Sex, vampires, and Catholicism can get all mixed up when you live in New Orleans. Goth kids roam the streets with their canines sharpened to points, collect holy cards and hang out in leather shops. By night, they lead Vampire tours through the French Quarter, passing both the shadowy façade of St. Louis Cathedral and the beckoning open doorway of Big Daddy�s Bottomless Topless. Growing up there, even an average Catholic school girl like me saw no real conflict between devotion to The Vampire Chronicles and daily Mass�both traded in mystery, immortality, body and blood.
So I wasn�t surprised to learn that fellow native Anne Rice, author of Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned, and numerous books of erotica�including a hair-curling re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty as a pornographic S&M fantasy (also passed furtively among friends in my high school)�had repented and returned, as I have, to the faith of her childhood. But I was stunned by her avowal that she will never write another vampire book, or anything that doesn�t reflect a Christian worldview. She says she�ll go broke first. She has consecrated her career to Christ and even reinvented her prose style, now favoring one that is as spare and respectful as her earlier books were floridly heretical. Her new series of novels, Christ the Lord, will tell the story of Jesus� life in four volumes, from his point of view. Out of Egypt, currently number eight on the New York Times Bestseller List, is the first installment.
'I had many questions, but I put them aside. I felt an overwhelming desire to come back, to go to Communion, so I asked the Lord to help me.'
In Christ the Lord:Out of Egypt, Rice continues to surprise. I was one of the skeptics who assumed that her Jesus would have more in common with the Jesus Seminar than the Gospels, or that it would be �historically accurate��what did Jesus eat?�but chock full of the author's revisionist fantasies, like The Red Tent. But Rice has been meticulously faithful to the Bible and Catholic tradition�the Mary of the novels is ever-virgin, and the Messiah really was born among the beasts in Bethlehem. The flat prose and child narrator tested my patience, but ultimately, Rice makes real the stories so many�even so many Christians�want to disregard as myths.
Though she describes herself as �socially liberal� (her son, Christopher, is gay, and she has said that she hopes the Church will one day permit homosexual marriage), Rice was never as far from the Church as her earlier work may have led some to believe. The Catholic art and books she�d always collected turned out to be more than just gothic accessories for her historic New Orleans homes. Her love of the Latin Mass, the saints, and Biblical scholarship led her, ultimately, to ask a Catholic friend, �Will they take me back?� By 1998, as she recently described in Christianity Today, she was desperate to receive the Eucharist, so she made a two-hour confession (in which she discussed her writing in detail) and returned to the banquet table for good.
I spoke to Anne Rice last week about coming back to the Church and writing Christ the Lord.
GODSPY: How have your long-time fans reacted to Christ the Lord?
ANNE RICE: The responses have been mostly positive. Of course, not everybody is going to like every book you write. Plenty of my fans didn�t like every book in the Vampire Chronicles. But then lots of people say, we�ll read anything you write.
What about the reaction from other Christians?
The response has really been very warm�mostly �welcome back.� You get the occasional anti-Catholic response. Even those are still nice letters--they�re just concerned. They say, �How could you go back to that Church?� And I explain that I was born and brought up in that Church, and for me, 2,000 years of tradition in that Church is compelling, and also I believe in that Church. I believe in the Sacraments. But these people mean well. Christians have been arguing with each other forever. They started arguing before Christ died, and they�ll go on arguing. The apostles were arguing. It�s the nature of Christianity. I think Jesus knew that. I�m sure he did�he said �I�ve come to turn brother against sister.�
'People are coming to the book signings with copies of both Memnoch the Devil and Christ the Lord. They aren�t dressing up in costumes the way they used to, though.'
But this isn�t the majority response. I�ve just been all over the country, and people are coming to the book signings with copies of both Memnoch the Devil and Christ the Lord. They aren�t dressing up in costumes the way they used to, though. I get the feeling they�re worried that�s no longer welcome.
Really, to be locked on this subject and to be dedicated to it as I am�it keeps me mindful of the fact that Jesus� principle commandment is to love. And that being angry with people is wrong. And that includes people who criticize your book, or criticize your intentions, or criticize you as a Christian. And that reminder�how shall I put it? Nothing is of value if I can�t remember that. If I can�t practice what he preached, then all the rest means nothing. And that is very important to me. And I�m not very good with being patient with people at all.
Could you see yourself returning to the worlds of your earlier fiction, but this time with a view toward redemption?
