Christopher Rice was born in Berkeley, California and moved to New Orleans with his parents when he was 10 years old. He briefly went to Brown University and studied screenwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Robert Birnbaum: Remind me how old you are?
Christopher Rice: I’m about to turn 24.
RB: Do you have any sense that writers today are celebrities in the sense that models and rock-and-roll stars and fashion designers are?
CR: To be quite frank, that’s almost how my experience has been. I feel like my face has sold more books than my interviews have, than the text of my interviews. Publishing started to move in that direction with Danielle Steel, and you saw that author photos got bigger…the big, best-selling-author woman with the big rock on her ring taking up the entire back cover of the book. Now it’s moved over to the print media.
RB: One would expect a certain amount of celebrity for best-selling authors. I’m wondering about the category of writers who do literary fiction.
CR: You think that’s the case for all authors?
RB: I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking.
CR: In my case, I have an image as a role model for young gay men and so a lot that I’m asked to do really has nothing to do with writing. It’s a little bit more political. I’m asked to speak to gay/straight alliances in high schools and things like that. So if you add that on to booking the normal author appearances, my schedule ends up being pretty packed. And it is something that I think about, “How much of the book tour is really related to the book.” Yeah, sure maybe all the events will end up selling books in some indirect way. Am I a writer or a personality?
RB: Do you have writer friends?
CR: I do in LA. I live in LA, which isn’t exactly the most vibrant literary scene on the planet. I have screenwriter friends. I don’t have any friends who write or have published novels. If I lived in New York, that would be different. One of my editors, David Groff, told me it’s very important for writers to have writer friends. That it’s inspiring to them. I was caught off guard by that comment because I never…when my mother was living among a community of writers in Berkeley, California, I was too young to remember it. My image of the writer is of her — living alone — as the queen of her own kingdom. In a very positive way, not a despotic way. She was never going to writers’ conferences or writer’s friends’ houses…
RB: What’s your sense of the literary scene? Can you name some young writers?
CR: The one that comes immediately to mind is Erica Jong’s daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, because her book came out at the same time as The Density of Souls. I followed her course because we are both the children of well-known writers and we were actually profiled in an article together. We never met. I watched reviewers massacre her book simply because she was Erica Jong’s daughter. She wrote a very different book than I did. She wrote a very personal tale of growing up in Manhattan. It really was about drug addiction. That seems to be the bent that a lot of youthful literature takes. It’s still dealing with the themes that Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz wrote about when they first burst on to the scene at a young age. Substance abuse, apathy, limitations of urban life. Hitting the back wall of the New York scene…those are concepts that don’t interest me. I don’t feel like I fit in to that category. I’m writing a little more theatrically. Both of these books are a little over the top.
RB: Theatrically as in dramatically?
CR: Melodramatically, even. Exactly.
RB: When you went out to tour in support of your first novel, who came out to see you?
CR: Masses of very young gay men. That was probably a direct result of the fact that I was on the cover of the Advocate. That magazine cover shaped how that book was received. On top of that you had Anne Rice fans, who hadn’t read the book, who came because they were curious. How many read the book and liked it? I don’t know. By the end of that tour, the questions were very intricate, coming from people who had read the book. They were mainly young gay men.
RB: Unlike the beginning of the tour?
CR: At the beginning, I got the sense that they were coming because it looked like I was a mini-phenomenon. And they wanted to see what it was about.
RB: Who talked to you from the media? Mostly gay media?
CR: A blend, because of the curiosity factor about Anne Rice’s son. They were across the board. I remember doing interviews with small college newspapers. That was fun because it was always some very young person who was very excited to be doing the interview and had very passionate questions. There was no putting all the media in one basket.
RB: Was it an extensive tour?
CR: 21 or 22 cities. It was life changing. The tour personified everything that was life changing about the publication of the book.
RB: Did you have a sense of the immensity of this country? I imagine that a 22-city tour took you across the US?
CR: It was odd. The tour wasn’t structured in a very logical way. The interest in the book spiked while I was on tour. We had reshuffle cities to get into New York to the Rosie O’Donnell show. So I was criss-crossing the country as opposed to the orderly fashion of this tour. Which will probably give me a better idea of its size. The fascinating thing to me is seeing different attitudes in different areas. In San Francisco, after a reading and I take questions, the questions will never stop. It will turn into a discussion, which is wonderful. Then going to Michigan where no one asked a single question after the reading. But the same amount of people were there.
