By Sheridan VoyseyWednesday 8 May 2013Open House InterviewsGuests and ArtistsReading Time: 18 minutes
For years Anne Rice was the queen of dark supernatural stories—the atheist behind Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Vampire Armand, Queen of the Damned, Memnoch the Devil and other gothic tales. Why, then, would a vampire writer with one hundred million books in print start writing a fictional series on the life of Christ?
In recent years Anne Rice has had a change of heart. In a most enjoyable Open House conversation, Anne shared how her earlier works revealed her own inner spiritual restlessness, how she went looking for answers, and finally returned to faith. Along the way we discuss doubt and beauty, loss and hope, her Christ the Lord project and why she won’t renounce those old vampire novels.
I’ve got to read a little bit from the latest book Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana:
Is it possible that Christ the Lord is a carpenter in the town of Nazareth, a man past thirty years of age, and one of a family of carpenters, a family of men and women and children that fill ten rooms of an ancient house, and, that in this winter of no rain, of endless dust, of talk of trouble in Judea, Christ the Lord sleeps in a worn woollen robe, in a room with other men beside a smoking brazier? Is it possible that in that room, asleep, he dreams?
Yes, I know it’s possible. I am Christ the Lord. I know. What I must know, I know. And what I must learn, I learn.
And in this skin, I live and sweat and breathe and groan.
Beautiful work which has gotten you much acclaim. It’s a long way from Interview with the Vampire though, isn’t it?
It is. It’s a very long way, but you know it has all been one long journey, one long quest. I’ve been very, very blessed in that regard. I learned a lot along the way, writing those other books, and when I turned to the Lord a lot of that craft and skill—whatever I’d been mercifully allowed to acquire—has been something that I have been able to use.
Twenty-eight novels and counting, plus historical works and more. Looking over your catalogue of work, which book in your mind is your finest?
Do you mean before the books for Christ?
In the earlier work I would say the most important book was probably Memnoch the Devil because it was the book where I was asking—desperately asking—for answers and asking theological questions. Of course, it ends sadly and tragically because I didn’t have the answers yet. But I think it is the most rich of all the books that I wrote and possibly the one that goes the farthest in knocking on the door and begging the Lord to let me back in, even though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing when I wrote it.
Yes, I was going to ask you what those previous books actually say about who you were at the time you wrote them.
I think they show unhappiness and I think they show despair. I think they show the mind of a person who has become convinced that there is no God, that faith is not possible, and they show the darkness of that world. There is a protest going on in those books. Lestat and Louie and Armand—the vampire heroes and heroines in those books, they protest, they shake their fist at the night and say ‘we want to find some meaning.’ It’s me sort of having a fight with myself. I became convinced early on that God didn’t exist and that faith was impossible and those books are about rebellion. I think that is why they appeal to so many young readers who are going through their rebellion against God right now or their terrible rebellion against their parents or against their religion. I think they identify a lot with the characters in those books and I only hope that they’ll come along with me to the new books too.
Interview with the Vampire made you famous. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst starred in the movie adaptation. The meaning of the story is quite similar to what you’ve just outlined, isn’t it?
It is, yeah. Interview with Vampire is about a person giving up on God and giving up on faith and then suffering the consequences—a dark descent into a hellish world where the only thing that can console him is physical beauty. I think they got it perfectly in the movie. The movie captured the despair of the book and also the love of beauty that the characters have, what keeps them going in the book.
I’ve been writing a lot recently on that issue of beauty and I wonder whether God uses beauty when he can’t get through to us in any other way; to awaken us to the fact that in some way beauty reflects something of his very nature.
Oh that’s a wonderful thing you just said. I think that is exactly what happens. I think beauty is his way of telling us on a most basic level that he is here that he made this world and he made this universe. Why else would we be so sensitive to beauty? Why else would cry at the sight of a beautiful tree caught in the wind and all of its limbs dancing in the wind? Why would we feel that if it wasn’t for God?
I’m with you. I read somewhere that you said if you had your time over again you wouldn’t use the word ‘vampire’. But there was a specific reason why you used that metaphor, wasn’t there?