No. I�ll never return to those worlds. I did it. I�m happy with those books, what they accomplish, what they reflect. Now is the time for those books to be adapted. To go on in different ways. The musical on Broadway, for example. That is wonderful. But I don�t actually work on it. It�s been done by Elton John and Bernie Taupin and they share it all with me, but I don�t do anything. I�m finished with that. I�m consumed with this. This is all I want to do. And there�s so much to be done! If I live long enough, if I finish the whole life of Christ, that�s four books. That�s going to take an enormous amount of study, experience, meditation. It will take everything from me. I don�t have any time or energy left for those other books. And also, to me, Blood Canticle, the last of the Chronicles, really said it all. It was a very sophisticated book in which the hero resigned as the hero, and I was pretty happy with it. I felt it was done�I will go broke rather than write another vampire book.
What were the stumbling blocks in your path back to the Catholic Church? How did you overcome them, or not?
Of course I had many questions, but I put them aside. I simply felt an overwhelming desire to come back, to go to Communion, so I asked the Lord to help me.
I am an orthodox Catholic, in many ways. I�m a very old fashioned Catholic. I prefer the Latin Mass. I love the liturgy. I love the wisdom of the saints. I�m very old fashioned in many respects. But I�m also very liberal socially. I hope and dream of a day when the Church stops this obsession with sexual behavior and moves on to what I think the message of Christ is. Our churches as institutions can get awfully caught up in tradition and custom and local bigotry, really, and we have to always question that. What does Jesus really want of us? We have to separate guarding our traditions from guarding what Christ said. So I�m a liberal Catholic in that regard but an orthodox Catholic in others.
Rice makes real the stories so many�even so many Christians�want to disregard as myths.
And also, I�m a card-carrying, contributing member of my Church. To Catholics like me, who were exposed to a lot of Catholic history as kids, it�s not surprising that there�s corruption in the hierarchy. That�s been seen all through the history of the Church. They had good popes and bad popes, good priests and bad priests, and Catholics like me take all that in stride. We don�t let that discourage us. We don�t quit because of the pedophilia scandal. We don�t quit because of a particular social issue.
You say in the author�s note to Christ the Lord that you�ve consecrated your work to Christ. What does that mean to you?
It means that I will only write what reflects my current state of mind. I will write as a Christian.
Why write a book in the first person, from the point of view of Christ?
It�s what I do best as a writer. It�s an art. It takes a great deal of skill, but I hope to meet up to the demands of it. I study Dickens all the time to see how he did it, with David Copperfield and with Pip in Great Expectations.
But how was the experience different, writing from the point of view of Christ?
Well, it was very tough. Christ, in my view, is God. He�s God and man. And he put aside his omniscience and his divine knowledge in order to experience things as a human being, through temptation and pain and suffering. I think scripture tells us pretty clearly that�s what really happened with Christ. So to write from the first person point of view with that character took a lot of control. I was trying to get the character in whom I believe; I wasn�t making somebody up. I had to be very careful. But it�s not very different than writing any book. Even if you�re writing a book about a total fantasy character, you are trying to get an authentic feel, a coherence, for that character. It�s just that the rules about that coherence were a little different with this one.
And why not write in first person from the point of view of another character?
Because it�s been done. Over and over.
How did the writing of this book deepen your faith?
It made me put my money where my mouth was. If I said I believed in Jesus as the son of the Virgin Mary, it made me work it out�how it could have been day to day. What was the experience like? It�s very easy to say you believe in Jesus, you believe in the Magi and the Virgin Mary. But if you really believe this, then you believe it happened in time. It was a day to day thing. It really occurred. And I had to work out how it might have gone down�what the probable reality was. How people were whispering in Nazareth about Mary. How Jesus might have had to talk his way into the synagogue, because there was some question about his birth. I had to work that out�a probable reality. Of course it�s fiction. I�m not writing anything but fiction. But the whole idea of the fiction is to bring people closer to that story. And to be absolutely faithful to that story.
'If I said I believed in Jesus as the son of the Virgin Mary, I had to work out how it might have gone down�what the probable reality was.'
Your treatment of the infancy narratives, for example, is faithful to the Gospels. The book�s greatest achievement, for me, is that it makes the story seem not only plausible, but likely.
Exactly�that was the idea for the whole book.
