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Interview with the Vampire Writer

· THE DEAD

Anne Rice: Someday I will die, and it will all be over.

Mikal Gilmore

In 1995, Rolling Stone asked me if I would visit New Orleans to interview Anne Rice for a feature, on the occasion of her latest vampire Lestat book, Memnoch the Devil.

Rice’s first volume in the vampire chronicles, Interview with the Vampire, had been among my favorite novels since its publication. It was imaginative in its construction and narrative voice—the worst that could be said of it was that it helped spawn a legion of mediocre vampire volumes and movies that persist to this day—but what I liked best about it was that it was a painful read.  

I had just lost somebody in my family when I first read it, and this was a book that seemed to emit loss. It was some time later that I understood just how much so: Rice had written the book in part as a testament to her daughter, Michele, who died in August 1972 of granulocytic leukemia (Rice had a dream before the diagnosis that her daughter would die of a blood aliment). Interview featured a young girl who became a woman without aging or dying, until she met a terrible end.

The book’s consumption of blood was also a metaphor for alcoholism; her mother was an alcoholic. Rice later said: “I think she swallowed her tongue [from drinking]. My mother’s drinking marked me out in my own eyes—the fact that it was a huge secret, and I couldn’t tell anyone, and you never knew how she’d be when you got home.” I knew both of these forms of affliction—family loss and alcoholism—and maybe there was something in Rice’s storytelling that caused me to respond instinctively to Interview with the Vampire.

The vampire series, of course, would go on to become something less personal and more fantasist, as well as more intellectually vigorous, which is what occasioned my visit to New Orleans. We sat in her kitchen, nearby the witching tree, and all her homes were as worthy of her themes as were her books. She invited me to stay at a house that she maintained just for visitors. “It has ghosts,” she told me. I wandered around there at 3 a.m., looking for spirits, but nothing and nobody reached to me. Maybe they were leery of some of the ghosts I carried with me.

This version of the 1995 interview has not been previously published. When other sources reprinted that story I tried to gather their interest in this longer draft but with no success. So for better or worse, it’s now yours.

The date cited at the opening has been changed to reflect current time.

Stan Rice painting.

For over forty-five years, Anne Rice told stories that shared secrets — secrets of life and death, of sex and the soul, of monsters and humans. In particular, though, it has been with her series of novels known as the Vampire Chronicles that Rice has created her most binding mix of mystery and meaning, as well as what may prove her most enduring body of literature.  

Interview with the Vampire (1976) — the first of the Vampire Chronicles, and her first published novel — is a horror narrative unlike any other. It is the story of Louis de Ponte du Lac: an 18th Century-born New Orleans plantation owner who has lost faith with his life and his God. Seeking death one night, Louis instead finds a vampire, and a cruel paradox: this broken man who wanted to die must now endure lifetimes of no meaning, and he must murder daily to do so.  

Interview is also the story of the smart and mean aristocrat who made Louis a vampire, the French-born Lestat de Lioncourt, and the child immortal, Claudia, who unites Louis and Lestat in a bitter kinship, and who eventually separates them at an awful price. Mostly, though, Interview with the Vampire is a haunting meditation on loss, mortality and the uncertain purposes of faith. By the book’s end, Rice’s vampires have come to understand a terrible but emboldening truth: there is no God, no ultimate meaning to life’s anguish. The vampires are finally left alone, wandering through the turbulence of time and history, killing others so that they themselves might evade the oblivion of death.

With Memnoch the Devil— the fifth volume of the Vampire Chronicles — the fates of the vampires change, radically and irrevocably. Told in the voice of Rice’s most cherished character, the vampire Lestat, Memnoch tells a tale as old as scripture’s legends and as modern as today’s religious strife. In Memnoch, Lestat comes face to face with his most feared supernatural counterpart, the Devil, and hears the Devil’s dreadful yet fascinating secret: it is God who has made human history so murderous, and it is God from whom the world must be saved.

With Lestat’s help, the Devil claims, he might just be able to accomplish the task. What follows from this premise is a mind-expanding and sometimes shocking narrative romp, redolent at moments of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Legend of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov or Archibald Macleish’s heartrending play about Job, J.B. — in other words, a parable that is as much about the evil of God’s rule as it is about the redemptive worth of man-made compassion. After Memnoch’s horrific conclusion, it is hard to imagine where Rice’s vampires might go or what they might do. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what any of us might do in such a world.

