An Interview With The Former Atheist, Former Christian, and Former Queen Of The DamnedInterview by Joshua Chaplinsky
Anne O'brien Rice has a bit of a history here at The Cult. Since lost in the great Drupal transfer of the aughts, the incident in question exists solely as hearsay and conjecture, bandied about the hallowed halls of the forum like some sort of literary urban legend. As the story goes, Ms. Rice didn't take too kindly to comments made about her work by some keyboard critic and decided to open up a can of whup ass. Since there is no record of the event, it begs the question- if a bestselling author raises a stink and nothing exists to prove it, did it ever actually happen? Only longtime Culties know for sure, and even their recollection has grown fuzzy over time.
Shedding some light on this bit of Cult folklore was one the main reasons I pursued this interview, and it was not an endeavor I undertook lightly. I went into it with a fair amount of trepidation, as Rice's reputation for not backing down from a fight preceded her. In fact, the outspoken author has been courting controversy like it was a debutante for over forty years. So color me surprised, because the Anne Rice I spoke to turned out to be so god-damned nice that I actually felt guilty about my irreverent review of her memoir and the religious flame war it incited.
And speaking of religion, did I mention Rice recently renounced Christianity and her affiliation with the Catholic Church? The outspoken Catholic turned atheist turned Catholic turned religious detractor has come full circle and then some in her ongoing quest for theological truth. She also has a new book coming out. Of Love And Evil, the second novel in the Songs of the Seraphim series, descends from heaven via Knopf on Tuesday, November 30th. We discussed all this and more as I tried to get a handle on the enigmatic personality that is Anne Rice.
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: You have a bit of a history here at ChuckPalahniuk.net that I'd like to address and get out of the way. You confronted some of your detractors on our forums a few years back, I don't know if you remember...
ANNE RICE: No, I don't. What was it about?
JC: To be honest, I'm not 100% sure, because the posts were lost in some website upgrades, which is why I was asking. What I've heard is, much like you did on Amazon.com, you were confronting people who were criticizing your work.
AR: I really don't remember. What was the name of the website at the time?
JC: ChuckPalaniuk.net. It's the official website of "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk.
AR: No, I'm sorry, I don't have any memory of it at all.
JC: Well let me ask you this, then. What compels you to confront your detractors?
JC: Specifically on Amazon.com, in the customer reviews for your books.
AR: The reviews that appeared at that time, they've all been taken down by Amazon, so there's no record of what actually happened. But at the time, there were quite a few reviews that prompted me to make the statement that I made. I felt that they were abusive and weren't legitimate reviews, and they were removed. So I removed my statement too, and no record really exists now of what that situation was.
[Savvy internet users should have no problem finding documentation of said incident]
JC: Do you feel very protective of your work and characters?
AR: Yes and no. I'm used to being criticized and used to controversy. That's been going on for forty years. I certainly do try to protect my characters from misunderstandings, but there's nothing you can really do about detractors. You can speak up and state your piece, but people have a right to not like you. They have a right to criticize you and a right to attack you.
JC: Do you ever regret reacting in a defensive manner?
AR: Not at all. I received a great many emails from other people who had been deeply hurt on Amazon by unconscionable attacks and they supported me very much in what I did. They said they were afraid to speak out themselves and they were very glad that somebody did. So I certainly don't regret it. I don't really regret too much of anything. I have many times said and done controversial things and I move on.
JC: You definitely seem to have embraced the tools of the information age to communicate not only with your detractors, but with your fans as well. How has the internet changed your relationship with them over the years? Is it more than just a tool for promotion?
AR: Oh, certainly it's more than just a tool for promotion. It's infinitely more than that. I think before the internet I only saw my readers when I did signings. I would get the chance to talk to a reader for maybe thirty seconds- a minute or two at the most. Of course mail did come, and I did make an effort to read the mail, but really those were years of relative isolation. I was aware of my readers, but I really didn't have the kind of interaction with them that email makes possible.
