Poppy Z. Brite
Born Melissa Ann Brite, May 25, 1967, in New Orleans, LA; daughter of Bob and Connie (Burton) Brite; married Chris DeBarr (a chef). Education: Attended University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1987.
Addresses: Office —Three Rivers Press Author Mail, c/o Random House 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
First short story published in The Horror Show, c. 1985; worked as candy maker, short-order cook, mouse caretaker, artists' model, and exotic dancer, 1985-91; published first novel, Lost Souls, 1992.
New Orleans-based writer Poppy Z. Brite garnered a devoted readership for her trio of gory but sensual horror-fiction novels in the early 1990s. Brite was still in her mid-twenties when she debuted as a novelist, and has struggled to break out of the goth-lit genre since then. She earned a small fortune for her biography of rock diva Courtney Love, and in 2004 published Liquor, a novel about a cleverly themed New Orleans restaurant. In an interview with Troy Patterson of Entertainment Weekly, Brite talked about the difficulties she encountered in transcending the cannibal-vampire-bloodbath realm her readers expected from her. "I need Liquor to be—not to be on the New York Times best-seller list—but to do respectably well," she reflected. "I really do feel like a first-time novelist."
Brite was a writer from a very early age. Born Melissa Ann Brite in 1967 in New Orleans, she spent her first years there, while her father taught economics at the University of New Orleans. She was reading by the age of three, and was writing and illustrating her own books by kindergarten. When her parents divorced, she moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her mother. She began sending short stories to magazines and publishers while still in middle school, and in high school launched her own underground newspaper, The Glass Goblin.
A small but influential magazine called The Horror Show bought Brite's story "Optional Music for Voice and Piano," which became her first published piece. The magazine had a small but influential readership, and subsequent stories of hers that appeared eventually brought an inquiry from Douglas E. Winter, the biographer of horror-fiction master Stephen King. Winter had been hired as a consultant for a planned hardcover line of new horror novels, and contacted Brite while she was enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1987. As she recalled on her website, Winter had "liked my stories, and he wondered whether I had a novel in the works. I'd just begun my freshman year at the University of North Carolina and was hating it. That letter decided my future. I dropped out of college and began working on what would become Lost Souls. "
But the publishing house that hired Winter eventually decided against the hardcover series, and Brite's finished manuscript languished on her desk after she was unable to interest any other publisher. The writer Harlan Ellison had read her short stories, however, and had been bowled over by them; at an industry event where she recalled being too shy to approach her idols, Ellison came up to her and introduced himself. He helped her get a literary agent, who then shopped the Lost Souls manuscript around. Dell was interested, and Brite was signed to a three-book deal. In 1992, after solid sales in paperback, Lost Souls appeared as the first book in the new Abyss imprint from Delacorte, which was Dell's parent company.
Lost Souls was an immense success with younger readers, who loved its modern, decadent, Goth-music-scene milieu. The story was anchored by the story of an adopted teen who learns that his real father is a rock star and vampire named Zillah. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Brite's debut a "stylishly written, daringly provocative first novel" in which she "creates a convincing, evocative atmosphere in which youthful alienation meets gothic horror." Brite was also hailed as the successor to Anne Rice, another New Orleans-based writer of gothic vampire tales whose "Vampire Lestat" series became a publishing phenomenon and major motion picture.
Thanks to her book deal, Brite was finally able to concentrate solely on her writing after a string of jobs that included stints as a laboratory-mice caretaker, candy maker, and exotic dancer. Her highly anticipated second novel, Drawing Blood, appeared in 1993. Its story is set in a haunted North Carolina house where one of its protagonists had lived as a small child before his underground comic-book artist-father murdered the rest of the family and then hanged himself. The now-adult Trevor, also a graphic artist, returns to the small town and falls in love with Zack, a computer hacker and fugitive. Thanks to Zack and the help of psychedelic substances, Trevor is able to enter "Birdland," the bizarre comic world his father created, to confront him about the horrific slayings and exorcise his own demons. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, who liked its mix of spooky haunted-house and cybercrime themes, asserted that the second novel from Brite's pen would confirm her place not only "in the horror genre, but also as a singularly talented chronicler of her generation."
