Anne rice: speak­ing as an athe­ist

Author Anne Rice on her re­jec­tion of her Catholic faith, and her fas­ci­na­tion with sex and im­mor­tal­ity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - by emmA bROCkeS

ANNE Rice was 34 when she wrote In­ter­view With The Vam­pire, set in her na­tive New Or­leans, and as far as she was aware, the only book of its kind to be told from the point of view of the vam­pire, not the vic­tim.

She was a grad­u­ate stu­dent, an in­surance claims pro­ces­sor and a writer who had not pub­lished any­thing. And so, al­though it was the 1960s and ev­ery­one around her was “danc­ing in the streets and draw­ing on the pave­ment”, she sat down to do some­thing very square in­deed: pro­duce a novel.

Forty years later, Rice is in the liv­ing room of her es­tate in Palm Springs, two hours east of Los An­ge­les. Out­side, the pool area, with its im­ported 100-year-old olive trees, acts as a buf­fer against the scorched desert air; in­side, 740sqm of sump­tu­ous decor and quirks of taste, such as her col­lec­tion of saints on a shelf in the vast, mar­ble kitchen.

Rice once had a staff of 49 em­ploy­ees, which you can when you’ve sold an es­ti­mated 100 mil­lion books, start­ing with the Vam­pire Chron­i­cles, diver­si­fy­ing into an­gels, and with two, ap­par­ently con­tra­dic­tory side­lines: erotic nov­els (from Exit To Eden: “He kisses the way I imag­ine men kiss each other, rough and re­ally lus­cious ...”) and a two-vol­ume life of Je­sus, writ­ten in the first per­son (“I am Christ the Lord ...”).

Her re­cent, an­gry split with the Catholic church made as much news as her sales fig­ures, and she once turned up to a book-sign­ing in a cof­fin. Still, on the sur­face, she is tidy, pre­cise, not re­motely re­bel­lious. For 41 years, she was mar­ried to her high school sweet­heart, Stan. “My be­hav­iour has al­ways been ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive,” she says, “but my imag­i­na­tion ...” she smiles “is just ram­pant with mav­er­icks.”

The lat­est book, Of Love And Evil, is the sec­ond in a se­ries about Toby O’Dare, a for­mer as­sas­sin turned en­voy for an­gels, who time-trav­els to Re­nais­sance Italy like a kind of ce­les­tial MacGyver. It will, she says, be re­viewed through the prism of her fall­out with the church, but she can’t edit her thoughts to suit oth­ers.

“I think I was brought up with the idea that an author has to fol­low her own in­stincts and pro­tect her work. I think that was a given of the 60s and 70s, a ro­man­tic con­cept of the artist that you go with your deep­est in­stincts about what you’re do­ing. I don’t think I’ve ever aban­doned that idea. Peo­ple write to me ev­ery day ask­ing for ad­vice, and the most fre­quent ad­vice I give is, have the courage to stand by your work and pro­tect it.”

I would not like to get into a fight with Anne Rice. And she has picked some big fights. Whereas most writ­ers are grate­ful to be taken up by Hollywood, when Tom Cruise was cast in the film adap­tion of In­ter­view, she blithely ques­tioned his suit­abil­ity, and queried whether

»my be­hav­iour has al­ways been ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive, but my imag­i­na­tion is just ram­pant with mav­er­icks«

Anne rice

he had read the book.

When her novel Blood Can­ti­cle was slammed by anony­mous re­view­ers on Ama­zon.com, she did the thing you are not sup­posed to do: logged on and an­swered back, with im­pe­ri­ous fury. “Your stupid, ar­ro­gant as­sump­tions about me and what I am do­ing are slan­der.”

Los­ing faith

And now, the Vat­i­can. Ear­lier this year, Rice, who was raised a Catholic, lost her faith and re­turned to it in mid­dle age, posted a mes­sage on Face­book.

“I quit,” she wrote. “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-fem­i­nist. I refuse to be anti-ar­ti­fi­cial birth con­trol. I refuse to be anti-Demo­crat. I refuse to be anti-sec­u­lar hu­man­ism. I refuse to be anti-sci­ence. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Chris­tian­ity and be­ing Chris­tian. Amen.”

