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Nurturing the Dark Flower: Anne Rice answers her readers' questions

By Anne Rice
Published September 30, 1996 8:13AM (EDT)

In this world of uniformity, how do you protect and nurture the rich, dark flower of your imagination? Your writing feeds the souls of your readers. As with all great literature -- you're the Dickens of our times -- your books provoke the shock of recognition, one spark of the universe knowing it's not alone in the vast ocean of conformity. Thank you for the deliciousness of my being able to sink into one of your "Beauty" books on a bitter Montana winter night, when it's 40 degrees below zero and the wind is howling up snow.

In an interview, I read that you write "stained-glass" literature, where the characters are lit from within by these small, faint illuminations of insight, and in more bold and dramatic strokes, vividly throbbing with life. Could you please elaborate on this?

--Karin Khan

Dear Karin:

Thank you for your sensitive words. It's no secret that I want to make the books as nearly perfect as I can, or that I want to deal with great themes. I do not remember saying that my work was like stained glass. Perhaps I said this long ago in an interview. But I certainly do work with bold strokes, no question, and always have.

However, it is really the combination of bold stroke and tiny detail, I think, which makes a book. For example, I want to speak through characters who question our existence and purpose, but I want to illustrate them down to the satin-covered buttons or the lice in their hair.

My writing attempts to draw you in, then lock you into the book. I have no qualms in creating those whom I feel are heroic -- Azriel, Lestat, Rowan Mayfair, Mona Mayfair, Julien Mayfair -- but all must be living and breathing in a world of authentic and overwhelming vibrancy.

Lestat's words on cowardice or conscience, on meaningless or lies -- these would be far less powerful if he himself were not vividly painted as blond, blue eyed, six feet tall, slender, feline, androgynous and exceptionally strong. He retains in all prose, I hope, the face of a 20-year-old man, yet his words now are those of a seer, a wise man.

Having spoken to others I am convinced that I see colors somewhat differently from other people. They produce almost a chemical response in me -- red, gold, burgundy, dark blue. And I see all of my work -- each scene or moment, exchange, etc. -- as fully lighted and in gleaming color. This comes naturally to my imagination -- the complete three-dimensional picture. For 20 years I've sought to improve the transference of these visions to the reader. I smell incense when I write about it.

Perhaps this is the key to why I can not write about those I hate. My intimacy with my characters makes me a slave to their realization, and my energy could never be channeled to support a character I thought merely satirical, wicked or pointlessly sadistic.

In the last few years, I've felt that motion pictures, as I've said before, have attempted to be monumental, that they are dealing again with heroic efforts and aspirations. That is why I continue to praise "Braveheart" and can now add to my list of favorites a film that I just saw tonight on laser disc: "Restoration" with Robert Downey, Jr. and Meg Ryan.

I sense an increasing interest in the heroic in all media, and with this has come an unapologetic kindness. For example, Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres -- both of whom I've met -- clearly represent a whole new wave in humor and entertainment which is positive, embracing, generous and nevertheless extremely profound and genuinely entertaining and clever.

You ask, How do I protect the dark flower of my imagination? I have no need really to protect it though I nourish on the extreme -- Beethoven's Sonatas (I am listening now to a disc of three of them in the London label: Moonlight, Appassionata and Pathetique. As always, Beethoven is rushing somewhere in this music with uncompromising confidence and a tyrannical demand to be understood.

I feed the imagination with films, music, and with the work of exceptional actors or singers or musicians.

There are times when a despair overwhelms me, but the imagination never weakens; it is only that some rage prevents me from expressing in fluid and graceful forms what I see and feel.

I treasure your comparison to Dickens. Dickens is without doubt my teacher and he looms a giant, along with Shakespeare.

I do think that people strive to kill our imaginations; they tell us to reign ourselves in, to get a grip, to get a hold, to stop "confabulating" or "get down to earth." The earth to me is a continuous cacophonous riot of beauty and horror. I've spent my life fleeing from people who sought to subject me to some sort of restraint. But inwardly the imagination rages like brain chemicals.

In my recent discoveries, recent insights, recent plot ideas, I feel childlike and ebullient as opposed to old or threatened.

On the matter of conformity, I flunked. I never "got" it. This is why I now wear full length velvet robes and garments of gold lamé. I never got it right so why not get it the way I want?

Conformity is the enemy of art, I have no doubt of it. It is the enemy of sanctity; it is the enemy of invention. And of course in America in the '50s it was sacrosanct. But I do think we are living in times of high inventiveness and permissiveness and this is GOOD.

If Ellen DeGeneres "comes out" on TV, this will be a triumph. Over and over again, TV has sought to close up around formulaic material, only to be shocked into new stages: "Jackie Gleason," "Archie Bunker," "Taxi," "Barney Miller" -- all of these were revolutionary shows. We seem to move in fits and starts. There is kneejerk imitation, and then something violent and revolutionary. It happens in all walks of life, including government obviously. Hillary Clinton is the epitome of the brilliant, successful, educated, modern woman. And she scares people to death, yet she is without question HIGHLY EFFECTIVE as a FIRST LADY.

