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When you meet her, you wonder if a theatrical presence is something she was born with or something that came into the world with the popularity of Lestat. Whatever the case, she embodies theater, from the mane of silver-streaked hair that cascades over her shoulders, to the eloquent gestures she makes with her hands when she talks, to the seemingly inborn ability to scope and stroke a venue: modulating her southern-touched voice so that it ambles into the corners of even a well-packed room. Even the clothes she chooses speak of persona: they fit into our expectations of Anne Rice the author. The literary diva of darkness knows how to play a room.
She knows how to fill a room, as well. She is at a press conference promoting her latest book, Pandora: New Tales of the Vampires. The book is the first of the vampire novellas we can expect once yearly from now until, presumably, she doesn't feel like doing them anymore. It's a press conference all right, and the press is here en masse. However, the press corps hasn't been told that tickets to the event have been sold and her fans have come in droves: filling the theater to capacity and -- after her oration -- forming a patient but seemingly-never-ending line from the dais where Rice signs, through the theater and out into the foyer.
While she signs she continues to play her crowd: and they love her. She finds an extra word for everyone, a few more for those who have gone to obvious trouble in honor of this occasion. Those who have come in vampirish costume for instance: and there are more than a couple of these. Or those who have brought special books for her to sign.
"A first edition," she croons delightedly to the fan who has brought this treasured copy of one of her early books. "You know, we have to be careful how we sign it," she goes on to tell him that addressing it to him directly might decrease the book's value, while her signature alone might increase it. They confer briefly but carefully and she ends up signing her name only: no personal greeting. The entire encounter lasts perhaps two minutes, but it is carefully done. Skillfully, even. Of the type that will create a lifetime impression. There is no element of rush about her. No peering towards the end of the endless line. And her calm seems to inspire patience: her fans don't doubt that she'll somehow make the time to sign all of their books. She does it, too.
If fans love Anne Rice, so -- these days -- must her publishers. Pandora came out in March of 1998. It hit the charts that first week: making the #1 spot at Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks within days of its debut. At the time of writing, the book shows every sign of thundering into the summer season on all the lists that matter.
Pandora is slated to fill a void that perhaps no one but Rice knew existed. "The vampires are always there," she says. "They never leave me alone. They're like a world of people that I've created. I'm no longer writing just books about Lestat, I'm writing novels that thrill me because of their metaphysical content, their horror content, their philosophical content, their sexual content and the vampires are my main characters. They're my people, they're my gang." More, says Rice, she both can't and doesn't want to ignore them because she enjoys the experience of writing about them. The challenge was in working them in to a pretty full dance card.
"Quite a few years ago the idea had occurred to me of writing novels about what they call the 'backstory' characters in Hollywood. The people in the background like Pandora or David Talbot or other vampires who appear only briefly," the obstacle was not in the stories, says Rice. But rather in finding a way to make it work in the bottom line world of publishing.
"Finally I persuaded the publisher [Knopf] to give me a chance to do a small novel in the spring and continue to do my regular large novels for the fall. And we agreed that the small novels in the spring would be these new stories of vampires and they would be these stories of characters that had not had a chance to come forward and tell their tales."
Which is entirely what Pandora is about. Rice herself calls the book a novella, and at just 353 pages in a hard cover the size of an overgrown paperback, it's a pretty tight package. It must be said, though, that it's a gorgeous small package. Beautifully designed, printed and bound Pandora in hard cover is the kind of book you want to hang on to: maybe forever. It is, perhaps, the prettiest book I've seen this season.
The novel itself lives up to that early promise of style and elegance. Not a lengthy read, but one that Rice fans will find deeply satisfying. The story is told by Pandora, a minor character that followers of The Vampire Chronicles will remember. It's her own story: or rather, the story of her life and -- later -- her un-death. The setting is mainly the Roman Empire and Rice's attention to historical and character detail is unflagging.
"That's really it," Rice says of the book as well as the other spring novellas that will follow it. "It's just like an overflow -- a violent, volcanic overflow -- of brain energy. I want to write more about the Mayfair witches too. I guess I can't push all of this into one or two or three books is really it."
While Rice isn't new to the bestseller circuit, her books haven't always been greeted with this type of enthusiasm. In fact, some of her earliest and best known works were barely greeted at all. Interview with the Vampire was written in five weeks in 1973 when Rice was 32 years old. It was published three years later to an almost astounding lack of fanfare. Astounding, that is, in light of what the book would become: an international bestseller and -- more recently -- a feature film starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.
