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The Vulture Transcript: Anne Rice on Twilight, Her Casting Dreams for a New Lestat, and Her Ever-Evolving Religious Beliefs

Thirty-five years ago, Anne Rice single-handedly launched a permanent pop-culture vampire fixation with Interview With the Vampire, the first installment of her best-selling ten-book series The Vampire Chronicles. Today, the author is interested in a different sort of eternal life: the kind that comes from religious salvation instead of erotic damnation. Raised Irish Catholic, the author re-converted in 1998 after years as a self-avowed atheist. Her spiritual awakening was followed by a transition to more explicitly Christian material: first the Christ the Lord books, which fictionalized the early life of Jesus Christ, and most recently, the Songs of the Seraphim series, about a reformed hit man named Toby O’Dare who becomes — of course! — a time-traveling angel-for-hire. (And then in July, Rice stunned her Christian fan base by announcing — on Facebook, no less — that she was leaving organized religion “in the name of Christ.”) She is currently making appearances in New York (tonight at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble) and California to promote her second Seraphim novel, Of Love and Evil. For a sprawling Vulture Transcript, we called Rice to discuss demons and angels, and her potential new entries in her Christ the Lord series, as well as more secular topics, like her takes on Twilight and True Blood, and whether she thinks Robert Downey Jr. should succeed Tom Cruise as the next Vampire Lestat.

First of all, you’re very entertaining to follow on Facebook.
Oh really? [Big laugh.] We have a lot of fun on that page. We really do! I love discussing things with the guys on Facebook. And we have some regulars, as you probably know — some regular posters that are just wonderful at providing feedback and keeping discussions going. It’s really great. I learn an enormous amount from that page.

The other day you posted that you were talking about religion on a discussion board on Amazon. What do you get out of those kinds of online fan interactions, which I’d imagine a lot of popular writers avoid?
Well, Amazon has a whole bunch of discussion groups under different topics. And I usually post in the Christianity topic. And what I get out of it, really, is learning what other people believe and learning, ultimately, what I believe. By talking with them about their beliefs and the reason for their beliefs. And as you probably know, I left organized religion in July. I walked away with an official statement on Facebook. But I’m still very much of a believer, and still completely focused on scripture and Christianity and so forth and the Judeo-Christian tradition. And I go there to post to ask questions about beliefs and believers that I don’t understand. And I get a lot of feedback, very good feedback, sometimes very patient feedback from very well-informed people who post in those forums. There are a lot of trolls, there are a lot of nasty people, there are a lot of vicious people that will come on and attack me personally and say, Anne Rice, you demon! You know, How dare you ask these questions! [Laughs.] I mean, this happens. But what keeps the thread going are the substantive posts from people who really do want to discuss their beliefs. And I learn a lot from it. I’m not learning necessarily what they want me to learn, but I learn a lot.

I watched the little video you made to promote Of Love and Evil, about the meaning of evil and belief in the devil. A lot of people would say they believe in God but can’t wrap their head around the idea of a devil, or believe if there’s a God that their can’t also be a hell. Is that something that you’ve struggled with?
Oh yeah. This thread that I started on Amazon, the title of it is "Do Most Christians Believe That the Majority Go to Hell?" This has been going on for months, and we go back and forth and back and forth. And I’ve been very candid in saying that I can’t believe that people go to hell, that a just, all-knowing, all-loving God would send people to hell for all eternity. And I’ve come to realize that I don’t really know that I believe in a personified devil. I’m not sure I do believe that, or that people are demon-possessed, or that there need to be exorcists. I’m not sure I believe all that goes along with the idea of hell. And I’m finding out that some Christians feel this way and some people don’t. And that’s true in the Catholic Church as well. There are Catholics who believe in the devil and hell, and there are Catholics who I don’t think believe in these things at all.

And yet you seem obviously fond of the idea of angels.
Yeah, I can certainly believe in angels. And they are in the Judeo-Christian tradition: From the beginning, there are angels. And I can certainly believe in spirit messengers from God. It’s entirely conceivable that God can create pure spirits, and that they come and go on Earth and they do things for Him. I can accept that. Now, you know, would I go to the stake over the belief in angels? [Laughs.] Not necessarily. But I think it’s a beautiful and benign part of the tradition, and it’s plausible.

