Christopher Rice: On His New Novel ‘The Vines,’ the Gay Appeal of the Horror Genre, and Writing Supernatural Thrillers
Author: Vince Liaguno
October 30, 2014
To characterize Christopher Rice as a writer who knows his way around thrills and chills would be an understatement.
At 22, he hit the ground running with A Density of Souls–now largely regarded as a gay, gothic classic–amidst a cavalcade of media interest, much of which was focused on his literary pedigree that includes mother Anne Rice, the bestselling grande dame of the supernatural, and the late Stan Rice, a celebrated poet. Critics who were quick to dismiss young Rice’s out-of-the-box success as a byproduct of that famous lineage, however, were soon eating their own words with the continued and sustained success of a series of bestselling and award-winning thrillers, including The Snow Garden, Light Before Day, Blind Fall, and The Moonlit Earth.
After branching out into short fiction in a pair of high-profile crime anthologies, penning a national column for The Advocate, civic stints on the boards of Lambda Literary Foundation and the West Hollywood Library Fund, and launching an Internet radio show, Rice decided to defy those in the publishing know and dipped into the family business of the spooky and supernatural with last year’s The Heavens Rise. Met with favorable reviews and an enthusiastic welcome from the genre his mother once famously (and controversially) stepped away from, The Heavens Rise went on to be nominated for the prestigious Bram Stoker Award. (And although it was Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep that trumped The Heavens Rise for the award earlier this year, it was Rice who stole the show and garnered more publicity across social media circles with his posting of a nearly-nude selfie in a playful, self-deprecating wink to his loss.)
This month, Amazon’s 47North released Rice’s second horror novel, The Vines. Lean and mean with thriller-like plotting and creepy-crawlies galore, The Vines is quickly scaling various Amazon bestseller lists and likely to further cement Rice’s reputation as a budding master of the macabre. On the eve of the launch of his national book tour – including dates with his mother, who launches her own literary coming home of sorts with Prince Lestat – we chatted with Christopher Rice about his surprising-yet-not-surprising career trajectory, the gay appeal of the horror genre, literary labels, and readying one of his mother’s classic novels for the big screen.
You forged a successful career writing thrillers, with multiple books hitting the NYT bestseller list. You’ve now switched to speculative fiction with a decidedly horror slant. Is this the literary equivalent of a Madonna-esque reinvention, or was this always the game plan? Did you consciously avoid horror at the beginning of your career for fear of drawing comparisons to your mother?
When I started writing, I didn’t have the confidence to develop a new cosmology, or even an alternate reality. That changed after a few books. But people said terribly discouraging things to me when I brought up the idea of writing in the supernatural. “Unless you can reinvent an entire mythology like your mother,” one editor said, “then why bother?” It’s shocking to hear something like that when you’re four books into your career. With The Heavens Rise, I didn’t discuss the idea with anyone before I started drafting it. I knew they’d say something destructive if I did. So I went off the reservation, if you will, and spent two years plotting it out and writing it before I submitted to anyone, including my agent.
What’s been the biggest difference in terms of your writing process in the switch from thrillers to horror?
Ultimately, a book’s structure is going to determine the writing process, not its genre. The Heavens Rise took place over a decade and included major flashbacks. A fact like that will have a greater effect on my writing process than whether or not the story has otherworldly creatures slithering through it. Because The Vines takes place over a twenty-four hour period, the writing process involved felt much more like my process writing The Moonlit Earth or Blind Fall, both of them lean, compact thrillers with a limited number of characters.
Does the horror genre hold any special appeal to you as an out gay writer?
I think I was like a lot of teenagers when it came to slasher movies. The ones who died first were often the bullies…the victimizers. The thugs. There was something cathartic about that for me. But paradoxically, the older I got, the less I could tolerate the gore and the relentless sadism. But good horror offers a sense of an upended, lawless world and that’s appealing to anyone who grew up feeling like an outsider.
I reviewed The Heavens Rise for Lambda Literary Review. Interestingly, the review–and that of another genre novel I reviewed around the same time, Michael Rowe’s Wild Fell—generated some discussion on what constitutes a “gay” novel. Some felt these books were not “gay” enough to warrant inclusion on an LGBT literary site. How do you respond to that? In terms of defining gay literature, what should be more of a factor–the orientation of the writer or the content of the book?
The editorial considerations of Lambda Literary Review are not ultimately mine to decide. But in general, who’s to say what’s not gay enough? And how do we even raise that question without raising the far more perilous one of, “Is it too gay?” Yikes! I can only outline my own standards of conduct in this area as a reader and a reviewer. If a writer is openly gay, if they’ve committed themselves visibly to the cause of equal rights for all LGBT Americans, and they’re good, I try my best to celebrate them. I don’t dismiss them out of hand because they don’t include a certain number of gay characters. I read tons of books in which a gay character doesn’t make a single appearance. Conversely, I’ve become incredibly supportive of the many straight women who write gay male romances. You want to know why? Because some of their books are very good. They’re well written. They’re incredibly emotional and the sex is often scorching and accurate. Along those lines, gay writers need to be free to write straight characters too.
Let’s talk labels. Publishers–and, by extension, writers–often shirk away from the “horror” moniker, sometimes going to great lengths to categorize a work of horror as anything but. Are you an out and proud horror writer? Is there really a difference between calling something horror versus, say, a supernatural thriller? Second part of the question: In terms of queer horror, some argue that with the larger civil rights gains we’ve made as a community, the distinction isn’t necessary…that it’s almost a marginalization of the work. Others point out that horror is horror and the sub-categorization is superfluous, while still others argue that it’s merely a useful marketing classification that helps gay and gay-interested readers readily identify works with LGBT characters and themes. That said, do you consider The Heavens Rise and The Vines works of queer horror?