Given the un­chang­ing na­ture of the Catholic church, the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is, what took her so long? “Yes,” she says, care­fully. “I’m still stri­dently crit­i­cised by Catholics who say, you should’ve known, when you came back. But we all learn; isn’t that part of life, that you learn? I joined with the best of in­ten­tions, think­ing I knew this re­li­gion from child­hood, think­ing it’s a fine re­li­gion, an hon­ourable re­li­gion.

“Then I be­gan to re­ally study it and I found it was not an hon­ourable re­li­gion, that it was not hon­est. Now, some­one else, maybe, would draw to­tally dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. But I think the ar­gu­ment that I didn’t have a right to change my mind is ab­surd.”

At­tend­ing mass be­came stress­ful. She had a ter­ri­ble row with a priest friend. “He said Obama was just as bad as Joseph Stalin be­cause of his al­low­ing abor­tion. And I said: ‘Are you se­ri­ously say­ing that? Do you know who Joseph Stalin re­ally was and what he did?’ And he wouldn’t back down and there was no more dis­cus­sion.”

For years, she thought, if she stud­ied the Bi­ble hard enough she might work out the con­tra­dic­tions.

“But then, as I in­creas­ingly saw what I thought was sophistry and lies, I thought: ‘I can’t abide this.’ I can’t re­main with this. This is crazy. There is no ba­sis in scrip­ture for any anointed hi­er­ar­chy, let alone a male hi­er­ar­chy. It’s just not there. And how in the world did this man-god die, preach­ing against the tem­ple, and then we wind up with St Peter’s in Rome? How did that hap­pen? There were so many is­sues where I thought the church was flat-out im­moral. I had to leave.”

Rice’s in­ter­est in the gothic stems from a child­hood spent read­ing Dick­ens, the Brontes and ghost sto­ries from the New Or­leans pub­lic li­brary. As a child, she wan­dered the streets mar­vel­ling at the old French build­ings and “want­ing to cap­ture the at­mos­phere I sensed; want­ing to write creepy, hor­ri­ble, won­der­ful sto­ries and scare peo­ple and so forth.” Her mother took Rice and her sis­ters to the cathe­dral and mu­seum and en­cour­aged them to be­lieve that they might, when they grew up, quite pos­si­bly be ge­niuses.

She was, says Rice, “a won­der­ful per­son”, but also an al­co­holic who, when Rice was 14, died of an al­co­hol-re­lated ill­ness. It started dur­ing World War II, when her mother was left alone with two small chil­dren and “would take a drink to get the courage to check the back­door.”

Rice and her hus­band Stan would go through a lesser ver­sion of her mother’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the 70s. The two met in high school. Stan, who died of a brain tu­mour in 2002, be­came a poet and col­lege teacher and later, a painter. When she started writ­ing books, he was his wife’s first reader. She didn’t al­ways act on his ad­vice – Rice doesn’t, as a rule, much wel­come edit­ing – but he was in more im­por­tant ways a men­tor to her. In 1979, they made a joint de­ci­sion to stop drink­ing. If they hadn’t, she says, “I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be alive.”

Their first child, Michele, died of leukaemia in 1972 at the age of six. It was in the years di­rectly af­ter that Rice be­gan writ­ing. She had a stack of short sto­ries and half-fin­ished projects from her 20s, among them a frag­ment that would be­come In­ter­view With The Vam­pire. The hard work wasn’t an at­tempt to deal with the grief, she says. “No. It was re­ally a des­per­ate at­tempt to be some­body. I looked around af­ter my daugh­ter’s death and re­alised I was no­body and noth­ing. I wasn’t even a mother any more. I had noth­ing.”

The novel was pub­lished in 1976 and the cou­ple’s sec­ond child, Christo­pher, born two years later, was their real in­cen­tive to stop drink­ing.

But it wasn’t un­til 1986, and a novel called the Queen Of The Damned, that the fam­ily’s life re­ally changed. It got to No.1 in the New York Times best­seller list and earned back its ad­vance in a cou­ple of days. Rice was suf­fi­ciently be­neath the radar for editors at the paper to ring up book­shops and ask who the hell she was.

