Anne Rice holds a unique position in contemporary literature. Her works include horror, mythology, erotica, and in recent years, religious fiction with the Christ the Lord and Songs of the Seraphim series. Her writings have been translated in several languages including audiobooks, graphic novels, and Broadway productions but at the age of 71, Rice shows a renewed sense of purpose as she finishes up another novel, the forthcoming The Wolves of Midwinter. Her works have long had a cult following, with famed vampires Lestat and Louis as the first same-sex parents in vampire lore, a deep and abiding curiosity in the Catholicism of her childhood played out in virtually all of her works, and the underground success of works like The Sleeping Beauty trilogy and Belinda.
Anne, you have this long and wonderful career as a writer; what is going on with you now? Where are you at and what are you doing?
I’m in a new phase, enjoying good health for the first time in a long time. I had a period of grief after my husband died (in 2002) and the last few years, I’ve been writing with new excitement. I’m 71 and didn’t expect this. I feel like all possibilities are out there again! Last year, I went to Switzerland, and the year before that, I went to England and Brazil. I feel like the world is filled with wonderful possibilities and it’s really the best time of my life right now.
I have to ask, do you see writing as a spiritual act? Be honest, this isn’t a loaded question and I’m not looking for a necessarily “religious” answer.
Very much! It’s a vocation. An attempt to turn straw into gold, to make something meaningful out of bad experiences and trying times, something redemptive for someone else. It becomes an affirmative thing. We witness terrible things and so we write about them for someone else because we can save our souls that way. I want to do that for my own life. I want to make a coherent order. I’m resigned to the randomness of life, the meaninglessness, but when I write a book, I try to extract the victory.
That’s interesting – writing can save our souls. Does that salvation extend to others?
Of course, wanting to save others as well. In this life, we are given the opportunity to share our love and to serve others, their rights, their growth and that’s the greatest way to live life. That’s the best way to live life, is to give life to others and not destroy them.
You’ve praised the work of N.T. Wright in the past. Can you explain what you appreciate about his writings, as one author reading another?
Since I read Wright and have met him, I’ve left organized religion. I no longer believe the basic tenants of the faith system, but still believe Wright is a deep and profound theologian, that his writings are wonderfully persuasive. His works were very enlightening to me when I was reading the Bible. I still have many questions, but of all the believers, he was the most inspiring.
What are your thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI resigning?
I think it’s a very bold move on his part. He has set a precedent for future Popes that when they feel unfit, they can resign. Before now, there was a question of whether they could do that. He’s such a thorough theologian and churchman that he’s obviously done his research into whether this could be done and has decided to set a precedent. It’s a bit of a revolutionary, and I frankly think it’s very good. His work has been profoundly disappointing, which the papers have been chronicling for some time now. He took over at a time of crisis and I think his papacy has been very disappointing.
I want to know your thoughts on the sacredness of space. You recently returned to New Orleans after having been away for several years. What drew you back?
I’m trying to get a condo in the French Quarter to go back more often; my recent visit in December was to get an apartment. The city is my home. The Catholic culture shaped my life and I have a great longing to be there because there is no city like New Orleans. It’s American but profoundly European; a place that cares about family in a way that you don’t run into anywhere else. It’s a city where people visit their families on weekends and celebrate birthdays with joy. Family, you know, really matters there and it’s a place where the people you grew up with are still your friends when you’re fifty or sixty.
I miss my family, the rituals – you can’t come up with a ritual like St. Joseph’s Day Altars, St. Patrick’s Day parades, and of course Mardi Gras. It’s a vintage culture developed over centuries and I love the way the city celebrates, despite adversity, through feasts. The capacity to party is wonderful. I need that. I’m happy in California and will be here most of the year, but I’ve got to go back.
I grew up in New Orleans and, despite the reputation of partying and excess, it remains one of the holiest places for me. The people and community are, as you said, wonderful. I’m wondering, what is the holiest place you’ve been to?
