Interview With Anne Rice: On Faith, Writing & Christian Art
Known to millions as the masterful author of the dark “Vampire Chronicles”, novelist Anne Rice surprised many when she returned to Christianity after 15 years as a self-identified athiest. Since that time, Rice has dedicated her life and craft entirely to the Lord, clearly stating that she would not return to the darker themes of her earlier works. True to this commitment, she hs now published two books in a series that follows the life of Christ. Both books – “Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt” and “Christ The Lord: Road to Cana”- are written from the first-person perspective of Christ Himself, with more volumes promised for the future.
Since publication, the books have been received very favourably. While Rice’s return to faith was to the Roman Catholic Church of her youth, she has touched readers from various Christian traditions, as well as those from other religious backgrounds. Presenting these stories as works of Christian art, she held herself to a high standard of both literary and theological integrity in writing these books, leading her through an impressively staggering amount of source material (which she presents in the afterward of “Out of Egypt”).
Anne was kind enough to spend some time chatting with me about the books, her faith and Christian art.
Jamie: The challenge of writing the life of Jesus in novel form (and in first person no less) obvious must come with many significant challenges. What were the biggest challenges you faced in the process of writing these books? Were you concerned about getting Jesus “wrong”? How did you respond to these challenges?
Anne: To get Jesus right in novel form was the essence of the challenge. I’m an orthodox believer. For me the Gospels are truth and Jesus in my novels has to be conform completely to the Jesus of the Gospels. I prayed, wept, studied, read, and wrote, struggling all the time with the fear that I wouldn’t meet my own expectations. I sought to depict the Lord as Human and Divine, yet putting aside his Infinite Knowledge in order to live with us as a human being.
I think my vocation is to focus on the Humanity of the Divine Christ and to try to depict a probable life for him in First Century Galilee and Judea. This is a difficult theological task. But the gospels do give us overwhelming evidence that Jesus could be surprised, He could marvel, He could pray for the cup to be passed, He would weep, and He could be angry. And of course in Luke He grew in wisdom. So we have here strong evidence that He allowed Himself to experience this world as a human for our sake.
This is what I sought to describe in fiction: the pressures, the alienation, the difficulties Our Lord might have faced as a Jewish man who would not marry and who was sinless.
Jamie: In telling the life of Jesus, were there any stories that you wanted to include, but ultimately were cut in the editing process or due to length? If so, could you share an example?
Anne: No, there are no stories that were cut. I did at one time imagine some stories for Jesus as an adolescent, but the Bible really gives us nothing on this so I soon moved away from the idea. I went from His childhood in the first book to His last year in Nazareth in the second book. I felt I could capture what the intervening time might have been like — a long period of waiting for the fulfillment of prophesies made at His birth.
Jamie: Jesus’ mother, Mary, has always been a significant figure in the faith, especially for Roman Catholics and increasingly today with Protestants. You capture her so well in both books. What has Mary meant to you in your faith and in writing these books?
Anne: In my personal faith, Mary means a great deal to me. As a Catholic, I’ve never worshipped her. We venerate her as the Mother of God, and as The Immaculate Conception. Each week I go to her shrine in the church and talk with her, and pray to her and ask for her intercession. I find our 2,000 year old tradition of art pertaining to the Mother of God to be infinitely inspiring.
In the novels, clearly, I imagine life being difficult for a Galilean girl who insists she has been visited by an angel. And I imagine Mary as obedient, gentle, and totally loving when it comes to Her Divine Son, her “husband,” Joseph, and the rest of the family.
Saying the rosary is a favorite devotion of mine, and meditating on the mysteries as I recite the prayers has had a definite influence on my writing. Ideas have come to me during this meditation that went right into the novels. The Rosary is a marvelous combination of elements. I’ve given rosaries to a Jewish friend and to Protestant friends and they take comfort in reciting it.
Jamie: The story of the nativity is one of the most widely known stories about Jesus, but it is often treated with over sentimentality. Beyond the beautiful telling in “Out of Egypt”, ave you ever considered writing the nativity story from Mary’s perspective?
Anne: I haven’t really considered writing the Nativity scene from Mary’s perspective, because in a way I’ve already done it in Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt. Mary is the one who finally tells the Child Jesus all about Christmas and what happened. In the second book of the series she tells him a little more of the prophecy she heard when He was taken to the Temple. —- I think Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt does tell the Christmas story in a way that has never been done before, from the point of view of those who were there, including Jesus’ older brother James, the son of Joseph by an earlier wife. (The Eastern Orthodox have always held that James was Joseph’s son, and I followed that tradition with him.). I hope some day that this novel will be republished with Christmas art, as I do think that it is about Christmas.
Jamie: Which characters did you most identify with in the writing of the “Christ The Lord” books? Why?
Anne: Which characters did I most identify with? Well, of course I drew as close to the Lord Himself as I possibly could. I think I was attempting to meditate on Him, identify with His suffering, and with His difficulties in the human world, and for me He is the character most cherished, loved, and well developed in the two novels.
