Anne Rice, the world-renowned author of "The Vampire Chronicles" novels that began with 1976's "Interview with a Vampire," spoke before an admiring crowd at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo about her latest project, her take on werewolves in "The Wolf Gift." The conversation strayed frequently from the author's newest work, touching upon vampires (both as viewed by Rice and the sparkly "Twilight" versions), pornography, Jesus -- and zombies.
In typical Rice fashion, "The Wolf Gift" re-writes the werewolf legend. "I want to do my version of it -- that's what interests me," Rice said. Gone is the full moon as transformational trigger; Rice's hero, Reuben Golding, turns "man wolf" after midnight. He is not a shapeshifter, but physically transforms into a man-wolf hybrid who thinks, talks and has sex with humans while transformed.
"I preferred that it be a physical thing like it was with my vampires," Rice explained. "They can't shapeshift. They can't go through a keyhole or turn into a dog or a bat like Dracula. I wanted to treat the physical question of the man wolf the same way. I wanted him to have those limitations. He did turn into this beast, but there is potentially a scientific explanation for what's happening to him... Other people might prefer to go a much more magical route. To me, it's more interesting if it's scientifically-based and it kind of leaves the hero with the same metaphysical questions that we humans have about the meaning of the soul."
Reuben Golding, the man wolf character in the novel, is modeled after a particular individual, actor Matt Bomer of the USA Network show "White Collar." "I was very much inspired by [Bomer] physically when writing the character of Reuben," Rice said. "I wanted that kind of nice guy, who' s very good looking and kind of humble about it and sort of appropriately charming... It's great that you can cast anybody in your novel without calling their agent. I just do it, and I have yet to have anybody get angry about it."
The character of Reuben is also a bit of a superhero, dispatching rapists, torturers and kidnappers in vigilante style. He is aware of what is happening when in his werewolf form, and is comfortable with the modern conveniences of the 21st century, utilizing modern technology like iPhones and Google searches. "One of the things I really enjoyed doing with Reuben was [writing] someone who was not like the regretful and tortured vampires that I had done before. Someone who was a little more firmly rooted in what was happening. Reuben is much more accepting [of his werewolf status]," Rice explained. "I wanted that strength, that exuberance in this character right in the present moment. I was really asking myself, what would you do right now in the 21st century if you got this gift? If you could change into this powerful beast creature that was completely conscious, how would you -- I would do what Reuben does... [He has] potential to be a superhero. What does he think when he gets back to his room about all of this. I mean, I know this has been done, [but] I want to do it my way."
In contrast to the observational viewpoint of "Interview with a Vampire," "The Wolf Gift" follows Golding from moment one and never strays from his viewpoint. "I just wanted to stick really close to him and be with him as he discovered what this was all about, Rice told the audience. "I was with him every second, trying to figure what he would do and putting a lot of pressure on myself, again, for it to be authentic. He looks up werewolves on the internet, he takes pictures of himself with his iPhone in the man wolf form. I mean, these are things I would do if it was happening to me. I've always not liked supernatural fiction in which the hero seems never to have heard of vampires and was completely unaware they exist. I want my hero to live in the real world where we know about all these things."
The conversation inevitably evolved from Reuben the man wolf to vampires, Rice's Lestat in particular. Addressing what might happen should the two characters encounter each other, which is not out as the question as Rice has been known to introduce characters from different cosmologies to each other in the past, Rice said, "I think they'd respect each other... Lestat would be careful. [Reuben] is a guy who can walk in the day, and is very strong and resilient. I think Lestat would be extremely guarded with him, but I think he'd like him. He'd be interested.
"And I think Reuben would be fascinated with Lestat," Rice continued. "Everybody's fascinated with Lestat. He's my irresistible one. I think, anyway."
Rice was ver candid about the fact that the Lestat character was not a focus for her when writing "Interview with a Vampire," the character growing in her mind as she created him. "I really didn't have any interest in the character Lestat. He was just the antagonist. In fact, it was Louis I was interested in... But Lestat just grew and grew and grew, like in the corner of my eye. This character became incredibly coherent and forceful and by the time I went to the sequel to that book, it was Lestat really that I was interested in... It had ceased to be Louis."
