Anne Rice has spent the past three decades making us believe in the supernatural. Whether she was writing about the vampire Lestat in her 1976 debut Interview with the Vampire, the Mayfair family of witches in The Witching Hour or the X-rated adventures of a libidinous Sleeping Beauty under her nom de erotica A.N. Roquelaure, Rice's great gift has always been to combine extensive research with an effusive, lyrical prose style to engage us in the human drama of her not-altogether-human collection of souls. But even Rice's loyal legion of fans may not be prepared for the dramatic sea change her life and work have taken since she embarked on the greatest challenge of her career: a series on the life of Jesus Christ told in his own words.
Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is the first installment in a three- or four-part Gospel according to Anne, a labor of love from a reborn Roman Catholic whose return to the church in the mid-1990s brought her personal and career quests to this ancient intersection. While the very idea of an Anne Rice book on Christ may cause whiplash in some readers, it seems a perfectly natural next step to Rice. As she writes in her revealing author's note: "After all, is Christ Our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of all time?"Although Rice is regarded as a shrewd marketer whose book signings once resembled an all-ghouls revue, she was already deeply immersed in the extensive research for this new direction long before Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ or Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code tapped into the public zeitgeist.
"It's been a gradual life-changing event," Rice admits by phone from her new home in La Jolla, California. "But the quest for meaning, for trying to find God and wanting to go back to God, I think that runs through all my work from the very beginning."
In Christ the Lord, a seven-year-old Jesus becomes conscious that he is profoundly different from other boys. He has already experienced the curious sensation of turning clay birds into real ones and reviving the dead. As his family makes its way back from Alexandria to Nazareth, he gathers tidbits of detail about his miraculous birth, which caused great suspicion among the neighbors and placed him on King Herod's list of undesirables.
Rice credits the Gospel scholarship of John A.T. Robinson, Martin Hengel, N.T. Wright and others with helping her remove the distance between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and what would no doubt have been their large extended family of nomadic carpenters and craftsmen. Within this realistic social setting, we come to know Mary as a distant ancestor of modern soccer moms who are both fiercely protective and a little afraid of their enormous responsibility. Joseph, the patient surrogate father, tries in vain to shelter Jesus from Mary's brother Cleopas, who is prone to ramble on irresponsibly in his old age. Jesus, meanwhile, slowly grows to understand the terrible beauty of his mission on earth.
Readers may find themselves flipping to the cover to make sure they're reading an Anne Rice novel; the language here is as spare and unadorned as the biblical landscape it describes. Jesus narrates in the simple, declarative sentences of the four Gospels, which served as the blueprint for the author's choices.
"I wanted it to sound natural; I didn't want it to be stilted and pious and remote," says Rice. "I think we've read the story to the point that we don't feel it. I thought, let me see if I can really, really make people feel it. Let me feel it; let me feel what this was like."
Rice, who was raised in a strict New Orleans Catholic household, abandoned her faith in 1960 as a college student at Texas Women's University. "I came of age on that campus and I wanted to read Kierkegaard and Sartre and Camus and all the forbidden texts. I wanted so badly to know what this is all about, and I left, I broke, I lost the faith," she recalls. "It was a serious, serious emotional and moral crisis."
Two years later, she met Stan Rice, an atheist poet and painter who shared Anne's love of art and philosophy. They lived in San Francisco during the '60s, suffered the loss of their first child (that tragedy informed Interview with the Vampire), and ultimately settled in New Orleans' Garden District. Rice says her husband understood her return to the church, "but I think he was somewhat mystified." The couple renewed their marriage vows in St. Mary's Assumption Church, her childhood parish church. Stan died suddenly of a brain tumor in 2002.
Those who believe in providence may find some in recent events surrounding Anne Rice. Last March, on the very day she handed in her manuscript, Rice left New Orleans and moved to La Jolla, two hours from the home of her novelist son Christopher. "I don't know to this moment why I got such an overwhelming urge to disrupt everything and go out west," she says.
Equally fortuitous, Stan's 300 paintings representing a lifetime of work had been relocated from New Orleans to Dallas, his hometown, just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck. "I think if we had lost Stan's paintings, I would have gone out of my mind," she says.
With her next installment in the life of Christ well underway, would she ever consider revisiting the vampires that made her a worldwide celebrity?
"I don't think in the same way, no. I think that once I returned to the Church and began to see the universe as a place that really did incorporate redemption and really tried to understand the implications of there being a God, my identification with the vampires as outcasts, as outsiders and lost souls began to totally wane. It no longer worked for me. I had done it. It had led me to this point."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Mississippi.