I didn't get a public email, or any email, really, until about 2003. That's when I began to sort of go into the internet age. I began to look at sites like Amazon directly and I began to email people and answer emails, and it was wonderful. I found out a lot more about my readers- who they were and what they thought. It gave me a much broader picture of what the response to a book really was. I mean, it can take a very long time to find out how a book has been received. In the years before the internet it was very easy to put too much emphasis on a remark made by one or two people. You'd have the sales figures, but so many things go into the sales figures. They have to do with competition in the market place, they have to do with how well the publisher publicizes the book. But the internet really made me aware of the audience that existed for various books and how they felt about those books. So I love it. I spend every morning answering emails from all over the world. I also have a Facebook page with about 147,000 people on it, and we discuss things all the time.
JC: Let's talk about the new novel. At the end of "Of Love And Evil", Toby goes to confession and re-consecrates his life as a Catholic, much like you did a decade ago. Was the writing of this novel completed before your recent denouncement of Catholicism?
AR: Yes, it was, but I think the reason Toby does that in the book is a little different from the reasons I did it. Toby realizes that even though he's seen angels and talked with angels and traveled through time and been a witness to miracles, that he's still a human being. And he still has human doubts and a human need to belong with other humans. The novel is really about that, about the consequences of what he's done as a human being amongst other human beings, including Leona, his old girlfriend, and Little Toby, his son. And whether or not there are going to be consequences with regard to his activities as a government assassin. I think I was reflecting on the fact that no matter how strong a conversion you have, there will be times when you will be afraid and you will have doubts. This is part of the human condition. Even if you talk with angels, you will still be a human being and you will still want the companionship of another human being and you will still want sex with another human being. And Toby is confronting all these things- it's the aftermath of the conversion that he's facing.
JC: How does his experience differ from yours?
AR: He's still in the process of wanting to belong to the Roman Catholic church. I have, after twelve years, actually moved away from wanting to belong to organized religion.
JC: How will that affect the future of the series? Will this be reflected in the writing?
AR: Probably so, because my novels always reflect whatever I'm obsessed with. They are always about the questions I have- about right and wrong, how to live, what salvation is. That's in all my books, from "Interview With The Vampire" to the present time. So I imagine that yes, they will reflect that. I mean, clearly in these novels, angels are real. That's part of the framework of these novels. So he's dealing with something that I have never dealt with. I've never seen an angel. I've never seen a vampire, either. So my books are not going to be directly autobiographical, but they will certainly reflect my concerns.
JC: When Toby writes the account of his adventure, he writes, "Who would not have lied to save Jews in our own time from genocide at the hands of the 3rd Reich?" which is a good question. Why wouldn't God and the angels charge Toby to save all the Jews, as opposed to one or two?
AR: You know, that is something that I'd like to deal with in future novels. I think there's gonna come a point where he will say that very thing- why is it you send me on these missions, yet the world is filled with horrors? In "Memnoch The Devil," that was a big question. What is the nature of God and what is the nature of the devil and why is there human suffering and horror everywhere? I've never resolved those issues- I don't think anybody ever really does- and that will come up again. I think that's a very legitimate question.
JC: Your views on the subject at the time you wrote "Memnoch," have they changed?
AR: The questions haven't changed, but the views have changed. I do believe in God and I don't see God the way I did in "Memnoch." I don't see him as an indifferent or cold being. I believe in a loving god and a god who takes care of us in his own way, but I think I still have a lot of questions about the human condition. I wrote that book as an atheist, as somebody who wasn't willing to commit to a belief in God, but now I do believe in God and I'm a much more optimistic person. When I did experience my conversion I saw, for whatever it was worth, the possibility of a god in which all the answers were there. I could at least envision the possibility that all human suffering had a purpose. I didn't feel that when I wrote "Memnoch."
JC: You wrote this book at a time when you were still a member of the Catholic faith. What compelled you to write about the mistreatment of Jews during the Renaissance at the hands of the Catholic church?
AR: I've always been fascinated with the history of the Jews. I've written two novels about Jesus in which he's a Jew living in a Jewish family, with tremendous attention to portraying the Jewish community accurately- the friendly and kind Rabbis, the friendly and kind Pharisees. So I've been interested for a long time in Jesus as a Jew and Christianity as a mutation of Judaism. I love the way the Jews survive in period after period despite being persecuted. And I was in love with the idea that Toby would be sent by the angels without any explanation to rescue Jews who had prayed to God for help. I wanted to present the idea that God is a loving god that takes care of everyone, especially the Jews- well, I wouldn't even say especially. Let's just say he takes care of everyone. Theoretically, within the construct of the novel, God is sending angels to take care of all kinds of people who are praying. Toby could have adventures in a Muslim village, he could go to ancient Egypt- there's just no telling, you know?
