Reality Bites

Christopher Rice begins his debut novel, A Density of Souls, with a nod to his famous mother, vampire-chronicling novelist Anne Rice: “Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground.” Other than this referential wink, and the fact that this furiously paced book about a group of high-school friends is set in New Orleans, the comparisons end there.

“Our standpoint on humanity is so different,” says Christopher Rice, who at 22 looks like a cross between Calvin Klein’s latest midwestern discovery and a young Christopher Isherwood. “Her supernatural characters struggle with cosmic questions about the afterlife and death and mourning and grief. I’m more preoccupied with making huge statements about lies and apathy and hatred.”

Part murder mystery, part teen soap opera, A Density of Souls is an ambitious, slightly over-the-top effort – Less Than Zero meets Donna Tartt spiced with Stephen King. It’s a surprisingly violent coming-out story about a high-school outcast, Stephen Conlin, who overcomes dangerous obstacles to mature into an empowered adult. Conlin eventually gets his man, the jock he once idolized from afar. And where his mother’s vivid vampires, Louis and Lestat, merely admire each others’ physical beauty, Christopher’s characters take their attractions all the way, with graphic sex scenes of the kind his mother had to use a pseudonym to write.

For the son of Anne Rice, of course, a pseudonym wouldn’t have been a particularly good idea from a marketing standpoint. Still, A Density of Souls will have to stand on its own. “Some people will believe I got published only because I’m Anne Rice’s son,” he acknowledges. “My book is my only weapon against that.”

“Chris has a rigor to his character,” says his editor, Jonathan Burnham, president of Talk Miramax Books, who signed Rice to a two-book, six-figure contract. “He doesn’t try to bury his connections, but he doesn’t trumpet them either.”

We’re sitting in Christopher’s parents’ sparingly furnished midtown pied-à-terre, where paintings by his father, the poet and academic Stan Rice, line the walls. Dressed in brand-new blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and black boots, the six-foot-three-inch Rice carries himself with an authority that belies his youth. He’s careful and deliberate in his speech, which is roughened by a steady stream of Marlboro Lights.

Rice says his relationship with his mother is very close. Contrary to popular belief, life in the Rice household bore no resemblance whatsoever to the Addams family. “She doesn’t know anything about the Goth lifestyle,” he says, laughing. “Right now she’s probably sitting upstairs in the house wearing a Laura Ashley sundress and watching TV. Yet there are rumors in New Orleans that she sacrifices bats and eats them.”

Born in San Francisco and raised in New Orleans, Rice was a scrappy, eccentric kid obsessed with movies and film soundtracks. “He was the golden child,” says agent Lynn Nesbit, who represents both Anne and Christopher. “In 1972, Anne lost her first child, a 6-year-old daughter, to leukemia. So when Christopher came along, he was very loved, very special.”

The agony of her daughter’s death jolted Anne Rice into writing Interview With the Vampire, the book that would become her first best-seller, in 1976. Christopher Rice’s career began in a similar gut-wrenching fashion. Hanging out in L.A. two years ago, working on a screenplay and contemplating an acting career, he received the news that his mother had fallen into a diabetic coma. He flew out that night to New Orleans to be by her side, and stayed with her through her slow recovery. “She was depressed,” he recalls. “Suddenly she had all these doctors swarming over her. It was overwhelming. I started writing during this dark time.” He sat at the computer, focusing on the work that would become A Density of Souls. “I just struck out blindly. The story that came to me was about four children growing up together in New Orleans’ Garden District.”

Rice showed the first draft to his father, a onetime writing professor, who told him, “This is going to change your life.” Then agent Lynn Nesbit read it and passed it along to Burnham at Talk Miramax Books, who immediately signed the young author up. Rice went on to write four versions of the book under two editors, waiting until the book was about to be printed before he showed it to his mother. “It was almost like he gave her a gift,” notes Burnham. Anne Rice’s response was a gift of sorts, too, a note slipped under his door when she finished her son’s book at 2 a.m. Christopher read the note the next day: “She wrote, ‘Your book is devastating as well as brave, and wrought with beautiful angst.’ ” Rice says he’s read some, but not all, of his mother’s books. “I like the witches better than the vampires,” he admits.

Rice’s book, with its harrowing scenes of gay-bashing, brings to mind the murder of University of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard in 1998. “His death affected me tremendously,” says Rice. “It was such a fascinating moment in the country, because people wondered if their own homophobia could ever turn into something so violent. According to my book, it can.”

Rice himself came out when he was 18. “I was labeled gay years before I even knew I was,” he says. “I thought I was bisexual until I went to my first gay bar in the French Quarter and thought, ’This is what works for me.’ ” For his parents, with whom he still lives in New Orleans, Rice says his homosexuality is “a nonissue,” and he’ll occasionally bring home a date for dinner. “The few boyfriends I’ve brought back home have been cute, miserable failures,” he says, laughing. “My mom will tell me if she thinks a guy is cute, but she won’t say anything else.” Rice is presently single. “I write about male desire because it obsesses me,” he says. “There’s a desperation to it, a tremendous hunger, a sense of being perpetually unfulfilled.”

So has he found his version of a vampire? “No,” he says. And what’s the difference between a perpetually hungry gay man and a vampire? “I think there is no difference,” he says, grinning as he reconsiders. Except “a perpetually hungry gay man never takes the time to be gratified by his conquests. A vampire would.”

Rice says he’s sampled his share of nightlife in New Orleans, where most bars are open 24 hours a day and the party never stops, “but I’ve never gone overboard, because I have such a strong family life. That’s the foundation that keeps me from wandering off into the night forever.”

Reality Bites