As we become more media sophisticated -- TV, radio, internet, website, films, digital effects, etc. -- we become increasingly brilliant as human beings because we have to comprehend the range of our possibilities, the great range of our choices.

We should defend imagination, excess and eccentricity always, I think, though above all is love: love and the rule that we must hurt no one.

Just a short note to thank you for including Ottawa on your itinerary. It was indeed an honour to meet you and have my copy of "Servant of the Bones" signed. I was pleased to hear that more of your novels will be making the transition to film. I thought that "Interview" was just a great film.

I was telling my wife only a month ago that it would be great if you were to write a book dealing with Jewish magic and mysticism. "Servant of the Bones" was released soon after to answer my prayers. It took me only three days to read your latest novel, which I found most entertaining. I do hope you plan to give us more of Azriel. I think the idea of him going back to Babylon to look for Marduk is a great idea.

I don't know if it was intentional, but there are some interesting similarities to the Jewish festival of Purim. "Servant of the Bones" also features a heroic Esther figure and many anthropologists and biblical critics suggest that the hero Mordecai is reallly Marduk, and that the events chronicled in the Book of Esther never took place. The Book of Esther was recorded during the time the Jews were in exile in Babylon and curiously, the name of God, the tetragrammaton, does not appear once.

We have just celebrated Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year 5757. May it bring you and your family only good things.

--Irv Osterer

Dear Irv:

I truly am deep into my studies of Hebrew history and mythology, folklore and scripture. I can't claim to understand too much yet, but "Servant of the Bones" was written as I actively acquired new knowledge every day. My choice of Babylon for the story was no accident. I too feel strongly that Babylon was the place where the Jews first attained their "identity" and started to write down their sacred books in strict form. But I'm a beginner in all of this. I want to learn more about everything Hebrew. As I see it, the Hebrew religion manages to be life-embracing on many levels while having no need to believe in an afterlife; that aspects of it are also life-rejecting, with the same lack of faith in an afterlife -- this is a puzzle.

By the way, the Jewish response to "Servant of the Bones" continues to be powerful and strong. But my recent trips all over the country had shown me that American Protestants are far more highly spiritual than I supposed. I was guilty of a prejudice towards them. Their reception of my work as "inspirational" is more open than the reception of the book by Catholics and Jews -- a reception by which light I live my life, and take every breath.

Your ideas about a "Servant of the Bones" radio show have greatly intrigued me. I imagine that the power and romance of such a production would be overwhelming, but then, the transition seems entirely natural to me, as so much of my reading seems to have a vocal aspect, if only in my head. But I wonder, do you think that even now, smack in the middle of an era of pre-fab images and visual onslaughts, that people will be able to relate to the spoken word in such a way as to satisfy their expectations about the experience your fiction offers? Personally, I can only believe that a spoken presentation would add even greater dimension to your work. I'm skeptical, though, that a good many might feel that they were being offered less. Have I severly underestimated the potential audience?

-- Habib Kabir Loew

Dear Habib:

You ask me about the radio show "Servant of the Bones," whether I think it can work in the present age. The answer is overwhelmingly YES. New media only displaces old media for a short while. Look at film. When TV came out, people said movies were dead. Today we have masterpieces being made for theatrical release which exceed anything that earlier decades ever dreamt of. You know my pics -- "Immortal Beloved," "The Piano," "Braveheart," "Rob Roy," "Bad Lieutenant," "Bladerunner." These films follow years of mediocre television shows; they burst like fire from their creators.

I feel that this is undoubtedly the time for a live radio broadcast of "Servant of the Bones" and the continuing adventures of Azriel on radio. Everybody listens to radio. TV may have killed certain kinds of radio for a while -- but radio itself is stronger than ever in the past. More people probably listen to Howard Stern now than ever listened to Art Linkletter in the 1940s. We're dealing with an expansion that involves one art attacking, and then igniting, another art form.

Also, I have received almost hysterically enthusiastic responses to the idea of a live national radio drama coming out of New Orleans. All I need now is the time to "realize" this dream, to gather the technical people, the producers, the voices, etc. The scope of this will allow me to perfect control, but it will take some time for me to dig for the radio talents who know how to produce a state of the art sound broadcast that will be utterly gripping.

To put it another way, a radio dream -- a purely audio experience -- can have the power of music. There's no limit to its power, really.

My tentative plan is broadcast an hour long show each Monday night live, and then rerun tapes of it at commute hours during the week. Again, I need time to develop this, and I need the cooperation of my family corporation, KITH AND KIN, which is dealing with all sorts of creative ventures.

But I have complete confidence in this idea -- live radio, serious hour-long drama -- and I think we will pull off something wholly new here. I know there have been serious radio broadcasts in the last few decades. But I want something that excites people like "The Lone Ranger," yet offers them immense depth. And we do have amazing advances in sound production now at our disposal. When the Lux Radio Theatre went off the air, there was only so much we knew and could do with sound. Now, the possibilities are endless. We take them for granted in film -- these advances in sound, but they are quite incredible.

Take for example, the use of sound in a film like "Stargate." There was nothing like that sort of range and power, variety, musical intensity in the '50s and '60s.

