A Conversation with Christopher Rice, Author of Blind Fall
Q: The prologue is a brutal depiction of the consequences of war. What sources did you rely upon in order to accurately convey the battle scene and the Air Force hospital?
A: I devoured many incredibly good nonfiction books about the Marine Corps experience in Iraq which are listed on the acknowledgments page. I also sat down with real Marines and talked with them about their experiences. But when it came to depicting the scenes inside of the U.S. Air Force Theatre Hospital at Balad, I was greatly assisted by a wonderful series of investigative pieces that appeared in the Los Angeles Times by staff writer David Zucchino. I never traveled to Iraq so the prologue was a big challenge for me. In fact, I refused to write a prologue set in Iraq until the very end of the revision process, when my editor simply demanded one. I knew he was right so I finally caved in.
Q: Your previous novel, Light Before Day, also features a Marine character. What has inspired you to focus on the Marines? What are some other literary depictions of the life of a Marine that you would recommend to an interested reader?
A: Marines have been a part of my life since I moved to California eight years ago. I’ve counted them among my friends and I’ve been romantically involved with several of them. I was immediately fascinated by the double-life gay Marines are forced to lead if they want to serve their country and I thought it would make for the perfect premise for a noir-fueled tale. Oddly enough, when it comes to other literary depictions of Marine life, I didn’t read any of them as prep for writing this novel. I stuck entirely to nonfiction because for some reason it felt like there was less of a risk that I would steal someone else’s literary voice. I was very conscious of the fact that I was an outsider trying to write about this world from an insider’s point of view so I was very picky about what I would put into my brain while I was writing the novel.
But the novel that was referenced in most of the books I read was Fields of Fire by James Webb. He’s a senator now and is largely credited with helping to reform the Marine Corps into the more disciplined environment that it is today. Rich Merrit is another writer readers might be interested in. His memoir and his novel both draw on his experiences as a gay Marine at the dawn of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays in the military.
Q: Did you ever consider revealing what Alex may have done with his inheritance? Why or why not?
A: I felt very strongly that this was John’s novel. That meant, the second—not the minute, but the second—John accomplished his mission and encountered the revelation that was waiting for him at the end of it, the book had to end. I have never been more proud of anything I’ve written than I am of the final scene of Blind Fall. I had the ending in my head long before I finished the book and I was steadily working my way toward it, using it as a carrot to keep myself motivated. By the time I reached the end, I realized there was another major scene I hadn’t allowed for, and that was Alex’s reaction to learning his estranged mother has been killed. Here again, I applied the same rule. The scene wouldn’t have ultimately been about John so I let it go. You have to make these calls when you’re writing a novel, and sometimes they’re not easy. But they allow the reader to focus on the story you’re actually telling.
Q: Describe your writing process. Given that you are a thriller-writer, do you conceive of the crime first and then fill in the story with character development?
A: Usually, I start with a visual that suggests a crime and a character. With The Snow Garden, I had this image of a young woman returning to the fraternity house she lived in on a snowy college campus and opening the front door to find everyone inside of it dead and naked and sprawled out on the living room floor. With Light Before Day, it was a missing-persons flyer I kept seeing in my head, taped to a light post in West Hollywood, with the faces of three handsome young gay men on it. But Blind Fall, as well as the novel I’m working on now, were different. The character came to me first, without any visual elements attached to him.
John Houck came to me almost fully formed. And that seems to be how it works now. The character shows up first, asking to be figured out, and the crime is only important in as much as it develops that character. But I still inspire myself with visuals. I have a wall of corkboard in my office which I cover with photos and maps of settings I’m going to use. As for outlining, I struggle with it. I’ve never found that I can write a “down-to-the-last detail” outline. I usually amass just enough scene ideas to get me started.
Q: At twenty-nine, you were already the author of three New York Times bestselling novels. When did you start writing? What role did your parents, vampire novelist Anne Rice and poet Stan Rice, play in your literary development?