Look, this is about the shelf. Literally. These labels are about the physical bookshelf. And the physical bookshelf as a sales tool is going away. It will be a better world for books, and for content, and for authors if all of these become tags, not labels. They [should] become metadata that gets attached to the work and makes it searchable to people who are looking for things like horror, queer horror or just horror. As a matter of personal choice, I don’t apply the term queer to either me or my work. I don’t like it, to be frank, and I don’t identify with it.
Blogs and websites will come in and make certain decisions about whether or not to curate certain works as being right for that blog’s audience. I think that’s great. I like the organic nature of it. All of this categorization mania comes from a need to partition up books in limited shelf spaces for a painfully limited period of time, which is part of why it’s so hard to launch any new talent in physical bookstores currently. You lose the shelf space too quickly.
As for your question about the difference between the horror and supernatural thriller labels, I fear horror became so inextricably related to splatter punk in the late 1980s that a large segment of the audience turned away from it. And thriller became the more comfortable, cozier label because it promised a resolution, a happy ending. Horror came to mean, “I’m going to leave your ass out here in the dark with no way to get home. And one of your legs is missing.” That’s a fine way to end certain books. But it’s not the most popular choice with the majority of readers–including this reader.
You’ve enjoyed professional relationships with some of the big boys of publishing, including Miramax, which folded into Hyperion (an imprint under the Hachette book Group), and Scribner and Gallery Books (both Simon & Schuster imprints). With The Vines, you’re stepping out with the fledgling 47North, one of Amazon’s publishing arms.
What led to your decision to partner with a relatively new (and somewhat controversial) publishing company, one whose mother ship launched in just 2009? Was there any trepidation on your part as an established brand? What’s been the biggest difference working with 47North versus some of the larger houses you’ve worked with?
No one has more marketing power than Amazon. The power of the on-site marketing for the titles they publish under their imprints is, in a word, epic. And the people working there are incredibly talented and smart. When Amazon decided to launch its own publishing division, every book lover in the company begged to be assigned to one of the new imprints, and the result is an incredibly passionate group of people who are enamored with the titles they publish.
But they’ve also hired many editors and staff who were formerly employed by traditional New York publishing houses, so the accusation that it’s just a bunch of techies punching buttons is ill-informed. In fact, I even worked with one major Amazon publishing executive on the trade paperback release of my novel Light Before Day. I traveled to Seattle to meet with all of them this summer and the experience was hypnotic and wonderful. I had watched them remake the careers of my friends, finding audiences for books that traditional publishers couldn’t reach anymore and were subsequently convinced no longer existed, and when I arrived there, I could see why. The tools they have at their disposal, their ability to merchandise and market their titles in a targeted and effective way is almost beyond measure.
This past August came news that Universal had acquired the rights to all fourteen books in your mother’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series, with Imagine’s Brian Grazer producing alongside Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Included in the deal is the adapted screenplay for Tale of the Body Thief that you penned. What was the process like for adapting one of your mother’s literary children?
Beautifully challenging. The task of taking Tale of the Body Thief and structuring it as a relaunch for the whole franchise was a big, beautiful challenge, and I think I did a good job first time out. Now that script will most likely change dramatically during the development process, and we’re discussing all sorts of approaches for how to begin the series again. But there’s a real sense that whatever film comes next will be a true relaunch. Lestat, in all his complexity and with all of his backstory, has never really been done on film before. The Lestat of Interview with the Vampire is the villain Lestat as seen through the eyes of Louis. Lestat “the Wolf Killer,” the country aristocrat, the arrogant actor–we’ve never seen that Lestat on film, and our conversations right now are all about how to put that beautiful, maddening, intoxicating hero up on the big screen.
Speaking of film adaptations, with television enjoying a golden age right now in terms of horror/dark content, are there any plans to bring any of your novels to the small screen? Personally, watching the new Shonda Rhimes drama How to Get Away with Murder, I can’t help but think that the timing is right to see something like The Snow Garden or even Light Before Day adapted as a limited run series, much in the way your friend Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy has been. Any scoop on this front?
From your lips to God’s ears. I’m hugely excited for Blake and his series, and I think a limited run series is the absolute best way to adapt a novel, especially a thriller with a ticking time bomb story that doesn’t lend itself to a more sprawling, season-after-season Game of Thrones-style treatment. It’s something weightier than the old network mini-series they used to do for James Clavell’s novels, but structurally, it’s a great model for telling those kinds of stories. I’d love to see that kind of treatment given to any of my books, to be frank.
You wrote a rather interesting blog post recently that chronicled the trajectory of The Vines from an idea that snuck up on you while working on a failed movie pitch to the published novel we’re discussing today. Can you offer a glimpse into the next Christopher Rice novel? More importantly, will it involve a misguided (nearly) nude selfie and the paranormal events that occur in the aftermath of its going viral?
Ha! No. But wouldn’t Selfie be a great title for a horror thriller? Like every time someone pleasures themselves to the sight of your nearly nude selfie, you lose a patch of flesh. Like some kind of porn voodoo doll or something. I’ll get to work on that.
Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Publishing’s crime fiction imprint, will reissue my three backlist titles–A Density of Souls, The Snow Garden, and Light Before Day–the first weekend in December. And in November, I’m publishing my first erotic romance, a novella called The Flame. That project is part of a series called 1,001 Dark Nights, which features a different novella from an erotic romance author each month. The Flame introduces a new world of paranormal romance called The Desire Exchange and I plan to write multiple works within this world. As for my next supernatural thriller, I’m juggling a bunch of ideas right now and one of them is a continuation of The Vines, if not a direct sequel. I think the final chapter of The Vines sets the stage for a new series of books. But I’ve also got another idea that’s completely new and completely out of left field and might just be the craziest thing I’ve ever come up with.