Anne Rice finds religion -- The ''Interview With the Vampire'' author tackles faith with her new novel

At 64, Anne Rice is more Marlo Thomas than Morticia Addams. The long, witchy black hair is gone, as is the mule-drawn hearse that once ferried her to a reading. She has traded her 1857 New Orleans mansion for a sunny pink villa in the Southern California town of La Jolla. Smartly dressed and newly trim — gastric bypass surgery has helped her drop 125 pounds — novelist Rice is explaining her recent decision to ”do violence” to her career. ? The violence Rice refers to is her new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a 301-page first-person account of Jesus Christ’s childhood that will likely confound her fans. Written in uncharacteristically pared-down prose, the narrative begins with 7-year-old Jesus summoning his ”power” to subdue a bully, then chronicles his family’s return to Nazareth from exile in Egypt. Originally intended to encompass Christ’s whole life, the volume covers just one year; Rice plans future installments. ”It was a difficult book to write,” says Rice, a stickler for accuracy who refuses to let editors ”mutilate” her manuscripts. ”The task of getting the terrain, the social milieu, and the illusion of a believable vocabulary took tremendous work.” ? How did the prolific author of erotically charged vampire fantasies come to write a novel that has been described as ”fiction that transcends story and instead qualifies as an act of faith”? Rice says it wasn’t much of a leap: Her writing has always been spiritual. Victoria Wilson, Rice’s acquiring editor at Knopf, agrees: ”A lot of what she did in earlier books had to do with good and evil, with mortality and morality. Vampires were just the metaphor she worked with.”

Born in 1941 on the fringes of New Orleans’ Garden District, Rice was raised a Catholic. Her father was a postal worker; her mother, an alcoholic, died when Rice was 14. In the ’60s, while studying at San Francisco State University, Rice abandoned organized religion. ”There was intense sexual pressure,” she writes in the afterword to Christ, ”but more than that there was the world itself, without Catholicism, filled with good people….”

She married poet Stan Rice in 1961; in 1972, their 5-year-old daughter Michele died of leukemia. (Son Christopher, a novelist, was born in 1978.) The following year, Rice wrote her first novel, the feverish Interview With the Vampire, about a young girl doomed by tainted blood. ”It poured out [of me],” Rice has said.

”I’d never seen anything like it,” says Wilson. ”I said, Either I’m totally crazy or this is the most amazing book I’ve ever read. It was enormous. We were all sort of stunned.”

Rice had found her voice, and her subsequent output was prodigious: In 30 years she has published 27 books under three names, including 10 sequels to Interview, a series about witches, a three-volume S&M retelling of Sleeping Beauty, and a portrait of 18th-century Italian castrati. According to her publishers, by the late 1980s, an Anne Rice novel was being sold somewhere in the U.S. every 24 seconds. Fifty million copies of her books have sold worldwide.