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On the Side of the Angels

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Anne Rice has moved beyond vampires, but she returns to New Orleans with her Songs of the Seraphim series
angel-timeAnne Rice is back doing what she does best. The prolific author, who has sold almost 100 million books during her career, is poised to have another blockbuster with her latest novel, Angel Time. Set for release on October 27, the enthralling metaphysical thriller kicks off Rice’s new Songs of the Seraphim series. Weaving together angels and assassins in an unrelentingly suspenseful tale rife with murder, madness and the chance at redemption, Rice will have readers relishing her intriguing new character Toby O’Dare, a native of New Orleans with a dark past who travels through time to 13th-century England on a quest for salvation, loyalty and love. And although Rice has left the vampires and witches out of her writing since reverting to Catholicism, Angel Time lacks none of the robust violence, moral confliction and rich invention that have captivated fans of her past works.

A prominent fixture on the Uptown New Orleans scene for years, Rice left in 2005 and now calls the peaceful California desert south of Palm Springs home. But Rice will forever leave a haunting impression on New Orleans through her powerfully descriptive novels that are dedicated to the hometown that is fixed in her soul. New Orleans Living magazine had an engaging chat with Rice about Angel Time and New Orleans, taking us on a journey of our fair city through both her fictitious world and her vivid reflections of reality, and making us remember why we love this city so painfully much.
Anne, it’s very exciting that in Angel Time, you’ve created a fascinating new character named Toby O’Dare, who possesses many attributes that we want in a hero. And I think he’s going to be very relatable to many New Orleanians.
Great! I’m glad to hear you responding that way, Christine, that’s wonderful! I love the new character; I loved writing for him and about him. I think people will relate to Toby. I hope so. It was great to be back in New Orleans in my imagination when I was writing those passages, back in the old terrain walking around Uptown on Nashville Avenue, Palmer Avenue and down St. Charles Avenue and so forth. I lived in New Orleans for 18 years, until 2005, just a few weeks before Katrina. I haven’t been back since Katrina, but I vividly remember Uptown and I was writing about what I knew.
Toby had a rough time growing up; he was actually a good kid before he turned into a skilled assassin. What parts of Toby do you see in yourself?
It’s no secret that my mother was an alcoholic. She wasn’t violent like Toby’s mother, but I know what it’s like to grow up in a family with a terrible secret, where drinking is destroying the life of your mother, so that was something I could draw on. I’ve known other people from alcoholic backgrounds, so I drew from all of it. I think when you write, you have to tell all you know. You must draw on everything you’ve experienced to make your characters as rich and as deep as possible. And I certainly am familiar with Uptown New Orleans and the kinds of distinctions people make Uptown. I was trying to put Toby in that world and show how he was trying to navigate it.
Has the switch to writing about religious matters, versus creatures of the dark such as vampires, really been a big difference for you? Because you’re still crafting characters with interesting flaws who face major moral dilemmas and dark choices.
Oh absolutely, you’re right, and for me, that’s what good fiction is about. It’s about characters with tragic dimensions that face terrible decisions and consequences of all different kinds. So I don’t really think it has been that much of a switch. I think the Vampire Chronicles and the books about the Mayfair Witches I wrote were obsessed with religious questions. I was always seeking answers, and the characters were always seeking redemption in one form or another. So for me to move past my Christian conversion and to start writing about a world where spiritual redemption is a real possibility for the characters, it was more like a continuation rather than a switch.
It seems like most of your books, old and new, involve the idea of a strong moral compass, whether it’s in a religious framework or not.
That’s really true. It was very important to me, when I was writing all my books, that there is that moral compass, that the author of that book knows right from wrong. Oh absolutely, it’s always been true with all my novels.
Do you have a certain joy in writing about the character of the angel Malchiah in Angel Time versus a darker character like Lestat?
Oh yeah, it’s great fun to have a hero who’s on the side of the angels. I had exhausted the stories that I had to tell with Lestat. I had explored every which way Lestat’s tragic paralysis and dilemma, that he couldn’t be saved, he wouldn’t give up his vampiric existence. I really had no more stories to tell with him. So it was a great relief to be writing from Toby’s point of view, and work with all his possibilities. Malchiah’s going to send him on all kinds of adventures to do many things. It’s wide open and, of course, Toby is a flawed human being; there are times when he loses his temper or gets frustrated with what Malchiah tries to get him to do. He’ll want certain things that maybe he can’t have as a result of his past. But it’s great fun; it’s a world in which transcendence and redemption exist and that’s what’s so beautiful about it for me. I’ve already written two novels with Toby, and I’m working on the third.
Another goal of the Songs of the Seraphim series of yours is to reflect your passion about crafting Christian fiction that unites both Jews and Christians.
Oh yeah, I’m fascinated; I love doing that, and I have more of that to do. My research with the Christ the Lord novels really had me studying Jesus as a Jew in the first century, and I really got to understand how close our two religions are, and how Jesus really was a Jewish man and his entire family and all his apostles were Jewish. We tend to forget what we have in common with our Jewish brothers and sisters. We tend to fall into stereotypical patterns; we have great sympathy with our Jewish brothers and sisters as victims in society, but we have to remember there were a lot of moments when Jews and Christians worked together. Those are the stories that have to be told.
Tell us about the theological constraints you had to deal with when writing about angels instead of vampires.