RB: I know you went to school in screenwriting, when did you start writing?
CR: When I really started writing with an eye for writing, believing it was something that I would end up doing, was my freshman year of college at Brown. I had gone there, dead set on being an actor. I wasn’t called back for my first audition and was crushed. It was a classic case of having been a big fish in a small pond to the total opposite.
RB: Where were you a big fish?
CR: In high school. At Brown, I was at the bottom of the ladder. I decided to write a screenplay, having no real knowledge of the craft, nothing other than a love of movies. But it was something I could do without anyone else’s consent or approval. Something I could do alone, basically. So I wrote this hideous screenplay which I can’t bear to read today. But it opened the door — the fact that I had written something and completed it — and it was done and I could hold it in my hands and show it to people and get their feedback. That was the first step.
RB: Your parents are writers, and you seem not to have had that predilection until much later than many writers…
CR: Well, I had always done it, but I didn’t think it would be my life. I thought my life would be acting.
RB: So you had started writing earlier?
CR: But I had never finished anything that I was proud enough to show to anyone.
RB: Where is all that early stuff now?
CR: Oh god, probably in boxes or trunks filed away somewhere or wiped from computer hard drives. My ambition on leaving high school because I had been such a big theater person was to eventually act in plays that I had written. By the time I got to college it was to act in screenplays that I had written. Then, I transferred out of Brown, because they had no practical filmmaking courses, it was all theory. And I went to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in their dramatic writing program. I didn’t really care for the program or the school but became consumed by writing as a pursuit and gave up acting all together. I excised it from my life plan. I had always written, but I never thought I would be a writer, is the short answer.
RB: Your career is certainly not typical. No writing program, publication in small journals, publication of a short story collection and so on. You get signed by a big splashy enterprise, have a top-flight agent and have a best seller the first time out. Do you have anything to say about suffering for your art?
CR: (both laugh) I think I have been made to suffer by certain book critics. Everything you said about following the traditional path of a writer…when you don’t follow that path and it’s obvious that you haven’t, someone is going to take it out on you. The New York Times Book Review did with The Density of Souls. And other reviews, which is not to say that all bad reviews come from that. Add to what you were talking about the flurry of publicity and hype, you’ve upped the bar for reviewers. It’s like, “This really better be great. Or else this is a fraud.” That’s what I think is going through their heads. Sins that might be forgiven for another first time novelist are not, in my case.
RB: There is the additional patina of the Talk/Mirimax splash. But think about it, you are lucky to be reviewed in the NYT Book Review even if you are trashed. It’s still the book business. I’m astounded at your having published two novels — and I don’t hold anything against you — at your ripe old age. What do you do next?
CR: Publish another one. Keep writing. I also want to be a screenwriter. That’s an ambition of mine and I want to do it in balance with novel writing. The reality is — as an agent in LA told me — you are a respected novelist but you will always be just a screenwriter if you become one. In his opinion, you can be the greatest novelist on Earth, but when you walk into a meeting with Hollywood producers, you are just the writer…and the writer in film is the lowest…
RB: If Joe Esterhaz is paid a million dollars to write a screenplay, is he just a writer?
CR: He’s not a novelist though. That’s the thing. Lots of established novelists think it will be an easy transition and that they will be accorded the same respect in the process.
RB: Are you interested in turning your two novels into movies?
CR: I’m interested in turning The Snow Garden into a movie. The Density of Souls, even though it’s a shorter book, could not be a movie. A little too sprawling in scope, and if it had any life beyond the page it would be on the small screen as a cable mini series. The Snow Garden could be a two-hour feature, I think.
RB: Given your dual sensibility, did you think about that as you wrote it?
CR: I’m really writing for the page. So much of The Snow Garden is made up of interior monologues, in the characters’ heads. It would be difficult to translate unto screen. You would have to draw them out into dialogue or simply imply them. I didn’t set out writing the novel that would become a movie. The reality is, having had my only formal training in screenwriting, I’m a visual writer. I think in visuals more often than not, and The Snow Garden was actually a challenge in that sense to really, really get into the characters heads and get into their fears and anxieties and insecurities. I had to set the visuals aside.
