In 1976 a book appeared by an unknown author which purported to be a real-life interview with a vampire. Interview With The Vampire was hailed as a classic and it established its author as a name to be watched.
The author was Anne Rice, who has since gone on to expand the series with The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned and now The Tale of the Body Thief. She has also dabbled in Egyptian mythology with The Mummy, and witches in The Witching Hour. Despite all these links with the supernatural genre, Rice is reluctant to discuss vampires, or her use of these characters, and when asked claims a mainstream approach to her work.
"I can't claim to have a great deal of interest in the genre," she states. "I write what I write and it comes out being very weird and unclassified and always has done. So the word genre has sort of been an enemy word for me. I hope my work transcends the genre, I hope it does everything a serious book ought to do."
If Rice is not writing genre books, then what sort of books are they? How does she classify herself?
"They are philosophical novels. They concern supernatural heroes, but are very thoughtful philosophical novels. They are also meant to be sensuous and thrilling. If I look back and think of the novels that have influenced me, they are things like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Dickens' Great Expectations ... works like that. What is Macbeth? It's got three witches and a ghost, and Hamlet ...? I feel that you can take supernatural characters and use them in a complex psychological and philosophical novel. You can write about the deepest things you have to write about, you can say the things that are most pressing for you to say. There's no reason not to work with those characters in that way. It's only a modern prejudice that says if fiction is going to deal with supernatural characters it's going to be limited. Three hundred years ago no-one thought putting Mephistopheles in a play limited the scope of the play."
This point I wholeheartedly agreed with. Categorisation isn't fair, because if you only read in one restricted genre then you are going to miss out on good stories elsewhere. It's the story that's important, not the pigeonhole.
"Absolutely. I think In the last twenty years there's been a lot of strident marketing of books as genre books, because that's the only way that the people who read those books can get to them. Publishers have become so adamant that the definition of a serious novel is being a realistic novel that they have just jumped ship on literature. The science fiction world is a perfect example. It's filled with readers who want poetry and lyricism and heroic figures and depth and they have no time to read a novel about divorce in Connecticut. They do not want to waste their time reading something that no-one in the last seven thousand years would have considered a worthy subject for serious fiction, so they've gone off and made their own world. For a long time the mainstream fiction world ignored science fiction, but what finally happened was that SF developed so much financial momentum that it could no longer be ignored and the books started to pop up on the bestseller lists and everyone started to realize that the science fiction part of the bookstore was bigger than the rest. But does genre really apply? I don't think so. I think it's a negative word that people have used so that they don't have to deal intellectually with science fiction. I've done signings in science fiction stores and the readers who come to those signings are the among the most sophisticated people. I love all my readers; science fiction readers are fabulous, they include secretaries and file-clerks and insurance salesmen - all these people enjoy thinking about the meaning of life and infinity and whether there is a God and so forth, and science fiction is the fiction in which they find all those questions addressed."
These are also questions addressed in The Tale of the Body Thief. The book again concerns the vampire Lestat, but this time he is in a far more philosophical role. The opportunity arises for him to swap bodies with a human, and he wants so much to be human that he agrees to the exchange. And yet when he is human, he finds that this isn't perhaps quite what he remembered or expected.
"I was trying to do a lot in that novel, and one of them was to try and expose the vanity of the three works that preceded it. I was trying to say: alright, I've made vampirism seem very romantic and I've done that largely by having the vampires walk around saying, 'oh we wish we were human again'. Do they really, or is this not a crock? I wanted to expose that, because I think that's a device that was used in literature for centuries. We write about evil by making a regretful hero who wins our sympathy, but what we really enjoy are his antics as an evil person.
"In fiction the bad guys are often more interesting but I have a suspicion that in real life it's not that way. I think one of the things that was so disappointing and appalling about The Silence of the Lambs is that there's no Hannibal Lecter out there. That's such a literary idea: the intelligent serial killer. They really tend to be horribly mundane, unimaginative, clumsy and awful people."
In Lestat Rice has created a marvellous antihero, he sees himself outside everything, and questions whether he is evil or not to great philosophical lengths.
"I think the questions he's always asking are the questions I'm asking every day of my life. I'm using him as a colourful hero, but basically it's the same question. One of the things that intrigues me the most is this whole question of what we are willing to do to get what we want in life. What people are really willing to do. On a very simple level, we are obviously not willing to go to Somalia to feed people, we want to stay here even though we know they are starving. But there are different levels on which we make those choices, we are not going to do certain things because we want our comforts, we want our security, our ambition, the rewards of our particular career. When I was younger those things didn't seem to me to be so important but they do now, so to me The Tale of the Body Thief is a lot about that.
"Does everybody have a price in some way? Is it just that for many people it is very, very, very high? For example, the character of David Talbot intrigued me. Is there really a person who would turn away from eternal life like that, who would just absolutely refuse. I think there is, but I'm not that person. I wanted to show Lestat being given the choice of saving his soul, entering back into the human drama. As it happens he wound up saying 'Boring!' I think we work that way a lot in life."
It is interesting that this is the attitude that Lestat finally takes, because in the first book of the series, the vampires themselves were bored with their eternal life.
