The Catholic Vampire: Author Q&A with Anne Rice

Anne Rice, author of "Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana," is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/Becket M. Ghioto, courtesy of Knopf) (May 1, 2008)

Anne Rice is a New Orleans-born author of gothic fiction and Christian literature. She is best known for her novel series The Vampire Chronicles which revolve around the central character of Lestat. Two of the books were adapted for Hollywood films, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles in 1994 and Queen of the Damned in 2002.

In the forthcoming Prince Lestat: The Vampire Chronicles, due in bookstores on Oct. 28, Ms. Rice returns to the French New Orleans Catholic milieu of vampire fiction that made her famous. On Aug. 27, I conducted the following email interview with her about the book and her Catholic influences.

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In Prince Lestat, you return to the world of New Orleans French Catholicism that formed your own background. Has this world changed at all since your last book in the Vampire Chronicles series?

I’m not entirely sure I’ve returned to the world of French Catholicism. That being said, I think every book I’ve ever written has been informed by my Catholic education in New Orleans and of course the influence of Irish, German and French Catholicism were all strong on that upbringing. My imagery, sensibility, and theological concerns are all influenced by this background. As I am constantly evolving, as I wrestle with my religious background and concerns, I know this novel reflects changes. But I am not able to analyze them in detail yet. It’s too soon. I think I am always seeking redemption; the vampires represent those of us in society who feel damned and I am always seeking a way for them and those of us who identify with them to be saved.

Like many of your characters, Prince Lestat had a French Catholic background before he became a vampire many centuries ago. Does this background still affect him in the new book?

Yes, Lestat’s background still affects him as mine affects me. Lestat is still obsessed with redemption, of finding a way to embrace existence even though he knows he is what society condemns. He seeks to find a vision of the universe which will include him as a vital and natural part. His French upbringing is the school in which his conscience was forged. That has become one of my themes in supernatural fiction—that vampires and werewolves retain the conscience forged before their transformation, and that life is a place of day to day moral challenges in which we develop our souls. 

Why did you decide to write another vampire book?

I had to do it. I felt driven to write about Lestat again, driven to revisit the earlier books, and driven to rediscover him. He came back to life for me, and after ten years of silence, he had a new voice and new concerns, and new ideas about his own suffering and his old tragedies. Another way to put it is this: when Lestat is talking to me, my work takes on an intensity that is thrilling for me and almost overwhelming. My novels include many experiments, but the intensity of the vampire novels is almost unequaled. I came close to it in Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord, The Road to Cana, however, and I am very proud of those works.  Though I felt intensity when writing any number of other books, the intensity did not work for most of my readers, and those books became small accomplishments in their eyes. Lestat takes me places metaphysically that I cannot reach without him. Memnoch the Devil remains his greatest adventure for me, but the new books—Prince Lestat and its sequels—are challenging me to go to the heights with Lestat again. 

Who are you writing for?

I think all writers write for themselves and for the ideal reader. We create the book we want to read; the book that we want to live in; the book that speaks for us individually; and we hope and pray others will “get it,” that the book will keep them up all night, that the book will stay with them, that they will value it and understand.

What do you hope readers will take from this book?  

I want Prince Lestat to work on many levels. I’m a committed entertainer that wants every book, no matter how serious, to be a page turner, a thrilling tale. And I hope and pray Prince Lestat will resonate with people’s deepest moral concerns. Frankly I think a lot of supernatural fiction does that. It’s about good and evil, about alienation and despair; about hope against all odds. Whether we’re talking about Lon Chaney Jr. in “The Wolf Man” or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we’re talking about those major themes in supernatural fiction. Prince Lestat is about the desire of all living beings to have a place in the Created Universe, to be a vital and meaningful part of the unfolding drama of Creation, about the struggle of all living beings to be “good.” 

Although they are fictional, do you believe vampires have something to teach us as human beings? 