Well, in 1976 when Interview with the Vampire was published I felt it was a fairly clean word to use for a creature of the night. But since that time we have seen so much cheapening of the word; so much popular vampire fiction has been written that people get the wrong impression about Interview with the Vampire. Actually, they got the wrong impression at the time. They dismissed the book and didn’t realise that it was in many respects a metaphysical thriller. So, if I had it to do over again I would probably use the word ‘immortal’ and it would be completely obvious to the reader that we are talking about a vampire immortal, but at least immortal would have more dignity to it.
You used the word to kind of signify the outcast as well, didn’t you?
To me the vampire was the perfect metaphor for the outcast, the perfect metaphor because he looks human and sounds human and is partly human and yet he’s not human, and he can’t dwell in the sunshine and he can’t really love and he’s going to outlive those he loves and has to watch them die. It was the perfect metaphor for the person who has lost faith and lost any promise of eternity and yet is doomed to go on in the darkness, looking, searching, hoping.
Anne, let’s talk about your faith then. You turned your back on your Catholic upbringing back in your teens. What was the catalyst for that?
Well, it happened to me in college. It was the first year of college and I wanted to know all about the modern world and I made the mistake of thinking that I couldn’t talk to God about the doubts I had and the questions I had. I made the mistake of thinking that I had to abandon my religion to go out and discover what existentialism was and what the modern world really was and I think it was the world more than anything else that led me away. You know they say we fight the world, the flesh and the devil? With me it was more the world than anything else.
You mentioned there doubts that you had. What kind of doubts did you have back then, if you don’t mind me prying?
Well, I was very young, we have to keep that in mind—I was 18. It was hard for me to understand how Christianity could be a true religion when there were so many millions of people who had never heard of it. When you’re young you jump to conclusions; you think, ‘ah, that means it’s not true. That means it’s all a façade.’ It’s only as you get older that you realise that God solves these problems. He’ll get to everybody. He has his own way of reaching the millions who we think have never heard his name. He has his own way of giving them their moment. I didn’t realise that.
I had been brought up very strictly Catholic, in a very sheltered Catholic world, and suddenly I was out in the Protestant secular world and my faith cracked. It was brittle. And I made the mistake of stopping my prayers. If I had just talked to God; if I had gone to him and said, ‘this is a terrible time of doubt, help me with this.’ But I didn’t do that. I just backed off from the dilemma and went to seek what I thought was the truth in the writings of the existentialists in the modern world.
Something else that you’ve been public about is the loss of your daughter Michelle to Leukaemia back in 1972. She was only 5 years old. That would send any parent into a tail spin. How did it affect you and your outlook on life?
I think it greatly darkened my outlook on life. I was already an atheist. I didn’t leave the church because of this, but it certainly wasn’t something that was likely to encourage me to return. I never took it personally. You know, beautiful children die. This is one of the things that happens in the random world in which we live. But it certainly darkened my view and darkened my whole emotional approach to life, and that came out in Interview with the Vampire. When I was writing about the child vampire Claudia and how she would never grow up, I was writing in my own way about my daughter without realising it. I was putting things in symbolic terms.
Have you seen that happen very often—you look back on your work and say, ‘I didn’t realise it at the time but that’s what I was doing’?
Oh, definitely. When I write I’m not terribly conscious of the symbolic meaning of what I am doing. I trust that it’s there. I get very wrapped up in my story and I go for an authentic feeling and I trust that the deeper meanings will be there. If you give everything to the book—if you really delve and you go for the pain and you go for the pleasure and you go for the absolute truth of what you know about anything—that book is going to have some depth to it and it’s bound to happen. And so often I am going back and looking and realising now how much they are codes or allegories of what was going on in my life at the time.
Your son Christopher—who is now a successful author in his own right—was born to you and Stan, your husband, in 1978. His birth had quite an effect on you and Stan, didn’t it?
We were very heavy drinkers and we weren’t facing it and when Christopher came along he really saved us. It was a gift from God, really, to have this child. We both did something we thought was impossible—we quit drinking altogether. We just stopped in the summer of 1979 and we never drank again. And really it was Christopher; it was looking at that child in the crib and thinking, well, we don’t want him to have parents who are drunks.
Wow. So, you’ve embraced atheism; you’re in this life of darkness, as you say put it. When did the questions start to surface again in your mind and heart, to the point where you couldn’t push them away any longer?
