12/22/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Anne Rice descends the marble staircase that sweeps into the foyer of her New Orleans mansion, which is staffed by 30 people and possibly haunted by one ghost—a former occupant who shot himself on these very stairs, circa 1857. She's wearing just what you'd imagine the author of Interview with the Vampire wears around the house: a black velvet gown as clingy as anything hanging in Morticia Addams's closet.
But this isn't any old dress. She bought it back in 1996 and, owing to steady weight gain, was rarely able to wear it. Taking it out, says Rice, 62, "was a great event, because now I can get into it."
Since January Rice has lost 103 lbs.—the result of gastric bypass surgery, in which the stomach is made a tiny fraction of its former size. Once 255 lbs. and a diabetic who required insulin shots, Rice, who is 5'2", now rides a stationary bike daily and has drastically reduced her insulin dosage.
The new body is just one of many changes: Despite the bustle of activity in her landmark home, Rice is, at least by one definition, living alone. Her marriage to high school sweetheart Stan Rice, a poet and artist, ended with his death last December from brain cancer at 60. "My personal life is still revealing itself," says Rice reflectively. "I was married for 41 years, and suddenly I'm not married anymore."
The loss, though profound—they were "madly, totally in love" she says—didn't slow the prolific author. "Anne is a person who uses adversity to grow and change," says her sister Alice Borchardt, also a novelist. "Some people would crawl into a corner. She doesn't."
Adding to her 25 novels (there are 50 million in print), in October Rice published Blood Canticle, the ninth in her vampire Lestat series. Since Interview in 1976, she's specialized in sensual, supernatural tales in which blood flows like liquor in the French Quarter. Canticle marks another turning point.
"I think this is the last vampire book I'll do," says Rice calmly, as if the announcement won't turn her devout goth fans a whiter shade of pale. (Don't worry: An NBC miniseries of Rice's The Witching Hour is in development, and a Vampire Broadway musical scored by Elton John is planned for 2005.) But she's firm: "No more of Lestat, no more of his cohorts, no more of the witches either."
Rice began cavorting with fictional demons after a real-life tragedy—the 1972 death of her 5-year-old daughter Michele from leukemia. "It was awful. There was nothing to do but to go through it," Rice remembers. "I just grieved, drank and felt guilty that I hadn't saved her."
In 1978 she and Stan welcomed a son, Christopher, now 25 and a writer in L.A. Though she'd been skinny as a girl, Rice began piling on the pounds. "It made me feel unsexy," she says. "But I was happily married so I didn't do anything about it," When Christopher was 5, however, "he said something to me about being fat. That was enough."
Over several years Rice slimmed down on plans including Weight Watchers and the Diet Center program. Each time, though, she regained the weight.
Finally, in 1998 Rice fell into a diabetic coma; though she'd felt ill for months, she had no idea she had diabetes. When she awoke in a hospital with a tube down her throat, "I worried I'd been abducted by aliens," she laughs. "Then I looked at the ceiling and thought, Aliens wouldn't have these ugly tiles.'"
She jokes now, but she knew she had to do something to conquer her weight. A 2002 PEOPLE story on Al Roker's gastric bypass surgery offered inspiration: Stan showed it to her, and she decided she wanted the surgery. Shortly after his death, she scheduled the procedure, which went off without complication. Eating tiny meals, Rice began dropping pounds right away. Then she added exercise: Throughout the day she lifts hand weights, a set of which she keeps in various rooms throughout the house—including the loo.
Between workouts, Rice is busy with a new book, the subject of which she's keeping secret. She's also opening the Stan Rice Gallery in New Orleans. And there's always a buzz in that big house of hers—Elton John recently stopped by to discuss the musical.
The massive weight loss, says Rice, has given her the stamina to handle it all. "I'm impossibly energetic," she laughs. "No one can keep up with me." And with a year of quiet mourning behind her, she's ready to begin celebrating life again: "I plan to move out into the world and maybe even have a series of small parties. It's going to be divine."
Allison Adato. Alicia Dennis in New Orleans