"I tried to put that in the first book, that they often died of boredom if they couldn't connect, but that was supposed to be those that were the least imaginative and the least brilliant. Lestat is ideally the hero that can last forever, can do anything."
Interview With The Vampire was Rice's first published novel and it caused quite a stir as she took it around various publishers.
"It wasn't a struggle to get it published, it was accepted fairly quickly about nine months after I wrote it, but the rejections it did get were just ghastly. People were telling me to throw the book out. They were outraged that someone would dare write a book like that. I remember one agent who turned it down said 'I don't know what it is, it's not black comedy and it's not tongue in cheek, I can't tell what it's supposed to be, so obviously I'm not the person to handle it.' And another person wrote back to say it should be published as a paperback with a sexy, lurid cover, focusing principally on the secrets about vampires. It was all very discouraging.
"After it was published it was a raging success in some respects, it got a lot of attention and a lot of wonderful reviews but it got other reviews that were so vicious they were just unbelievable. There was one which I didn't see at the time - I came across it in a reference book in the library years after - in which the reviewer said that the whole thing smacked of a computer. That every hot subject of the moment had been taken and thrown into a novel. They also said something about the stunning cynicism with which this has been published as serious fiction. I couldn't believe it! I'm glad I didn't see it at the time, I probably would have been crushed."
Following Interview With The Vampire, Rice's second book concentrated on the character of Lestat, this time through his own words.
"Lestat preyed on me the whole time I was writing the first book. He came to life spontaneously and rather than my creating him, he just developed. Immediately I wanted to write another book from his point of view, telling his side of the story. That's something that fascinates me in fiction anyway. I think one of the greatnesses of a book like Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy is so kind and compassionate to every character in it and you understand everybody's point of view: Anna's, her lover's, her husband's. I've never been particularly satisfied or happy with fiction that doesn't do that."
An interesting aspect of Rice's vampire fiction is that she maintains the pretence throughout that these characters are real, and that the books have been genuinely written by vampires. This works very well and I wondered how much pre-planning had gone into the titles.
"I don't plan very far. Right now I know there will be a fifth book and that it will grow out of the section in The Tale of the Body Thief where David and Lestat talk about David possibly having seen God and the Devil in a café. I know it will go in that direction but I don't know yet what will happen and I'm deliberately not planning it. I don't even know which characters will come to the fore. The one character I want to get back to over and over again is Armand, he gets neglected when I get carried away with something else. I wanted him to be in the most recent book but there turned out to be no place for him."
The book prior to The Tale of the Body Thief was The Queen of the Damned, a very densely populated novel, spanning centuries of time, and requiring a lot of concentration from the reader. At the start of The Tale of the Body Thief Lestat apologises that this new novel is not as populated as the last.
"Right after I finished The Queen of the Damned we went to Hawaii for a vacation and I found it impossible to relax. I couldn't stop thinking, writing, taking notes and I knew right away that I wanted to write another book that was far more intimate about Lestat because I felt completely too far away from him at the end of The Queen of the Damned, and the novel had left me unsatisfied. I had enjoyed working with that grand scheme and trying to pull off things that really shouldn't work but I really wanted to get back to a tale told by Lestat."
Rice's intention with the vampire chronicles is that they will eventually form a library documenting the vampires on Earth.
"It's important to me that they be like volumes on a shelf, you can pull down any one volume and read it at any point. You can start with any one volume and you can go to any other. That's the way I see them now. Each one is written to be independent of the others.
All of Rice's books have been hefty tomes, the biggest being The Witching Hour which weighs in at 1207 paperback pages. "I have a hard time writing anything small!" she admits. "By the time I've put in everything that I want to put in they are enormous. The Vampire Lestat, for instance, is a book which doesn't really finish, it just stops! I was really swept away just by the ideas of The Witching Hour. Was this family evil, maybe they weren't. Was the ghost that haunted them evil? Was he really a ghost? I really wanted to get into that, and of course the thing that made the book so long was that right in the middle I got totally carried away writing a history of the family! Of course people were saying cut, cut, cut! And I said no, no, no! None of my readers ever said cut, but when publishers see a book that thick they groan because it's so hard to publish it. Every step is so difficult.
"In fact, I slightly miscalculated with The Witching Hour because I didn't print it out until the end, so I had no idea how long it was. When I cam to print it, it took about two days to come off as I had a dot-matrix printer at that time. I remember going in and seeing page one thousand roll out and thinking that this book was a little long. But it really was the length I thought it should be.
"The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that endings are the most artificial part of fiction writing. There are few really great endings and I'm really bad at endings. The books always mutate and take off in a different direction at the end, every time.
"I thought The Witching Hour had the best ending I'd ever written until people began to ask 'what happened?' I thought that was a wonderful ending, that was the most complete ending I'd ever done. But readers were furious!
"I've completed a sequel to The Witching Hour called Lasher, which will be published in the fall. I'm not sure that it is a book you can read without reading the other first. It's very closely dependent. I just finished doing the corrections on it and I found myself wondering if it stands as well on its own as the others did? My suspicion is that a lot of people will read it and then go back and read The Witching Hour but I really don't know."