Author Inspirations: Anne Rice

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In browsing my archives for inspiration about what to write about this week, I noticed my “Authors” category only had one entry. And that entry wasn’t about any particular author, but about censorship — an article which referenced some favourite authors, but it wasn’t about them or their impact on my writing. Growing up, I fan-girled over two things: musicians and writers. So, for today’s blog, I’d like to throw out some thoughts and gratitudes for an author who was a very deep inspiration to me: Anne Rice.

I was late coming to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Though I have always been a fan of stories with vampires in them, and vampires in general, I was just more interested in other things at the time these books were on the rise. I remember when the movie Interview with the Vampire was at its height of popularity, and had seen the Queen of the Damned movie on TV more than once. The books were always on my TBR list … which is huge. I mean, half — no, most — of the books on that list never actually get read because I simply don’t have the time to devour books as an adult the way I used to in high school or college. So, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I picked up my first Anne Rice book. And it so-happened to be The Vampire Lestat. :3

Like with so many other Rice fans, this book was instant love for me. The character, the history, the prose, the sheer depth of the philosophical pondering of the meaning of life, death, and the existence of God blew me away. This is the story that took my love of all things vampire from an interest to a passion. Since then, I have acquired every book in her Vampire Chronicles collection, and even bought a signed copy of Prince Lestat. This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but I have only three other author-autographed books in my entire library, so it’s not something I usually go out of my way to purchase.

Rice’s vampire books are so meaningful to me, partly because I can relate to her sentiments regarding questioning the whole existence of God, Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, etc. We both came from a very religious background, but then came to a point where we felt as if the politics and mythos of the church had taken a drastically different course from the teachings of Jesus. She has stated that Lestat’s quest for God was always about her own quest for God, particularly after the passing of her little daughter. She wrote the Vampire Chronicles while coping with that tragedy. Years after giving up her faith, she returned to it, saying she would never write another vampire book, and she focused on writing about the life of Jesus, instead. However, the church’s political stances on things like gay rights still bothered her, so she broke from the church again, saying that while she did believe in God, she could no longer call herself a Christian because she could not support the church’s teachings and politics on such matters. She has returned to writing vampire novels, along with other new supernatural material, and now even has a TV series based on the Vampire Chronicles in the works, which I am excited about.

So, her writing simultaneously does two things. On the one hand, her characters are deeply introspective, using their own trappings in life (and death) to try to figure out this thing we call life and call out the lies where they see them. On the other hand, the characters’ conclusions will challenge readers to examine their own beliefs and faith on such matters. Memnoch the Devil, for example, presents a view of Purgatory and Hell that is shockingly similar to my own exploratory thinking of what demons are and how the afterlife might be understood. Memnoch is probably her most controversial book in the series because of that exploration into the nature of demons and Hell.

This is all Rice’s personal, fictitious take on religious mythos, of course. While some classics like Dante’s Inferno and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are fiction with didactic intent (the intent to teach … and in these cases the subject taught is religious morality) — no one should ever read fiction with religious themes mistaking them for theological study material. This should especially not be done to point out how “misguided” some celebrity authors are. To take a work of fiction literally misses the point of it being fiction! So, I’m sorry to have to add this cautionary note, but I know people who have gleefully used books from the Harry Potter series as examples of “real” witchcraft to condemn both the practice and the books. And you just can’t do that with fiction!

Religious morality or conviction or guilt is not the point of Rice’s books. Rice tells stories about fictitious characters in a fictitious universe where supernatural vampires are real, but their quests for truth represent Everyman’s quests for truth. Nothing more. Every person on this planet has at some point questioned what it is that he or she truly believes, or questioned why the universe is the way it is. Are we missing something important because it’s been buried under centuries of religious, political, and pop culture lies? This is an important question for the human psyche. And one of the reasons I admire Rice’s writing is that she’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions and explore the possibilities of some really tough answers.

I have corresponded with Rice briefly a few times on her Facebook page — which I must say she manages better than I imagine any author with such a diverse readership could. Every day she asks questions of or presents inquisitive articles to her fans — sometimes relative to her writing, sometimes relative to current events, sometimes philosophical. On one occasion, she asked the “People of the Page”: “Theological question: is there any theory of Christ’s Atonement, or of our living in “a fallen world” or living in “a broken world” that does not take the story of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent literally? In other words, are these most influential Christian ideas all based on a literal reading of Genesis? What are your thoughts?”

Some of her comments to other people in regards to their answers included: “I continue to maintain that the idea of a broken or fallen world, indeed an entire Christian worldview is based on a literal reading of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent. And this is not a good basis for an entire religion.” And … “… that is all very beautiful poetry, and it is typically Catholic. But it doesn’t answer my question and it does not satisfy. —– The difficulty remains: don’t all theories of bloody atonement depend on taking Genesis literally? If they do not, then what is the foundation on which they are based? Atonement for what? —– Reconciliation with what? Why? The Pope can write beautiful poetry forever and publish book after book of it. But if Christianity is based on a series of lies, that has to be dealt with. —– My question remains: what is atonement based on if not a literal reading of Adam and Eve? If not for their sin, then for what is Christ atoning? And why is atonement necessary?”

