Lynn Vincent is a writer for World, fourth largest newsweekly in the U.S.
Though she is a novelist, Anne Rice sees the world the way a painter might, in subtleties of light and shadow: the pale edge of dawn, the flat ink of a starless midnight, goodness for some an elusive beacon, evil an alluring shroud.
She was known for shrouds. Mrs. Rice spent nearly three decades sculpting a reputation as literary queen of the damned—and now, at age 64, she has declared that canon closed. After rejecting her Catholic faith nearly half a century ago, she says she is reconciled with God and dedicating the rest of her life to writing only for—and about—Jesus Christ.
Her first novel of this kind, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Knopf), hit stores on Nov. 1. The first-person narrative of Jesus as a young boy follows Jesus from His family's hiding in Egypt back to Jerusalem and Nazareth, where He slowly learns His true identity. The story emanates the light of nascent majesty, in stark contrast with the gaslight gloom of Mrs. Rice's earlier work, and is the first in a projected series.
Mrs. Rice's previously celebrated series began in 1974 with Interview with the Vampire, in which a young reporter interviews Louis, an eloquent and introspective vampire who has been seduced by the cunning master-vampire, Lestat. Louis relates the tangle of desire, moral struggle, and grief that marked his transition from humanity to the undead, and other books populated with erudite witches and vampires followed.
In Mrs. Rice's books—she's sold 50 million worldwide—characters who are undeniably evil also search for significance and long for God, sometimes narrowly missing a chance for spiritual redemption. Still, her sensual and unflinchingly graphic writing is a marketer's delight: In one book, for example, Lestat drinks the blood of Jesus. That's why her literary turnabout has sparked a national discussion. As for her return to faith, Mrs. Rice said she is surprised "people are so interested, that they really care about this. I didn't know that they would."
Some longtime fans of her occult literature care so much that they are attacking Mrs. Rice's new literary direction: One complained online about "the most disturbing angle on religion that I've ever heard in my life. Anne Rice? Writing as Jesus? Would someone please commit this woman?" Another fan assured Mrs. Rice in an e-mail that he wouldn't be in line at any Christ the Lord book signings.
But those signings—in Miami, Birmingham, Chicago, and elsewhere—remain crowded as they have for decades. "The old readers are still showing up," she said, "but new readers are coming in all the time, and more with each signing." Many in the latter group are Christians, discovering Mrs. Rice and her history for the first time.
The history began with Roman Catholic commitment. Born in New Orleans in 1941, she was named Howard Allen O'Brien, after her father. But on the first day of Catholic school, she told the nuns her name was Anne and it stuck. The O'Brien family lived on the edges of the city's fabled Garden District, where young Anne attended daily Mass at a cavernous and opulent church and went to a school where boys and girls, in separate classes, studied catechism, Bible, and church history.
Her father worked for the post office. Her mother, Katherine, was an alcoholic who died when Anne was only 14. At age 18, while attending San Francisco State University, Anne broke with her childhood faith. Her apostasy, she says, resulted from exposure to a wider world: "I stopped believing that [the Catholic Church] was 'the one true church established by Christ to give grace.'" She also stopped believing in God.
In 1962, in a civil ceremony in Denton, Texas, she married Stan Rice, a poet, painter, and committed atheist whom Mrs. Rice calls "one of the most honorable and conscience-driven people I ever knew." In 1972, the couple suffered through the loss of their first child, Michele, who died of leukemia at age 5. Six years later, their son Christopher, now a Los Angeles novelist, was born.
In the early 1990s the Rices returned to New Orleans, where Mrs. Rice continued to write, often one novel each year. But in 1998, she gradually began to feel again the press of God: "I began to be more and more concerned with my relationship with God in my books. I wanted to be in the company of God, in the company of the drama . . . what we can know, what we don't know, what we believe."
She began attending Mass again and participating in sacraments. In 2000, her husband agreed to remarry her in the church: Despite his own atheism, "he was very supportive about my writing [Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt], and he was fine with me going back to the church. It surprised him, but not that much. I don't think I had ever stopped talking about God."