Suc­cess

The writer as rock star is of­ten an awk­ward fit and in the early days of her fame, Rice was ter­rif­i­cally up­tight about be­ing taken se­ri­ously. When a TV sta­tion asked her to in­ter­view a vam­pire on­screen, she threw up her hands in dis­gust. “Now I wouldn’t care; I’d say: ‘Of course, dar­ling.’ But it took a while for me to re­alise that there was a lot of fun to be had, if you just re­laxed.”

And the money kept pour­ing in. She and Stan bought prop­er­ties in New York, Florida and New Or­leans, in­clud­ing a build­ing that took up an en­tire city block.

Still, it’s hard to imag­ine the need for a staff of 49. “They were re­pair men, se­cu­rity peo­ple, a staff that ran the build­ing and opened it for fundrais­ers and wed­dings. House­keep­ers, sec­re­taries, as­sis­tants; then I had an­other house, on the pa­rade route, that I used for Mardi Gras and for guests, and they all had staff. Then I had driv­ers. I don’t drive and never have, and I had a li­mou­sine. A lot of the peo­ple on staff were my cousins and relatives. It was fab­u­lous. A great ad­ven­ture.”

The suc­cess of Rice’s nov­els is in their com­bi­na­tion of loopy fan­tasy and the solid, tech­ni­cal un­der­pin­ning of con­ven­tional sto­ry­telling: the­matic co­her­ence, good char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. She is de­lighted by the resur­gence of in­ter­est in the vam­pire genre – prefers True Blood to Twi­light, which she says “is for kids” – and hopes that HBO might make a se­ries out of her back cat­a­logue, or an­other film. She ended up lov­ing Neil Jor­dan’s In­ter­view With The Vam­pire, and Tom Cruise. He rang her five min­utes af­ter she put down the phone on Jor­dan, hav­ing raved about the film, and was very gra­cious, she says; he didn’t bring up “any­thing un­pleas­ant”.

Dig­ging deep

Look­ing back, she sees her vam­pires as metaphors for out­siders to the faith, al­though she was an athe­ist when she wrote them. “I only saw that as I went on – how fas­ci­nated I was by out­siders. I think you dis­cover those things. If you aim for au­then­tic­ity, if you aim for in­ten­sity, a deep ex­cite­ment ... you just think: What does it feel like to be im­mor­tal? To go into an all-night drug store when you’ve been alive for 200 years? What do you see when you look at pack­ages of sham­poo in all these colours? Ev­ery­thing will take care of it­self if you keep dig­ging deeper, and go­ing where the pain is and where the plea­sure is.”

The hard­est thing to rec­on­cile with Rice’s pub­lic per­sona is the racy nov­els she wrote un­der a se­ries of pseudonyms, all S&M and peo­ple be­ing star­tled from be­hind by large phal­luses.

Rice laughs. “It’s prob­a­bly be­cause of some kind of deep split in my per­son­al­ity. Also, I be­lieve sex is good. That’s some­thing I’ve be­lieved since I was born. I’ve al­ways been at war against those who don’t.”

But she’s a Catholic! Where’s the guilt? “Oh, I have the guilt. But I also have that part of my mind that won’t tol­er­ate it. And it keeps reach­ing for an ideal where peo­ple can love one an­other and be free of con­straints.”

Her own life, now, is very well reg­u­lated, with no real room for ro­mance. Af­ter Stan, she can’t imag­ine meet­ing some­body else. “I don’t even know what it would be like to be ro­man­tic or fa­mil­iar with an­other per­son. I’ve no idea. I mar­ried when I was 20. I have no idea how to date. But I don’t think any­one should ever close the door to that. It could hap­pen.”

It would have to be some­one who re­spected the pri­macy of her work. She will re­turn to the an­gel se­ries, Songs Of The Seraphim, when the fuss over her walk­out from the church dies down.

In the mean­time, she is still in­ter­ested in re­li­gion and gets up ev­ery morn­ing to read “dense” ex­ege­ses of one kind or an­other, like eat­ing kale for break­fast. She is pro­lific on Face­book and is about to move to a smaller prop­erty. And she is work­ing on an­other novel, about “im­mor­tals who’ve been on the planet since be­fore the fall of At­lantis”.

So there is read­ing for that. “My brain is steam­ing,” she says, and smiles. “I’m see­ing it all from my point of view.” – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

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