I think too many people today don't know the real history of the Jews and their interactions with Christians. When I'm writing something like "Of Love and Evil," what's fascinating to me is not just the horrors of the persecution Jews underwent. I'm also fascinated by the fact that the Pope had a Jewish physician, and that Jewish physicians could require Christians to indemnify them against lawsuits. To me, that is amazing. Jews and Christians have lived together in complex ways that people today don't realize. As one Jewish writer said, the whole history of the Jews is not just one of relentless persecution. There's a whole lot more to it. Like in "Angel Time," when I was dealing with the middle ages in England, I was fascinated by the fact that many Christians were going to Jewish scholars to study Hebrew, so that they could better understand the Jewish background of Christianity. There were Jews that lived in Oxford and taught in Oxford. History would erase all that. History would just tell us the horrible things. I love showing all the nuances of the situation.
JC: Are the new age arguments Ankanoc uses to test Toby's faith doubts you yourself have dealt with?
AR: Definitely. I've read a very compelling author, Robert K. Monroe, [a book called] "Journeys Out of Body." Everything Ankanoc was saying comports with Robert Monroe and people who travel out of body and feel they have dealt with spirits out of body and different dimensions and so forth. I meant to give a fairly solid argument there.
JC: What was the reaction from your fans like when you decided to write religious themed novels?
AR: There was a lot of rejection. But there were other people who said, we'll be happy with anything your write. And then I got a whole bunch of new readers, that are Christian readers, and people who are not necessarily Christians, but have only read the "Christ The Lord" novels and the "Angel Time" novels. They don't like vampires and are not interested in Gothic horror. So I tapped into a new readership. I'd say I have at least three or four readerships. But there was definitely one readership that was very angry. And of course a lot of people today just have very negative feelings about Christians. They're not necessarily goths or vampire lovers, but they just don't like Christians; they're very suspicious of them. So I got a lot of negative feedback.
JC: Will you be writing any more novels on the life of Christ?
AR: I want very much to continue the series, but it's very difficult to write about the public life of Jesus without getting into terrible theological controversy. The first two novels are about his private life, and they're very biblically correct and they're certainly reflective of Catholic theology. They were very well received by a lot of Protestants and Catholics, and they got a better shake than my earlier work had gotten. Better reviews than I'd ever gotten. But at the same time, there was still controversy. Why did you interpret the Bible this way instead of that way? And when you get into the public life of Christ, where I am now with the series, you can really get into a lot of hot water. And I haven't figured out a way to do it. I could present the scenes with Christ that I really love and think are important, but other people have entirely different ideas about what he said and what he meant and what he did and what we are to do in response. Any novelist or filmmaker who deals with Jesus is always dealing with his or her own interpretation of Jesus. That's clear. But at least you want try to be responsible to the tradition and to some objective idea of what Jesus taught. I had such a bad experience the last few years with Christians that I don't know how to do it.
JC: Are you afraid of the controversy? Because you haven't shied away from confrontation it in the past.
AR: It's not so much I'm afraid of it, it's that I have no appetite for it. I'm tired of fighting with Christians; I really don't want to do it anymore. My goal in writing the novels was pretty simple. It was to take everything I believed about Jesus traditionally and say, yes, you can make a living, breathing character from this person in a novel that would be biblical correct. You can have angels sing at his birth, have his mother be a virgin- you can do all that and you can make a real fiction out of it. And I had really hoped that that would be a great thing. That people would think, wow, I never thought about Jesus before, but now I can see why people believe this. I had all those ideas and to a large extent, that worked. How do I keep making that work? I don't quite know.
JC: I read that there were plans for a film version of "Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt." Is that still happening?
AR: No. Well, actually, there are new plans. Those [original] plans did go south; that plan fell apart and it was very disappointing. There is some new interest in it, but unfortunately nothing is really concrete yet. There is a wonderful director and producer who is very interested, so I'm hopeful.
JC: Can you tell us who that is?
AR: No, that would be a violation. You can't do that before something is signed and done in Hollywood.
JC: Who, in your mind, would be the ideal person to play Jesus in an adaptation of Anne Rice's novels about Christ?
