Interview with a Novelist
“The scope of the suffering and the loss is too great for me to attempt to describe,” says Rice. “I cannot even imagine who or what I would be without my love of New Orleans and the years of growing up in its rich, sensuous and heartbreakingly beautiful environment.”
These days, Rice lives in the La Jolla manse she bought last year. The move wasn’t impulsive—she had been restless, she says, and likely lonely. Her husband of more than 40 years, poet and painter Stan Rice, died in 2002, shortly after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her only son, writer Christopher Rice, had moved to West Hollywood. Rice also may have craved some privacy. Fans in New Orleans were known to camp out in front of her house; sometimes crowds as large as 200 would gather to see her leave for church on Sundays. “I was in this great big house by myself,” says Rice. “Stan was gone. My son was 2,000 miles away. And it occurred to me I could just leave my great big house in the Garden District.”
In the days after Katrina hit, Rice didn’t know if the house she still owned was flooded, if her memorabilia, personal papers, books and first editions of novels had been destroyed. In a posting on her Web site, she wrote, “We do not know the extent of our loss.” (The historical homes described in her books, as well as memorabilia, personal papers and books in storage, were largely undamaged.)
From her perch on Mount Soledad, Rice penned a cathartic piece of nonfiction, a poignant tribute titled “Do You Know What It Means To Lose New Orleans?” Published in The New York Times on September 4, it harshly criticizes the federal government’s response to the disaster.
“You dismissed us,” she writes. “You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble . . . you turned your backs.
Rice was born in New Orleans and lived there until she was 15, when her family moved. She yearned to return and finally did, in 1988, after 32 years away. The city was her muse, a source of creative inspiration and the setting for many of her 26 books. In addition to her writing, Rice spent a considerable amount of time in the city restoring two pre–Civil War houses she owned. In the late 1990s she even arranged public tours of her homes that included stops at Lafayette Cemetery and St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage—a massive white building with 93 rooms (including a chapel) where Rice displayed a large portion of her porcelain doll collection.
She described the magic and beauty of New Orleans for a CNN reporter in 1997: “The sky really does turn violet at twilight. The oak trees really do meet their branches over the street,” she said. “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 my books tremendously.”
IN MARCH, RICE MADE THE MOVE to her new home in La Jolla. She had considered other places, including Santa Fe, New Mexico, but wanted to be near the ocean. “About three or four years ago I stayed at La Valencia Hotel, and I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful place I’ve seen outside of Italy.’ I was there for a book signing at Warwick’s,” says Rice. “So I thought, ‘What if I got a place in La Jolla?’ I found a great real estate agent, Bonnie Adams [of Coldwell Banker], and we found a wonderful house.” It’s large enough to accommodate the family that descends on her throughout the year and especially at holidays, has a writing studio for son Christopher and a view of the Pacific. Sitting in her living room and watching the televised submerging of her beloved New Orleans was miserable for Rice, but she believes the city will rebuild. That hope for the future and faith in renewal may come from her return to the Catholic Church several years ago.
A lifelong history buff, in 1993 Rice became obsessed, she says, with ancient Egypt, the history of Judaism and the origins of Christianity. “My faith came back to me,” she says. “I spent some time with a priest in New Orleans, went to the rectory and gave confession.”
After 30 years she became a Catholic again in 1998, even remarrying her husband—whom Rice describes as a “passionate atheist”—in the church.
Then, during a Sunday morning service in 2002 in New Orleans, Rice had an epiphany. “I was talking to the Lord as I always did, telling him about my books and writing and what I had to do. And there came a great gift to me,” she explains. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to write anything that isn’t for You.’ From the moment I walked out of the church, everything changed. A depression I’d been in for 10 years lifted. I went home and said to my husband, ‘I’m going to do the Jesus Christ book.’ ”
Easier said than done, of course. Rice realized she had years of research ahead of her. She began that research in the fall of 2002. Soon after, her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died four and a half months later. “I still did my research during his illness,” she says. “I felt it was a gift to be able to do it during that period.
Rice knew all-encompassing grief well—she had already lived through the death of her 5-year-old daughter, Michelle, from leukemia in the early 1970s. “You somehow get through it,” she says. “The greatest thing about being a writer is that you can save yourself through your art. We’re very lucky in that regard.”
She threw herself into her research for the book, intellectually devouring apocryphal gospels, infancy gospels, gnostic gospels, the Talmud, biblical legends and literature—in short, “everything I could,” she says. “I read as much as I could find about Judaism and Christianity.”
The result: Her new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, out this month from Random House. CNN has called it the most controversial fiction release this fall.
CHRIST THE LORD is the story of one year in the life of Jesus Christ, who is the 7-year-old narrator of the book. How does one write in the voice of a 7-year-old Jesus?
“I tried to remember what it was like to be 7, and did a lot of period research,” says Rice. “The boy Jesus has an awareness that he is God, but it’s gradual and uneven, because what I set out to do—and I don’t think anyone else has done this before—is to get the politics, history, sociology and geography of the time right.” She wanted to make Jesus real, the Jesus who is godin- man, who was born of a virgin and visited by shepherds and angels. “I wanted to find out what it felt like to be inside his head,” she says.
Rice has been criticized in blogs and pre-release reviews as being an unlikely candidate to tackle the subject of Christ. She is best known for writing about vampires, mummies and witches, and has had a great deal of influence on goth youth subculture. Many of Rice’s novels have had sadomasochistic and erotic themes. How the faith ful—and the not-so-faithful—will feel about her sacred project remains to be seen.
In a lengthy author’s note—described in the September issue of Elle as “fairly unhinged”—Rice tries to explain why she wrote the book. “I’m not a priest,” she writes. “I’ll never be able to go to the altar of the Lord and say the words of consecration at Mass. . . . No, I can’t work that magnificent Eucharistic miracle. But in humility, I have attempted something transformative, which we writers dare to call a miracle in the imperfect human idiom we possess. It’s to bring Him here in the form of a story, and that story is Christ the Lord.”
Presumptuous, perhaps. But the book does start out strong, with the boy Jesus killing a bullying playmate by using a special power he possesses. He brings the playmate back to life after cousin Salome whispers to him, “Just make him come alive, Jesus, the way you made the birds come alive.”
This is clearly a different Anne Rice —a woman no longer preoccupied with the meaninglessness of life, no longer an outsider. In a 1996 interview published on Salon.com, Rice said that when she wrote Interview with a Vampire she was terrified “that God did not exist. I was in a panic over it.” Her characters’ despair in that novel “was a reflection of my feeling of being cast out, having lost my Catholic faith, having lost my mother, having lost my child,” she said.
Those days are behind her. Rice’s return to religion—and she concedes it’s a difficult time to be returning because of all “the bad things that have happened” in the church—straddles the line between devotion and zealotry. Rice says it’s her mission to “make people think about Jesus for the first time,” yet she’s still a far cry from fundamentalist.
“I cannot and will not be put in a position of hating anyone or shutting anyone out,” she says. “I think the basic message of Christ was to go to everyone, to love and embrace them. And that takes all my effort. I don’t have time in my life to be hating people.”