Prior to the film's release in 1994, Rice was adamant that Tom Cruise was a bad choice for the hero -- or perhaps anti hero --for Interview with the Vampire 's Lestat.
She had, she explains, sold the rights to the film to Lorimar. "Lorimar went bust and Warner Brothers and David Geffen picked up the property. I wrote a script for Interview with the Vampire for David Geffen, but we had a falling out when the contract expired. David Geffen nevertheless renewed the contract and he cast Tom Cruise without telling me. I was quite shocked to open the paper and discover that Tom Cruise had been cast as Lestat."
Rice was vocal in her shock, telling anyone who would listen that she felt that Cruise had been badly miscast. It was an error in judgment Rice would come to regret: for several reasons. But she learned a lesson. "I will never come out in the press again as strongly against anybody as I did against Tom Cruise because I felt that in the long run what I had to say was very distorted. I like Tom Cruise. I always thought he was a wonderful actor. I still do. I never disliked him. I didn't think he was the type [to play Lestat]. That got so lost in the press that I learned a lesson and the lesson was: best to have said nothing. Best to have waited and just let it take its course. Cried in quiet and just let it go. Not lied, though. Not come out and say, 'this is wonderful.' But just don't say anything."
It's a lesson she intends to remember should the occasion arise. "I think that's what I might do in the future. I think that if I like what they do I'm going to say so and I'm going to say so very loudly. And if I don't like what they do I'm likely not going to say anything."
One of the reasons Rice recanted publicly about Cruise being miscast was actually seeing the finished film. "If I'd have been asked I probably would have advised Tom Cruise himself not to do it because I didn't think he was the type for the part. And I still think that's true. But I think what happened was Tom Cruise overcame the impediments he had with regard to the role of the vampire Lestat. He did a fabulous job in the film. Absolutely fabulous," it was an opinion many of her fans would share when Interview with the Vampire went on to be one of the more memorable films of the year.
"And when I saw the finished film I thought -- and still think -- that Tom Cruise made the film work. That he understood the role of the vampire Lestat and he understood something very dark and very central to the film and he brought that out. That was the mixture of good and evil in each character. He really got that and in a sense became the driving force behind the film. So I came out in favor of the film. I never apologized to him or said I was sorry or anything. He never asked me to. He just called me and said how glad he was that I liked the film and -- you know -- we went from there."
As much as Rice may have made her peace with Cruise as Lestat in the first Vampire movie, she has her sights fully set on who should play the Lestat role in a much whispered about sequel: Leonardo DiCaprio. "I do think the kid is absolutely terrific. I think that in The Titanic he didn't get the chance to show the full range of his incredible talent. You really have to see The Basketball Diaries, you have to see Romeo + Juliet and you have to see What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He is terrific and I want him badly to be Lestat. Badly, badly, badly. I fell in love with this idea that he could be the vampire Lestat. And I began a sort of one woman campaign to see that that would happen."
Her campaign has started at the top, though she's not sure how much success she's having in this regard. "I called Warner Brothers. I called the president at Warner. I said, 'Look, look: you've got to do this. You've got to get this kid. This is Lestat.' And the president calmed me down and we don't even know if Tom Cruise is still interested because it's been four years. So anyway I thought the field was open for Leonardo. Well they listened to me at Warner Brothers as they always do and they patted me on the head and nothing happened. And then I called Leondardo's managers and they listened to me. But beyond that I haven't been able to do anything besides campaign and campaign and campaign and campaign..."
While some shake their head in dismay at the choice of DiCaprio, the author knows what she's about: she created Lestat, after all. "Lestat is only 20 when he's made a vampire and Leonardo is now 23. Some people still think he looks too young. I don't. I think Lestat can easily look that young."
Closer at hand, however, is the feature film version of The Mummy, slated to be made into a feature film by Canadian director James Cameron whose most visible work to date has been on The Titanic with -- coincidentally enough -- Leonardo DiCaprio. Rice, however, has so far stated no strong preferences for the casting of that film. Which may be a good thing, as she doesn't have much faith in her influence in that direction.
"When it comes to The Mummy, if I'm on good terms with James Cameron he may ask me. But that doesn't always do it. Hollywood people are the nicest people in the world and they can stand right in front of you and smile and tell you all the reasons why they're not going to do any of the things you want or any of the things you're suggesting."
Rice continues to live and work in New Orleans with her husband, the poet and painter Stan Rice and their son Christopher. -- 1998
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
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