The current popularity of vampires in novels, particularly the popularity of the Stephanie Meyer-penned "Twilight" series, was bound to stir reaction in longtime Rice fans. Controversy has erupted on the Anne Rice Facebook page, with comparisons between the "body sparkling" vampires and the brutal world of Lestat. When Rice entered into the fray in November, the reaction created somewhat of an internet firestorm.
"A lot of Ms. Meyer's young fans came on the page and said terrible things," Rice recalled. "They don't want anybody talking bad about 'Twilight.' They don't want anybody making jokes about 'Twilight.' And yet, every day practically somebody comes on my page and makes a joke about sparkling vampires. What can I say?
"What would my vampires do if they met [the 'Twilight'] vampires?" Rice asked. "Would Lestat take pity? Absolutely. Any immortal who had to go to high school over and over.... High school was horrible."
Despite what her fans might have expected, Rice refuses to criticize the series itself. "The key to 'Twilight' is that it really works," she said. "All those millions of readers. And the reason it works, I think, is that it taps into the belief on the part of the reader that if you met Lestat or Edmund or anyone else, he would fall in love with you. He would never hurt you. That's a stroke of genius on [Meyer's] part, to write that kind of thing and make it work. I think it's wonderful that she's been so successful and all these kids are reading these books I think it's great."
Rice has written about more than vampires, witches and werewolves, with some surprising turns in her nearly 40 year career. One such literary side-road was an early '80s foray into pornography with her "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy.
"I wanted to write an authentic pornography," Rice recalled. "I was very dissatisfied with pornography. I felt that it was written by hacks who were contemptuous of the audience. Most pornography contained a lot of material that the audience didn't really want. That they didn't really want blood, violence, toolbox murders, stuff like that. They really just wanted a lot of sex. I thought, 'What if I can do some S&M porn that's like the Disneyland of S&M?' People could have a really good time and then they can go home. I wanted to try this. And that's really why I did it. I felt a great pressure to do it.
"By the time the trilogy was done, I had done it," Rice continued. "I had put the fantasy down on paper and I had put it out in the world... I don't know any harm that it's ever done anybody." Reacting to some criticism in the mainstream press that decry the female as passive in porn, Rice said women had every right to fantasize about sex in any way they wanted.
"We have equality," she said. "Equality means we can fantasize about being raped by a pirate if we want to."
Rice's career took a radically different turn in the mid '00s when the author penned a pair of historical novels about the life of Jesus Christ. "I was really trying to write something that would get into the character of Jesus and yet be absolutely Biblically correct and historically correct and correct according to the milieu of the first century," she said. "I did exhaustive research and I was very happy with what happened with that... I wanted to take all the most unusual, the most extreme aspects of the gospels and put them all in there. No avoiding, no humanizing, no skipping. What is it like this afternoon in Nazareth for the guy who's mother is a virgin and who's birth was greeted with angels, and yet here he is 30 years old and people -- you know he's a carpenter -- people say, what was that all about? What are we waiting for? Who are you?
"I put all of that into those books," Rice continued. "I first wrote about [Jesus] as a child, then as a young man. And I was very happy with it. I had to stop the series because I got into the theological discussions of his public life. What he meant, what he said, what he did -- all of that. And I couldn't take it any more. It was right at the point at which I walked away from organized religion. I said, I just don't belong with these people. My faith in God is one thing, but I can't go with organized religion. I simply can't. I went back to writing more about my kind of outsiders. Jesus, for me, was very much an outsider in those books. And he was certainly a superhero, potentially. I'm very proud of them, and I love it that those books have their own [audiences]."
With such a wide range of worlds covered throughout her career, Rice joked about potential future projects, including something working with the idea of zombies. "'The Zombie Romance,' by Anne Rice," she said, laughing before taking a run at the eternal zombie-vampire question: if a vampire bites a zombie, does the zombie become a vampire, or does the vampire become a zombie? "If it's 'Night of the Living Dead' zombies, I would say it would be catastrophic. That, with the vampire blood -- they would become stronger and more powerful, but they would not be cured of zombieism!"