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Gambit Weekly Anne with the Plan

An Interview With Anne Rice

By Maura York

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  If you've never seen or heard Anne Rice talk about her work, her chatty congeniality is a little disarming. Despite being the object of reverence for a cult-like international fan base, the New Orleans-born author is not only approachable, but downright friendly.

As she discusses her literary work, her family, her new television series, her budding song-writing career and the Uptown neighborhood that is the center of her world in real life and in much of her fiction, Rice is a cheery blend of earthiness rooted in Christian spirituality, hometown pride and genuine modesty -- with a healthy dash of enthusiasm.

Alas, Anne Rice is one of us after all.

To the disappointment of some, perhaps, and to the delight of many more, New Orleans' most Gothic figure, who shows up for book signings in a hearse and owns two coffins for such occasions, is strangely typical -- even "normal." Well, by New Orleans standards anyway.

The Crescent City Connection

Rice's connection to New Orleans extends far beyond the recent spate of guest appearances on local TV morning shows and Q&A sessions with rock-radio DJs. She was born and raised Uptown. Her family lived in a 19th century Greek Revival mansion on St. Charles Avenue and Third Street. It was built in 8157 by the daughter of Louisiana's first "American" governor, William C.C. Claiborne.

Rice (then O'Brien) attended the Irish Channel's Redemptorist High School in the 1950s. And although she lived in Texas (where she met her husband, Stan Rice, with whom she celebrated a 36-year anniversary earlier this month) and in California for more than two decades, Rice and her family returned to her childhood home in 1988 at her request. She has since vowed never to live anywhere else.

Today, the novelist is also an influential home and business owner (as restaurateur Al Copeland can attest), holding deeds on a First Street house and St. Elizabeth's orphanage on Napoleon Avenue, which she purchased and began preserving in 1992. Rice also has lent support to restoration efforts at St. Alphonsus Church and owns the Anne Rice Collection gift shop in Prytania Street's upscale shopping complex, The Rink.

The properties and business ventures are byproducts of the success Rice has achieved since Interview With the Vampire (her first novel) was published in 1976. Set in part in the Crescent City, the best-selling novel and cornerstone of Rice's career might never have been written if the author had been raised somewhere else. Rice credits the city and a colorful childhood for being the springboard for her brand of dark fantasy.

"I come from a big New Orleans Irish-Catholic family, so I grew up around storytellers. And Catholics are sort of macabre," she explains, "because we remember our dead. [The deceased] never really die because we talk about them in our everyday conversations. And we don't whisper about them."

Although catechism teaches us that holding onto the memory of the dearly departed is not a sin, Rice's citing of a religious influence may seem ironic given the dark and erotic nature of much of her writing. Then again, just as in the lives of mortals, Rice's characters face moral dilemmas that can be solved only through some kind of faith.

"My stories are about redemption -- how we ultimately get to the Lord through whatever we have to get through," Rice says. "[And my characters] are a reality to me, but not a literal reality. I think that's true of all fantasy writers -- we use this lens, this supernatural key to get to the soul of the reader."

'A Godsend'

Thus has the city of the figurative undead become home to a fictitious legion of popular, blood-sucking and soul-snatching literal undeads in a dozen and a half Rice novels. Included in that number is her newest, Violin, described by the author as a ghost story about a failed musician who is haunted by a tormented, violin-playing ghost.

Admittedly the most autobiographical of her works to date (the writer's press packet says a young Anne was crushed when she realized she had no penchant for playing music), Violin's story is partially played out in the old house on St. Charles Avenue and Third Street. Rice celebrated the publication of her new book on Oct. 15 with an eight-hour book signing at the Garden District Book Shop on Prytania Street.

"It was wonderful," she says. "I saw some beautiful babies, and everybody wanted me to hold their babies."

The idea is a tad unsettling -- but apropos of New Orleans -- after Rice admits to "bumping down Prytania Street in a hearse" and arriving at the signing in a pine coffin. Does such a stunt give her the creeps? "No, it's a great experience. I'm not afraid of death. But it brings to mind, 'The next time I'll be doing this, it may be for real.' You just never know." (She is scheduled to be likewise transported to a signing party at Bookstar on Halloween night.)

The release of Violin brings to Rice's devout readers more than just a new tale to satisfy their voracious appetite for her work. Violin is the first book by Rice to have an accompanying soundtrack. The author cut a deal with 19-year-old virtuoso Leila Josefowicz, who Time magazine called "one to watch," to record a CD as a musical complement to Violin. That idea came as Rice immersed herself in the musician's interpretations of pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius while working on the novel. The result is Leila Josefowicz -- Violin for Anne Rice, which hit stores the day before the book.

The disc not only contains classical violin concertos performed by the teenager, but also a new arrangement of Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street," which the former Police frontman was inspired to write after reading Interview. (Sting released the song on his The Dream of the Blue Turtles, but not as part of an agreement or contract with Rice or her publisher.) Rice is bringing Josefowicz to New Orleans Nov. 2 for a concert at Trinity Episcopal Church.

"Leila was a godsend to me," Rice says, "and I want to share her with my readers."

Although the concert is already sold out, Rice says more tickets may become available before the show. (The author and the young violinist also will be at the Virgin Megastore in New York City on Nov. 12 to do a joint signing featuring a performance by Josefowicz and her new quintet.)

