"I feel kind of reborn lately," says Rice from her room in Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel.
Delighted she has a cordless phone ("so I can walk around while we talk"), the 70-year-old New Orleans native crackles with energy. She's charged up, she says, sounding a little like a prizefighter.
Rice says she has felt reborn and refreshed and has been roiling with new ideas and a renewed creative spark since her very public renunciation of the Roman Catholic Church in 2010, which followed an intense 12-year engagement with the church.
An avowed atheist all her life, Rice had what she described at the time as a "conversion from a pessimistic atheist . . . to an optimistic believer" in 1998. She says she eventually left the church for "moral reasons" after years of disillusionment with its policies and political position.
"In the name of Christ, I refuse to be antigay. I refuse to be antifeminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism," Rice wrote on her Facebook page in July 2010.
Rice says she did her best writing during this period and counts her two books on the life of Christ, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana as her most accomplished books. (A third is in progress.)
Rice also insists she retains a strong faith in God and the Christian message. She says she feels lighter now.
"I want to be free to do almost anything I want to do" as an artist, she says - including a walk on the wild werewolf side.
If The Wolf Gift marks a creative return to genre for Rice, it is also a notable departure. It is, as the title suggests, about werewolves, creatures that never have been associated with the novelist, who reinvented the vampire genre with her 10-volume "The Vampire Chronicles" series.
Rice's impressive bestiary, built up over four decades and more than 30 books, includes bloodsuckers, witches, and angels of all sorts, but nary a werewolf.
"It really was on a whim," Rice says of her entree into a new subgenre. "A friend, a TV producer, who had just done a special on werewolves, asked if I ever tackled a novel on werewolves he would buy it."
Rice says something clicked.
"For some reason, it struck a chord, and I began to think how I would approach the werewolf," says the author, who worked out her ideas in a 40-page TV script treatment.
Fascinated by the new terrain, Rice says she had a lot of fun with the material and decided to abandon the TV project and expand the story into a novel.
Set in San Francisco - and not the canonical New Orleans of the "Vampire Chronicles" - The Wolf Gift has a strong-jawed, virile protagonist in Reuben Golding, a 23-year-old California golden child from a wealthy family who is trying his hand as a reporter at the San Francisco Observer.
Assigned to write a feature on a grand mansion on the Mendocino County coast north of the city, Reuben falls in love with the house - and in lust with its owner, an older woman named Marchent Nideck.
Reuben gets both a tour of the imposing gothic manse and an impromptu lovemaking session in one of its fantastical abandoned rooms. And he's attacked during his postcoital reveries by an unseen monster. Marchent is killed, but Reuben survives a nasty bite.
After paying homage to some of the werewolf conventions, Rice makes the genre her own by turning some of its rules on their heads. For one thing, Reuben's lupine manifestation isn't a dumb beast.
"For me, the werewolf had to be fully conscious . . . self-conscious and rational," Rice explains. "The old idea is that the werewolf is losing his mind, that he has no memory of what he did [as the wolf] the night before. And I loved it in the old movies."
Rice says she was fascinated by the idea of seeing, through Reuben's painful, dramatic transformation, the werewolf's point of view.
"I wanted to feel how the young hero would react to the transformation," says Rice, "and the fangs elongating, and the muscles getting stretched and his hyper-vision and hyper-hearing."
For that to be fully realized, she says, the wolf would have to be able to think - and use language.
In another twist, Rice endows Reuben with not only heightened strength and senses - but also a fully formed conscience.
In fact, "he can actually sniff out evil - and innocence," says Rice, "the same way dogs can smell aggression."
Sniff he does: Reuben becomes a self-styled vigilante superhero, a furrier and bloodthirstier Batman, rescuing damsels in distress and ripping apart evildoers with admirable efficiency.
"All the things I have written, I always have written about good and evil," says Rice. Reuben's battle with evil isn't only external - he's also tortured by his instinct to give in to temptation.
"It's so beguiling and so very seductive to have all this power," says Rice. "He is able to kill with the simplicity of an animal, and yet he is aware of what he is doing."
Adds Rice, "I'm getting a chance to explore our common moral dilemma."
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.