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January 29, 1997

(CNN) -- While much of fiction's beauty lies in its ability to invoke a sense of place, there's also nothing like seeing a writer's inspiration for yourself. For instance, a tramp through England's Lake Country brings William Wordsworth's poetry to life. A trip up the mighty Mississippi instills visions of Twain's Tom and Huck. And, now with an official author-sponsored tour, you can traverse the haunts of Anne Rice's characters.

Rice, known for such shadowy novels as "Interview with the Vampire" and "The Witching Hour," has arranged tours of New Orleans that encompass many of her own homes, the actual settings for some of her books, and other local landmarks.

Rice said the tours grew out of a fundamental human impulse: curiosity. "In the novels, I use the houses I live in and the houses that I go to frequently and people wanted to see the houses," she said. "Often there are three, four, five, maybe even 13 or 14 people outside the gate of this house who would just love to get inside."

"I felt, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could set up a only by the cousins and we could bring the people on to some of these properties so that they could see what an 1860s house is like and they could see the setting of 'The Witching Hour.'"

Tour stops include Rice's First Street home, St. Elizabeth's Orphanage and Lafayette Cemetery. While Rice-seers don't usually enter the author's residence, she allowed CNN's TravelGuide a gander.

Behind the dramatic balcony and pillars on the building's front, you'll find lush rooms with heavy draperies and rich floor-coverings. The paintings of Anne's husband, artist and poet Stan Rice, adorn the walls. Her world-famous dolls are lovingly displayed throughout. Rendered in gorgeous detail across the pages of her books, this mansion and other Rice landmarks bring the reader's imagination to life.

In fact, one can learn much about the character and tradition of old New Orleans from an Anne Rice novel. Through her eyes, the city takes on magical properties.

"You know, the sky really does turn violet at twilight. That really happens. The oak trees really do meet their branches over the street," Rice mused, bringing her hands together in an arc over her head. "And my love for New Orleans, my longing for it, the fact that I was away for 30 years, all of that comes out in the books tremendously."

Just as the tour does today, the author wandered Lafayette Cemetery as a child -- fertile ground for a fertile mind. Anne Rice started writing stories in grade school, but her vision of vampires came later.

"It was an accident. It was a complete accident," she said of the subject matter that has made her famous. "I was writing every night out in California, wanting to be a writer, and one night I thought, 'Well, why don't I write about a vampire? What if a vampire would tell an interviewer everything that was really true about being a vampire?"

The cemetery whispers (or screams) "vampire" in many fans' minds. Not surprisingly, it's a favorite stop along the tour. Lestat, Rice's hero in "Interview," stored his valuables in one particular tomb.

"It was a real experience for me because as I was taking the tour, the pages were flipping through my head," said Mitchell Karp of Los Angeles. "It all came to life. It was very, very real."

Rice has acquired and renovated a number of historic New Orleans properties -- evidence of her love for the city of her birth. Saint Elizabeth's orphanage is one of them. The massive white building houses 93 rooms, including a white chapel complete with antique vestments. This is where Rice displays the rest of her doll collection, an eerie assemblage of porcelain figures sitting in chairs and on the floor.

The tours don't always go inside the Rice family properties, but sooner or later readers "see" all of them, through the author's eyes, in her novels -- like the antebellum cottage she lived in as a girl and now owns.

A tour guide explains "As you walk in through the front door, you enter what is called the 'Little White Cottage.' This will be the setting for a new novel that (Rice) has in the works to be published next year. The working title of the book is going to be 'Violin'."

Finally, an interview with the author wouldn't be complete without the query: Do you believe in vampires? Well, actually, "no," said Rice. "I think vampires live in our imagination. I think they're beautiful metaphors for the outsider, for the predator, for the lonely one in all of us, for the ruthless part in all of us that will do anything to survive."

Weather: New Orleans
City guides and maps: Louisiana

Related stories:

  • Down on the Bayou (New Orleans overview) - January 25, 1997
  • A Night in New Orleans - January 27, 1997
  • Cruising Twain's Mighty Mississippi - January 18, 1997
  • On Walden Pond - October 21, 1996

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