A CHIP OFF THE OLD block buster.
If Christopher Rice were a vampire he would be downright dangerous, At 6 feet 3 inches, he towers when standing, his boyish lankiness diffusing any menace his height may suggest. When he's sitting, curled up on the vouch of his parent Manhattan pled-a-terre, he speaks softly and intelligently and answers all questions with the frankness of an unguarded child. Indeed, he seems so sincere and guileless he could make ally unsuspecting bloke fall under his sweet spell.
But luckily Chris Rice is not a vampire, only the child of a woman obsessed with them. In fact, Chris Rice has no bloodsucking fantasies whatsoever. Yet if he could be anything other then who he is--the 22-year-old son of a world-famous author who has just published his own first novel--he'd probably be a football star. Or better yet, the boyfriend of a football star. For when it comes to haunting fantasies, the young Rice's lingering demons reside not in the coffins of the undead but in the testosterone-laced locker rooms of Iris high school past.
"It all began was I was a freshman," Rice says about the first lime he realized he was gay. "We all came from different elementary schools, and I remember the students who tried out for football varsity. I suddenly saw these guys around me gaining this muscle, strength, and brawn. Some switch in me just turned on."
But, as Rice learned, being a gay high school student infatuated with jocks has a definite downside. For while the Southern lads with their newly minted masculinity night have been lovely to look at, they could be cruel to a boy like Rice, a sensitive pretty-boy interested in the theater. Moreover, Rice felt that his desire branded him as an outsider, "I had this feeling of isolation because I knew I was gay and I didn't fit into that world, even if it were to invite me socially," he says. "Jocks are depicted as brutal in movies. But what isn't captured is how they become so sexual before all the other students do. They're out on the field, building their bodies up. There are chemicals coursing through them that haven't even been awakened in other students. They're the first icons of sexuality. I think the reason we see jock types in gay porn is that gay kids in high school pick up on this. It forms our desire."
It certainly forms the desires at the core of Rice's first novel, A Density of Souls, an over-the-top thriller about the turbulent relationships of a group of New Orleans high school kids, two of whom are football stars. The emotional center of the book is a slightly effeminate blond boy named Stephen. Loosely based on Rice himself, Stephen is a member of the drama club, has crushes on several athletes, and is harassed for being a sissy. But there's a notable difference: In the book the sissy gets the jock. In fact, he gets several of them.
"Really, what I set out to do was write the book that I as a gay kid in high school wanted to read," he says. "It wasn't going to be some realistic, literary portrayal of coming out. It was going to be `the gay kid finally gets the football player.'" He laughs. But how much of the brutal story, which includes Stephen being bashed, beaten, and raped, is based on his own life?
"My high school experience was not nearly as bad as Stephen's," he says. "Freshman year I got taunted by a couple of people, but it went away pretty quickly. I had one frustrated sexual attraction with a guy on the football team who was also sexually confused. He ended up not being gay, though we fooled around. I focused all my undying love on him, which he appreciated but was unable to reciprocate sexually."
Rice says he started the book when he was 20, merging five previous screenplay ideas into one literary page-turner. He showed an early draft to his father, poet and painter Stan Rice, who encouraged his son to rigorously revise it. It wasn't until the book was nearly finished, two years later, that he gave it to his mother, novelist Anne Rice. And mom's first response?
"Wow," says Ms. Rice, who gave Chris's manuscript to her agent. "I'm absolutely blown away by his novel. I think it's as courageous as it is brilliant.
"When I read the book," she continues, speaking to The Advocate from New Orleans, "I was trying to read it as if I didn't know Chris. I realized that wasn't possible, but I got completely swept up in it. What impressed me was the amount of pain and rage. And it was very natural for me to ask him, `Did these things happen to you?'"
Born in 1978 in California, Chris Rice lived in San Francisco's Castro district with his parents until he was 10. After his mother hit the financial jackpot with her novel Queen of the Damned, the family relocated to a secure, stately house in New Orleans, Anne's hometown. The move proved hard for Chris.
"Growing up in the Castro made me feel that being gay would always be an option," he says. "But then being dropped in New Orleans, it was completely different. I went from a school in San Francisco where we called our lesbian teachers by their first names to this uptown, private elementary school where we all had to go to chapel in the morning. I'm sure I suppressed a lot of gay feelings for a long time."