RB: You didn’t in the climactic scene.
CR: Never in the climactic scene…
RB: It seemed like the apocalypse.
CR: I loved that scene. To be honest, and this is an unwriter-like thing to say, it was wicked fun to write. There is a tremendous element of gratification in that scene. That might be a product of my youth. The- kind-of-Hollywood-leap-up-out-of-your-seat-and-applaud…ending. I have a friend in New York who said that about both books, “You did the Hollywood ending again.”
RB: Was Snow Garden the title when you began to write?
CR: Not knowing the specific explanation of the title. For me the title meant the college campus. And then it evolved as a concept and became more specific. And it meant a barren emotionally stunted place.
RB: Where is Atherton University?
CR: It’s in Providence. It’s Brown University. But I didn’t want people to identify it with a real school.
RB: Why has Brown University come under such attack recently?
CR: The Vanity Fair article said that Brown had become a bastion for the children of celebrities, that it had become the hardest Ivy League school to get into, but it was the easiest one to surf through once you were there. That’s the reality of Brown. That’s the reality of a school that doesn’t have any kind of core requirements. So there were people there that were completely jerking off — pardon the expression — and doing nothing. There were people there engaged in some of the advanced pre-medical programs that the school has who were at class at six on the morning on through nine at night. It was an odd mix. I had a positive experience even though I left. I met a group of wonderful friends that I have even till this day.
RB: Are the problems that confront Katherine, Randall and Jesse your characters typical of college-age concerns?
CR: All three are odd cases because they do not become wrapped up in college life. They are the three exiles, almost. Their fears and concerns and sense of isolation are shared across the board, but I think the average college freshman is not leading the kind of life they lead in this book.
RB: Were your high school years difficult?
CR: Yes, it was a very wealthy, almost all white uptown private high school, and so even the most aggressive of jocks there didn’t deal in violence. They dealt in backhanded verbal harassment. So I didn’t feel a threat to my physical well being, just my emotional well being. Growing up gay and knowing I was different, I was in an odd position. I had all the trappings that could have helped me to fit into the social hierarchy of the school. I had money, had a nice car, was white. I could have fit, but I knew I didn’t belong. I knew I didn’t share their dreams and ambitions and their values. I was also the theater guy, and my high school was completely driven by athletics. That’s what high school was for me.
RB: How about other people you went to school with?
CR: I think everyone there was in their own private hell.
RB: Even the jocks?
CR: Yeah, Everyone there was trying to live up to some kind of image that they thought would make them more adult.
RB: Was it a social economic class issue?
CR: I chalked these problems up to the city. We are talking about a city [New Orleans] that masquerades as a city but is really a small very incestuous town. With almost no middle class. It has an upper class and a very impoverished lower class, and that divide is also racial. I blame New Orleans for the elitist attitudes of my high school. I thought they had inherited them from their parents. I came there with a mother who was a very successful in what she does, and as a result we were very wealthy. But my parents had brought me up, until the age of 10, in San Francisco in a completely bohemian atmosphere, and my father was a university professor. So while had the trappings I didn’t fit in…I had seen another world that these kids had not seen…
RB: Where are the parents in all this?
CR: The sense among students in high school is that they have to become adults. Most of the cruel and stupid and mean things they do if they are not making them feel more mature they are making them feel more powerful. When they are essentially powerless. And that attitude is so strong and hits you…The real danger of high school is that the social hierarchies take the power away from the parents. They become the dominant authority over the student. The relationship between the kid and the parent is affected in such a way that kid’s like, “You can’t help me between the hours of 8 and 3. So why should I even trust you? These people now have the power to devastate me and make me feel like nothing. And they determine my worth now, not you.” That gives rise to every teen-age problem.
RB: Is graduating high school liberating?
CR: I know I felt liberated.
RB: You went from New Orleans to Brown University?