When I meet Anne Rice, it is at her large Greek Revival-style home that she shares with her husband Stan and their son Christopher on 1st Street in the aged Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. Rice was born and raised not far from this grand house, on St. Charles Avenue, in an intensely Catholic household. At 18, she left New Orleans and eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Stan, a poet, painter and, at the time, professor at San Francisco State University. After 30 years in California, Rice missed her hometown and extended family, and with her husband and son, moved back to New Orleans. In 1988, she purchased the Garden District house where she now lives and writes. It is a richly atmospheric place, and it is little wonder that Rice has used it as the haunted central setting of The Witching Hour, Lasher and Taltos — the first three volumes of her Lives of the Mayfair Witches series.

The house is crammed full with the stuff of Rice’s obsessive imagination: with showcases of invaluable, 19th Century French porcelain Bru dolls (utterly spooky with their humanlike eyes), walls of books on ancient mythology and religious theory, rooms of religious statuary and even the odd skeleton or two, outfitted in century-old bridal or ballroom gowns, and sporting flowing blond wigs. (“But they aren’t real skeletons,” says Rice, as she gives me a tour of the upstairs. “I couldn’t live with a real one.”)

In addition to her Garden District house, Rice has also recently purchased — and is remodeling — St. Elizabeth’s Home, a massive 1860s Catholic school and orphanage for girls. Like the 1st Street house, St. Elizabeth’s is filled with Rice’s passions — several rooms of rare dolls, some of them life-sized versions of her vampires and other characters, plus hallways of saint and demon statues, many from old European homes and churches.  

St. Elizabeth’s most remarkable prize, though, is a resplendent white, full-scale chapel, replete with two walls of floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows and brass-plate renditions of the Twelve Stations of the Cross. At present, Rice has no plans to reside at St. Elizabeth’s. Instead, she has given various of the house’s tower quarters to her sisters and to Stan’s sister Nancy Diamond (who is also Rice’s personal assistant). Rice also plans to make the building available for various public events, including her annual Halloween season Gathering of the Coven, for her many fans.

As we talk, Rice and I sit in a glassed-in side porch of the 1st Street house, overlooking a large, lush lawn, not far from the site where the fictional demon Lasher lies fictionally buried, under a vast and ancient oak tree. Rice is dressed in a white, high-collared billowy blouse with frilly cuffs, and a long black skirt, and wears her trademark owl glasses. In conversation, she comes off as direct, plain-spoken and, at age 53, intellectually passionate.

These days, she says, when she isn’t sequestered in her upstairs office writing, she is busy researching matters related to religious history and mythology — the same subject matter that preoccupied her in Memnoch the Devil, and that, she claims, will be at the thematic core of her next few books.

A gale wind blows dark clouds across the sky as we speak. Later that night, those clouds will bear a terrible downpour — at the time, the worst flash flood in Louisiana’s modern history. Rice is so adept at turning her surroundings into textural backgrounds for her stories, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this deluge crop up in an upcoming tale. After all, it proves to be the sort of flood that washes up bodies and secrets, and that leaves you believing there are forces beyond your control that can reach out from the night and pull you straight down into inescapable currents of fear and death.

1239 First Street, New Orleans. A decade before her death, Anne Rice moved to California and the house was sold.

Q: Memnoch the Devil strikes me as perhaps your most passionate and inventive work since Interview with the Vampire. Obviously, you’ve taken considerable risks with this story — not only risks for your vampire characters and their secretive, immortal world, but risks that, given the story’s shock points, might even affect your career. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the risks might run deeper — if perhaps there’s something personal at stake for you in this parable about God and the Devil.

A: If there was any book that ever beat me up, it was Memnoch. I had been thinking about it for over two years — swimming in the ideas of it, going back and forth between its various scenes in my head. I had even made false starts and then thrown them away. I then put it aside to write Taltos [the latest of the Mayfair Witches books].   

 

But through it all, Memnoch stayed in the back of my mind, wanting to be written. Finally, early last year, I sat down and thought: “I’m either going to write this or it’s going to kill me.” So I took the month of February, wrote it, and then collapsed. It nearly did kill me. I mean, there was something so dark in writing this book. I remember lying in bed one night thinking: “All right, Lestat’s got to go to hell today. There’s no putting this off any longer — it’s time.” And it was like... it was like going there with him, I guess. Towards the end, when he ran up the stairs of hell to escape, I was right with him. It was not a pleasure, writing those scenes. It was real agony, because I’m as close to Lestat as any character that I’ve been able to imagine and write.

