By William Shelton • December 20, 2021
With her passing, Anne Rice joins the celestial pantheon of New Orleans writers. What is it about this city which so inspires literary creativity? Can atmosphere alone account for it? Not that atmosphere isn't abounding, or as they would say in New Orleans, "there is a gracious plenty."
Secluded gardens hidden behind crumbling brick walls; iron railings, draped like lace, along the buildings of the old French and Spanish portion of the city; moss hung live oak trees, centuries old, which shroud the parks, and under whose mighty limbs duels were fought for honor. No, the city wasn't all high romance, and like any American port city of the 18th through the 20th centuries, there was brutality, murder, destructive fires, devastating plagues of Yellow Fever, and above it all, rang the bells of the cathedral tolling birth, marriage, and death. All of which lodged in the minds of famous authors of the city and was transmuted to the printed page. Why, even the building which now houses one of the city's most famous French Quarter hotels got its start as a ballroom of ill repute, then later a convent for African American nuns. Who wouldn't find inspiration in that?
The early 20th century signaled a burst of creativity, and many of these early works were used by later writers as reference points for their books and plays. Lyle Saxon and Harnett Kane both wrote detailed volumes of Louisiana history mixed with spicy tales of romance. Frances Parkinson Keyes turned out numerous novels, each with a backdrop of New Orleans and heavy-handed morality. Tennessee Williams drew inspiration from the city for his famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Truman Capote was born there, and would return time and again when respite was needed from the social demands of New York City. Harper Lee and Eudora Welty both said that by nature the people of the region are story tellers. "They are not taciturn..." reported Lee. In 1924 Sherwood Anderson established a literary salon in his apartment in the Pontalba building alongside Jackson Square at the heart of the city. It was here that he mentored other authors, such as William Faulkner and Carl Sandburg. John Kennedy Toole is credited with crafting the definitive New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Walker Percy, who was instrumental in helping the novel get published after the tragic suicide of its author, said of it that it is the most flavorful rendition of New Orleans that he had ever read.
In this city, and among these people, Anne Rice was born in the Irish Channel neighborhood in 1941. Life, education, and marriage took her far away from her native land of Louisiana to Texas and California. Later, when she returned to New Orleans as an established author and purchased one of the grand homes of the Garden District, she wrote of her childhood experience of walking the streets of this "American section" of the city, seeing the crumbling houses, grasping the rails of the iron fences between her hands, and fervently dreaming of the day when she could live in one of them. These remembrances were the well spring from which she crafted the books of the Lives of the Mayfair Witches series. The protagonist of these novels comes to New Orleans, where her family has a long history, moves into the ancestral manse (based upon the house which Anne Rice had purchased), and through the exhaustive restoration of the house and gardens comes to understand the dark spirit which has guided her family for centuries, bringing them wealth, and tragedy. The Witching Hour, Lasher, and Taltos, all incorporate elements of the earlier erotic novels which Anne Rice had published under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure.
Her most famous novel, Interview with the Vampire, originally was a short story, written as a way of channeling her grief after the death of her young daughter. New Orleans, and Louisiana in general, are the principal settings of the tale. Rice heavily leveraged the works of earlier Louisiana authors when developing characters and creating settings for her books.
The writings of the Louisiana historian, Grace King, were a profound influence on Rice's novel The Feast of All Saints, an in-depth story involving the lives of the free people of color living in New Orleans prior to the American Civil War. Anne Rice left New Orleans not long before the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and she was a strong advocate for the city's rejuvenation after the disaster. Her son, Christopher Rice, a well-published author with a following just as devoted as that of his mother, used New Orleans as the setting of his first novel, A Density of Souls.
New Orleans is a city devoted to its visitors. They sample the pleasures of Bourbon Street, peek cautiously into the courtyards of the ancient houses of the Vieux Carre, and marvel at the cemeteries, which are like no other in the world. How many have read the legion of books which the city has inspired for more than a century? How many search dark corners for the wicked spirit, Lasher, or linger in the Saint Louis cemetery on the outskirts of the city hoping that the brat prince Lestat will find them?
Even if you have never set foot in New Orleans, neither tasted her coffee, nor heard the bells of the great cathedral, you can get the flavor of the city through the works of those who have been so inspired by the experience that they simply had to write it down.
We extend our sincere condolences to Christopher Rice for the loss of his mother.