The elegant suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel is flooded with sunlight. Before a huge window looking out on luxuriant gardens, a small figure sits at a desk, writing intently, her back to the room.
Then Anne Rice puts down her pen and rises to greet a guest. Long the undisputed queen of the vampire novel, now the author of a series of deeply researched and reverent novels about the life of Christ, today she is talking about Called Out of Darkness, her new memoir about her journey from a Catholic childhood through decades of atheism to a return to faith.
"It was very, very difficult to write," Rice says, just a whisper of her New Orleans roots in her voice. "But it was a story waiting to be told."
In a beautifully tailored silver damask jacket, pleated black skirt, chic shoes and antique jewelry, her silver hair framing large dark eyes in a pale face, Rice looks as if she could have stepped out of one of her lushly imagined supernatural novels.
Rice is in Los Angeles in early summer for BookExpo America, the massive industry convention, but she is not trudging around the convention floor. She's promoting Called Out of Darkness at private dinners and talking with reporters in her hotel suite.
Rice used to sign her books for fans for as much as eight hours at a stretch. At 67, after enduring a 1998 coma brought on by undiagnosed diabetes, weight gain that put 250 pounds on her small frame and gastric bypass surgery, she says, "I just don't have the energy I used to have."
Of course, Rice doesn't have to work the convention floor for booksellers' attention. Her 27 novels have sold some 100-million copies. She became an international bestseller with books like The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned and the one that started it all back in 1976, the brilliant fever dream Interview With the Vampire.
"Since I began writing the Christ the Lord books, people have been asking me if I repudiate them," she says of her novels about vampires, witches and other fantastic beings. "I usually get that from people who haven't read them."
Those books, she says, are as much a part of her spiritual journey as the books about Jesus; in her memoir, she calls her most famous character, Lestat, "my dark search engine." She writes, "These books transparently reflect a journey through atheism and back to God. . . . Did I know this when I wrote them? No."
Her earlier books, she says, grew out of her Roman Catholic childhood in a loving, eccentric, intellectual family. They lived in New Orleans, where as a child she was immersed in "the beauty of churches and chapels, the art, the statues, the music.
"My strongest religious education came before the catechism, before the education in Catholic school. Art and the church are so connected in my mind."
Unlike Protestantism, Rice says, in Catholicism there is "not really a split between art and religion. Nobody ever said reading novels was profane."
Nevertheless, she says she has never been much of a reader of fiction. "As a child, I loved The Lives of the Saints. I couldn't get enough of those stories. But Nancy Drew books? I couldn't get through them and couldn't see a reason to."
She writes in her memoir that, although she was writing novels herself while she was in elementary school, she could read fiction only very slowly. She doesn't recall enjoying a novel until she was in high school and read Great Expectations and Jane Eyre. "I think it took me about a year to read them. It might have taken two," she says.
Rice says she writes fiction "much, much faster" than she reads it even now. "I get lost in my writing."
But she is a voracious reader of nonfiction — she has turned herself into a Biblical scholar to research the well-received Christ the Lord books, Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana, and the two more she expects to write.
Writing them was a very different experience from her earlier novels, in which plots and characters were entirely her own inventions. "I've had to learn how to harmonize all the gospels, since I am writing strictly in accord with the gospels, and yet make the story vital and fresh."
The startling switch in her subject matter reflects the major turn in her life. Despite her early joy in her religion, by her teens Rice felt estranged from it. "It was such a straitjacket," she says. "It kept me from learning what the world was about."
Her fall away from the faith was dramatic: She became an atheist. Living in California with her husband, poet and painter Stan Rice, she gloried in her intellectual freedom. But after they moved back to New Orleans with their son, Christopher, in 1989 (a daughter, Michele, died of leukemia at age 6), Rice found herself again surrounded by those churches and chapels that so stirred her as a child.
Called Out of Darkness recounts her intellectual struggle to come to terms with her beliefs — a struggle that eased, she says, when she began to see God as a kind of novelist, "writing the story of us on Earth."
Both in the book and in conversation, she is articulate but reserved about her personal life but becomes passionate when talking about her return to religion, which she describes in the memoir as being "pursued" by God.
In 2004, Rice left her beloved New Orleans. "It was time for me to leave, after my husband's death (in 2002) and with my son living on the West Coast."
Now, instead of those ornate, historic homes she collected in New Orleans, she lives in a sleekly modern aerie in the desert town of Rancho Mirage, Calif. She lives closer to Christopher Rice, now a novelist as well, with four thrillers published. "He's my best writing buddy," his mother says, clearly proud.
Rice says she has no interest in writing more about her vampires and witches — "It's really over for me" — although she is thinking about a "supernatural Christian series for younger readers; they are the ones clamoring for it."
And Called Out of Darkness may not be the end of Rice's personal story. "Sometimes when I finish a book I go into a very dark depression. It's terrible to be cast out of one's created world.
"But this memoir left me wanting to write another memoir."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.