AR: Well, for the man Jesus, I have always wanted Johnny Depp. I think he would be exactly the person to radiate the goodness and gentleness of Jesus. I think he would be extraordinary. But there are other people who could do it. There's a great English actor, Richard Armitage, that I think would be wonderful as Jesus. There are quite a few young British actors who I think could do it, but that's just who springs to mind right now. I don't think Johnny Depp wants to do it, but I don't know, maybe he would. It would be wonderful to me if he did. You know who else could do it, is the same person who played him for Mel Gibson, James Caviezel. But I don't think he would want to play Jesus again.
JC: What do you think about past cinematic attempts at Christ's life? Specifically controversial ones like "The Last Temptation of Christ" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ?"
AR: Actually, I liked both those movies very much. I was an atheist when I watched "The Last Temptation of Christ," and I thought it was a beautiful movie. It made me think of Christ and made me want to go back to him. I thought it was very inspiring and I was deeply moved by it. I certainly was not outraged by that movie, and later when I converted and did go back, I still loved that movie. I mean, to me art should be complex and challenging. I'm not a puritan.
"The Passion of The Christ," I loved also. Mel Gibson went to the extremes of really portraying a first century execution the way it would have taken place. It's biblically correct, and I thought it was magnificent. I thought James Caviezel was great, that he exactly combined a traditional Semitic Jesus- dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin- with the Jesus of devotion that so many of us know. It's not a flawless movie, no movie is, but I thought it was wonderful. And I certainly didn't agree with all the people criticizing it for its violence. My God, you see more violence on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit every night. Heaven's sake, it's so hypocritical for people to jump on that movie because of the violence. I mean, we watch war movies, we watch westerns, we watch movies about serial killers who torture people. And then they jump on that movie because it was violent? Come on. That's a double standard. You can be violent about everything else, but you can't make a movie about Jesus and have it be violent?
JC: How do you feel about the criticism over the film's depiction of the Jews, being someone who is very interested in their history?
AR: They were right to criticize that part. Mel Gibson could have done a better job, and I wish he had. But that was a small part of the movie and, to do him justice, he was working with the Gospels, and that's the picture one can infer from the Gospels. Could he have bent over backwards to balance that picture, to present it a different way, to mingle sympathetic Jews with hostile Jews? Yes, he could have. Unfortunately he didn't, and people were upset. I myself, I did not see it as anti-semitic- the man's dealing with the Gospels, presenting what they said. We can't really rewrite the Gospels. We can say they are anti-semitic, yes, but we can't rewrite them.
JC: In light of Mel Gibson's current problems, is that the kind of Christian you are trying to distance yourself from, having renounced Catholicism?
AR: Not me. We're all human beings. I don't care too much about people's private lives. I care about the art they make. I don't know that I would have liked living around Tolstoy or Hemingway. What matters to me is the short stories and the novels they wrote. Mel's movies are much more important to me than anything he does personally. Those are his problems. I don't see going around getting sanctimonious over what somebody says when they're drunk. I was a terrible drunk up until 1979, and if someone had tapes and pictures of me drunk, screaming at people, it would ruin my life, too.
JC: Your memoir, "Called Out of Darkness," feels like a love letter to the rites and ritual of Catholicism. Do you still see the beauty in it, now that you've moved away from organized religion? How do you feel about that book now?
AR: The book certainly was part of the process, for me, of moving away. I had to confront what I believed in the book. I had to dig deep, and toward the end of the book you can see me moving away. I talk about the confusing aspects of being a Catholic. Yes, I still love the ritual and I still love the beauty, and I think it's one of the most powerful things the Catholic Church has to offer people, but my social and theological concerns became so great, that that entire experience was poisoned. I couldn't keep going just for the beauty of the mass and the beauty of the Eucharist. I had too many deep, theological questions and concerns. Twelve years of study led me to some surprising, stunning conclusions about the whole endeavor.
JC: When you had your conversion, you said you were going to be writing for Christ from then on. Does that mean you have left the world of the vampires completely behind?
AR: Well, I think one can write vampire novels that are for God; I don't think that in itself is necessarily impossible. I don't want to write them anymore because the vampire, for me, was a real metaphor for my atheistic self. All the vampire novels I wrote reflected my feeling of being lost in the darkness. So, no, I don't want to go back.
