Anne Rice, 1941 - 2021
Updated: Jul 4, 2022
My husband and I had dinner with friends last night, after which we had a bit of whiskey and the conversation turned to books and films. I told the story of the novelist Anne Rice adapting her own book, 1976’s Interview with the Vampire, into a screenplay that became the well-known film of the same name: Brad Pitt as Louis, Tom Cruise as Lestat, a young Kirsten Dunst as Claudia. In truth, Rice wrote three versions of that screenplay and allowed the studio, Geffen Pictures, to choose the one that would make the final cut.
At the news of the casting Anne Rice was unhappy. Tom Cruise, she told the studio, was too “mom and apple pie” to ever fill the shoes of a character like Lestat – a proud, extravagant, somewhat-androgynous killer. She likened the casting of both Cruise and Pitt to casting Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer as her French-speaking antebellum vampires.
Then she saw the film and loved it. She phoned Tom Cruise, through whatever means that’s possible (I pictured her storming the gates of Geffen armed only with an antique cameo and a notepad, nervous assistant in tow, though I know this is likely not the case) to compliment him on his performance and tell him she was wrong. She would publish a lengthy apology and praise the film in Variety and send the same article to the members of her fan club, roughly four thousand at the time. For the rest of her life she would tell audiences that story and describe the experience of adapting Interview from book to screen as a positive one. A rarity for an author in a world where author-studio relations have been historically difficult, if not poisonous.
I told the story at dinner because I have always loved it. She was bold enough to voice her misgivings about a potentially disastrous casting – even that of a tremendous A-list celebrity – as her beloved Lestat, and bold enough to personally contact him to admit her mistake after seeing the finished product, and then to admit it again in a public forum.
A friend once said to me “all roads lead to Anne Rice with you” because I talk about her a lot. It stung me and made me feel self-conscious, but he was right. I never stopped talking about her and her books. The cosmos she created has always occupied a space of its own in my mind, ever since my mother gave me her copy of Interview to read when I was thirteen. My mother liked it well enough, but I absolutely could not get enough. I was permanently hooked.
So I guess you could say I’m a fan.
We left our friends’ house and drove home in the rain. He stayed up for a while, but I was tired. To help me fall asleep, I turned on Dracula’s Daughter, a 1936 Universal horror film and the official and lesser-known sequel to the 1931 Dracula film that everyone knows. Anne Rice had spoken of the film and its influence on her often. She listed it her favorite vampire film, crediting Gloria Holden’s Countess Zaleska as her original inspiration for the universe of remorseful, self-aware, despairing immortals that would earn her millions of fans. I knew these things, but I only watched it last night because the somber, eerie tone always helps me sleep. Make of that what you will. Years of exposure?
It worked as planned. I drifted off to Countess Zaleska’s burgundy voice lamenting her fate. The “curse of the Draculas” she called it. Was it really that bad? You’re beautiful and powerful. You’ll remain that way forever.
I woke up to my husband sitting next to me on the bed like he always does when bad news has struck. I’m always asleep when it does. Anne Rice has left us, he told me. A stroke. Perhaps it happened while we were at the aforementioned dinner, perhaps while running errands earlier in the day. He apologized for waking me up, but he knew what she meant to me. He wanted me to know right away, and not from the cold voice of the internet.
And the world feels slightly different now, as it always does after a loss. It seems strange to feel this level of grief for someone I’ve never formally met. It seems somehow silly of me. But there it is. I feel it. Grief like I lost someone close to me, and in a way I did. Such was the force of her work.
I think every reader and every potential writer has at least one glorious, indelible experience where an author’s work blows their brain clean out of their head and it never fits in the same again. I had several of those experiences, and I still do occasionally. But the first and most powerful was Anne Rice. That was Interview with the Vampire and The Witching Hour and The Feast of All Saints and Queen of the Damned for me. That was Louis and his despair over a world with no redemption and no meaning. That was Lestat and his boundless passion for that same world. There are so many others – these are only the most well-known of her creations.
She was well-known for interacting with her fans, her “People of the Page” on Facebook, for encouraging open, civil dialogues about any number of topics. I wrote to her twice, via email both times. Both times she wrote me back about a month later. She thanked me for writing and addressed my questions and comments with sincerity and a dash of humor.
Honestly, I may never go back to that series, she wrote to me about Ramses the Damned, an early book, ostensibly her take on another ancient horror from the vaults of Universal Studios, one that had frightened her in her youth. Unless Ramses wakes me up some night with another story that must be told.
