In 1976, nearly 80 years after Bram Stoker published Dracula, Anne Rice's bestselling first novel, Interview with the Vampire, reinvented the vampire myth. Rice recast the undead as a secret society of decadent aesthetes, alternately entranced by the world's beauty and haunted by spiritual despair. Set largely in the author's home city of New Orleans, the book created a fantasy underworld rich and compelling enough to sustain its writer and readers through nine sequels, known collectively as The Vampire Chronicles.
Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, she said later, "without ever realizing I was writing about loss. I was writing about my daughter's loss [Rice's daughter died in 1972]. And I was writing about my loss of Catholic faith long before that, because I had lost my faith in the year 1960, when I first went to college."
After her first book, Rice continued to write about loss -- and about vampires, witches and demons -- for more than 25 years. She also wrote, under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure, the Beauty series, an erotic retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty; writing as Anne Rampling, she published two other novels, Exit to Eden and Belinda.
But it is as the queen of gothic fiction that Anne Rice's fans know her best. Her fans are passionate about her, and she returns the sentiment, e-mailing tirelessly with them and occasionally posting on their blogs. She also adores communing with them in person on book tours: "They give me personal, priceless and unforgettable feedback and verification of what I have achieved for them in my books," she once explained in a Salon interview.
After Blood Canticle was released in 1993, her readers, accustomed to an output of one book a year, kept asking her what was coming next. "And I've told them, 'You may not want what I'm doing next'," she said in a Newsweek interview.
They were in for a surprise. In 1998, Rice had returned to the Roman Catholic Church, and in 2005 she published Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a novel about the childhood of Jesus, narrated by himself.
"It's the most startling public turnaround since Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming announced that he'd been born again," wrote David Gates in Newsweek.
But as Rice sees it, Christ the Lord represents the fulfillment of a longing that has been in her books, and in her soul, all along.
"This subject is in no way a departure from that of my previous works; no one who knows my work could possibly think so," she said in a Q&A on her publisher's Web site. "The whole theme of Interview with the Vampire was Louis's quest for meaning in a godless world. He searched to find the oldest existing ‘immortal' simply to ask ‘What is the meaning of what we are?' I was always compelled to seek the ‘big answers.'"
Christ the Lord received mixed reviews, but many critics were as impressed with the book's style as its ambitious subject matter. "Rice's book is a triumph of tone -- her prose lean, lyrical, vivid -- and character," noted Kirkus Reviews. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times Book Review: "Even in biblical times and in the Holy Land, Rice retains her obsessions with ritual and purification, with lavish detail and gaudy decor. But she writes this book in a simpler, leaner style, giving it the slow but inexorable rhythm of an incantation. The restraint and prayerful beauty of Christ the Lord is apt to surprise her usual readers and attract new ones."
Some of those usual readers, of course, are now wondering whether she will write any more vampire novels. Will the vampire Lestat ever return?
Anne's response, from her publisher's Web site: "I can't see myself doing that. My vampires were metaphors for the outsiders, the lost, the wanderers in the darkness who remembered the warmth of God's light but couldn't find it. My wish to explore that is gone now. I want to meet a much bigger challenge."
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In our exlusive interview, Rice shared some fascinating stories with us:
"My first job was as a cafeteria waitress at a Walgreen's cafeteria over the drugstore on Canal and Baronne Street in New Orleans when I was sixteen years old. What a plunge into reality. Canal Street was then the only downtown in town. And I was in fact a boarding school student and unbeknownst to the principal, Sr. Felix, took this job on weekends. When she found out, she did not approve of a St. Joseph's Academy girl being a waitress. I was undeterred. I had discovered that I could turn time into money. I never forgot that lesson. The crashing boredom of childhood was over!"
"I was employed from then on a shocking variety of low level jobs, including grill cook at a huge downtown cafeteria in San Francisco. I had to be there at 5:00 a.m., and once while I was en route on a bus, a drunken man fell asleep against me. The conductor had to wake him up for me to get off, poor guy. I think he'd staggered out of an after hours club. I was a crack waitress, a receptionist, a claims examiner, a theatre usherette in a big Cinerama house, and must have seen It's Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World over one hundred times while standing there with a flashlight. My last job in the straight world -- after motherhood -- was that of proofreader for a law book company. I hated it. Then my devoted husband Stan, who was already teaching and had been for some time, said, 'Stay home and write, I believe in you.' And I wrote Interview with the Vampire."
"I was a painfully slow reader. Never really read a novel for pure pleasure until I was 35. It was Ordinary People by Judith Guest. Thought it very good."
