La Jolla (San Diego County) — The eucalyptus leaves manage to droop impressively on a rainy October afternoon, but they aren’t Spanish moss. This manicured, affluent Southern California town, with its sea-scrubbed air, seems more than a continent away from the humid, venerable, and now devastated streets of New Orleans. Yet this is where the novelist Anne Rice, one of that city’s best-known daughters, now lives, perched in a 12-year-old, 12,000-square-foot Tuscan-style villa halfway up a hill from the beach.
Rice, 64, bought the house for $8 million and moved here six months before Hurricane Katrina struck her hometown. A relative was in the process of relocating 300 paintings by the author’s late husband, Stan Rice, to a gallery in Dallas when the storm hit. The paintings were undamaged, and Anne Rice considers this significant.
“The very suddenness with which I jumped up and said, ‘I have to go to California,’ was very spooky,” she said, sitting on the sofa under the two-story coffered ceiling of her living room. “It was as if he” — her husband — “were telling me, ‘You have some things you have to do, and it’s best you leave here now.’ “
Providence is on Rice’s mind of late. On Tuesday Alfred A. Knopf published what many will see as a radical departure for this author: “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the first novel in a projected series depicting the life of Jesus. Rice, best known for a series of books called the Vampire Chronicles, was an eminent figure in New Orleans. She lived in a 19th century Garden District mansion (the house, which she sold in December 2004 for about $3 million, survived the hurricane virtually unscathed) and owned several other properties, including an enormous former convent orphanage that she restored, lent out for fundraisers and rented for weddings. Avid fans toured the New Orleans sites featured in her books and congregated at her gate, hoping for a glimpse of the author of the best-selling novel “Interview With the Vampire.” Her Halloween parties were legendary. She arrived at local book signings in a coffin.
In La Jolla, Rice keeps a low profile. “This is very private,” she said as one of her three live-in assistants tiptoed in with a tray of fresh melon. Rice took a tiny nibble. The author struggled with her weight for many years before opting for gastric bypass surgery in 2003. She’s now a petite, solemn woman with enormous eyes under her trademark bangs. “The idea here is to devote more time to work,” she said, “and live a private life.”
Indeed, the hushed atmosphere at Paradise West, as Rice calls her new home, feels more devotional than gothic. The living room’s most noticeable features, apart from the ceiling and a huge concrete mantel painted by a previous owner to look like stone, are her collections of dolls and religious statuary. Rice’s outfit — black tights and shoes, a black skirt and a sweater over a white blouse with French cuffs and white ruffles at the neck — had a clerical air.
In 1998 Rice rejoined the Roman Catholic Church for the first time since suffering a “total breakdown of faith” at age 18. “That was in 1960, before Vatican II, and I was a very strictly brought-up Catholic,” she explained. “I lost my faith because what I had been taught was so wrong.” An overwhelming desire to “return to the banquet table” and assurances from a priest in New Orleans that she didn’t have to resolve all her differences with the church led to the reconciliation.
“Christ the Lord” is one result of Rice’s rediscovery of her faith. With classic Ricean audacity, the story is told in the first person by Jesus himself. Otherwise, “Christ the Lord” seems likely to surprise Rice’s fans and detractors alike. It is devoid of vampires, witches and feverishly gothic prose. Instead, in simple sentences, it describes the domestic life of an extended Jewish family in first-century Palestine as seen through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy who has only an inkling of his true nature.
The large glass-doored cabinet displaying Rice’s doll collection — antique French Bru dolls as well as new creations with disturbingly adult, sensuous faces by the Israeli artist Edna Dali — evokes the creepy hothouse milieu of her earlier fiction. Rice describes a large crucifix from a Carmelite convent in Louisiana and the statues of saints and Madonnas arranged elsewhere throughout the house as “parish art, devotional art, stuff people used, not fine antiques.” To the casual observer, the two collections might seem to characterize the divide in Rice’s fiction between her decadent vampire novels and the newer, more pious work.
Rice, however, does not suffer casual observations. “Only people who don’t know my books,” she said gravely, would perceive the change as a major shift. A clumsy question about demons provoked an icy response: “I never wrote about demons. Have you ever read my books?”
In particular, Rice bristles at the notion, held by some ill-informed persons, that her vampire books are light amoral entertainment. “I think they’re very Christian books,” she insisted, “by somebody outside the church, lost in the darkness, striving to find meaning and sometimes being rebellious.”
From the main floor, where the furniture is mostly reproductions bought in New Orleans, she led the way downstairs, past some of Stan Rice’s vibrant fauvist paintings (including a portrait of Anne Rice). In the spacious library, outfitted with huge leather chairs and a gas fireplace, she pointed to a wall of books she used to research “Christ the Lord.” Even more volumes on ancient history, early Christianity, biblical scholarship and Judaica were shelved upstairs and in the garage. The author’s note at the end of “Christ the Lord” elaborates on Rice’s exhaustive survey of the relevant literature.
On the Internet she has challenged bloggers who dismiss her, on religious grounds and otherwise, as unqualified to take on the subject. “I tell them it’s sincerely written and it’s the Jesus of the Gospels,” she said.
Rice’s religious studies carried her through the worst of her recent crises, the death of Stan Rice, her husband of 41 years, from a brain tumor in 2002. The couple met in high school. “There had never been anybody but him,” she said, “and there never was anybody like him, and I’ve never met anybody since like him.”
Her son, Christopher, also a novelist, had already left New Orleans for Los Angeles. “I thought I would die in that house,” she said, “that I would be carried out. I’d been there 15 years, the longest I’d been anywhere, and one night it just hit me: ‘Who am I doing this for? Christopher is living in West Hollywood. Stan is gone. I really could leave if I wanted to.’ “
Maintaining the old Garden District house had grown wearisome, as had overseeing a staff of 49, many of whom managed and tended her various properties. She found herself staying up all night to write “Christ the Lord” while her employees were asleep and the house was quiet. “I don’t want to get strung out like that again,” she said. After moving briefly to the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, she decided to relocate to California. Her time in New Orleans was “great while it lasted,” she said, adding: “It was a period of expansion. Now is the season for contracting and focusing.”
A six-bedroom villa with 10 bathrooms and an elevator might not sound like a contraction, but Rice spends most of her time in one room. She hardly uses the big library or the study on the second floor, and she doesn’t play the grand piano in the living room, though staff members sometimes do. Her desk is set up next to the wooden four-poster bed in her bedroom on the third floor, and she works out nearby, on a stationary bicycle in her vast walk-in closet. Because she gets up at 4 a.m. and spends an hour pedaling the bike before getting to work, sun-simulating lamps are positioned over both desk and bike.
Rice’s best-known characters may shun daylight, but she craves it. When the real sun comes up, it floods her bedroom and balcony. That and the proximity of Christopher are the main reasons she chose La Jolla. “I get very high from the light,” she said.
In the closet are stashed dozens of pink and blue printed flannel nightgowns, some still wrapped in plastic, a year’s supply of Rice’s favorite work clothes. “They shrink and get rough after you wash them a few times,” she explained. On the table by the bedroom fireplace a large-print Bible lies open for quick reference. Everything she needs is close at hand, including her assistant Sue Tebbe, whose room is one door down the hall.
So why is Rice once more ensconced in an enormous house? She wants to be able to gather her extended family and friends on occasion. “It’s very important to me that the house be big enough for us all to come together, for Christmas, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving,” she said.
And how often does she entertain? “Maybe four times a year.” Until the next time, it’s quiet in paradise.