It was the 1990s. I was back in New Orleans and I was very successful as a writer. My books were number 1 best-sellers at that time. But the more I studied history, the more I read about the past, the more I kept asking myself what Christianity was about. How did it start? How did it manage to take over the whole Roman Empire? How did the Jews manage to survive all these centuries? I began to be plagued by these questions and I realised that I was obsessed with these questions because I had never stopped loving God. I had told myself I couldn’t believe in him, but I had never stopped loving him. And I saw God everywhere that I looked. I saw him in history, and I think it was studying history that drew me back in a sort of active day to day way. But beneath that was an undercurrent, a yearning to return, a yearning to go back and to say, ‘look, I am not an atheist. This is all fake. I love you. I believe that you’re there. I believe that you made us. I believe you made everything.’
I finally thought to myself, ‘look, you’ve been obsessed with these theological questions now for a couple of years. Why don’t you just go back? He will help you with this.’ And finally there came that moment where I just, I felt like I just turned to him and said, ‘I want to come home.’
Tell me about that moment. Where were you and what happened?
I was in my office, actually, in my house in New Orleans. It was a Sunday afternoon as I remember it, and I called downstairs to my assistant Amy who was a religion teacher. She worked on the weekends for me as a secretary. I said, ‘do you know a priest that I can go to see, to go to confession, to go back?’ And she said she did. She called back a few minutes later and said, ‘he is there right now.’ We got in the car and we went, and I went to confession. It was about two hours of talking with this priest about everything, and I was accepted back into the Catholic Church. I was overjoyed. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Then I had to come home and tell my husband.
How did he react?
He reacted very well, as a matter of fact. I came home and I told him. I said, ‘I’ve gone back to the Catholic Church and this means that we have to be married in the Catholic Church,’ and to my utter amazement he said, ‘fine, I’ll do it.’ I hadn’t expected that. He was an atheist all his life and a rather intellectual atheist, just as I had been an intellectual agnostic, and I was afraid that he was going to rebel. He didn’t. He had great respect for the ceremony and for my desire to do it and he was clearly willing and we were married within a week in my parish church where I had grown up. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Stan passed away in 2002 from brain cancer. Did he show any interest in faith matters as time went on?
He didn’t talk much about it at all in the last month. But he became extremely loving and extremely kind and extremely concerned that the people who took care of him would get special rewards for what they were doing. He wanted one of them to have her mortgage paid off; he wanted another to have a new truck. He became very concerned and his whole attitude was one of gratitude and love for the people who were helping me take care of him. He also became very, very responsive to beauty. He always had been, but he really saw beauty all around him and I felt that he was in very deep water spiritually and I have no doubt that he was, you know, seeking his moment with God and that God was seeking his moment with Stan.
Now, tell me about that day in 2002 when you’re sitting in church, praying, and you decide to give your whole writing career over to Jesus Christ.
It was a Saturday afternoon and it was right before Mass and I was sitting there and I was doing what I would call ‘negotiating’ with the Lord. I was saying, ‘Lord, I’m yours. I believe in you completely, but I’ve got to write these vampire novels. I have a lot of people dependant on me. This writing is really for you Lord, but it’s convoluted and difficult.’ And suddenly it hit me. It hit me. If I didn’t have the courage to be Mother Teresa, if I didn’t have the courage to give away all I possessed and go follow him, I could give him all that I did. I could give him all my work. I could just say, from this moment forward everything I write will be for you. And I did say that. When I walked out of the church I had no sense of how great a moment it had been. It was only as the days began to pass and I began to reflect on it and get deeper and deeper into my research to write the life of Jesus that I realised that it was the greatest turning point of my life. I was never going to write anything again that didn’t reflect my faith in Christ, my belief in him. It was just quite an incredible experience.
You’ve followed that commitment quite literally with the Christ the Lord series of books—first Out of Egypt and more recently The Road to Cana. What value is there in fictionalising Jesus’ life?
I think the value is to tell the story, to reach somebody with that story who has not yet been reached. Every time we tell the story, whether we stand on a street corner and testify or stand up in church and testify, when we tell that story over again—the story of faith, the story of Jesus, the story of Jesus’ life—we may reach some person who for some reason could not hear it in any other way. I mean, little things people said to me helped me to go back to Jesus, things that they probably never even thought about. The whole hope of the book is to reach somebody new, to reach somebody who nobody else has reached with the life of Jesus, so that maybe they’ll pick up the Bible, maybe they’ll turn to Christ, maybe they’ll think for the first time in their lives that maybe he’s real. Maybe he really did come down here and walk this earth for over 33 years, maybe he did die on the cross for us. Maybe he really did do that. That’s what these books are meant to do. They are meant to present him in a hyper-realistic novel in a way that draws you in, just as you would be drawn into any novel and the hope is that you’ll find yourself completely believing in him and wanting to know more about him.