But to play devil’s advocate, so to speak — if the angels exist, would that necessitate demons existing as well?
No, not at all. The idea of the Fall is an idea that’s been developed — the Fall of the Angels, it’s more developed outside the Bible than in the Bible. I don’t know that I necessarily believe it. It’s been offered as an explanation for why evil entered the world, but I see it largely as a poetic explanation. There are some wonderful books on all this by Professor Jeffrey Burton Russell. He’s written books about the devil through the ages — they have different titles, Mephistopheles, Satan, Lucifer, and so on — it’s all about how we’ve evolved the idea of the devil. And he’s a Catholic, actually, and a fairly conservative one, but he emphasizes again and again that these are efforts to explain the existence of evil. If you have an all-powerful God, how do you explain the existence of evil? And one of the ways is to imagine that there is a devil that revolted against God. But if you examine the sources of all this, it’s not all that convincing.

When you have your demon appear in Of Love and Evil, he asks Toby, “If that had really been the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t it have flooded you with consolation and light?” Do you think that there is a certainty that comes with evil? Why that phrase?
What I was doing was having him pose the common Protestant idea, that once you convert you are flooded with the Holy Spirit and everything is simple after that. I mean, that’s an idea that’s been suggested to me again and again by Protestants. If you convert and you have that great feeling of peace and serenity, and then you sin, well some of them say you were never really converted in the first place. To me, that’s a self-serving and shallow argument. I think, as Toby finds out in the book, that the solace and peace that comes with the conversion does not necessarily last. We’re human beings. And we move away from that conversion, and though we may have seen miracles like Toby, we are still subject to doubts and fears because we are human. You know, we saw that in the New Testament. The apostles could see great miracles and still be out in a boat in a storm and still wake Jesus up and be scared. They just saw him feed five thousand people with seven loaves and fishes.

I’m a pastor’s daughter, and when I was a teenager, one of my best friends was as well — and we were obsessed with The Vampire Chronicles. I think a lot of that obsession was being able to safely embrace this idea of evil, that we as pastor’s kids were both uncomfortable with on one level and also fascinated by. How do you reconcile those themes in The Vampire Chronicles with what you’ve called your “personal search and grieving for God?”
Well, they reflected what I felt as an atheist. I was a real uncomfortable atheist. I failed as an atheist. Because I really believed in God. But The Vampire Chronicles reflect that searching. I felt lost in the dark, cursed, cast out of the Catholic Church — not that anybody had asked me to leave — but I felt that I was in a dark world, a meaningless universe, trying to be an atheist, trying to believe everything was random. And I expressed my agony and rebellion through Lestat and Louis and Armand and the other characters. I was never the cold, successful atheist that Gabrielle is, for example. I was always more the raging atheist like Louis or Lestat, saying I still believe in goodness and I want to be good and I know I’m supposed to be cursed, but there’s got to be something, there’s got to be some way to be meaningful and good. And all that reflected my own feelings, my own belief. The art itself was vampirism. The vampire was the art — let me see if I can put this neatly. The Chronicles themselves were about the search, the refusal to accept that it’s a dark meaningless world. And I’m still obsessed with this. I believe in God now, but I’m obsessed with, how do we live a good life? How do we serve God? How do we know what he wants of us, if all around us we see corruption in the churches, disagreement — I’m still obsessed with the very same things. But there came a time when I couldn’t do any more with those questions in The Vampire Chronicles, because you’re dealing in that world with people who drink blood and kill. So there’s only so much you can do [laughs] and I wanted to move out of that. I wanted to open it up and get with characters like Toby, you know, who have a real chance to do something meaningful and good, and can wrestle with the very same problems, but in a world where there are possibilities of transcendence. There never was any transcendence for Louis or Lestat or Armand. There couldn’t be.