"How do I unwind? There are different levels to unwind. The primo way for me is to read history or some form of involving scholarship. A good book on an obscure subject. The recent bestseller Krakatoa by Simon Winchester was a wonderful example! That's a delicious unwind book. And there are others out there like that. The British writers seem especially good at it. But I can't get enough on how or why the Roman Empire fell. That's my idea of a good evening. To be in Florida with the deck door open to the roar of the waves, and a good book open to pages on the decline of paganism."
"But! There is another kind of unwind. The gripping fiction bestseller that takes two days. The Da Vinci Code is a good example. Every now and then I have time for that. I was smiling all the way through it. At one time in my life, I had read everything I could find on the Knights Templar (see First Way to Unwind, above), and on Opus Dei, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and so I was just tickled by what the author did with the material. And of course, I couldn't stop reading. Such cleverness, such a puzzle and right up to the last page."
"Interest and hobbies: well, my interests are pretty much literary, except for maintaining two pre-Civil War houses in New Orleans (both family homes, one used for Mardi Gras season entertaining), and then I do devote some attention to my doll collection, which includes a small assortment of French antique dolls -- but this part of my life is drawing to a close. I am divesting myself of possessions rather than acquiring them. I am decorating, yes, and redecorating, but cutting down on the area, and the amount of things I have to maintain. I've let go of my huge property, St. Elizabeth's Orphanage -- a monster building which used to house my doll collection and so many other things. It was the fulfillment of dreams for about 10 years for me and so many other people. Weddings, book signings, book parties, benefits, fundraisers -- all kinds of events were held there. We even hosted President Clinton there. But that chapter of my life is over. For those ten years I asked 'what if?' many times. And I found out and as the result I am a satisfied person and a happy one. But it's over."
"I guess you could call my cats a hobby. I have five of them, all Siberians and very lovable and demanding and sweet. They are keepers certainly. Other than that, I don't know that I have hobbies so much as passions, and my passions center around my writing."
"My only other diversion of late is seeing that The Witching Hour will soon be made into a television limited series -- that is, a mini-series that will extend over 10 hours. The scripts that have been written by writer-producer John Wilder are very simply wonderful -- profoundly faithful to the material and the characters. Our producer, Mark Wolper, is extraordinarily dedicated and we have the network behind us. It looks very good."
"Other news looming is that Elton John and Rob Roth are making a musical based on the Vampire Chronicles for Broadway. I've talked to Elton John several times. He's absolutely charming. I've heard the first five songs, performed by him, and they were great. Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, and will write the lyrics for all. The other people involved have top credits. The treatment I read was a wonder -- very true to the books, quite terrific. My conversation with Rob Roth was very exciting."
"What I've learned from both these experiences so far -- the television series and the Broadway production -- is that the passion of people makes all the difference in the world. And sometimes it is the passion of a few key people that moves a project forward. Sometimes one person alone goes to the hard work of getting everybody else together, and making the studio that owns the underlying rights respond. People who love the work, who want to make something of it, can be brought together by that one key person. That one key person has to believe that past disappointments or failed connections don't mean anything. When you have that sort of person, something can happen."
"I've also learned that the author of the books usually can't do it. Not unless she wants to stop being an author altogether and move to L.A. or N.Y. and become a producer."
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In the fall of 2003, Anne Rice took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I find that answers to this question change with the season. Right now, I would say that Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens were the two books that most powerfully influenced me to write.
But at other times I come up with other answers. I can't underestimate the enormous power of Hemingway's writing on me when I was a young woman, or of Virginia Woolf or of what an effect Shakespeare had on me once I was able to wallow in his writing for pleasure. One whole summer of my life was given over to reading Anna Karenina out loud, and that was an immense influence. On the Road by Jack Kerouac greatly empowered me. I can't isolate one single book. Each book broke down walls for me. Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Lolita swept me off my feet. All of this went into the brew before I really hit my stride.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Bear in mind that this is an "As of the Moment" list:
Anna Karinena by Leo Tolstoy -- Because he wrote of women in the same way he wrote about men -- with the same devotion and detail. He was utterly impartial. He wrote of the domestic and the spiritual with the same dignity. He wrote of the sensual and the spiritual with the same clarity. I was enthralled.