Absolutely. Vampires are metaphors for the outsider in all of us, the predator, the ruthless biological being who makes life and death choices every day to survive. Vampires are metaphors for our feeling of monstrousness that we are sentient animals, animals who are aware of our own mortality. The “immortality” of the vampire in literature and in film symbolizes our own feelings of immortality as we live day in and day out, almost unable to grasp that we will in fact die. The vampire is the most metaphorically rich of all supernatural creatures, as far as I’m concerned. We can fully explore our humanity in heightened ways when we explore vampires.

You grew up Catholic and have gone through many phases in your personal beliefs, but you’ve often mentioned how Catholicism informs your imagination particularly in the vampire novels. Are there any notable Catholic influences in this latest book? 

I’ve always been powerfully influenced by Catholic painting, sculpture, architecture and ritual—the need for spectacle and ceremony in life because spectacle and ceremony can help us focus on the ineffable and the divine. So all my works involve a world that is intensely, traditionally Catholic. The Catholic artistic tradition embraces beauty as a great good. And my characters are always talking about beauty and how it sustains them and gives them hope, how they need it. The talk goes on in Prince Lestat. But the most profound Catholic influence on me is one of spiritual urgency. When you grow up Catholic as I did, you are convinced life has meaning, and even if you lose your faith, you remain convinced that life must have meaning, and that even if you are sure of nothing, you must give life the most meaning that you can.

This may sound surprising, but one very strong influence on my present writing is the theology of Karl Rahner, because I have found Rahner’s writing almost mystical in its intensity and it has helped me to articulate my own search for the Divine and love of the Divine. Another influence is Teilhard de Chardin, though I have read less of him than Rahner. Growing up, I was influenced by the Fr. Brown stories of G. K. Chesterton and the poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson. I was influenced by the heroic lives of the saints. I remain obsessed with heroism, seeing the vampires as dark heroes, and sometimes saints. The Catholic aesthetic pervades all I do. 

Who are the people, living or dead, who most inspired your Catholic faith growing up? 

My parents were the strongest influence, and they were both deeply Catholic, and lovers of Catholic writing and art. My father was educated in the Redemptorist seminary in Missouri, and it was his love of “The Hound of Heaven” that introduced me to it, and to the lush, lyrical language used by Thompson. My mother taught me a vital and rich Catholicism, and a very compassionate Catholicism. She was a thinker; she was brilliant; and she loved life. My parents lived and died as loyal Catholics. When it comes to writers and thinkers, I would say again G. K. Chesterton was a profound influence and he was a living presence in our house as my mother spoke of him and of his ideas all the time. Bishop Fulton Sheen’s words via his radio broadcasts echoed throughout my childhood. I remember listening to his radio broadcasts and loving the purity and authority of his gentle voice. I grew up going to daily Mass and Communion. It was a childhood in which the invisible was as important as the visible, the spiritual as important as the material, a childhood in which goodness mattered more than material success. St. Francis of Assisi loomed large in my childhood, as did The Little Flower—two saints intimately associated with love and compassion and kindness and the embrace of life.

What was the best thing your Catholic background gave you?

Spiritual urgency—the feeling that what we do in this world matters morally and spiritually and that we must never give less than our best.

What was the worst thing your Catholic background gave you?

The terror of Hellfire and damnation, and the fear of sex. I grew up in a very repressive time (1940s and 1950s) in a very Catholic and Southern city, and I think it is fair to say the Catholicism of my girlhood was obsessed with sex—that we not sin; that we not put ourselves in the occasion of sin; that we fear our natural urges; that we save ourselves uncompromisingly for the Catholic procreative marriage bed; that we condemn and turn away from all sexual exploration, sexual fantasies, sexual longings; that we be at war forever with our physical nature in the name of only one sexual good, the Catholic married life. I grew up in a time when the church privileged the celibate life of the convent or the priesthood high above marriage, and made this clear to all of us. I have never gotten over the repression of this upbringing or the fear of Hell intermixed with it—the idea that sex was filthy, evil, something of the Devil, and involved the worst sins one could commit, the insistence that Hell was the place for those who gave in to sexual sin. I can still remember sermons on Hell, the talk of Hell. I do not believe in Hell but I live in terror of it to this day. I live in terror of a God who would create and sustain such a place.

Do you ever pray to God, to saints or to dead loved ones? If so, how do you pray?