Rice's flirtation with the medium of music seems the obvious next step in her creative evolution, especially in light of the subject matter of her latest novel. As a writer and fan of many genres of music, Rice more recently departed from novel-writing to ink a few songs of her own -- including at least two new songs for the wild boys of the local rock scene, Cowboy Mouth. Rice met Fred LeBlanc and company through a mutual friend at a Mardi Gras party she hosted earlier this year. She offered to pen a couple of songs for the guys, and they accepted.

"I thought about starting my own record company," Rice admits. For now, though, she is satisfied with turning over "Brain Fever" and "Live It" to the capable Mouth in hopes that they will perform the songs during their Halloween gig at the Hard Rock Cafe and/or at a Nov. 7 show at Tramps in New York City. "I'm going to try to run over [to the Hard Rock] after my signing on Halloween. And I'll be in New York when they're there." No word on whether Cowboy Mouth will record the songs for release.

Add to the growing list of professional hats Rice wears -- horror novelist, erotica writer (under the pseudonyms Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure), screenplay writer (for Interview and the yet-to-be-produced The Witching Hour), community activist, shop owner and songwriter -- those of creator and chief writer for a new television series. Rag and Bone began production late last week and will air on CBS next year. A Rice original for the small screen, Rag and Bone is a proposed cop show set in New Orleans with twists only Lestat's maker could dream up.

Tony Moran, the show's main character, is an Irish-Italian officer of the sixth district whose hitches include: (1) he is on leave from the priesthood (thus, as Rice noted during a recent radio interview, "He'll have to give the last rites after he shoots someone. [His moral dilemmas will] make things more complicated.") and (2) he's being haunted by the ghost of a dead cop.

The good news is that stranger things have made a splash on TV. The better news is that Dean Cain, who played Superman in Lois and Clark, has been cast as Moran. Perhaps the best news of all is that Rice promises that no Cajun accents will be attempted ("There'll be no 'cher.'''), and the stories will stay centered in the Irish Channel, part of the sixth district's jurisdiction. Rice also assures that until situations for the show in the Uptown area are exhausted, "we don't want it to go into the French Quarter or end up in the middle of a Mardi Gras parade."

Rice vows to protect the integrity of the show because she is related to one of the police station's senior veterans and the series is set in her old neighborhood. "My Uncle Mickey got his eye kicked out by some gangsters in the old Caronna's building" -- now the location of Moran's haunted apartment.

Lestat and Company

The cast of Rag and Bone won't be the only ones dressing up as ghosts and ghoulies this week. The hottest local ticket of Halloweens past, present and future is undoubtedly Anne Rice's Coven Ball. The ninth annual spooky soiree, taking place this year at the new Tipitina's Warehouse, has made a dramatic shift from its traditional Halloween night slot to the evening of All Saints' Day, Nov. 1.

If you can't make it to the party, the Internet music magazine JAMtv (http://www.jamtv.com) will be doing a webcast of all the haunted happenings at the bash, including a fashion show, special guest appearances by local musicians, a performance by Peabody and undoubtedly the largest gathering of Rice characters this side of the underworld. The author says she, too, will be donning her best vampiric duds both Friday and Saturday. "I'll be sort of a Rubensesque vampire," she jokes.

And speaking of vampires, Coven Ball guests for the 1998 party should have a few more characters from which to choose, as Rice plans to continue the "Vampire Chronicles" with two more releases next year. She will introduce Pandora in the spring, followed by Armand sometime next fall.

Rice doesn't seem to mind that publishing three novels in 12 months could damage her popularity ratings. "[My books] are more about good and evil than the best-seller list," she says. "If I've got a story to tell, I've got to tell that story."

Her average turn-around time for a book from start to finish is between four and six brutal weeks. Referring to the process for Violin, which takes place here, in Rio and in 19th century Vienna, Rice says, "I wrote the whole book by hand in outline form in one month while I was in Rio."

One reason Rice is able to produce books so quickly is that she writes what she knows. Her homes, neighborhoods and experiences are translated into backdrops and scenarios for her characters. And if Rice doesn't know first-hand about a place or a period that she wants to write about, she researches it until she has a feel for it.

Speaking of things that Rice knows and writes about, the author talks excitedly about her Cafe Lestat. The eatery, which is slated to open in the 2000 block of Magazine Street before the end of 1998, will actually be called Lestat's Happy Hour Cafe, a reference to its home in the building that once housed the old Happy Hour Theater.

"This is definitely the landscape of my childhood, of my heart and soul," she says of the spot. But, after Rice's proposed renovation is complete, Lestat may be a strange background for today's young and impressionable. Rice is not only lending her most popular character's name to the project, but plans to draw heavily from her books to complete the restaurant's theme and decor.

"I'd like to even change the lighting to correspond to the vampire's time of day. Like at night, have the lights suddenly come on and have figures pop out of coffins." Other early plans include costumed wait staff, a black carousel and life-size wax figures of Gothic characters from history (and from Rice's novels) lining the walls of the dining room.

Finally, for those fans who have to have their own vampire character, Rice has commissioned British dollmakers Paul Crees and Peter Coe to create limited-edition figurines based on the troubled denizens of her novels. A big fan of dolls herself, Rice just received approval from the City Council to open St. Elizabeth's as a museum for her extensive doll collection. The collection contains 500 to 600 pieces.

The opening of her private collection is just one more enigmatic move by Rice, a local character who seems at once accessible and mysterious. No doubt part of her mystique is a savvy sense of style -- and marketing. What's becoming clearer with each new project is that she uses her talent for her own good as well as that of her hometown.

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