This is where I entered the conversation: “Anne, this may not be the time or place, but may I ask your opinion on a question? This is something I have never received a satisfactory answer on from any of the religious people I know. And this is what, to me, defines the core of the …Christian faith. If the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can wash away sin, and he died an innocent sacrifice (though sacrificing innocent people and animals is usually frowned upon as a sin), how can the death of an innocent (which is generally considered murder in a court of law) make sin go away? In other words, how does a wrong act cleanse a wrong? How does an innocent death make anything right? To go by that example, I would have to kill my innocent daughter in order to forgive the guilty one that broke the lamp. Why not just forgive? Why a blood sacrifice? Is it because the magic in the blood washes away the magic that is sin? Because clearly a belief in magic is involved, or this question wouldn’t even be up for debate. Maybe there is a link between these questions I seek, and your questions on taking Genesis literally.”

She responded: “…, I am not the one to answer your very challenging and interesting question: because i don’t believe in the theory of the atonement through innocent blood. I think it is something made up by theologians. But I think you are certainly right to ask and keep asking. The whole idea of bloody Atonement for me is outdated and unconvincing.”

This is a sample of the intellect, honesty, and courage that shapes her writing, and one reason why her fans love her so.

Besides her own writing, I also admire Rice for her advice on writing in general. She’s always been supportive and encouraging of indie authors and other authors who are doing their own thing. “There are no rules in this profession. Do what is good for you. Read books and watch films that stimulate your writing. In your writing, go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. HAVE NERVE. BE STUBBORN.” (Advice to new writers, 2009) She recognizes that not every book is for everyone, and supports the differences in genres and styles because of that. She has even taken on the bullies of the book review world — readers who give spiteful, unfair reviews of books they didn’t like, to the point of attempting to destroy the careers of their author victims. Her interest in negativity on the Internet via anonymous criticism has inspired my own interest in the matter, but if anything like that comes to her page, she shuts it down immediately. She wants respectful discussion of tough subjects, not hate-filled rants filled with contempt.

So, Anne Rice inspires me not only to think deeply through my story content (being brave enough to speak Kethrei’s blunt challenges to the religious leaders of his time, pursuing a theme like the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, or presenting political themes that are scarily familiar with what’s actually happening in current events in some ways), but also to think deeply about how I speak my mind as an author (How would I handle great disparity between readers if they argued? Would I be willing to lose readers for the sake of maintaining my integrity, since I can’t please everyone?), and to keep asking myself the difficult questions about “life the universe and everything” in my personal life, as well. I’m so grateful that I did finally get my hands on that first book and followed it to the rest of her creative works. I’m thankful to have those books in my personal library, and to have someone like her to look to as a mentor.

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My Thoughts on Censorship

This morning, I read The Guardian’s interview with Neil Gaiman. Coraline is absolutely one of my favourite books. And Neil Gaiman remains one of my favourite authors, not just because of his books, but because of his inspiration and example. So, his words on the subject of censorship made me rather reflective on my own experiences, reading and writing. I’ve been wanting to write a blog article on censorship for some time and never could figure out where to start until now.

Thankfully, my parents never censored what I wanted to read, but I had one public school teacher tell me The Hobbit was too difficult for a fifth grader. (I read it anyway, loved it, and it’s the book that inspired me to write stories of my own.) And my churches and private schools often made it known which books, genres, and authors were “evil”. I was admonished not to read Thoreau, for example, because he was too humanist. Scare tactics were openly used to frighten me away from Dungeons and Dragons games and books because of the belief that they were Satanic. And I remember being told in chapel that the entire fantasy genre was evil because it involves authors creating new worlds that usually employ some form of magic; since only God can create worlds and perform magic, when mortals do it we’re playing God. And it’s a sin to want to be like God. So, according to at least one preacher out there, ALL fantasy genre books (indeed, all fiction, if you’re going to look at it from that point of view) should be burned for blasphemous content … but the Bible itself, with all of its rapes and murders and adultery and multitudes of other sins, is okay for even very young children to study in depth and interpret literally.

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Shame on you, fantasy writers (and artists). Apparently, only God can use magic, build worlds, and create character sheets … and nudes.

And this censorship didn’t apply to just books. Rock music was banned from my church and private school’s campus, and they held bonfires for burning music collections that they encouraged students to join — yes, real-life literature and music burning as a form of censorship. Fahrenheit 451, anyone?