Gosh, an interesting question… The Muir Woods Redwood Forest. When I stood in the redwoods two years ago and walked among them, that might be it. It was where I felt in touch with the Creator and in touch with creation in a mighty way, staring up at these ancient, indifferent Redwoods.
Tell me more about writing. Do you see an evolution of your work over time? Are there some works of which you are ashamed? You got a lot of criticism when The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty was originally published.
No. There are some of my books that I feel less invested in; the fullness of what I was feeling wasn’t expressed at that time. I take full responsibility. When you write, you should tell all you know and I attempt to do that in every novel.
As for Sleeping Beauty, it was definitely erotica [laughs] and that relates to some people. It’s for the enjoyment of that fantasy, S&M, and was an attempt to present that fantasy in a fairy tale way. Previously, I didn’t feel that S&M erotica was valued. It was too grim before I started to write. In the The Story of O, for instance, O didn’t enjoy what was happening to her. I wanted to write something light and playful where the characters actually enjoyed what was happening to them.
With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy has resurfaced with new covers. I’ve noticed while traveling that it is on shelves almost everywhere, even chain stores like Wal-Mart and Target.
Certainly, but those works were never dead. They were always selling. There was always an underground audience for those works and I was always making royalties. They just have new covers and are, yes, more readily available now.
I think the biggest change has been that there is now a generation of men and women who are unashamed to admit what they enjoy sexually. There are strong, empowered women who grew up under feminism and they take their emancipation proudly and aren’t ashamed to ask for an autographed copy. They have no qualms about enjoying this fantasy. We know historically that men have always enjoyed being dominated. The fiction from brothel keepers tells us that men pay lots of money to be put in their place – particularly men in power who can take a vacation from their powerful life.
When the Beauty books were written, it was not a kind time for erotica. It was a time of political correctness and many women were not okay with what I was doing – rape, bondage. They felt that was wrong and didn’t want to see it put in a positive light. I didn’t care. There is truth in people’s fantasies and it’s true to express that. I was criticized but wasn’t ashamed. The people who took it seriously were gay people, people who emphasized expression. Feminism was interested in political and social realities which made the books an underground pleasure but the gays wrote beautiful reviews, papers like the L.A. Times and The Advocate. The editor, the publishing house, of the books felt it wasn’t a respectable thing. Now, with 50 Shades it’s respectable and there’s nothing to apologize for. People are more open about their desires and with 50 Shades, there’s an outlet for those who have those kind of fantasies. I think it’s great.
As an editor, I work with several aspiring writers. Any advice for them?
I give sort of the same standard advice over and over. You have to go where the pain is, go where the pleasure is, and you can’t be afraid. You have to write the book that you can’t find in the bookstore, the book that you really want to read. And you have to write a book that you yourself would love to read, and a book you want to live in, you want to be in. It has to be that way.
You could go and you could discourage any writer that ever wrote by saying, “Who needs another novel? What makes you think you can be writing more about that?” But you’ve just got to just totally ignore it. The world always is hungry for a brand new way to look at something. Nobody could have predicted Interview With The Vampire would have been a hit. Nobody could have predicted Harry Potter would have been a hit. If you went and ran these ideas past an editor, they’d probably tell you to give up. You have to ignore people.
Speaking of Interview with the Vampire, you wrote such complex characters in The Vampire Chronicles. In Interview, which I recently re-read, it felt like Louis’ transformation is very spiritual in the sense that he reflects on his life and how selfish he had been. It’s a change at odds with that of Lestat. Early on, was there an explicit theme of salvation and redemption in your work and how does that play into the works you are doing now?