When I finished Memnoch, I gave it to several friends to read — not to hear anything that might influence me, because the truth is, I don’t listen to anybody about what I write. I’m too obsessive-compulsive to take suggestions or help from people [laughs]. I gave it to them as a finished work, because I was curious to see how people would react. One of these was a friend who usually gobbles up my stuff and says, “More Mayfairs, more vampires.” This time the only comment she sent back was: “This book scared the hell out of me.”

I got that same sort of reaction over and over again, from people I would consider my rank and file readers. And I thought: “I’m really glad. Whatever I set out to do this time, I did it. It got realized. This thing I thought I couldn’t write, I wrote.” So, thank God, it’s done. And I’m ready to take whatever comes of it.

Q: Like Interview with the Vampire, much of Memnoch has a half-maddened, fever-pitch intensity to it, plus it takes some wildly unpredictable turns — especially toward the end. Did you ever find yourself surprised by what you were writing?

Basically, I knew what I wanted: Lestat was going to meet the Devil and God, and they were going to talk. And I knew that the Devil was going to present certain arguments to Lestat, but I didn’t know how well he was going to make them, until I got into making them for him.

But you’re right, this book was just as instinctively written as Interview with the Vampire, and there’s been no book in between that’s been that instinctively written. With all the others there was more thought, more doubt, more hesitation — some more so than others. Now, I’ve come full circle. I write now like I did when I wrote Interview — all night long. Interview with the Vampire was written in five weeks; this was written in about four weeks, and it was the same sort of experience: just surrendering to the process. And I found myself asking the same kinds of questions. I kept saying: “How dare you write these things!”

Q: Where did your interest in writing a novel about the argument between God and the Devil come from?

A: I had a teacher in Comparative Literature, at San Francisco State, back in the 1960s. I remember him once saying, in a class in Goethe, “What would God and the Devil have to talk about if it weren’t for men?” I never forgot that, and I think I have always been going at that idea in one form or another in my writing, though behind masks, you could say. I mean, when I wrote The Vampire Lestat, and I talked about ancient Egypt, I was going at it in a less direct way.

Now, I’m going right into my own heritage. I’m spending hours and hours reading every translation of the Bible that I can find, as well as other religious histories and texts, and I’m fascinated by it all. It’s an obsession, a passion. I see things now about my own religion and my own religious upbringing that I never could have seen in my thirties. I certainly couldn’t have seen them in this way when I wrote Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat.

Q: What are some of those things you now understand about your religious upbringing?

A: I would say that my sisters and I were raised in an obsessively Catholic family, here in New Orleans. My mother was fervent; we went to mass and communion every day. She would come in every morning and wake me up and say, “Look, the blessed sacrament is on the altar two blocks away. Get out of bed.” And we totally believed the whole thing.

We went to Catholic school, where the nuns were very authoritarian, like they had the unlimited authority of God behind everything they did. I remember my first confession, six years old, standing there in dread of forgetting a mortal sin and then going to hell, you know. I remember being afraid of hell. I lived in that intensely Catholic, New Orleans world, all the way up until the time I was eighteen. In fact, when I was thirteen I wanted to be a saint, and I read the lives of the saints. I yearned to be a mystic, and I went through a long period of wanting to be a nun. And then, at eighteen, I had a crisis of belief and simply could not accept that it was the one true church, established by Christ to give grace.

Q: What prompted that crisis?

A tremendous curiosity about the world. I remember very distinctly standing in the bookstore at Texas Women’s University after arriving, and realizing that, as a Catholic, I couldn’t read almost anything of these bright trade paperbacks I was looking at — books like Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, or the Beat novels of Jack Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.

I couldn’t read that stuff — it fell under the index of forbidden books. So, more than anything else, I think my crisis of faith was simply a product of that curiosity, this tremendous feeling that this place in which I’d grown up couldn’t be other than insignificant. I mean, two-thirds of the world didn’t believe these things that my family’s church had believed. How could it be the true church? I was just burning to know what else was out there — what other people thought, what they felt.

 “I don’t care if I go to hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell —I want you in my bed now.”

Plus, all the sexual repression was pretty terrible too. My mother had drummed that into me, a sort of combination of Catholicism and Southern belle-ism. It was fanatical, like, “Don’t kiss until you’re married!” I think other kids took it more with a grain of salt than I did, but I took it dreadfully seriously. I remember the first time I did deliberately kiss a boy. It was my husband Stan, and I thought: “I’m going to hell.” Years later, I was reminded of that when I saw Moonstruck. There’s a great moment in that film when Nicolas Cage and Cher are standing on a street and he says to her: “I don’t care if I go to hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell —I want you in my bed now.” I’ll never forget that line.