Do you have a take on the way in which Twilight serves Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon beliefs?
I don’t know enough about Mormon beliefs to see it in that context. What I saw there was woman’s romance. And I don’t mean that in a denigrating way. I saw the same thing that works in the work of Charlotte and Emily Bronte, the idea of a young and vulnerable young woman falling in love with essentially an older, stronger, mysterious person. In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is threatening but he’s also protective and loving, and eventually comes around to be totally subdued and tamed by Jane. And that’s really what I saw in Twilight, in the two movies I saw. Young girl falls in love with this boy who’s capable of killing people, he’s a vampire, but he really loves her and protects her. And it was the same old story. Of course, there’s been a lot of writing in the world about why that particular romance functions. Is it about a young girl and her relationship to her father, as people have argued? Is it about the weaker feminine in love with the stronger masculine? It has a lot of deep layers of meaning, and I think Stephenie Meyer hit on that again in the Twilight books. And she did this stroke of genius thing of having these menacing vampires go to high school. [Laughs.] Which, in a way, I thought was incredibly ridiculous. Because what immortal would spend his time going to high school over and over like that? Go to Katmandu or Memphis or Rio De Janiero or Rome! But it was a stroke of genius, because it gave great pleasure to millions of kids. So its’ very interesting. But I think what makes it work is that old tried-and-true woman’s romance formula, which is rooted in psychology.

There’s a sort of martyrdom in the Twilight vampires — the good vampires practice this sort of chastity in abstaining from killing and the pleasures of the world. So they become these near-saints, in spite of their nature.
I do think, though, that runs through all vampire literature. Any book about vampires, whether it’s Charlaine Harris’x True Blood series on HBO, or Stephenie Meyer or my books, we always have these characters struggling with their desires, abstaining, becoming chaste, that’s what makes them complicated and interesting. And the vampires in True Blood try to drink that junk out of the bottle instead of killing people. And we always applaud them, because that’s a metaphor for how we struggle with our own destructive impulses. But I see what you mean. I mean, she does it quite flamboyantly in having that good family so devoted to others and so abstaining and so forth. It’s perhaps done very clearly there for younger readers.

Do you think a vampire story can be told without some kind of aspect of religion?
No. I think the material is inherently about salvation, about damnation, even if your vampires are total atheists like mine, it’s about how do you be a good person, how do you transcend? I could never get away from it; I think it’s built into the material. Even if you take out the magic of crosses and holy water, as I did, and say that doesn’t work, you’re still left with the vampire being a human monster and wanting to be human. My vampires, you might say, were secular humanists, and they were struggling with how to be good on those terms.

So now you have Toby. You’ve said that you’re consecrating your work to God, which is a beautiful idea. Do you feel that you will always be writing about salvation and God and religion from here on? You say you feel that you’ve always been writing about those topics, but there’s a fairly explicitly Christian message in these last two books.
Well, I think I will always be writing about it. I think it’s unescapable. I’m doing a novel right now that’s about ancient Atlantis. About what Atlantis was, why it was destroyed. And I have immortal characters in that novel who come from that time. And again, I can’t get away from questions: What is the meaning of our lives in this world? What is the message of Atlantis? What do we think about the Christian tradition? What do we think about humans? It’s all there. The Atlantis myth itself is about salvation, good and evil. Did Atlantis get destroyed by the powers that be because it was corrupt, and what does that mean for us? I mean, it’s right there in Plato’s original description of Atlantis. And so I don’t seem to be able to get away from those themes. And I don’t even ask to. I mean, I let my own themes and obsessions flood into my work. I want that to happen. So I don’t think I’ll get away from it at all. And to me, my work is still consecrated to God because it’s reflecting my great faith in Him. Now, will it be as explicitly Christian? I don’t know. I’ll see what happens when my immortals experience the Christian religion and I’ll see how they respond to it. And I have a lot to say about that. I love the idea of working from the point of view of an immortal character who doesn’t really know all the answers, and who’s going to look at that tradition and see how it works. I played with that in the vampire novels with Pandora, when Pandora the vampire was fascinated by the Christians, and Marius her lover was not fascinated by them, thought they were awful. And she was fascinated by the mystical truths of religion and he didn’t see it. He saw it all as irrational. So I love to deal with that stuff. It’s gonna be there, no matter what I do.