I’m still as concerned with it as ever and my novels are a process, a long evolution of what we can think about when we think about spiritual things – What is damnation? What is right? The struggle of Lestat over the series is to live a meaningful existence. He was someone who others damned, and there’s certainly this theme of not buying into the world’s definition of you as someone who is damned. Louis buys it, though. He doesn’t find redemption in art or sensuality, but other characters do. I think, with Louis, I was chronicling the dark despair of someone who felt like an outcast. There is not much optimism in that book, and I didn’t feel optimism when I wrote it. Louis is talking about being damned, but there is this great faith in the idea of beauty in the world that Lestat has. He wants to make beauty out of our world, to rescue the subject matter itself through style. It is style that works against Louis, and he says at the end that nothing matters.
Your characters tend to reference old movies – Michael in the Mayfair Chronicles enjoys the black and white version of Great Expectations, for instance. What was the last really amazing movie you saw and why? How did you relate to it?
A black and white movie that I sought out two weeks ago, In This Our Life based on the novel by Ellen Glasgow. I remember watching it with my husband in the nineties and loved it so I sought it out again. It stars Olivia de Havilland and Betty Davis and was amazing to me because of the spiritual depth it had and the narrative, the energy of the world it revealed. It’s a rich, fast-moving story about life, death, and humanity. Everyone acted with integrity towards serious topics and I appreciate that. You know, I see amazing movies all the time, I’m a movie buff and watch old movies. They teach me more than literature. The Olivia de Havilland character I related to. She’s a bit long-suffering and her lines deeply impressed me. The things she is given to say, the way the movie takes its time instead of flitting over the surface. Those are the kinds of movies I enjoy.
On meaningful impressions, this may seem like a weird question, but in a 1988 interview, you said you had a prophetic dream that something was wrong with your daughter’s blood. Have you had any other “prophetic” experience since then? How do you explain that kind of phenomena?
Not really. I have vague telepathic senses, but it could be dismissed. A few nights ago, I had a dream about a friend suffering something terrible and today he called and said he had been in an accident. I don’t know what to make of those kinds of things so if I have any telepathic abilities, they’re minimal.
You and your husband had a long, enduring marriage of four decades. What advice would you give young married couples?
My advice would be conventional – realize the value of the long marriage, the long commitment to the husband or wife of your youth. Never throw that opportunity for trivial reasons. The value of the enduring relationship is something you can’t understand at first. It takes a while to figure it out and it really is a miracle to have a long, enduring relationship as you contaminate each other and love each other.
This, right now, is not getting enough credit in our society. For a long time, divorce was the rage because people needed permission to do it and you could divorce for any reason. I remember having friends and at the first sign of difficulty, they would say, “Why do you put up with that? Just divorce him!” But now the pendulum has swung back and maybe people have begun to not take marriage so casually. I think that’s what will happen. When I was getting married there was pressure in California to get divorced at the drop of a pin. That was so much the talk in the air. I saw divorce all around me, and the whole thing brought darkness and chaos into our homes and the positive mythology around divorce became questionable. However, it’s not easy to be married for 40 plus years and not everyone can do it. I get that too.
I agree, this is one of the challenges I see in my own generation. Our inability to see things through, or even fight for the important things in life. I want to frame this question in terms of living through the “quarterlife crisis” of 25 to 30 years old. Your favorite character Lestat seems for so long to have been stuck in that frame of mind – young, beautiful, irresponsible. It took a traumatic event to wake him out of it. What are your thoughts on that part of the twenty-something experience?
Lestat is suffering grief right now and he may come out of that. He’s lost Claudia, Louis and Akasha, people who he loved deeply, but all three tried to kill him. He has to get over the grief of that. You don’t come out of that without wounds. I don’t agree that it’s a case of arrested development. I’m sympathetic. He’s recovering from a series of shocks. His visitation from Memnoch [the Devil] was a shock. He doesn’t know what happened – was he with God? Or was he playing with capricious spirits? He’s not sure.
Follow-up (early 2015):
Rice went on to complete new entries in the series discussed here with Prince Lestat (2014) and Beauty’s Kingdom (2015). Both have been celebrated as a return to her more famous characters and as further explorations of the limits of fantasy.