A: They were always very encouraging of all my creative endeavors. But if I hadn’t written A Density of Souls when I did, I might have been in serious trouble. I had dropped out of two colleges in a row, been readmitted to one of them after two years, and then moved out to L.A. on a whim instead of going back to school. So it was time for me to do something serious or we were going to have a big family discussion and it wasn’t going to be pretty. So I wrote A Density of Souls largely to give myself an outlet while my mother was recovering from a diabetic coma, but largely because I needed to finish something. My father’s reaction to the novel is what kept me from putting it in a drawer once it was done. He said, “This is going to change your life.”
Q: In addition to being a novelist, you are also a columnist for The Advocate. Is it difficult to transition between journalism and writing fiction? How does one process inform the other?
A: The Advocate columns are always a challenge for me but I find them incredibly rewarding. There’s no hiding. It has to be just you, right out in front, in seven hundred words. Ninety percent of the work I do with each column is marshaling the courage to state my honest opinion without fear of retaliation. I spent most of my early young life as a people-pleaser; my columns have been a great exercise in gradually letting that go and being who I am. But I also think learning how to state your point in just seven hundred words has helped me to focus my fiction as well. But I’ve always found it harder to write something that is shorter. Short stories literally send me for a tailspin. They’re so difficult.
Q: You are a native of California but a Southerner by blood. Although the majority of the novel is set in southern California, your protagonist, John Houck, is originally from Baton Rouge. Do you prefer one setting over the other when writing? Are there other places that you may wish to explore in future books?
A: My next novel The Moonlit Earth will use several settings throughout Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. But the main character is from California. In fact, the novel opens in Cathedral Beach, Alex Martin’s affluent hometown. But in general, I’m leery of questions like this because I find whenever I make a long-term prediction about what I’m going to write, I usually shatter it within a few months of making it. That’s why I don’t like to say very much about books I’m still working on, because there’s always a good chance the brief synopsis I provide won’t apply in a few months’ time. But I can say with confidence that California is my home now and I don’t see my work wandering too far away from it.
Q: In your acknowledgments, you thank several Marines who must remain anonymous because they are gay. How was conducting the research for and writing this book difficult? What made it rewarding?
A: This was the most “real world” research I’ve ever done, meaning I actually sat down and talked with people who were leading the lives I wanted to depict. I didn’t just pull it out of a book. But John was the first protagonist I tackled whose everyday life felt worlds away from my own, so there really wasn’t another way to do it. What’s rewarding about that kind of research is that there are beautiful accidents that happen. Your interview subjects say things they don’t think are important but which end up inspiring entire scenes. But there are rules. I’m not comfortable using things they tell me which are deeply personal, unless I get their explicit permission. I’m not out to steal someone’s story. I’m trying to add a layer of authenticity to the story I’m developing on my own. With this novel, there were moments of having my eyes opened to the realities of war that were irreversible. When one of my Marine contacts described his first kill to me, I was humbled into absolute silence.
Q: What educational programs or legislation might you hope to see enacted in order to increase tolerance within the military for homosexuality? What do you think is the best solution to put an end to the intolerance?
A: Gays and lesbians must be allowed to serve openly in the military. Period. Nothing short of that will do. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a disgraceful policy that has ruined lives and undermined unit cohesion by creating layers of secrecy and denial within the Marine Corps. Tolerance for homosexuality within the military is as generational as it is in the outside world, meaning the younger you are, the more likely you are to be accepting of gay people. When it comes to Marines, I’m confident that any young gay man who can survive Hell Week will be able to live through the painful period of adjustment that might follow an all-out repeal on the ban.
Q: Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you share some details about the project?
A: My next novel will be called The Moonlit Earth and as I mentioned before, it’s set largely in the town of Cathedral Beach. It’s about a young woman whose privileged life is shaken to its foundations when she’s presented with evidence that her younger brother may have been involved in a terrorist plot in Southeast Asia. And I’m going as fast I can without sacrificing quality! Many of my readers have told me they’re tired of waiting so long, so I’m hoping to have this one in front of them very soon.