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Jesus captures Anne Rice's imagination

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ANNE RICE, Southern-born, soft-spoken, seems too nice to get angry, but she does sound vexed.

The source of her puzzlement: all the recent commentary about her new book, "Christ the Lord," being a departure for her.

"There is a lot of chatter out there about it," Rice says in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Atlanta, "but I think those comments are coming from people who don't know the other books."

The other books include her "Vampire Chronicles" novels such as "Memnoch the Devil," and her saga of a family of witches in titles such as "Lasher" and "Taltos."

In an author's note to the new book, though, Rice asks: "After all, is Christ Our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?"

Point taken. From her first book, 1976's "Interview With the Vampire," Rice has been obsessed with theological questions. Yet "Christ the Lord" is the most overtly spiritual book of her career.

It's also the result of her journey back to the Catholic Church. Rice, who was born in New Orleans, had been brought up Catholic, then found her faith lapsing as she moved into adulthood.

Tragic loss

There were hardships, too: Her daughter, Michele, born in 1966, would die of leukemia five years later. Both losses, of faith and of her firstborn, would result in an unrest in Rice's soul.

"I think my books have reflected that unrest, almost a cry in the night. I think 'Interview With the Vampire' is just drenched in the grief I felt for having lost my Catholic faith. That's really what that book is about more than anything else; the vampire turned out to be the perfect symbol for that."

More than two dozen books later (some published under the pseudonyms A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling), Rice is one of the most popular novelists in the world. Yet her success story was like that of many people: material abundance that still left a hole.

Some might be tempted to read her return to the church as grief from another loss. Her husband of 41 years, poet/painter Stan Rice, died of a brain tumor in 2002.

The problem with that theory is that Rice had started going to Mass again in 1998. Her husband, "a passionate atheist," had even agreed to go through a marriage ceremony in the church though his beliefs had not changed, an act Rice calls "a marvelous concession ... out of love for me."

After her husband's death, Rice began some deep research into the life of Christ. As any reader of the New Testament knows, there is scant information in the Bible about Jesus' boyhood.

Sensing a book in that, Rice turned to "the apocryphal gospels, the legends about things Jesus did when he was little and lived in Egypt. I did not want to do anything that was not in keeping with the four Gospels, but I felt I could use material from those legends whenever it was probable."

'Tantalizing tales'

In the "Infancy Gospel" of Thomas and other sources, Rice found "tantalizing tales (of) ... a boy Jesus who could strike a child dead, bring another to life, turn clay birds into living creatures, and perform other miracles."

These events she folded into "Christ the Lord." Subtitled "Out of Egypt," the book is narrated in Jesus' voice beginning when he is 7 and living in Alexandria.

"We know a lot about the period," Rice says, "about family life, what Alexandria was like at that time, that it had the largest Jewish community outside Jerusalem."

Rich as it is in historical details, though, many readers may find themselves most captivated at what Rice has done with those tales from the apocryphal gospels.

As the book opens, for example, the boy Jesus is depicted as having a power he does not yet understand or always control. Provoked by a bully, he is dismayed to find that power leaping out of him with deadly force. That he restores the boy to life only causes greater hubbub in the community.

Rice acknowledges that the idea of writing from Christ's viewpoint initially alarmed her a bit. Norman Mailer had tried this sort of thing in "The Gospel According to the Son," with decidedly mixed results.

"There were times I felt fear, almost like stage fright. How can I do this; how can I pull this off? The difficult thing was getting started, taking the plunge. Once the first few chapters were done, I felt like I was following a path, and I could see where it was going."

Respectful of the Bible but also imaginative, "Christ the Lord" peers into what it must have been like for Jesus' family to deal with "this child who had been predicted by angels." One fine passage involves James, a half-brother of Jesus, whom Rice renders as resentful at first; the scene in which he dedicates himself to Christ -- brother and messiah -- is passionate.

But does Rice think her own renewed religious fervor is a mirror of a culture that has cycled away from the secular toward the spiritual? In popular culture (Mel Gibson's film, the "Left Behind" book series) and in politics, religion is quite visible these days.

"I think I was part of it without knowing it. There is something that does happen over and over again in America. The phase in the 19th century when Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion was one of those periods when people were tremendously conscious of religious feeling.

"And then we have long periods where it seems absolutely unfashionable to be anything but an atheist, and anyone who takes religion seriously is characterized as a fool. We had been through a long period of that ... and I think people got tired of that."

Where's the conflict?

She is not so receptive to the various efforts to challenge science, such as Kansas' recent troubles with evolution versus "intelligent design" or creationism. For one thing, Rice cannot really see a conflict between science and religion.

"If you can make the world, you can make it any way you want; you can use evolution. God is infinite; he can do anything. And that's the way it was presented to me when I was a child; my mother told me that. Nobody said how long the seven days were.

"I've never understood why people are getting themselves so worked up about this. These controversies seem to come when people are afraid and protective of Scripture. They seem to think that if DNA exists and evolution exists, that's going to mean Scripture is going to lose its power.

"But Scripture doesn't lose its power! It never does. No amount of information about the world is going to change the power of Scripture. It is, if anything, better understood and better appreciated as we gain knowledge."

On Oct. 4, Rice turned 64. And in March, she left New Orleans, where she had been born, and to which she had returned 15 years ago. She wanted to be closer to her son, fellow novelist Christopher Rice, and she had seen La Jolla at a booksigning "and thought it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen."

In addition, "my husband had died, and I was alone."

Moving on

Personal matters aside, she did feel a need to get out of the Crescent City: "It was as if I felt a strange compulsion to get out." Months later, of course, Hurricane Katrina would devastate the city.

"I think the city will survive, but I think it's going through an incredible test of endurance right now. Insurance checks and FEMA checks have not come as they should, and people are struggling with unbelievable shortages, labor shortages and supplies.

"But people love that city, and they don't want to live anyplace else. And, of course, two of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city survived perfectly, the French Quarter and the Garden District uptown."

Trouble in the world is, she believes, something we are meant to experience along with beauty, and that duality, she further thinks, is exemplified by Jesus' taking human form. She intends to continue her rendering of his life, which this book only has begun. She envisions two or three more books chronicling "the whole life, through the Ascension into heaven."

Like Christ himself, Rice says, "we are sent here to experience this world, no matter what happens, whether it's Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 or whatever. We are meant to be in it."


WHO: Anne Rice

WHAT: Author of "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt"

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