With vampires, I felt free to make up anything I wanted. That was part of the fun of it. I was dealing with some constraints, but they were the constraints of literary tradition—that the vampire only dwells in the nighttime, that he was unconscious during the day, that the sun would kill him. I adopted those conventions, but if I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t have. Now with angels, I’m really trying to work with what we know from scripture, which I think is very exciting, including all the passages that pertain to angels and also with the theological tradition about angels. And now we have a tradition of many people who claim to have seen angels and gotten visits from them and talk of the miracles they’ve worked, so that was fun to explore as well.
As a child who grew up in the Catholic Church, were you close with your guardian angel and are you now?
Yes, I pray every night to my guardian angel, and I said the prayer that I mention in the book as a child. We had a picture on the wall that I described in Angel Time of a guardian angel protecting two children as they crossed a bridge, and we prayed to our guardian angels and we felt they were a very real presence in our lives. My childhood was so intensely Catholic in a New Orleans way that spiritual matters like that were as real as anything else. And it was a wonderful childhood, it really was.
The world is fascinated with angels even in secular ways, like with home decorating.
I know, there is an angel craze! And in some ways, I have to forget that when I write. It’s like the popular perception of vampires; I’d have to put the comic books, the midnight movies and the B-movies out of my mind when I wrote. As much as people love angels–and the market is flooded with little angel Christmas tree ornaments—I remind myself that I have a right  to work with angels as they come from scripture and I have to not be intimidated about that. And I love all the popular images of angels. I understand why people find them so comforting. And we have beautiful passages in scripture about them, like when Jesus talks about the angels beholding the face of God every day and about how each child has an angel, and it’s very comforting. When you think about it, angels are a magnificent expression of God’s love for us.
You were raised in St. Alphonsus Parish in New Orleans. What was the impetus for your turning back to Catholicism in recent years?
I really believed in God and I loved God, and I wanted to go back home. I wanted to go back to God through the doors of my childhood church. And it was really a matter of faith coming back to me, a moment of letting go of all the theological and sociological questions that were holding me back and realizing that I didn’t need to know the answers to any of those things. I’m not a representative of the Catholic Church; I don’t have to preach doctrine to anyone, I just have to live a life as a good and loyal Catholic. So I let go of all those questions that plagued me, and I trusted that God knew the answers.
What do you think of the attempted closings of several of the Catholic churches in New Orleans, like Our Lady of Good Counsel?
I think it’s very sad. I don’t know the church’s point of view on it; I don’t know what happened, but you’re closing the places where people were baptized, where they were married, where they went to funerals. It’s always sad; you lose a landmark of your soul when a church closes, but whether it can be avoided or not, I really don’t know. I love my old church, St. Mary’s on Constance and Josephine. I went there all the time until I moved out of the neighborhood in 2005. I’d feel horrible if that church closed. I’d feel it all the way out here. But why the church does what it does, I don’t know.
What do you think of the wildly popular vampire trend that’s going on in movies, television and novels right now?
I think it’s a lot of fun. I certainly think it’s benign; I don’t think people have to worry about it. It’s interesting, because obviously people want the vampire genre to be a big part of our literature and our film, just as we have Westerns and detective movies and books. We’re going to have vampire movies and books for a long time. I think the vampire is a powerful metaphor for the outsider in all of us, and I think all of this is a lot of fun. I love the show True Blood. I think Charlaine Harris is really a kick, and her novels are a lot of fun. Since I don’t write the Vampire Chronicles anymore, I feel free to enjoy it. Now if I was still writing about vampires, maybe I wouldn’t want to read another writer working on the same theme. But I’m not, so it’s great fun.
Does New Orleans cross your mind every day?
Oh, all day! I get many, many e-mails about New Orleans. If they’re not from people in New Orleans, they’re from people talking about New Orleans in my books and how they want to go there or how they’ve been there, so I’m always thinking about it. And I’m in close contact with family members and friends there, and I’m very aware of what’s going on. It’s alive for me every moment of every day, really. I live in the house on First Street in my dreams. I do. I never thought I’d leave that house, but there are many reasons why I did. I am very happy where I am, but I will never forget that house. Never. I miss New Orleans terribly, I really do.
New Orleans certainly misses you too. What are the daily particulars of New Orleans that you miss most?
I miss the sheer beauty of New Orleans. I would stand in my bedroom window upstairs at First Street and look out every day at the oak trees at this tangle of branches that surrounded the front porch up there, and I used to look at the sky through those branches and just thank Heaven for that incredible, drowsy, leafy beauty. I miss the violet sky in the evening and I miss the rain, the constant gentle rain that falls in New Orleans. There’s no rain like the rain in New Orleans; it comes down so gently, you can walk in it, you feel like you can embrace it, and it’s not a savage, hostile rain most of the time. I miss going to Ruth’s Chris on Broad Street all the time for lunch and seeing my cousins and all kinds of different people in there–I miss that terribly. I miss the church over on Constance and Josephine and the beautiful alter and the mass. And I miss my huge extended family and just seeing my cousins all over town all the time. I miss St. Charles Avenue. Hardly a day passed where we didn’t drive up St. Charles or go sit on the porch of the house we owned at St. Charles and Third, just listening to traffic. I grew up on the Avenue, and I miss the sound of street cars coming down the Avenue terribly. I miss the beignets in the Quarter and even the sticky tables!