Although Rice started going to gay bars in high school, it wasn't until he graduated and met his first and former boyfriend, Spencer (one of the book's dedicatees), that he came out to his folks. "We were vacationing in Italy," Rice recalls. "And I go into my parents' hotel room. My father is there, and I tell him, `Dad, I want to go home early.' And he goes `Why?' And I blurt: `Because I miss my boyfriend.' My dad was quiet for a moment. `OK,' he says. `Does having a boyfriend make you happy?' And I say `Yeah.' `That's good, but we still have to stay for three more days.'"
According to Rice, the next day he and his family were visiting an Italian monastery when his mother pulled him aside. "She grabs me by the shoulder," he says. "And she tells me, `Your dad told me that you have a boyfriend. I want to make sure this is going to make you happier than being with a woman and having children. And if you're not sure, read my book Cry to Heaven.'"
Rice laughs. "So I started reading Cry to Heaven--and it's about castrati. So her message didn't really translate."
Ms. Rice explains, "I gave him Cry to Heaven because it deals overtly with the gay psyche, with the character Antonio. I didn't mean to imply for any moment that gay people were castrati. I meant that it was one of the most overtly gay books I have written. And I wanted him to have it as an example of what I thought was some of my best work."
Of course, as her fans know, homoeroticism is a recurring theme in many of Ms. Rice's novels. The vampire books are awash in same-sex eros. Yet for Chris Rice, who did not read his mother's books while growing up, they had little impact on his sexuality.
"I only began reading the books when I left home," says Rice, who went to Brown and New York University and lived for a while in Los Angeles. "I missed my family, and the books were a great way to reconnect to them. The Mayfair witch books--The Witching Hour, Lasher, Taltos--will always be my favorites, because they're set in the house that we live in. They're about a time period that I was present for.
"I don't pick up on a great deal of the homoeroticism,' he adds. "The vampires all have this undying love for one another regardless of gender. They don't have sex. For me to think something is gay, there has to be a bit more flesh and carnality involved."
Ms. Rice, however, immediately acknowledges her works' homoeroticism. She just doesn't have a clue why it's there. "It's important to me as a writer to let everything come spontaneously and not think too much about it," she says. "I don't sit down and think, I'm going to write about gay characters or I'm going to write about a homoerotic theme. It just keeps happening in my work pretty naturally."
Did his mother's homoerotic vampires prepare her for his coming-out? "I think she knew," Chris says. "My dad surely knew. I was president of the high school theater club, for chrissake."
Ms. Rice tells a slightly different story. "I'm a complete liberal, and I'm completely open-minded, and I've always had an enormous gay readership," she says. "Some of the best reviews of my work have been written by gay writers in gay periodicals. When Interview With the Vampire was published, a journalist told me it was the longest gay allegory in the English language. I was blown away by that. But to tell you the truth, when Chris told me he was gay, I was shocked. I didn't know beforehand. I thought he was straight."
Chris concedes that his mom may have taken his coming-out harder than his dad. "I knew she was the one, as opposed to my father, who would really want grandkids," he says. "Everyone says to me, `Your mother being who she is, it must have been easy.' But she had more difficulty with it than my dad."
Ms. Rice admits to being concerned when she found out. "People respond in very different ways to what being gay means," she says. "And there's still an enormous amount of fear in America. There are still hate crimes. There is still a lot of consciousness-raising that has to be done--but not with us. I was worried, as anybody would be, that Chris would face obstacles and prejudices. But I did not love him one drop less."
As far as Chris is concerned, his biggest obstacle isn't his homosexuality. It's the public's possible perception of him as the son of a best-selling author. He acknowledges that the first wave of reviews for A Density of Souls has not been kind, noting that a majority of them focused on him as Anne Rice's son, not on his work.
"The only thing that can dispel people's notions that I'm just a product of nepotism is the book," he says. "And if they still think the book is crap, it's out of my hands. I can only write what I want and hope it gets out there, and that public appeal draws me out of her shadow. But it's out of my control; it's like worrying about the weather."
So far the best career advice he's received came from one of his biggest fans: mom. "She said `refuse to accept failure,'" he recalls. "In other words, don't take the first harsh words of criticism as a sign that you should pack it up and head home. She was no doubt alluding to the numerous negative reviews she received in the years before her books finally found their audience. I mean, if she had listened to critics, she wouldn't be where she is today."
Bahr writes for The New York Times and New York magazine.
Find out more about Christopher Rice and A Density of Souls at www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||author Christopher Rice|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 29, 2000|
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