Some critics have lamented that you didn�t do something more �literary.�
Yeah, but that�s easy. Anybody can do something other than the Gospel accounts. The big challenge was to do them. But sure, there are people who feel that way. There have been a few reviews by people who expected a liberal, �Jesus Seminar� Jesus. They wanted me to question. That�s fine. But those reviews aren�t of any use. They are asking the book to be something other than what it�s telling you it is.
The prose in the book has been described as incantatory, prayerful, restrained. Do you see your writing now as a form of prayer?
There are a few moments in the book in which the child Jesus� thoughts turn to prayers, and he unexpectedly enters an almost ecstatic state. What was it like to write those scenes?
Oh, it was a great pleasure. You can�t write scenes like that by plan. The character falls into reflection and experiences recognition or joy�you only discover that as you�re writing. You work up to it. You enter a scene knowing what you want to achieve, but you have to accommodate the surprises as they come. And one of the best surprises is the deepening of the scene: the character goes forward, leaps beyond what you�ve done up to that point in the book. I�m very grateful when that happens. For years, as an agnostic when I was writing, I was grateful to fate when that happened. Now, I�m grateful that as a Christian I might be able to capture an experience like that [prayer], and that it may be of value to somebody.
The book was exhaustively researched, and you say you spend a lot of time reading Biblical scholarship. Are you inspired by Catholic fiction writers�O�Connor, Green, Percy, Waugh?
I�ve never cared for the writing of Flannery O�Connor. I simply didn�t respond very well to it. I read a lot of her short stories and I found they were very depressing to me. She writes about people for whom I didn�t feel like she had a lot of compassion. I find it very hard to write about people I dislike or despise. I tend to write about people I love or admire. I wasn�t able to connect with her. I haven�t read Percy. I look forward to doing that.
I tell you the truth, I�m handicapped when it comes to fiction. I read so much nonfiction. I concentrate so totally on what I�m doing, that I don�t know what�s going on with other Christian writers. Of course I saw the movie The Passion, and I loved it. I greatly admire Mel Gibson. I also saw Zeffirelli�s miniseries about Jesus, made in the 70s. And I thought that was masterly�just a wonderful piece of work. I�m more up on that kind of thing. I tend to protect myself from other people�s fiction, because it�s imaginative, and what I�m doing is imaginative, and I don�t want to confuse the two�theirs and mine. I mean, ideally, I think a writer should be able to read other people and be fed by that, inspired. But I�m not a fast enough reader of fiction. I�m so behind!
'I want to make Christ real for people who have never thought about Him, or don�t consider Him real. Which is the vast majority of people.'
The fiction I do read tends to be Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. I�ve read the Bronte sisters, and three or four Dickens novels transformed my life. When I have time to read fiction, I go to the classics. And sometimes I read popular fiction just to learn better what I�m doing. I like to read detective novels because the first person voice is so intimate in them. Raymond Chandler, for example. It helps me, technique-wise, to get really close to a character. And I love Hemingway. I read a lot of him. But I�m just not somebody who can keep up with current fiction.
Do we need more Christian fiction?
Of course. It�s our duty to tell the Christian story over and over again. Those of us who are doing it now for the first time are doing it for a new generation.
We need to do more Christian art of all kinds. Everything from stained glass windows to motion pictures to beautiful pieces of music. Art can give you an experience of Jesus that is available to everybody. Art seeks to resolve theological questions by the use of specific images, I think--to embody ideas--rather than long verbal arguments. It seeks to move you emotionally so that you accept in a way that you may not be able to intellectually if you�re dealing with argument. And I think that�s a magnificent thing.
Like The Vampire Chronicles, Christ the Lord is concerned with the meaning of human suffering and the purpose of existence. Mary warns her son that �the darkness always tries to swallow the light. But the light will shine.� And at the end of the book, the child Jesus says: �I was sent to be alive�to breathe and sometimes to cry.� This is an exhilarating moment of discovery for the character.
Do these moments reflect epiphanies from your own life, your own return to faith?
Sure they do. If you write holding nothing back, it�s going to reflect everything you know. Everything you�ve realized. It takes some skill to go that deep. But it�s what I have to do. And it�s what I�ve learned to do.
What do you ultimately want to accomplish with this series?
What every author hopes for every book is absolutely true for this series: That it be good. That it be a positive thing for everybody who reads it. That it empower. That it make a significant contribution. But I also want to make Christ real for people who have never thought about Him, or don�t consider Him real. Which is the vast majority of people.