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Anne Rice's reborn faith brings a new purpose, new direction

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Anne Rice could have been dead, maybe should have been dead, not once but twice.

First came the diabetic coma in 1998, that sudden descent to death's door after the most basic sort of flulike symptoms. The coma left her paralyzed for a time, unable to think or speak with much coherence, a terrifying and frustrating condition that did disappear over time, but led directly to great despair.

"I should be dead," Rice kept thinking to herself. "A mistake has been made."

Then came the ruptured appendix a couple of years later, another brush with death for the best-selling vampire chronicler, followed by yet another reprieve. And that prompted her to reflect later that this was no mistake, that she had been spared for a purpose, a higher purpose involving her newfound faith in God and a new novel on a far different subject.

"If I had died earlier, I would have left something behind of value," Rice says in Seattle. "But I trust there is a reason that this has happened instead. I trust that this was the journey I had to make. Sometimes I would receive flashes that this is what I was meant to do. Because I am alive when the expectation was that I should be dead."

Rice's new novel sits high on the best-seller list again, but that is all that seems the same in her life these days. At 64, one of America's most popular authors radiates calmness, happiness and even humility in the aftermath of one of the most startling about-faces in the annals of best sellerdom. It's adieu to vampires forever, Lestat & Friends R.I.P.; hello to the new 21st-century gospel, the life of Jesus as interpreted by Rice.

"Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" (Alfred A. Knopf, 322 pages, $25.95) is the first of a projected three or four novels that Rice hopes will illuminate Jesus and his world in fresh ways drawn from her exhaustive historical research and her voluminous readings, including the 200 different translations of the Bible that she keeps in her $8 million mansion in La Jolla, Calif.

Rice is hardly the first major writer to fictionalize the story of Jesus. Writers of far greater literary pedigree have trod this same path with varying results, including D.H. Lawrence ("The Man Who Died"), Robert Graves ("King Jesus"), Nikos Kazantzakis ("The Last Temptation of Christ") and Norman Mailer ("The Gospel of the Son"). Rice acknowledges reading many such novels, but asserts, "The world can always use another book about Jesus ... I still felt there was plenty of room for me."

Rice's "Christ the Lord" is a first-person narrative, with Jesus himself recalling what he went through as a youth. The prose is spare, simple. "I was 7 years old," the novel opens. "What do you know when you're 7 years old?"

From this chancy beginning, Rice spins her surprising tale of a year in the young life of Christ, his travels with his extended family back to Galilee and their visits to Jerusalem, their daily lives, their Jewish faith, coupled with his own rising recognition of his unearthly powers and the special circumstances behind them, which almost no one in his family cares to share with someone so young. That leaves him frustrated, uncertain, often teary and startled when those details slowly start to emerge.

The first-person narration of "Christ the Lord" has inherent problems. A 7-year-old narrator, even one with divine powers, does not have a compelling voice, nor can he provide much in the way of character development. So whole passages of the novel provide a passing parade of confusing names that only gradually become attached to specific, one-dimensional characters. The plot has a plodding pace as a result and the Hemingway-influenced style sometimes veers perilously close to parody ("The money was good. The weather was good.")

What is far more successful is Rice's re-creation of daily life in Jesus' time. The writer always took great pride in the accurate historical details in her vampire chronicles, even if readers were drawn more to their eroticism and gore, and she has expended similar efforts on the setting of "Christ the Lord." It was, in fact, her love of historical research that first set in motion her unexpected pilgrimage back to the Catholic faith.

Rice's vampire novels, which have sold a prodigious 75 million copies, kept propelling her further and further back in history, until she found herself confronting the dual questions: "How did Christianity actually happen? Why did Rome actually fall?" Research into these matters led to research into the historical figure of Jesus and the resilience of the Jewish people. It also led to a growing reappraisal of why she had left the Catholic faith as a questioning college student at age 18 and stayed away for decades during her marriage to artist Stan Rice, a confirmed atheist.

Anne Rice, following a period of biblical readings and personal reflections, found herself with "an overwhelming desire to go back to the church," which she did in 1998. She even persuaded Stan to marry her again in a Catholic ceremony that took place in her childhood church, a fortuitous decision since he died not long afterward, only four months after being first diagnosed with a brain tumor. She had begun to write her Jesus novel by that time and that helped sustain her during those terrible days of shock, loss and grief.

"Christ the Lord" had become far more than just another Rice fiction. It had become a creative expression of faith, a personal testament.

"I consecrated the book to Christ," Rice writes in her author's note that concludes the novel. "I consecrated myself and my work to Christ."

But Rice was intent on still imbuing this new work with her trademark dramatics and flourishes. Her retelling of the essential Christian story may be conservative in its approach to doctrine, but it definitely would not be sanitized or bland.

"I didn't want to tone down anything," Rice stresses. "I'm happiest when I'm exploring extremes, when I'm out there. I get close to something of permanence then, something of importance."

Still, she worried about whether her recent conversion and her life of Jesus would alienate the legions of loyal fans who had "followed me through one strange turn after another." It might be one strange turn too many, but she pronounced herself ready to "risk everything," however grave the dangers.

"Just because this was so important to me doesn't mean that others would be willing to follow that vision," Rice concedes. "If you disappoint readers, you can run the risk of losing readers."

Rice views her relationship with readers with grave seriousness. Her comprehensive Web site ( even includes her personal e-mail address and she is committed to personally answering reader e-mails even on her national book tour.

To her surprise and relief, the vast majority of reader responses to "Christ the Lord" has been favorable, with far more people than she ever expected seeing the new novel as a natural outgrowth of her vampire chronicles and how she has come to view Jesus as "the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider." Sales have been strong, although she frankly admits disappointment that "Christ the Lord" has not claimed the top spot on the best-seller lists, as so many of her previous books have, and it now seems to be tumbling a couple of spots every week.

"I want it to hold on," she says, "but if it doesn't, I have to do the best I can."

Rice has heard from a handful of critics and skeptics, those who question her "strange" new direction, those who offer plaintive complaints about life without Lestat and his bloodlust cohorts.

She tries to explain to them how "my vision has become a religious vision," that "vampires stopped being metaphors for what I believed," although she wishes she gave better evidence of her Christian faith than the "meanness, anger and unkindness" that still sometimes surfaces in the face of criticism. But she is not about to expend much effort looking back.

There could be no end to that, with all the travails and trials of her life: the death of her only daughter at age 5 from leukemia; her own long struggles with alcohol and weight; her husband's death after 41 years of marriage; her brushes with death; her recent move to California from her native New Orleans; and then the Crescent City's devastation from Hurricane Katrina that left her feeling, as she admits, "insane."

Rice is utterly committed to her new life, her new work.

Gastric bypass surgery two years ago and regular turns on her recumbent bike have helped her shed 120 to 130 pounds, down to a svelte 127 pounds, and she still is losing weight with her small meals like the "two spoons of potatoes and a tiny lamb chop" that she had for lunch recently.

California provides new grounding and allures, including proximity to her son in Los Angeles to whom "Christ the Lord" is dedicated (a pointed statement of her opposition to church policy on homosexuality since Christopher Rice is gay). New Orleans seems part of her past now, like vampires, especially since she no longer owns houses there, although she continues to speak out on the embattled city's behalf and provide whatever aid she can.

Her faith is foremost. She has been on a quest for more than a decade, including stops at holy sites in Israel and atop Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro where she stood directly beneath the famed statue of Christ with arms outstretched, the writer awestruck as the towering figure kept disappearing into a shroud of fog and then reappearing.

"I was searching for God," she says, "for redemption."

Now Rice is sure she has found exactly that.

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