Drawing Blood was the first of Brite's works to feature two male lovers, which would become a recurring characteristic of her fiction. Its follow-up, her third in the Dell deal, came after she had published a collection of short stories, Swamp Foetus, and served as co-editor of an anthology of vampire erotica. The delay came because of Dell's hesitancy about publishing Exquisite Corpse, Brite's third novel. It followed the romance and cannibalistic bloodbath of two serial killers, loosely based on the real-life murderers Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen.
Exquisite Corpse, its title borrowed from an old parlor trick of the Surrealist artists' clique of the 1920s, was acquired by Simon & Schuster and appeared in 1996. Reviews were mixed. New Statesman journalist Kim Newman felt Brite was maturing as a writer, noting that "the prose here is much shapelier, with convincing and acidly witty talk in between delicately described violence." A review from Robert Armstrong of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reminded readers that her work "deals with characters and situations every bit as amoral and terrifying as anything imagined by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho. Brite is strong stuff and not for the squeamish." A critic for Publishers Weekly found some fault with the plotting, but asserted "Brite is a highly competent stylist with a knack for depicting convincing, if monstrous, characters."
That same Publishers Weekly article termed Brite "the reigning queen of Generation-X splatterpunks," and she had a serious fan following that even included the occasional stalker. She was prone to making controversial statements in interviews about sexual politics, and was open about her own escapades into the realm. Such fearlessness attracted the interest of Courtney Love of the band Hole, who read Brite's novels and then contacted her. Love talked the fiction writer into penning her first biography, and Brite earned a cool half-million dollars for Courtney Love: The Real Story, published by Simon & Schuster in 1997.
Brite had been eager to try her hand at other types of writing, though few authors would have been eager to work with the infamous Love, who was also the oft-maligned widow of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. But Love provided Brite with access to journals she had written as a teenager, and Brite uncovered court transcripts that shed light on Love's tragically dysfunctional family. Her mother, for example, had won custody of the child after claiming that Love's father had given her a hallucinogenic drug. "The chilling details of Love's childhood from hell are what save this book from being just another celebrity clip job," wrote Entertainment Weekly 's Dana Kennedy, and commended Brite for admirably depicting Love's "nightmarish family and her stints in foster homes, reform schools, and strip clubs so effectively that the book briefly transcends its genre. It's a snapshot of a '60s hippie couple and their abysmal child-rearing practices that would be fascinating even if Love weren't famous."
The money that Brite earned from the Love biography enabled her to take some time off. She wrote a few short stories, and worked on a novella that was published by a small imprint in 2000. Plastic Jesus was the story of a hugely successful 1960s pop group, an obvious stand-in for and tribute to the Beatles, whose songwriting duo are also carry on a secretive romantic relationship. Years after the group dissolves in rancor, one of the pair is murdered by a homophobic fan.
By the time Plastic Jesus appeared, Brite was married and living back in New Orleans after a stint in Athens, Georgia, where she had met her husband, chef Chris DeBarr. As she recalled in the interview with Patterson of Entertainment Weekly, she had started to write another full-length horror tale in the summer of 2000, but "I didn't like it." She told her husband one day, she recalled in the interview, "'I'm just so sick of my stupid depressing novel, I'm just gonna go upstairs and write something fun.'"
The result was Liquor, a love story set in a New Orleans restaurant, but there was little interest from publishers. Brite was forced to find a new agent to help her land a deal with a company interested in seeing her move out of the goth-horror market. In the interim, she issued a prequel, The Value of X, which came out in 2002 and established the early relationship of two teenaged best friends, John Rickey and Gary "G-Man" Stubbs, from Liquor. Issued by Three Rivers Press in 2004, the food-centered Liquor finds the pair living in New Orleans and on their way to fulfilling a long-cherished dream: their own restaurant.
