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The Vampire and the Cross
Bestseller lists are useful, but they are no substitute for what you see with your own eyes: the books people are reading on trains and planes and buses, in coffee shops and waiting rooms, the paperbacks that emerge from a backpack or a capacious purse, twice- or thrice-read already. There was a time, about ten years ago, when Anne Rice was evidently the most popular writer in America. And I hadn't read even one of her books. (Not my cup of tea.)
In 1997, an editor at another magazine asked me to review The Anne Rice Reader: Writers Explore the Universe of Anne Rice, edited by Katharine Ramsland. I went to our splendid public library and came home with a stack of Rice's novels.
The Reader turned out to be even more dreadful than I expected after a look at the contents page. In addition to editing the collection, Ramsland contributed several pieces, including an account of the convoluted history of the filming of Rice's novel, Interview with a Vampire. (There you can find Tom Cruise reflecting on his character, the vampire Lestat: "Lestat is an adventurer. There were no other vampires in New Orleans when he arrived. That is an adventurous spirit. Here's a guy who goes out among people and goes to the opera and studies music. He's a fascinating character.")
What a change to move from earnest psychobabble to the creepily mesmerizing monologue of Interview with a Vampire. Rice drafted this novelher first, and the foundation of all her subsequent triumphsin five weeks late in 1973. The year before, her daughter Michelle, her first child, had died of leukemia, shortly before her sixth birthday. Rice and her husband, the poet and painter Stan Rice, had been drinking themselves numb, and she had just recovered from a serious viral infection when she began the novel, basing it on a short story she'd written and set aside in 1968.
Great titles seem to condense the essence of an entire novel into a phrase or even a single word: The Great Gatsby, Hud, The Crying of Lot ...