Also, radio has one enduring advantage: people continue to be highly receptive to types of voices. Voices create character in a way that faces simply cannot. Witness Gary Oldman in almost any part. The face is perfection, yes, but out of the voice comes the defining brilliance of the role. Same with Anthony Hopkins. Same with Jeremy Irons. Same with Whoopi Goldberg. Same with Morgan Freeman. Voice was the absolute key to the power of Darth Vader. Voice is the key to the smoldering power of Joan Plowright. Voice is the driving force behind the success of all these people, it seems to me, not exceptional faces. Voice creates the expression which then can be read on the face, so to speak. Voice may reach the senses first during the viewing of a motion picture; I don't know. And sound editing in pictures like "Natural Born Killers" means the difference between brilliance, which we have in this film, or chaos.

There is much more to say, but for now, the radio show is "in development."

Like all KITH AND KIN ventures, our radio broadcasts will be centered in New Orleans. One dedication of our company is to produce jobs, opportunities in the arts and opportunities for craft and invention in New Orleans -- a city, which like Venice, has become a work of art with an elusive economic base.

I will not report more on the radio show as I develop it. For now, we are not soliciting any talent. We are dealing with things in the family as we always do.

You have stated many times that no form of love between consenting individuals appears wrong to you and that you see bisexuality as power. Having stated this, does this mean that you yourself have experienced the lifestyle that you refer to as a powerful one? And the wonderful ladies that accompany you on this tour, are they part of your coven?

-- Jeff Lawson

Dear Jeff:

You ask about my belief that bisexuality is power, and you ask if this holds true in my own life. What prevails in my life is simply this: one man, one marriage for 35 years as of October 14, 1996. Although my love for my husband is deeply erotic, this gives me something like the power of a celibate in viewing the world, because I'm not out there "in the life" in any way. I do not carry a personal sexual agenda into any arena of life. Therefore, I have an unusual perspective. No, the ladies who travel with me aren't my lovers. I have a staff of 42 people -- men and women, and I love them all. But there is no erotic current in it. The marriage bond is simply too strong. I get "crushes" with a childlike abandon. Great physical affection -- hugging, kissing, etc. -- is also easy for me because the erotic is so firmly established only in my marriage.

Whether this is good or bad, I don't know. But in my life it is. I tend to think that Irish Catholicism often produces people like me -- faithful to one person for life, and a dreamer.

But let me emphasize again: gender isn't important to me. If I found out tomorrow I was really a man, it wouldn't matter to me. If I found out my husband was a woman, it wouldn't matter. I know this may sound strange. But gender isn't the fundamental component in love or friendships for me. It has little to do with beauty. My husband as a painter and poet is deeply in touch with what society calls his "feminine side" -- that is, the capacity to express his emotions in his painting and poetry, his sensitivity to sound, light, color, etc. And I, in my public life especially, have something of the ferocity of a Bengal tiger. We are not a stereotypical couple in any sense. The fidelity is old fashioned perhaps, but the conversation, the debate, the fights, the constant give and take, the constant understanding and struggling for greater love -- all these things are right on the cutting edge of marriage.

I was wondering how this tour has affected your take on American "culture." You seem to be engrossed in European culture, whether it be in Europe or Brazil or America, but what about the typical American and how her/his life is affecting how you see America? Would that ever show up in your writings? The few U.S. cities you talk about in your novels are New Orleans, New York, Miami and San Francisco. What about areas like Kentucky or where I live, Atlanta, (actually Athens, Georgia built in 1785), because in many parts of the nation there seems to be a neo-classical trend starting from the goth subculture to music to how buildings are built.

--Nicole Williams

Dear Nicole:

I agree with you -- what I think you're saying -- that there are wonderful neo-classical elements and goth elements throughout our country, that even more remote and unlikely rural towns have their European or Romantic elements. But I write about New Orleans and San Francisco and New York because these have been the cities of my life, the places where the great triumphs and defeats of my life have been experienced. Writers don't choose this sort of thing, really. I simply don't know enough about Kentucky to write about anything there effectively. Memphis is an unfolding mystery to me. My profound love for country music -- Alison Krause, Elvis Presley -- is leading me to delve into new places in the country. But my soul expanded in New Orleans and San Francisco, and I must return to them.

My ability to connect again and again with Italy, both ancient and modern, derives from my having been reared a Roman Catholic in a parish city dominated by European elements. I grew up in the Redemptorist Parish of New Orleans and the Redemptorists are an Italian order. I am more "Italian" as a consequence than many of my Italian friends -- more steeped in the lore of Italian saints because they were our parish saints, that sort of thing.

Again, a writer can't choose this easily. Places to me are sensuous; they become characters in my books. My love of New Orleans, my loneliness in San Francisco -- these emotions were too powerful not to shape my prose completely. I am only now including more of New York in my work because I live there part of each year and visit often. What I have written about Texas in "Belinda" or in "Queen of the Damned" was firmly based on the years I spent in Dallas, Denton and Gun Barrel City Texas. I can write about that world in a limited way. But New Orleans is for me the most potent, unforgettable and most dominating soulscape.

Anne Rice


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