The twist in Liquor is that every item on the menu of their new venue contains some form of booze, and the plot hinges upon some squalid events involving their untrustworthy financial backer. Yet the behind-the-scenes restaurant drama was the real story, many reviewers asserted. "Although Brite rolls her eyes aplenty at the silly dramas and pretensions inherent in any urban restaurant scene, her affection for it is heartfelt," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. As the spouse of a professional chef, Brite explained why she chose to set the novel in an eatery. "It's just an entire nighttime subculture that completely slips under the radar of people who eat in restaurants," she told New Orleans Magazine journalist Katie Block. "They have no idea what's going on behind those kitchen doors."
Brite's latest book did not earn very much attention in the media, save for a sympathetic feature article in Entertainment Weekly about her battle to break free of the horror-fiction category. Her admirers seemed divided into two camps: the goth-horror base, and gay readers. From the former group she earned a few death threats for failing to issue another gorefest, while Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide critic Marshall Moore liked it. "Her hallmark lush prose and sometimes overwhelmingly horrific imagery have given way here to a leaner and more realistic approach, yet she also doesn't shortchange the reader on description and setting," wrote Moore.
Brite is a longtime fan of John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a classic novel of New Orleans called A Confederacy of Dunces but could not find a publisher for it. He committed suicide in 1969, and the work was published posthumously and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. She dedicated Liquor to Toole's memory, and tends to his grave in Greenwood Cemetery in the city. She hoped her latest novel would bring her new readers, despite the odd trajectory of her themes, from cannibalistic-ritual murders to modern haute cuisine. "I've pretty much lost my interest in writing horror," she told Block in the New Orleans Magazine interview. "I love to read it, but it's just not where my interests lie at the current time."
Lost Souls, Delacorte, 1992.
Drawing Blood, Delacorte, 1993.
Swamp Foetus (stories), Borderland, 1993; later published as Wormwood: A Collection of Short Stories, Dell, 1996.
(Editor, with Martin Greenberg) Love in Vein: Twenty Original Tales of Vampiric Erotica, HarperPrism, 1994.
Exquisite Corpse, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
(Editor, with Martin Greenberg) Love in Vein II: 18 More Tales of Vampiric Erotica, HarperPrism, 1997.
Courtney Love: The Real Story (biography), Simon & Schuster, 1997.
The Lazarus Heart (part of The Crow series), HarperPrism, 1998.
Are You Loathsome Tonight? (stories), introduction by Peter Straub, afterword by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Gauntlet, 1998.
Seed of Lost Souls, Subterranean, 1999.
(And illustrator) Plastic Jesus (novella), Subterranean, 2000.
(With Caitlin R. Kiernan) Wrong Things, Subterranean, 2001.
(With Caitlin R. Kiernan) From Weird and Distant Shores, Subterranean, 2002.
The Value of X (limited edition), Subterranean, 2002.
Liquor, Three Rivers Press, 2004.
(With Christa Faust) Triads, Subterranean, 2004.
Billboard, October 11, 1997, p. 85.
Entertainment Weekly, October 10, 1997, p. 84; April 30, 2004, pp. 120-122; May 21, 2004, p. 6.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, May-June 2004, p. 44.
Lambda Book Report, October 2001, p. 12.
New Orleans Magazine, April 2004, p. 22.
New Statesman, August 9, 1996, p. 48.
Publishers Weekly, September 7, 1992, p. 78; October 4, 1993, p. 65; June 24, 1996, p. 45; September 21, 1998, p. 79; September 4, 2000, p. 88; January 26, 2004, p. 228; April 12, 2004, p. 43.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 17, 1997, p. 16F.
"Biography," Poppy Z. Brite Official Site, http://www.poppyzbrite.com/bio.html (September 2, 2004).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.