I pray daily, in the morning, at all meals, and at night. I talk to God; I practice the awareness of the presence of God. I pray for those I love, though I do not expect Our Lord to intervene in their lives necessarily, because I trust in His great plan. But I pray for them nevertheless. I offer prayers of gratitude for the incredible life I’ve lived, and for the many people God has given me to love. I pray that He will guide me if I am wrong about sexuality, about life, about my writing, about how I treat others; I beg His forgiveness for my wrongdoing. I pray that He will strengthen my faith. I pray that He will give me the strength to be loving. Always loving. When I fail, I pray for Him to help me get up and try again. I say the AA Serenity Prayer. I pray for “freedom from all anxiety.” I offer prayers of gratitude for the sheer beauty of the physical world, for the music I listen to daily, for God’s “tender mercies” every day. This is the substance of my daily prayers. 

What is your impression of Pope Francis so far?

Pope Francis seems to be a remarkable and surprising man, and to have changed the tone somewhat of the international Catholic discussion, putting the emphasis on social justice once more and reaching out to those who are suffering in poverty, and wanting to focus on charity and social concerns more than on the issues which have obsessed the Catholic Right in America for so long. I understand fully that he has not and cannot change dogma or doctrine, but his changing of the tone has been magnificent for the church and I hear many saying they are returning due to Pope Francis, that they like him, that they support him. He has drawn to himself a great deal of good will. Of course I personally hope he will be more open to reconsidering matters which many do not see as matters of dogma or doctrine, and perhaps he will. He’s an appealing man and a reassuring man, and because of his great and good reputation right now he has the power, obviously, to do a great deal of good. He has given a new credibility to the church in the world. He has sparked a new interest. 

You’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in your life, perhaps making it difficult to trust and have faith in God. Do you believe in God’s love for you? 

I believe in God’s love for me. Completely. I feel that I see God’s love everywhere—in the green grass outside my window, in the darker green of the olive trees, in the flowers, in the blue sky. But above all, I see God’s love in human beings, in their kindness towards one another, their gentle and patient ways of dealing with each other. Everywhere that I have gone on this earth I’ve seen people being kind to one another, seen families together, seen evidence of love.

One time in a crowded midtown New York pharmacy on a winter night I saw a pharmacist stop—no matter how many of us were impatiently waiting in our typical New York manner—and gently and kindly explain to an Indian woman how to use a salve for her child’s infected eye. I remember to this day that man’s care and concern, his tenderness, as he took time to help that woman. And I see that kind of thing everywhere I go. To me, this is evidence of God’s great providence and love for us all.

In the Eucharist, I see God’s love, in this incredible concept—of Christ giving Himself to us bodily in the Eucharist, the essence of the Incarnation. I see the fire of that, of the Eucharist, as animating the Christian Belief system to this day. In Jesus, God has embraced the finite, as Rahner put it, and I marvel at this, marvel at God’s love. Oh, I know all the biological and behavioral arguments for altruism, selflessness, sharing, etc. But I still see God behind it. I see God behind the biological, the evolutionary, the formation and endurance of the family. I feel His love.

Do you have any hopes for the future? 

To write books that might make a difference until I die.

Do you have any regrets about the past?

I regret every act of unkindness, meanness, and dishonesty I ever committed. I am convinced that love and honesty can change the world.

You returned to the Catholic Church a few years ago, writing two novels on Jesus, but then you changed your mind and pulled out again. Do you consider yourself a Catholic?

I am a Catholic in the sense that anyone baptized and brought up Catholic, as I was, is always a Catholic. It's other Catholics who insist I'm not Catholic. And I understand.

Do you have any final thoughts? 

To be human is to live, to some extent, with cosmic uncertainty, to live with the real possibility that there may be no life beyond this life, no enduring human consciousness after biological death. But all we can do in the face of this possibility is to persevere in making this the best world for everybody that we can. We must never despair. Goodness, kindness, love, beauty, joy—these “things” exist. Why we may not know, but they exist. Life is a precious gift; and we honor that gift with our gratitude and by trying our best to see that life is good and creative and filled with love for everybody we meet.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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