she wrote over thirty years ago under the pseudonyms A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling. At the time, back when the color gray only had one shade, the idea of a woman writing porn was extremely taboo. Did Rice receive backlash from feminists when it came to her own pornography?
“Yes, I have received severe criticism from some on my pornography or erotica,” Rice answers. “I remember a very aggressive and unpleasant letter from a self styled feminist telling me to stop with the Roquelaure [S/M fantasy] novels. She was horrified and offended that I would present women enjoying S&M. Feminism to me means supporting the right of women to do what they want, and that includes writing S&M pornography if they want, or doing the kind of erotica that Madonna did. True feminism supports the individuality and freedom of women. But in all movements, including feminism, there are those who seek to control how the movement goes and what it stands for. There have been puritanical and dictatorial feminists from the beginning, seeking to tell the liberated woman how she is to behave.”
“Sadly they do not seem to see the absurdity of their position, that they are being as tyrannical and authoritarian as the old guard school teachers or nuns of the past who instructed young women to be modest, to wear a decent hem length, or a high necked blouse, to talk softly, to keep their eyes down and not to question male authority. It’s just a different set of “absolute” rules they tried to impose. Of course the puritanical feminists likely thought they were protecting women. They sought to protect them from sexual exploitation by condemning pornographic writing and film. But we must support and empower women without imposing new rules on them. We must recognize that women are people, not concepts in anyone’s belief system. We women must not seek to be protected so much as to be treated with respect as equals. And of course we have seen 7,000 years of people telling women what to do, so it is not surprising that feminism, especially in the early years, would contain some strident voices telling women what to do. It’s so easy to lecture women. It’s so easy to fall into it, telling a woman in no uncertain terms how she ought to behave! It has such a history to it. Real liberation to me means recognizing a wide variety of opinions from women on S&M literature or film, or erotic behavior, different attitudes on romance novels and films, different opinions on women expressing themselves sexually as fully and completely as men do.”
“I’M ONE PERSON’S GREAT WRITER AND ANOTHER PERSON’S AWFUL TRASH WRITER.”
Part of the sea change that occurred in modern feminism happened at the same time Rice was writing her S/M Sleeping Beauty book series in the early ’80s: Madonna‘s rise as a pop star and icon.. By embracing her strength and her femininity at the same time, Madonna celebrated a new kind of feminism. But when she published her own book of pornography in the early ’90s called Sex, she faced a severe backlash that still follows her to this day. Knowing she was a big fan of the singer, I had to ask Rice what she thought of Madonna’s recent speech on the misogyny she faced in her career, especially the criticism she faced when releasing her own book of S/M fantasies.
“I’ve always deeply admired Madonna and I loved her pornographic book. I also loved her racy and provocative music videos. As she herself explained, she was in control of her fantasies. She broke new ground. And I am saddened to hear of how harshly she was criticized for being beautiful, young, brave and bold in expressing herself as a sexual being. Madonna is a fine actress. Her Evita was splendid, and amazingly true to the real Evita. And she is a truly great performer — She is a hero to me. She embodies true feminism.”
Has feminism really changed in the thirty years since the Beauty series was released? Rice seems to think so, saying “I think feminism has grown and matured, and has done wonders for women in general. I well remember what the world was like for women before feminism. I am a feminist and I support feminist values. But I will never support any sort of authoritarian feminist creed that seeks to suppress women sexually. No movement is ever monolithic, and I would never condemn feminism in general due to the failure of some feminists to understand the full range of sexual expression in some female authors and performers. Feminism has changed the world. And it will go on changing the world. We have all benefited from this. And I love seeing all the erotica written by and for women and by and for gays. This is a great time to be a writer, and in no small part because of feminism.”
Feminism is a hot button topic more than ever, especially due to our current political climate. And this fact is not lost on Anne Rice at all. “Right now, I think, the rights of women are under assault in this country, due largely to certain religious minorities that want to control women’s reproductive decisions, and we must fight to protect complete freedom for women in this regard. Again, women are people. American women are American citizens; they don’t lose their rights as citizens if they become pregnant; they are not downgraded as human beings when they get pregnant. They are not concepts in some one else’s belief system. Protecting the rights of all Americans today is a real challenge. We’ve come a long way, but our democracy is a work in progress, and always will be. We will never “finish” when it comes to human rights. We will keep deepening our understanding and respect of our fellow human beings, including those who happen to be female.”
At this point in her career, Rice has written about vampires, witches, ghosts, mummies and werewolves. During a time when a lot of other horror writers were running away from the classic, Gothic icons, she ran toward them. In a way, she rescued them from being relegated to just being Halloween decorations and found what makes them compelling in the first place. Missing among these classic icons though is Frankenstein’s monster. Rice has long loved the James Whale Frankenstein films and Mary Shelley’s original novel, so I had to wonder if there was an Anne Rice version of the Frankenstein mythos? Perhaps not with Shelley’s actual characters per se, but something in the vein of someone brought back from the dead via science?
“GOOD HORROR FICTION AS I SEE IT IS ALWAYS ABOUT US, ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION.”
According to Rice, she kind of just did that very thing: “actually, I feel that I am getting into this territory in the new Prince Lestat books, but in a way that is wholly different from Mary Shelley. I don’t think I’ll ever embrace the concept of her great Frankenstein. But I am definitely now exploring what science can do to create a new biological body for a ghost or a spirit. I am certainly asking whether or not newly created humanoid entities have souls. I do have my own pantheon of ghosts, elves, werewolves, vampires, mummies, witches and the like. I have loved creating this. And I’ve had wonderful fun exhuming these horror cliches and doing my take on them. I think there are certain concepts that unite my work, and the main one, of course is that the monster, particularly the vampire, is a metaphor for us, a metaphor for the outsider and the predator in each of us. Good horror fiction as I see it is always about us, about the human condition. It is always allegorical and metaphorical. I love writing these books. They are about my reality, my moral and social obsessions.”
Images: Knopf / E.P. Dutton / Madonna / Universal Pictures