And he would, eventually, many years later. Together with her son Christopher she would co-author two sequels, the last of which is forthcoming. It may be her final published work.
She was much more than her characters, her vampires and witches and ghosts. She was a lens through which New Orleans, her hometown, could be viewed. She was the voice of the people who made and thrived in that city. She was deeply political and philosophical in both her life and her writings. She set my young mind on courses it would otherwise have been oblivious to. She compelled me, without ever knowing it, to escape the small town that defined my existence. Through her work I knew there was a greater world outside of it. I had to see it for myself.
Her love of history fed my own. Her books took me to so many places, so many periods of history – some of which I’d never even heard of as a young person: Egypt, Rome, Constantinople, Celtic Britain, the New Orleans of the 18th century, the Paris of the 17th. She took me to Atlantis. Her books chronicled the lives lived in those places in ways that has left me in a permanent state of imagining.
What began as a love of her fiction became a love of her writing advice when I set out to write things of my own. You have to write, she said pointedly, in one of her many recorded videos on the craft. Writing is what makes a writer. If you stop, start again.
As a teenager I wore eyeliner and torn black shirts and velour coats. I smoked clove cigarettes in cemeteries and wrote bad prose with my friends. I pushed The Vampire Chronicles and her historical novels on everyone who'd listen. I dropped her name at every opportunity. She was our paragon, our spiritual mother who understood, our guiding force as goth kids who believed our souls were tortured, the world we were trapped in as bleak and desolate as the one Louis and Pandora inhabited in her books.
I loaned and gave away copies to friends, family, acquaintances. Some of the loaned ones I never got back. Oh no, I’ll simply have to buy another beautifully written, beautifully covered copy to replace the one I’ve lost. Always a note on the type and photo of Anne with her shy, mysterious smile on the back.
My family – small-town, industrious, terminally practical, loving – never shared my fascination with all things Anne Rice, but neither did they attempt to prevent it or alter my trajectory. They let me have it. I think on some level they understood.
I studied literature in college. On mention by me, an instructor referred to her dismissively as a “pop author” and I never forgave him. He pressed me to read Walt Whitman. I bought the Cliffs Notes and re-read Violin out of defiance.
She championed the rights of LGBT people long before it was fashionable. Her support empowered me. I was not a victim. There was nothing wrong with me. Society had the problem, not me. I was worthy of love and happiness. She was happily married to a man. She was a mother. But her voice was the beginning of so many queer awakenings, so many even in my own experience alone that I’ve lost count over the years.
Her characters reflected this belief, often ambivalent to gender and societal standards of sex and sexuality. She wrote erotica that was rejected by her publisher for being too extreme, too overtly sexual. Her response was to make it even more extreme and sell it to a different publisher.
She broke the mold so many times that the mold recast itself in her image. All from her desk in New Orleans or Key West or the California desert. All at a remove that allowed her to disconnect from the world and write the stories her fans will never have enough of.
I’m not alone here. I’m one of so many who loved her, who now mourn her. I wish I could ever have told her how much she influenced and changed me. I wish I could have known her. I’m not alone in that either. But in a way, we did.
In our second email correspondence I mentioned that we have the same birthday. I’ve always been proud of that fact, like she or I had anything to do with that, like it was more than coincidence.
I don’t put much trust in astrology, she said to me, but I can say that October is a good time of year to be born, especially in New Orleans.
Her work peppers every bookshelf in my house: downstairs where I keep my most visually appealing hardcovers; the tall shelf my husband built for me where I keep all of my favorites; the ones I want people to see and know for themselves, the ever-shifting stack by my desk in the office where I keep the books I use for courage when the writing is hard, the smaller stack on my nightstand that I fall asleep to. For thirty years her books have been near me. For thirty years I have always wanted to be reading an Anne Rice novel.
Her passing from the world feels insurmountable at present, and somehow impossible, as though her words should have been sufficient to purchase for her the unending life they described so exquisitely. Her guiding presence is gone. Her books, her passion, her advice, though, these things will endure. These we can keep.
Write, she said. Write the book of your dreams.
I’m still trying. I’ll never stop.
This is her parting gift to us, her real immortality. This is what she’s left us.
"But reason was only a created thing, imposed with faith upon the world, and the stars promise nothing to no one."