Jamie: Engaging the person, life and teachings of Jesus in the narrative form of a novel offers a refreshing and exciting look into Scripture. In your research for this book, did you come across any other novelized treatments of Jesus’ life that you felt were worth noting?
Anne: Other novels on Jesus? I looked at them but I did not find them inspiring or helpful. I was very disappointed in Norman Mailer’s “first person” treatment of the Lord, and I only glanced at The Greatest Story Ever Told. Some Christian novels did inspire me, and I would have to say that Ben Hur was the most inspiring but it is not the life of Our Lord. It was an immense achievement for Lew Wallace, its unique author, and what so touched me was that Wallace wrote a novel that would bring Christians and Jews together. I strive to write a fiction that Jews will respect and I think that we must understand Jesus as a Jew in His milieu and this means not villifying the entire Jewish nation when we write about Jesus.
Jamie: While your books are widely read throughout the world, being a writer in the US, what has been your experience with the response of American Christians to these new books about Jesus? Given how some Christians use Jesus as something of a blunt object in politics, what do you most hope they will discover about Christ in your books?
Anne: So far Catholics and Protestants have embraced these books. I’m humbled and grateful. I expected dismissal the first time around and I was amazed. People are hungry for true Christian art, that is, creative work in novels and films that depicts the Jesus in whom they believe. I think they found this in my novels, and again, I am humbly grateful.
The question of Christians and politics in America is a hot one right now. One thing I sought to emphasize is that Jesus was not the warlike Davidic Messiah. He came to be the Suffering Servant. My novels will continue to focus on this choice on His part.
Jamie: Christian fiction has not always had the reputation of being high quality (in the last several decades, at least), often stumbling into shallow moralizing through mediocre writing. Your books set the bar much higher (for which I am very grateful). What advice would you give to fiction writers who want to write about issue of faith?
Anne: My advice to anyone working with Christian material is, of course, Make it as good as you can make it. Being a Christian is no excuse for making mediocre or sentimental art. We don’t need another mediocre book on any subject. Mel Gibson’s audience revealed that people wanted high production values in a Christian film as well as immense faith and devotion reflected in the film.
We Catholics are blessed with a long vibrant artistic tradition. Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters are still influenced by a Puritan background that causes them to be suspicious of all art. I think we Catholics can offer a new approach, and some risk taking in novels and films.
Excellence has to be the standard. The greatest paintings we have of Christ are indeed great paintings. The greatest music- by Bach, Vivaldi, others- is indeed great music. We novelists must strive to write great novels. It’s insulting to Christians to offer them sentimental, shallow art and think they ought to go for it because it’s Christian. And I do think that is happening in some areas. We can’t let that happen. We need to offer Our Lord all that we can offer Him, and our art should be the very best we can do.
Jamie: You have said that you are now writing only for the Lord. While these current novels obviously consume most of your time and attention, have you considered any possibilities for future works beyond them?
Anne: These novels do consume my present time, but I hope, if I live long enough, to write about the early years of Christianity. As a child, I was very inspired by the films Quo Vadis and The Robe about the early Christians in Rome. I’d love to take a crack at that period. I’m particularly interested in writing about Peter in Rome and his relationship with John Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark from Peter’s recollections. I’d love to do a fresh, realistic and action packed novel set in this time.
I think each generation has to approach the old stories in a new way. In those older films, the pagans have all the fun. I couldn’t help but notice that even when I was a child. I’d like to treat the material in a different way. I’ve already started in my Christ the Lord novels, with, say, the description of the marriage feast at Cana as a big, lush, celebration. I want to describe the life of the early Christians as vibrant and exuberant. The old movies had the Christians walking around in a daze a lot of the time. Epiphanies were done with music and lighting, and silent faces. I’d like to go for something far more “realistic” about life day in and day out for the Christian community. I think their enthusiasm was as great as their serenity.
Jamie: From your years of living outside of the church, especially given the genres you most commonly wrote, I am sure you have faced your fair share of “critique” at the hands of Christians. what advice can you give Christians about how we can better love our neighbours outside the church?
Anne: Loving our neighbors and our enemies is the core of the Sermon on the Mount, the core of Christianity and I think we have to approach our critics, both Christian and atheist, with immense patience. We have to demonstrate that we are Christians by being people who know how to love. Love trumps judgment. Our Lord will do the judging. Satan does the accusing.
We have to regain our credibility as people who know how to love in the name of the Lord. And some times our worst test comes from another Christian. Again, we must forgive, and love, and reach out to all. I think many people despise us because they don’t think we follow the commands of our founder. They don’t think we love others. This is tragic. To love all is one of the hardest things we have to learn how to do. And we must never give up trying. Christ’s most radical demand is that we love all in His name.
Jamie: Thank you so much, Anne.