And also, I wrote twelve of them. I mean, enough already. I did it and did it and did it. I didn't have any more to say. I haven't thought of one single story with Lestat in the last ten years. He's alive to me, and I think of all the things he did and I think he's out there roaming around, but I don't have any more stories for him. How many times can I go through it? I want to write about different things now. I want to write about angels and immortals who don't have to kill somebody. I felt like I did the best I could with the theme.
JC: Did you ever consider combining the world of Jesus and the angels with that of Lestat and the Vampires, or is that too silly?
AR: No, I can't do that. I don't believe vampires exist. I can't combine them because I do believe angels exist and I do believe in God and I can't really bring those surreal, fictional vampires into anything profound about Jesus or God. Not now. I did it with "Memnoch," but I was an atheist. Now I'm going in a different direction and I have to keep writing as a believer, with that optimism.
JC: In the past you've written erotica under a couple different pen names. These books were written before your re-consecration to Christ.
AR: Haha, they certainly were.
JC: Is the overt sexuality and sado-masochistic subject matter in those books something that conflicts with your current spirituality or beliefs?
AR: You know, that's an interesting question. I really do believe that sex is good and that religion should leave sex alone. You know, Christianity has never really been about sex, but Christians in the last few hundred years have made it about sex. They're really obsessing over it in the 21st century. At one point they backed off from the stars. They backed off and said, Ok, maybe Galileo is right, we won't imprison any astronomers any more. We'll leave the stars to the scientists. And the Catholic church hasn't come out and condemned the guy who discovered DNA or the fossil record- they tried all that and it failed. So I wish they would do the same thing with sex. I wish that they'd say, OK, sexual behavior has to do with ethics and psychology and we were wrong to think that we have to rule how people behave sexually.
So in a way, I am the same person I was when I wrote those books, because I believe sex is good, and I believe people have a right to fantasy. There is a value to putting your fantasies down on paper, and being able to go to those fantasies in a safe place. I was never recommending that people do those things literally.
JC: So you don't disassociate yourself from those works?
AR: No, never. I don't list them on my website, and I have sort of complex reasons for that. I'm not sure that I want to advocate or publicize pornography, and those books are pornography. I think it is too easily misunderstood and I prefer to focus on my other works, but they're out there under my name, and I do answer emails about them.
JC: Are there any more memoirs in your future, considering your changing religious beliefs?
AR: I do feel a pressure to write about that, but I'm not ready. It's going to take a while for me to figure out. I would like to write a record of the conclusions I came to. I'm still very concerned with religion and what it does, and I post a lot about it on Facebook. I think there is a memoir there about why I moved away and what I found to be theologically correct, but I'm not ready. I'm not a natural non-fiction writer. It's hard for me. It's easier for me to make up a world and talk about these things in novels.
JC: What are you working on next?
AR: Right now I'm writing a book about immortals on the planet who have survived since the time of ancient Atlantis. It's a novel I'm writing for fun and I'm finally going to be able to do my idea of what the fall of Atlantis was like. It's something I've wanted to do for years. I've always been in love with the whole idea of Atlantis and I've never been happy with the way anyone has dealt with it. These immortals are not vampires, they are a different kind of immortal and I want to write about them in the 21st century and the problems they have in our time. I'm very interested in that- the origins of life on earth, aliens having visited the planet. I really want to make this a big juicy novel about all that stuff.
JC: Is that something you actually consider the possibility of? Aliens?
AR: Oh, yeah. I haven't been convinced that there's any proof of it, but I think it's a possibility. Dr. Crik, who discovered DNA, he believed that DNA had come here from another planet. He didn't think there had been sufficient time on earth to develop life and DNA. That, to me, was a sobering fact. I think he called it directed panspermia, the idea that DNA had come here- and you don't have to believe aliens brought DNA, you can believe it came on a comet or a meteor. So I'm kind of fascinated by all that and I love to read speculative books by people like Colin Wilson and Graham Hancock. The writings of Edgar Cayce, Madame Blavatsky- all of the people who talk about the origin of life on earth. I don't necessarily believe one person, but I'm really loving the idea of doing my novel about it.
ANNE RICE'S OFFICIAL WEBSITE
ANNE RICE on FACEBOOK
The Cult reviews Called Out Of Darkness