When readers leave an autograph session with Anne Rice, they tote away a treasured volume bearing a signature and the memory of perhaps a 20-second conversational exchange.
Ms. Rice, however, takes away much more.
"It saves my life," says the author, whose novels of vampires and witches have produced a legion of fervent fans. Many come to her appearances wearing shadowy capes and showing finely honed fangs.
"It's like they're saying, 'You're not the weirdo in school that everybody said you were, who would never be anything. We understand your stuff. You're not too extreme for us, you're not too crazy for us. We get it. We like to talk about God and the devil,'" says Ms. Rice over the phone from Houston, a stop last week on her current book tour.
The author will be at Borders Book Shop in Towson tonight promoting her latest book, "Lasher."
The novel is a sequel to "The Witching Hour," in which Ms. Rice left her four-book Vampire Chronicles to explore the world of witches -- specifically, a coven in her native New Orleans. Some of the characters live in the historical mansion in which the author now resides.
More than 1,500 fans turned out at a recent book-signing in Phoenix, and Ms. Rice was disappointed she could not meet each and every one. She is not one to complain about promotional chores.
"It's an ordeal, but I really love it. . . . It puts me right in touch with them. It's maybe 20 seconds, but I get to shake their hands, and look into their eyes," she says.
"The most heartwarming stories come from people who say that they are recovering addicts, and say that the books helped them," she says.
Most fans know Ms. Rice completed "Interview With the Vampire" following the loss of a 5-year-old daughter, Michelle, to leukemia in 1972.
She and her husband, poet Stan Rice, have been frank about their grief-driven descent into alcohol dependence.
What attracts readers to her tales of the supernatural?
"I'm the last person to ask, in a way, because I'm the person who wrote the books," she confesses. "It's very intense for me when I write it, and it's clearly intense for them when they read it."
Surprisingly, she suggests her otherworldly stories touch a chord of reality.
"I want the books to be about us. They have to be about us or they're no good. If they were just about vampires, then they're junk. They're about all these battles that we have to fight."
And Ms. Rice claims no clear insight in the process.
"To tell you the truth, it was an accident in terms of writing," she says.
She had been trying to write conventional reality-based fiction, following that oldest of writer aphorisms: "Write what you know."
"Vampire" began life as a fanciful story, drawn from research into the legends of her beloved New Orleans.
"I had no idea it was going to open the door to my reality, that the supernatural was going to provide the way for me to find a voice," she observes.
And now "Vampire" may find a mass audience, for Warner Bros. began last week filming "Interview With The Vampire" in New Orleans -- a development about which the author has had some well-publicized feelings.
She objected strenuously to the casting of box-office idol Tom Cruise as the brooding vampire Lestat, and Brad Pitt as the novel's conscience-stricken vampire narrator, Louis.
Ms. Rice estimates every third fan at her book signings this month has expressed similar distress.
"It's over now, the cameras have rolled. At this point I'm really eager to see what Neil Jordan will do," she says diplomatically at first, praising the reputation of the "Vampire" director, who also did "The Crying Game."
But her Hollywood experience is still an obviously open wound.
"I can't imagine how Tom Cruise is going to do this. I can't, and there's no point in lying about that," she concedes. "I think the readers were hurt and alienated by the casting. There's something very disregarding about that. It's like saying, 'We want to exploit you, we want to make this book because there are millions of you, but we don't really care what you think.' "
Would she ever consent to another of her novels being done as a film?
"I would never, never, never get involved again. I would never, never, ever do it," she says.
But she adds, more thoughtfully, "It's not my milieu. When I sit at that machine I control everything. What I write sees print."
In Hollywood, she complains, writers' words end up in vaults and top executives do not even read the scripts.
"I hate them," she says simply, again turning diplomatic to add, "I don't mean Neil Jordan, I mean Warners and these big studios."
What: A book signing by Anne Rice, author of "Lasher"
When: 7 tonight
Where: Borders Book Shop, 415 York Road, Towson
Call: (410) 296-0791