There are so many possibilities for this current series. I found it interesting, for one, that both of Toby’s missions have involved persecuted Jews in different historical periods. Was that a deliberate choice or is that just a fascination you hit on around the time you were writing?
Well, both. In a way, I can see the series as always dealing with the Jews and Christians in history, because there’s so much material that a lot of people don’t know anything about, and I love working with that. I don’t think if you ask most people, "Did you know that the Renaissance Popes had Jewish physicians?" they would probably say no, they didn’t know that. And I love digging up those kinds of historical facts and working with those facts. I loved in the first Angel Time book revealing what I learned from history, that there were Jewish scholars at Oxford and that Christian scholars came to them to learn Hebrew so they could read the ancient texts. There’s always been this complex relationship between Jews and Christians throughout history. So in a way, I could do it in every book. I might not. I don’t know. But I’d like to go back to it often. Also, I wanted to make it clear from the get-go that the angel Malchiah didn’t belong to any particular denomination. He, without apology, sends Toby to answer the prayers of Jews, and he doesn’t give any reason for that. And the only conclusion one can draw is that God loves everyone and is answering everyone’s prayers, not just Christians or Catholics. But everyone’s. And I love that. I mean, that’s my core belief: that God loves everyone.

What has your reaction been to Angel Time and Of Love and Evil from the people at whom Christian lit is traditionally targeted, i.e., the Left Behind readers?
Different responses. I’d say the book did well and was warmly received in many places. In some others, it was criticized. There was certainly curiosity, openness, willingness to read it. That was great. But it was the same with the Christ the Lord novels. The Christ the Lord novels incited a great deal more interest on the part of Christians. There were many, many Christians who read the Christ the Lord novels and took them very seriously and wrote beautiful responses to them, that maybe just weren’t interested in the Angel Time book. But in general, I found people were very responsive to it, particularly Catholics. I remember I sent Angel Time to a friend of mine who’s a retired archbishop, and he said that he read it twice, he enjoyed it so much. And that was very encouraging to me. But again, I think there was a little less interest than there was in the Christ the Lord books, because they were so much right on the Christian story.

And those got generally a positive response from the Christian community?
Oh, very much so. They were very well-received, they got beautiful reviews — even Janet Maslin in the New York Times! [Laughs.] They were very respected. The first one in particular sold very well. I think the second one is catching up. I get e-mails every day asking when the third book about Christ will come out. They have a definite following. Myself, personally, I think they’re the best books I’ve ever written. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to writing a book as accomplished as Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. So I trust it will be out there for a long time and it will be greeting new readers. I do think those books can be frightening to people. They can say, well how is this woman writing about Jesus in the first person? And people have to overcome that question or that bias to read them. And of course, there are a lot of my readers who just don’t care about Jesus Christ. They’re not interested. But Christians, when they overcome their bias that people can’t write fiction about Christ, they generally embrace them. It’s been very well embraced. So I think that their publication was a great success. What stopped me from going further is that I got to the public life of Our Lord, and I got to the thickest of the theological controversies, and I really don’t know how to approach it. The private life is one thing, but the public life is another. That’s where people begin to throw things at one another over what Jesus really said and what he did and what he didn’t say and what he didn’t do. And I simply by that time was so exhausted with the debate among Christians about the meaning of Christ that I gave out.

I can’t imagine a more difficult literary challenge — although what you’ve done with taking on the private years of Christ has actually been done less, I think.
Well, I have a vision for the third novel in my mind, and it’s a vision of how to stay out of the controversies, to tell a kind of emotional backstory of Jesus’ experience on the road with others, and to not get into the controversy about the meaning of the things He’s saying. But that would be very difficult to do. But it can be done, and I may do it. Many, many readers have written and said, even though you’ve left religion, please don’t leave these books, because we want a third installment. So I’m very encouraged by that.

Would it be a trilogy?
It would have to be a quartet, because the third book, I envision, would be Jesus on the road, up to the weekend of the Passion.

So the final book would be the Passion.
Yeah. But again, how to do it? Everyone who writes about Christ eventually writes about their own Christ. But you try to make it, I try to make it biblically correct and universally relevant and faithful to what the materials really said. And that’s quite a struggle and that is always going to be a partial success, because there’s no consensus on what that is.

I heard that Universal was looking into rebooting The Vampire Chronicles as a film franchise.
I hope there will be, but I don’t have anything firm to report. A lot of interest, a lot of talk. The rights are all mine; they don’t belong to a studio anymore, they belong to me. It’s been a long struggle, but we have a lot of interest and there’s a lot of talks going on, so we’ll see. I’m hoping. I’m hoping that I will have something to announce soon.