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens -- I am convinced it's a piece of madness. It rambles on and on, transfixing one as Little Nell and her grandfather wander, sometimes in near hallucinatory language, describing one detailed scene after another, one comic, another tragic, all riveting. It is a spell, not a book. The writing is masterly. It is a dream.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- A masterpiece about the life of one character, a book greater than the author ever knew, creating a character greater than the author ever realized, in Pip, and Pip's dreams and what he learned about life through his ambitions. Beautifully crafted, and full of pain, and enduring images such as that of Mrs. Havisham in her rotted wedding dress and with her rotted wedding cake upon its cobwebbed table.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fodor Dostoevsky -- Characters of immense spirit, dashing to and fro, disclaiming madly from their souls, the plot whirling -- the whole so spiritually beyond the ambitions of our American novels as to leave us utterly shaken after we read it. A goad, a conflagration.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway -- A complete fantasy presented as reality; exquisitely crafted, perhaps the highest achievement of Hemingway's novels, and one of the most engulfing. You can slip into its world. I learned much from it.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte -- The character of Jane leads, grips, and holds you as you travel through the levels of darkness, abuse, and humiliation; a book of stunning loneliness and suffering. The effect of it is probably mutated entirely by each passing score of years as we get farther and farther away from the time in which it was written and the great country house of Mr. Rochester becomes more and more fantastic. But the underlying theme remains the same: that Jane can survive what she has to survive if she holds to her principles.
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence -- A shocking novel because it dips right into the raw world of the coal minors and their limited family existence and elevates it to the level of Shakespearean drama, full of wondrous passion, boldly and generously written. I loved it. And the ending was brutal and unforgettable.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers -- A graceful, beautifully paced book which taught me to think about different points of view in a novel, and how to weave them together with respect for all, and to take my time to bring them in contact with each other, a book about alienation and loneliness, and a book full of the author's love for her characters and their predicament, a book full of particularly southern generosity and sensitively. Very lovely. Very instructive.
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers -- Unforgettable story of one little girl growing up in a southern town and going through an awkward stage in her life, told in the simplest words, yet so beautifully, with the characters of the black housekeeper and the little boy next door exquisitely drawn, all part of a drama that talks of love and need and hope so tenderly. Wonderful, wonderful book. Sad. Terrific.
The Fourth Gospel by John -- "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." Unparalleled poetry. Strange language. Enthralling.You go back and back to it. At first you don't know why, and then you start to think about all kinds of thing, like the man who wrote it, and when and how. You realize what it contains that the other gospels don't. But the language, that's the thing. In the beginning was the Word. Yes, it was a common concept, but where do you remember reading it? In the Fourth Gospel.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Evita, because it told the full life of a character, her rise, her demise. Madonna's performance was magical. Antonio Banderas was remarkable also.
La Dolce Vita -- A life-changing film, the type of film that shakes you out of all your presumptions, cracks the frame of your existence.
The Godfather -- Of course, the beginning of an era of American masterpieces that were equal to the earlier foreign films of the sixties.
Raging Bull -- A tour-de-force for DeNiro, a symphony of violent language.
The Red Shoes -- The kind of classic that sustains you through the most arid and repressive parts of your life.
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet -- A masterpiece. So was his Henry V.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like many kinds of music, particularly baroque and classical, rock, and country and western. I never listen to music when writing. I have to hear the rhythm of my sentences. Music is too intoxicating for me to have it on most of the time. When I listen I surrender. I'm a huge fan of Beethoven, of Vivaldi, of Elvis.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Dickens, of course, because he's too neglected now, and Kafka because more people need to know his short stories, and Hemingway's short stories because each and every one is genius, and people have forgotten that.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Art books -- big lush books with full color illustrations, like books on Medieval altar pieces or on the works of Sodoma, or Cranach, or Andrea del Sarto or lesser known masters; books with big richly produced illustrations of the miniatures in medieval prayer books, books that deliver works of enduring value right into your hands and into your home, books that can lie on your desk, bedside table, etc.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have open books in archaeological layers, and it takes a digger to get through them, I tell you. What a mess, but it's the way I work, searching and piling, and compiling. I'm a writer who uses books, and I love allusions. There are lots of allusions in my work, and lots of thorough research. I have fun with it, always have.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I developed slowly and in secret. My rejection slip period lasted nine months with the manuscript of Interview with the Vampire and involved five rejection slips, some of which were just hilariously negative. I just went right on pushing. I think I was fortunate. But I didn't really try to be published until I was thirty-four, and had a complete book in my hands. And then that complete book was rewritten and greatly expanded after its acceptance by Knopf.
My apprenticeship was really a private affair, during the years of my wandering from course to course as an unclassified graduate, reading widely and bumping into subjects at random, and typing away into the night, searching for my voice, and then "discovering" it in the character of my vampire hero, Louis. It was an eccentric path.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Live and write as if you were already discovered. Demand respect and time for yourself as a writer as if you were already published and famous. Consider yourself a consummate professional even if you moonlight in a garage or at a kitchen table. This is how great writers are made.
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