CR: Talk about night and day. Yes, I felt incredibly liberated. But there were people who felt the atmosphere was more conformist than their own high school. The minute I graduated from high school… you have to add in the fact that I was dealing with sexuality as well. Homosexuality…I meet kids now who have come out at the age of sixteen and I’m bowled over. That demographic didn’t exist several years ago; there were no out gay kids at my high school. I wasn’t going to be the first one. So it was tremendously liberating for me because I thought that now that I am out of high school I have more latitude to pick who I am with and who I socialize with. I can pick people who will not reject or spurn me because I am gay.
RB: How did you feel in high school when your schoolmates, as boys and men inevitably do, called each other fags?
CR: That’s me. There was a specific focus on me, I was the class fag because I didn’t play a sport. Because I did plays and I was a little pretty boy and I was thin and wispy. That tapered off as high school progressed and people found their niche. I went from being the fag to being the more respected actor. I wouldn’t write high school off as a completely miserable experience. It’s a time of necessary pain.
RB: A rite of passage.
CR: Yeah, absolutely.
RB: Do your characters stay with you?
CR: The characters from the first novel didn’t leave me until I did the re-write of the second novel. I’m tempted to answer you have to bring in a new set to shove out the old set…
RB: How much do you rewrite?
CR: I write at least two drafts of a novel. Especially, a novel like this, when so much is about plotting and what to reveal and when. I did two drafts of The Snow Garden and four drafts of A Density of Souls. But the first one was a huge, unwieldy manuscript. The rewrites were all about moving things. The Snow Garden‘s challenge is that is a mystery told from the point of view of the characters who hold the biggest secrets. So how deep can you go into their heads without blowing it?
RB: How is that the major villain in the novel is the most satisfied, most complete character?
CR: Criticism of the book has been that every character has a major problem. I believe that characters with similar dysfunctions find each other. I think that’s why Randall Jesse and Katherine have all come together to form this weird trio. They all have similar wants; they just don’t know it. I am tempted to say that I write about characters at the points in their lives when they are least satisfied.
RB: When you finished with this book were you happy with it?
CR: Very happy. I was much more proud of it than the first, it was more of a labor. I felt I learned a lot…and a lot of those lessons went into the book.
RB: What’s the future for you?
CR: I would like to strike a balance between screenwriting and novel writing. I don’t know if that is possible. I definitely will continue to write novels. I know that for sure. I believe there is a sequel to The Snow Garden. The wheels are always turning. They never stop, which is sometimes a problem.
RB: You’ll continue to live in LA?
CR: In LA, you can so easily isolate yourself and shut yourself out. In New York, I would be distracted constantly. In LA, you turn off the phone and you are in your own world.
RB: Which writers live in Los Angeles?
CR: A lot of mystery and thriller writers. Jonathan Kellerman and his wife, Faye Kellerman. The woman who wrote White Oleander [Janet Fitch], Hubert Selby, Jr.
RB: What do you read?
CR: If I didn’t stop myself, I would read nothing but mysteries and thrillers. I got in that habit in preparation for The Snow Garden, familiarizing myself with the rules and the conventions of the genre. Even though I was going to break a lot of them. I have to stop myself every now and then because I have become addicted to these series…One of the huge drawbacks of not finishing college is that you are not very well read. And there is no authoritative list… the New York Times list or Oprah…
RB: There shouldn’t be. Have you read Elmore Leonard?
CR: No, I have his new book.
RB: What’s the response to being pegged a gay writer?
CR: The implication is that you only write about gay characters in gay ghettos. That’s not what I do, I might be more open to that label if I hadn’t introduced ensemble casts of characters. Granted A Density of Souls is as close to a gay book as you can get…
RB: What would that be?
CR: It revolves around a character’s homosexuality and others are described in terms of their reaction to the one character’s sexuality. In that sense it’s at the core of the book. The Snow Garden is about identity. With this book, I’m trying to shrug off the term ‘gay’ author.
RB: You mentioned an editor advising you to have writer friends. Are you going to take his advice?
CR: No, I don’t actually pursue any type of friend. I don’t go out and make gay friends or black friends…
RB: How about a writing program?
CR: Probably not. I believe that my material, the material I like to write, would be laughed out of your average writing program. That I would be encouraged or pushed to write something I didn’t want to and follow rules that I have made very clear that I will not follow. So yeah, the answer is no.
RB: Well, good. Thanks.