Do you have conditions for doing the films this time around?
I’m trying to stay out of it. I’d love it if they could be faithful, but I’ve learned from experience that one cannot control that. That once you sell the rights, and the rights become the property of people who are investing multi-millions, they will inevitably do what they want. They will have an excellent reason, they will wine you and dine you and be polite to you, but they will do what they want.

You had strong feelings about who should play Lestat in the 1994 film. Do you now?
No. I want to see what they come up with. We have so many new actors today that we did not have then. There are so many brilliant actors coming out of Australia and Britain — Richard Armitage and Matthew McFadyen and Simon Woods — they’re just everywhere, really brilliant wonderful guys who articulate beautifully, who are physically beautiful themselves. There’s a time in America when that wasn’t so. There were not that many who could play roles like Louis and Lestat and Armand. Because our great actors were dominated by people like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel. And they were wonderful, but they were so associated with New York street life and vernacular that it was hard to imagine them making a transition to this kind of material. But that’s no longer the case thanks to BBC. All you have to do is turn on BBC to see these guys walking through Little Dorritt and The Way We Live Now and MI5 and all kinds of shows. So there’s so much talent. Like Louis, right now, he could be portrayed easily by Richard Armitage or Matt Bomer, the American actor. Matt Bomer is a beautiful, beautiful guy. He could play Louis. Armand could be played by that young actor, Max Records from Where the Wild Things Are. He’s just about the perfect age — 13 or 14 — he could play Armand. He’d be wonderful as Armand.

Now Lestat, there are a lot of people who could play Lestat. What the readers really, really, really want is they want the personality and beauty of Lestat. That’s what they want. And they get very upset when it’s not, and let’s hope the moviemakers realize how important that is, that the work doesn’t work if you don’t deliver a Lestat. I’d tell you who I think would be wonderful as Marius is Matthew McFadyen. I don’t know if you saw The Pillars of the Earth. Oh he’s wonderful — he’s in MI5 as the head spy. He’s just great. I think his voice and his eyes — that’s Marius. All he needs is a blond wig. And Ioan Gruffud and Benedict Cumberbatch — they were both in Amazing Grace. They’re both terrific. I’d love to see both of them in The Vampire Chronicles. Jamie Bamber, he’s terrific, I was just watching him last night in England’s Law & Order. I’d seen him on Battlestar Galactica, but I’d never seen him unleash that beautiful diction. So I think there are many, many actors.

Do you have any thoughts on the one name that’s been floated?
Robert Downey Jr.? That would be wonderful. He is a great actor. He would bring the gravitas and the wit and humor and all of that to the part, and I don’t think he’s too old. I think if he had a blond wig and makeup, he would be a wonderful Lestat. Lestat has to have the gravitas of a 200-year-old man and Robert Downey Jr. can do it. He can do anything. He’s just incredible. That would be wonderful. But I don’t know whether he’s really interested and I don’t know if that will work out. I hope so. I hope the rumors are true.

I love Robert Downey Jr., though he does strike me as older than I pictured the character.
Yeah, but a great actor like that — again, Lestat is 200 years old. He wasn’t a boy when he became a vampire. A 19-year-old is a man in the eighteenth century, he’s not a boy. So physical appearance is just one aspect of this. There’s gotta be depth. There’s gotta be the real feeling that you’re in the hands of an immortal who’s commenting on things. And also his wit and humor, his mischievousness is so great. He’s just terrifically athletic and he’s got those incredible eyes and great voice — I think Robert Downey Jr. would do a bang-up job of it.

What do you think Lestat’s band would sound like now?
Well, it always sounded to me like Jim Morrison. That was the band I based it on — Jim Morrison’s voice, physical beauty, and the sound of that band in a song like "L.A. Woman." That’s how I imagined Lestat’s band sounding. I don’t know a lot about rock music right at this moment; I haven’t listened to a stadium band in a while. I don’t know the latest stuff. I really don’t know. The main thing in emphasizing Morrison is that I’m emphasizing hard rock. It’s really acid rock. It’s not lightweight rock music and there has to be a good voice at the helm. Morrison had an exceptionally good voice for a rock singer. But modernizing it? Sure, whatever. Bring it on.

Photo: Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images