Painstaking historical research has marked all of Mrs. Rice's novels. Interview with the Vampire, for example, is set in the 18th and 19th centuries. For her new series she wanted to bring to life the "Jewish milieu" in which the boy Jesus grew up: "I had to know what people ate, what they wore, about farming seasons in Galilee, how doors were made, what type of tiles were laid, how often fig trees break into figs—I couldn't have fig trees bearing figs at the wrong time of year!"
Mrs. Rice's research took her through the literature written by those she calls "the skeptical critics," beginning with the New Testament scholars of the Enlightenment. "I expected to discover that their arguments would be frighteningly strong, and that Christianity was, at heart, a kind of fraud," she writes in an author's note in her new book.
But she plowed on, "ready to risk everything," particularly her newly recovered faith: "The skeptical New Testament scholarship tries to prove to you that the Gospels don't hold up. It takes great fortitude to subject yourself to that kind of literature, to seriously take notes, to follow the arguments, to draw conclusions. You could come out destroyed." But she came out concluding that the skeptics were wrong, perpetrators and victims of some of the worst scholarship she'd ever seen, built with poor research and reasoning on a foundation that presumed the Gospels weren't true.
She was working hard—and then, in fall 2002, Mr. Rice showed the first symptoms of brain cancer. In just four months, after 41 years of marriage, he died. Mrs. Rice fought the pain by burrowing deeper, reading archeology books, studies of the Gospels, histories by Josephus, Julius Caesar, and Philo, and exegesis by Ellis Rivkin, Lee Levine, Joachim Jeremias, and others.
She also studied the Bible itself and now owns every translation she knows of, 200 Bibles in all. They are on the shelves of her new home in Southern California, because she also left New Orleans behind last year. She compares the two: "In La Jolla, you don't have the great big old oak trees, the drowsy, shadowy ambience of New Orleans . . . but you have the light from the Pacific. I wanted that. I wanted a new start."
She continued scouring the Gospels herself, not only to absorb the unfolding life of Christ, but to delve into the how of Christianity itself: "I could see that this was a great mystery. How could Christianity bust into the Roman Empire and take over the world in only 200 years? I was looking to see how this thing worked itself out, day by day, month by month, year by year." She came to understand that Christianity achieved what it did because Jesus rose from the dead: That was what made sense of Christianity's spread.
Understanding this, for Mrs. Rice, was a turning point, and there were others, such as the dawning in her mind of the Gospels' "unique coherence, their personalities—the inevitable stamp of individual authorship."
Whether caught up in the book-tour whirl, or padding barefoot in a flannel nightgown in the master bedroom of her 11,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style villa overlooking the Pacific, Mrs. Rice reads day and night. Last month she was grappling with Mere Christianity: "C.S. Lewis opens the door to all kinds of wonderful thoughts I didn't consider before. . . . That Jesus wants to bring us to perfection and that there's no stopping Him . . . and that theories of atonement are not the atonement. We live in a world where people want to spell out how Jesus saved you and that isn't always so helpful. The words are fine. I've understood the words since I was 6 years old. But I wanted to go further than that. I wanted to realize it."
When Mrs. Rice writes and speaks of these discoveries, you sense her heart soaring. Holding her faith dear, like a pearl of great price, she revels in the joy of being able to embrace Christ intellectually, of not having to compartmentalize a faith at odds with history. "I've never been this happy in my life before," she said. "I never expected things to come together like this, to be so completely unified in purpose and intent."
Her previous work also dealt with the supernatural, and now she has moved up to Christ, whom she calls "the ultimate supernatural hero." It is as if, she said, everything in her life was leading her to this moment, that "all of the novels I wrote before were a dress rehearsal for this. It helps you trust in God that there's a purpose for things even when you don't know what it is. Especially if you don't know what it is."
Mrs. Rice hesitates to discuss the next installment in the Christ the Lord series, having frequently spoken about a future work only to have the finished project turn out much differently than she'd predicted. She suspects, though, that Volume 2 will be set in Nazareth and continue until the last year before Jesus leaves home. "But I really don't know," she said.
What she does know, with a simple coalescence of purpose she attributes to faith lost and regained, is that her goal is to write in the first person the story of Christ's entire life: "I feel like I have this wonderful challenge ahead of me . . . that will fill up my whole life until I die. There's so much to study, so much to ponder, so much to write, so much to know. It's like finding a wing on your house that you didn't know was there, opening the door and discovering rooms of treasure."