Having experienced that kind of extreme censorship, my take on censorship now is this: books should never be censored. Period. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. If you finished reading it, but didn’t like it, give an intelligent, articulate review explaining why the book was poorly written (meaning: know your own prejudices and know something about how literature works before grinding an author into the ground for writing something you, personally, did not enjoy). Books that are badly written may or may not be bought by other people, depending on what they like or dislike, but you cannot control other people’s likes and opinions. The purpose of a review is merely to let other readers know what you enjoyed, or did not enjoy, about the book, so they have an idea whether they may, or may not, enjoy it, too. It is not the purpose of a review to steer other readers away from books — that’s bullying and assumes everyone has the same tastes as you. Books that receive mean, screaming, one-star, personally insulting reviews only tell other readers that the reviewer is mean, very opinionated, and probably takes his fiction way too seriously — just like censorship. (Censorship and book shaming are both control issues: participants desire to control the author and readers.) And in my experience, mean-spirited reviews indicate the reader doesn’t recognize his own prejudices or understand how literature works. (That’s not to sound elitist. I am anti-elitist when it comes to arts. I simply mean we have too many readers who think, “I hate it, therefore it’s bad.” And that’s just now how art works.)

I have never been traumatized by anything I’ve read, even the stuff I didn’t enjoy. I’ve read almost every book on those “How Many of These Censored Books Have You Read?” lists that float around the Internet, and I’m thankful for the valuable lessons I learned from them. Because the true danger in books is that they have the potential to either prompt people to think for themselves (against the establishment) or parrot propaganda (favouring the establishment). Discerning readers will develop better critical thinking and empathy skills as a result of reading. But there are people who take what they read to heart, literally and seriously, so that they turn it into a religion, regardless of what topics are presented … even in fiction. So, like any other inanimate thing, information (fact, fiction, conjecture, or opinion) is nothing but a tool. But ANY tool created for good can be turned into a weapon when it falls into the hands of people who have ill intentions.

One of my favourite censored books is Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I hated that book from beginning to end, but I loved what I learned from it so much that I’ve read it multiple times. If I were to take it literally, I’d say it promotes casual rape and other forms of violence for sport — that it sympathizes too much with violent people. But it’s fiction; it’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s meant to make people think about what it means to have free will and reconsider how we treat the lowest class of citizens in society … prisoners. It’s an extremely difficult book for many reasons, but well worth the read. It uses negative elements to challenge readers to consider how our humanity itself hinges on our freedom to make our own choices … even when they come with bad consequences.

If we wipe the criminal mind to make it docile, are we simultaneously stripping away a prisoner’s humanity? If we alter a person’s mind against his will, isn’t that also a rape? The story challenges the concept that tyrannical peace is a viable option for creating and maintaining a moral society. Is there really such a thing as “good” tyranny? The book reminds us that we cannot sacrifice free will for the sake of a crime-free society, or we will become tyrants. It’s a fine line between lawful good and lawful evil.

This book was a huge influence in my own writing concerning themes of tyrannical peace, but I have yet to hear of anyone blaming Clockwork Orange for inducing him to be a serial rapist. And even if he did, he would have missed the “moral of the story” because of his own inability to comprehend it. Blaming a book for a reader’s lack of wisdom and ethics is preposterous. Blaming the author for saying, “What if this hypothetical situation were true?” and excusing a reader for employing a literal interpretation as some kind of life guide or Bible is just as illogical.

I remember a case in the news years ago where a woman stoned her child to death because she believed God told her to and promised He would resurrect her child as an act of faith. Where do you think she got such an incredible idea? Ummm … the Bible, maybe? The Bible does admonish parents to stone disobedient children. And she was following Abraham’s example with Isaac, after all. Apparently, God just didn’t see fit to reward this woman’s faith with a spare ram, for some reason. But what judge in what court is going to punish her Bible’s publishers because this woman chose to interpret those words literally and murder her own son as an act of faith? Or, if Bibles inspire such crimes, should they be on the ban list, too? Can you imagine the outrage of all those book banners if the Bible were included on that list because of its immoral and violent content?

No book, no matter how immoral, violent, or factually wrong, should be banned. There are better ways to make people aware of the content of a book so that they can judge for themselves whether they wish to support the author by purchasing it, or not. Then, ultimately, the user must take responsibility for what he does with the information, or tool, in his hands. There will always be some people who have trouble discerning fact from fiction due to lack of education or critical thinking skills, or if psychological manipulation or influences are present, such as indoctrination or mental illness. But you cannot help people become better critical thinkers by banning difficult or controversial books. In fact, quite the opposite will happen. Keeping readers away from difficult reading material encourages quick judgment and avoidance, rather than understanding or problem solving, when facing controversy. And you cannot punish all readers, the writer, and the publisher just because some readers might twist the message, or take a twisted message to heart and act upon it.