It's one of the most surprising conversions to Christianity in recent times. No one expected vampire novelist Anne Rice, whose 26 supernatural thrillers, historical novels, and erotica books have sold more than 75 million copies, to darken the door of a church, much less write about Jesus.
Rice, born in 1941 with the unlikely name of Howard Allen O'Brien (after her father), was raised as a devout Catholic, but fell away from faith in college. In 1998, after conducting an intensive historical study of the first century and the early church, Rice returned to her childhood faith. She began writing about Jesus' life; Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, her first novel in a new series, was named by Belief.net as 2005's Best Spiritual Book of the Year. She's also written Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, Angel Time: The Songs of the Seraphim, and her spiritual memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.
In this interview, Rice talks about her writing, her biggest personal change since returning to faith, and her belief that dark stories have value for Christians.
Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the imaginative story of Jesus at age seven, is quite a departure from your earlier writing.
In 2002, I consecrated my work to Christ. I wanted all my writing to be directly for him. Above all, I wanted to write about him and his life on earth. This decision transformed my writing; I was now dealing with my Lord and Savior—the most important subject matter imaginable—and desperately wanted to get the historical and biblical background of the novel completely accurate.
Has anything about your writing not changed?
The underlying theme is the same: redemption. I've always written about redemption. For me, the vampire was a metaphor for a sentient human struggling to find redemption—a creature condemned to darkness, though he or she longed for the light. The tragic plots of my vampiric stories all involve efforts at redemption through various means. The characters suffer failure because I suffered failure. Art, music, and beauty weren't enough to save them because they weren't enough to save me.
Now I find my redemption through Christ; I believe in him and am committed to him. Finding him, serving him—they're part of the overall theme of redemption. In Christ, all the longing I explored in my earlier novels finds reconciliation.
Is there value in dark stories?
The Divine Comedy by Dante; Paradise Lost by Milton; Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello by Shakespeare—these are dark stories. Virgil's journey through "the inferno," Milton's great Devil defying God, Macbeth's dreadfully nihilistic speech, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow … " are all ingredients of dark stories that offer enormous moral lessons to the reader.
Western literature is filled with examples of such stories that seek to lead us through suffering and shadow toward illumination; they seek to find us where we are—lost or broken—and lead us in the direction of something ultimately meaningful and affirmative.
So your earlier novels …
My earlier novels share these ambitions. Conscience and desire are in conflict; the drama frequently centers on the nature of temptation. The characters of Louis, Lestat, Armand, and Marius do serious moral battle with the inexplicable evil they encounter. They impart to the reader a vision of redemption, of a world filled with love, even when they themselves cannot be part of such a world. They long for the good.
Do you believe dark stories invoke a greater moral response than "lighter" ones do?
Yes—perhaps because the work makes a specific demand on the reader. The finest dark fiction is highly transformative. The reader has to journey into the darkness in order to discover the full power of love, the full meaning of light or deliverance. Literature works through the depiction of experience, and light and dark are both ingredients in human experience.
Do you see any dangers for readers in your earlier books?
I see danger in prime-time television. I see danger in shows on "family channels" that have no moral compass and are a completely dishonest and exploitive mixture of enticing images, concepts, and stories. Sometimes I'm appalled at the morally bankrupt wasteland on television—men and women portraying teenagers in skin-tight clothes, snarling curse words at each other, and playing at reproductive sex in a candy-colored world.
I'd much rather see a teenager reading than watching most television. Anybody who can make his or her way through one of my books will be concerned with good versus evil, with hope versus despair, and with the consequences of perceptions of violence. People want moral substance. They want it more than moviemakers or TV people realize. They get it most often from books. And I think my earlier books give them plenty.
Was there a downside for you in writing your darker stories?
It's painful to enter deeply into misery and struggle in order to tell the truth about it. And there's an ever-present temptation to make suffering romantic. I had to work against that. Yet I was making a book, a work of art. How does a writer tell the truth and still create a book that sustains interest?
Examining the hurts and defeats of a life—the lost of a parent, the loss of a child, the horror of guilt over suffering inflicted on another—can be psychologically damaging for the artist. But that's the artist's obligation. When artists shrink from that pain, we'll have no more art. Artists have to go there.
Why do you do such extensive research about Jesus' life?
My belief in Christ is my life. Accuracy is indispensable. I'm telling the reader, "Listen, he existed. He came here. He's our Lord and Savior." To convince a skeptic of that, I have to get the concrete setting right. I have to create a believable version of how first-century people thought and expressed themselves—how they dealt with life and death, with their economy, with the seasons, with the dangers of travel and war and banditry. I want to put my abilities as a storyteller at the service of Christ. I want these books to be the best books I can write on every level. So I had to do research. The research is endless.
Aside from your writing, what's been your biggest personal change since you've come back to faith?
The biggest interior change is my deepening sense of the gospel, of the message to "love your enemies." This is the toughest command Christ gave us. It calls into question just about every competitive or petty thought, word, or action. My ongoing study of the Gospel of Matthew daily knocks me on my back on the road to Damascus.
Cindy Crosby is a freelance writer and author of several books, including By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paraclete Press), and editor with Thomas Oden of the Ancient Christian Devotional (InterVarsity Press).