Lift up your coffin lid and enter the realm of Anne Rice, mistressof the macabre


November 18, 1990|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — She enters the hotel lobby trailing darkness; a small figure draped in flowing black, her long, dark hair falling like a curtain across her forehead and cheeks, her tiny feet encased in strange-looking black leather shoes. At first glance, Anne Rice, the novelist who has gained a cult following by inventing believable vampire minds and creating erotic, secret worlds inhabited by the living as well as the undead, looks every inch the Daughter of Darkness.

Then she smiles and says hello. And like a crucifix held up before a vampire, her warm smile and friendly demeanor chase off any lingering images of unearthly forces and mystical powers gathered into the earthly body standing before you.

In fact, an interview with the 49-year-old writer who has been chilling and thrilling readers since the appearance in 1976 of her best-selling "Interview With the Vampire" suggests that Anne Rice would make an excellent librarian: She's knowledgeable, helpful, direct and very, very smart. It also comes as a relief to note that upon closer inspection her strange looking shoes turn out to be black, high-top running shoes.

At first she seems almost strait-laced. Certainly there is nothing about Ms. Rice, who has been happily married to the same man for almost 30 years, which hints at the source of the steamy sex that runs through many of her books.

So where does all this bloodthirsty, erotic, spine-tingling stuff emanate from? Where, for instance, does she draw upon material such as this scene in which a vampire named Lestat initiates his mother into vampirehood:

I leant forward and kissed the blood on her open lips . . . I drove my teeth into her, feeling her stiffen and gasp, and I felt my mouth grow wide to catch the hot flood when it came.

Anne Rice, who's come to Washington from her home in New Orleans to promote her newest and largest (965 pages) book, "The Witching Hour," says she doesn't know the answer to why she writes what she writes. But from the moment she hit on the idea of writing "Interview With the Vampire" from the vampire's point of view and not the victim's, she knew she had found her authorial voice.

"I was 34, a struggling California writer sitting in the back room pounding away on the typewriter," she says now, sipping hot coffee and drawing a few stares from nearby diners in the hotel lounge. She had been trying to write "snappy, contemporary novels." It wasn't working for her.

"My 5-year-old daughter Michelle was gone -- she had died [of leukemia] -- and my husband, Stan, was a tenured professor [at San Francisco State]. I was absolutely nothing. I had never had a career job or published anything. I was just a failure."

She and and her husband were also drinking a lot. She calls it their "Scott and Zelda" phase. Then, in a state of grief over her daughter's death and urged on by her husband, she took out a story she had started years before -- a story about a vampire living in 18th century New Orleans. But she added something new to the story: a beautiful little blond girl, Claudia, who is saved from mortal death through becoming a vampire.

"There was no thought of writing about my daughter, Michelle," Ms. Rice says now. "I consciously used her physical description for Claudia, and I consciously used my husband's physical description for [the vampire] Lestat, and I consciously used [French actor] Alain Delon's description for [the vampire] Louis, but I didn't think they were those people."

Then something happened to the woman sitting in the back room from 10 p.m. till dawn, writing in "white-hot, access-the-subconscious" sessions.

Instead of telling the story from the victim's viewpoint, she found herself "stepping into the surreal character of the vampire, Louis, slipping into his voice, seeing through his eyes. And somehow that enabled me to touch my reality. Which as a struggling California writer I had not been able to do. I had not been able to take the experience of growing up in New Orleans, the loss of my mother when I was at an early age, the loss of my daughter and put these elements of my life into any sort of contemporary novel that made any sense."

But speaking through the voice of the vampire, Louis, she says, gave her a center from which to write: "It was as if I could talk about everything in life I wanted to talk about. See, I think that's what supernatural fiction does. It's always talking about normal life. It's talking about the same thing John Updike or Anne Tyler are talking about. But you look at that normal life through

an abnormal mirror. Reflect it through a dark glass. Then you can see it more clearly."

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