Kara Martin, our book critic here at Open House, said of The Road to Cana: ‘Anne Rice makes you realise how much of our Jesus may be more ritual and stained glass window than biblical.’
Certainly Jesus’ divinity comes through in the book, but Jesus’ humanity comes through too. It’s this mystery we call the ‘incarnation’—that in Jesus Christ God himself came in human form.
I think that’s my vocation—to make that humanity of Jesus real while never diminishing his divinity. To always remember that Jesus is God and man; he is divine and human. I think it’s my vocation to bring out that humanity, to make people think, I hope, through these books, a little bit more about what the mystery of the incarnation, as you said, meant. This incredible love story that almighty God, the maker of the universe, the maker of the big bang, the maker of everything, actually became a man and lived on this earth for over 33 years.
In Out of Egypt you explore in fictional form what Jesus’ childhood might be like. You include some creative flourishes like him stopping a rain storm and making live sparrows out of lumps of clay. And in The Road to Cana you’ve even introduced a love interest into Jesus’ life. Now, some people will be concerned that you’ve gone beyond the biblical story. What are the boundaries of creative license when it comes to writing about Jesus’ life?
Well, truly, the boundary is the Bible. We have no evidence that Jesus was married and we have no evidence that he was anything but sinless. I mean, this is our doctrine. So, I had to present him as a man who was confronted with temptations, just like every other man. He was a full-blooded man and he was celibate and he was living alone in a society where this was just not accepted—a man was expected to get married. He is not accepted he is not respected and I wanted to show the pressure he was under. And I wanted to answer the DaVinci Code. I wanted to say: look at this picture; let me show you how it might have been for him as a man who did not marry and did not commit sin.
Was there any part of Jesus’ life that you were particularly awestruck by as you wrote?
Oh, I am awestruck by all of it. I’m awestruck by the fact that he was one of us, what he went through, what he endured from other people. Everyday that I pick up the New Testament and read it I am amazed again by something in the Gospels. One of the reasons that I’m taking my time in writing the third book [in the series], about the ministry of Jesus, is because I am so astonished by the things that happen, by the different miracles, by the different reports. Everything about it—his incredible love for us, his patience with us—this is so overwhelming to me, it is so magnificent. This is a God who came down and became one of us, and right now in heaven he has a human body. He ascended into heaven body and soul and this is absolutely overwhelmingly beautiful to me. It’s the most beautiful love story I have ever heard anywhere in any religion, in any body of mythology, or anything. It is the love story of our God sending his only begotten son to live with us and be with us, to be one of us.
Anne, you have gone to great lengths to make it clear that even though you’ve had your Christian conversion you haven’t renounced your previous vampire novels. What value do you see in ‘dark tales’ like those you used to write?
I think that those stories are sincere mirrors of the quest for God. Like many dark stories, you go through the darkness and you finally come out with something affirmative. I think they have that sincerity and they have that depth and I can’t turn my back on them or renounce them. But at the same time, I understand if my new readers don’t want to read them. I just can’t say that they’re bad books; I don’t believe they are. I think dark tales and dark stories have tremendous power. Moby Dick is a dark story; A Christmas Carol by Dickens is a dark story; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Young Goodman Brown is a dark story. There are many dark stories that are essentially about goodness and I hope that those vampire novels are in their own way about the search for the light.
Will the Christ the Lord series be a trilogy or something longer?
I think it’s going to be a quartet. I also have a memoir coming out called Called Out of Darkness which is about growing up Catholic, leaving and then returning. I’m also experimenting with some other kinds of Christian fiction.
Oh? Do tell.
Well, I’m not ready yet to talk about the details, but I would like to do a whole variety of types of Christian writing. I’d love to write a big first-century novel about the Christians and the Romans, my version of The Robe and Quo Vadis. I’d love to write some metaphysical novels like the Vampire Chronicles, only about angels and their activity. But all of this must be Christian writing and it must be for Christ or I can’t do it.