When Anne Rice published "Interview With the Vampire" in 1976, she didn't just launch her own vampire series — her sexy tragic vampire antiheroes launched an entirely new genre.
The phrase paranormal romance "didn't exist when I wrote the vampire novels in the beginning," Rice says. But the genre, she adds, "is here to stay." Indeed, after an 11-year break, the grande dame of vampire fiction has revived her famous vampire clan with "Prince Lestat," (Alfred A. Knopf: 458 pp., $28.95).
That supernatural romance has become a flourishing part of pop culture has been a blessing and a curse. The field is crowded with hits like "Twilight" and "True Blood," and countless other television shows, movies, graphic novels and books, and for a long time, Rice avoided it all. "I was always frightened of being too influenced, and I would get blocked," she admits.
Serving up lunch on formal china in her house, she explains that she thought she had closed the book on her "Vampire Chronicles" with 2003's "Blood Canticle." After that, she allowed herself to enjoy other people's vampire stories. "I got less scared in my 60s.... I came to realize we all make our own cosmology, and there are certain traits that are common to all of the fiction in this area. I just grew up."
Emotional maturity aside, the 73-year-old author has some of the habits of a teenager. A poster-sized picture of actor Matt Bomer hangs on her bedroom wall — "because I think he's gorgeous, and I like to look at him," she trills — and she spends hours a day on Facebook.
Unlike most teenagers, her Facebook page has 1.1 million fans. Rice is so engaged — linking to news stories, asking provocative questions and responding to comments — that some don't believe it's actually the author. Other writers who have sold more than 100 million books worldwide may have assistants taking care of their social media presence.
"It's totally me," she confirms. "I've had some pretty nasty exchanges on the page with people who didn't believe it. I remember one woman came on, she said, 'I know Anne Rice, I've been in her house in New Orleans and you are not she.' …. I finally got angry enough to block her."
The Anne Rice of today does seem different from the one a fan might have met years ago. She sold her grand New Orleans mansion, the three-story, 47,000-square foot former orphanage she'd restored, and lives in relative quiet in Palm Desert. Rice is petite, more than 100 pounds lighter than she was at her heaviest (she was an undiagnosed diabetic and has since had gastric bypass surgery). She's surrounded herself with paintings by her late husband, Stan, forsaking many of the gothic antiques and religious artifacts she once owned.
Rice was raised Catholic in a working-class family in New Orleans and has had an intense, on-again-off-again relationship with the church. She's a believer and admires the church's centuries of history, the sense of social justice and its art, architecture and music.
But, she says, she "suffered agonies" as a teenager over her priests' declaration that kissing and necking were a mortal sin. "I'll never entirely get over the damage done to me by the Catholic attitude toward sex. The hatred of sex, the loathing of it and the denial of the loathing of it," she says.
That seems unusual, perhaps, for someone who writes erotica. "That's protest," she says, laughing. "I'm very proud of my erotica."
Initially published under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure, her Sleeping Beauty trilogy is an explicit S&M fantasy. "What I write is out-and-out pornography," she says. "I think it's a fine word. The only reason I don't use it more often is it gets all misunderstood, and people want to call it erotica."
The success of "Fifty Shades of Grey" has brought renewed attention to Rice's Sleeping Beauty books. "They went mainstream because of it. The publishers reissued them for Wal-Mart and Target," Rice says. "It was a riot, really."
Rice, of course, has thought a great deal about the erotic element of her vampire myth. "The vampire is hyper-romantic, a Byronic hero — a larger-than-life, extremely strong, mysterious, tragic personality," she says. "It's Mr. Rochester and Jane [Eyre] over and over again.... Basically the vampire is untamed mystery, and that's what men seem to women. It's a deep, deep metaphor for sexual difference. Every man's a vampire to us, in a way."
Which makes the reader not the victim but the chosen partner. "I'm sure every boy and girl out there reading a vampire novel is convinced that the vampire would never bite them," Rice says, rapping at her table on the last three words: Never. Bite. Them.
In her new novel, vampires live in the modern world, listening to Internet radio and ducking cellphone paparazzi. Most of them have figured out how to use immortality to their financial advantage, and live in luxurious surroundings. And yet there is a threat that seems to be converging on them from all sides — crowds of young vampires keep getting torched, a terrifying and complete death.
"I agonize over some of the dark and cruel things that I write. I want them, for me, to be effective and authentic and dramatic and moral, I guess," she says.
When she lived in Berkeley in the 1960s and '70s, Rice says, she used to debate with her friends about the demands of art. "If great art is really great art, it shouldn't depress you. We would argue about, like, the movie 'The Blue Angel': Is it depressing or is it uplifting? If it's great art, it should be so uplifting that you come out of it feeling joy."
She explains that she gave up on "Breaking Bad" because it was too depressing. So is she in the uplifting camp?
"Not necessarily. I can't resolve it," she says. That kind of tension — between tragedy and transcendence — is what it takes to spend half a lifetime writing stories of the glamorous undead.