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Dogging the Trail

Celebrated author Rita Mae Brown discusses her switch to genre fiction, the future of publishing and her days as the “only lesbian in America.”

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Rita Mae Brown has been a rescuer of animals “since I was a tiny thing,” she says. Her 2009 book, “Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small,” bears that out. But she's also been quite the chronicler of animal life. She has an entirely new series, set in Nevada, with the first book, “A Nose for Justice,” appearing in stores Sept. 20. She reveals to Style Weekly that she's starting the second in the series, which will be her 42nd book.

What makes this popular Charlottesville-based author -- of 19 Mrs. Murphy books, seven “Sister” Jane foxhunting mysteries, a historical novel, a recent memoir and 14 other earlier books with predominantly lesbian characters -- tick?

We start the conversation by talking about her many entertaining quotations, some of which you can find at brainyquotes.com. They range from “A deadline is negative inspiration” to “If the world were a logical place, men would ride side-saddle.”

Rita Mae Brown: I've never looked anything up on Google because I don't own a computer — but, yes, those quotes come from my growing up years.

Style Weekly: You must have a photographic memory not only for all of those sayings but also to create so many conversations between characters that have such authenticity. Can you remember everything everybody says at a cocktail party?

You don't want to go to a cocktail party with me because No. 1, I don't drink, and, No. 2, I'll remember everything you say.

You don't own a computer -- how do you write your books?

On an IBM Selectric -- and sometimes on a long, yellow legal pad. Yes, I know -- my books eat lots of trees.

You've said your mother was “very political and very effective,” but she showed you that you preferred a personal life to a political one. Does this explain why you've become more active in recent years in animal-rescue efforts as opposed to your political activity years ago in the anti-war movement, the gay liberation movement, the feminist movement, etc.?

Mother always told me, “You'll never get elected to anything because you can't dissemble.” With humans, you get the law of unintended consequences, and even though there's been a lot of progress in recent years in civil rights and gay rights, there's always a dark side. People are notoriously deluded and delusional, and animals are not.

Your literary shift from the early books about lesbian relationships to your genre fiction coauthored with your cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, seems to parallel your shift from a more political life to a more personal one. To what degree do you think you've changed in the years since your earlier books?
 
I didn't ever consider myself a strong voice for lesbians. …

But that's what a lot of the reading public perceived. …

That's true — and it's not fun. For a while it was like I was the only lesbian in America, but it's a reductive society. You're a suitcase, and people have to put a handle on you. The way to madness is to believe what you read about yourself.

Some people criticized you -- with a double major in English and classics -- for betraying your classical education when you turned to writing genre fiction.

My old professors. They told me I was squandering my life and said things like, “You could read Aristophanes' -- Aristophanes is very hard [in the original Greek]. But, to get back to your question, I don't think I've changed. I've got friends from kindergarten. … I don't give myself credit for much, but I do have a gift for friendship … [they] tell me, “You haven't changed a bit!” I don't care what people think of me -- I never have cared -- but I do have good manners.

Do any of your male friends feel the males in your books get short shrift?

No. I grew up with five boys, and I have male friends. The deepest love of my life was Dr. Herbert Jones, who was married -- so that couldn't go anywhere. One of my rules is that if you're married, I don't fool with you -- but having a great friend like Jones is like having a second skin. He knew what I was thinking before I knew it myself. [Jones, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, was a noted obstetrician who fought in Korea.]

I feel sorry for men generally because our culture has traditionally had higher expectations of men than of women. Failure always attaches itself to a man. Women have suffered the same consequences of the culture -- especially back in the '60s when we were fighting for women's rights -- but we moved on. It's always been much harder for men to do that, not only because of the culture but because men don't access their emotions the way women do.

With so many women in the work force today, do you think women are now subjected to the same expectations and sense of failure as men?

Yes, they are, and that's sad.

Were your parents at all upset by your sexual preferences as you matured?

No. They weren't upset by homosexuality, and they wouldn't have been upset if I'd married a person of color. They were much more worried about the possibility of my marrying someone from Georgia. They said they're all descended from convicts!

What do you think a woman looks for in a female lover that she can't find in a male lover?  Is it physical or psychological?
 
I think it's both. A man's deepest emotions aren't easily accessed. The emotional break-through for a man comes in times of crisis. You'll always see it when his mother dies, for example. If you're engaged with a woman, you'll have continuous emotional involvement. The older I get, the more I ask myself if I have the energy for this.

Do you know the words a woman most wants to hear from a man?  I don't think it's “I love you.”  It's “I'll take care of it.”  With a man, you gain the advantage of male power. He brings that home to you, and that means a lot. I love the quote from Marlene Dietrich, who was bisexual, when someone asked her who was better in bed -- women or men -- and she said, “Women, of course, but have you ever tried living with them?”

You've said that one factor in your success was a female partner who took care of everything around the house so that you could devote yourself to your writing. Was this just a one-time occurrence?

Yes, I've only had one -- Judy Nelson, and she was wonderful at those things. I don't cook. I've never cooked a meal in my life where I had to get the meat, potatoes and vegetables all together at the same time. That was one of Judy's gifts -- a terrific gift -- but I couldn't help Judy. I'm not good at great gusts of emotions. I sort of sit there and listen and wait for it all to pass. Sometimes you can't help people.

You've mentioned that your natural father was a Virginian. Were you adopted?

I'm adopted, but it's as mixed up as a dog's breakfast. I'm actually related to my [adoptive] mother, Julia Ellen Buckingham. Her mother was my grandmother's sister, but I wasn't related to Ralph Brown [her adoptive father]. Julia Ellen Buckingham Brown had raised my natural mother -- a Marylander through and through.
 
Is all of this to say, in the parlance of the day, that you were born out of wedlock?

It's worse than that -- I was miscellany.

Miscellany?

Yes, in fact, they used to call me “Miss Cellany” -- but Mother [Julia Brown] always said, “You're a thoroughbred -- we just don't have the papers.”

You've worked in Hollywood and yet come back east to fulfill your dream of owning a Virginia farm. How have you kept your liberal sanity in a state encompassing Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberson, among others?

What good does it do preaching to the choir?  Every place has its vivid crackpots, but it's part of the culture. The crackpots are valuable in one way. Their approach is emotive, not rational. You can argue with rationality, but not the emotions. I'm a true, old Jeffersonian Democrat -- which is to say, a conservative who thinks that that government which governs least, governs best. If there's such a thing as a Virginia ethos, it's live and let live, and I think that's a pretty good philosophy.

You once said in an interview that the greatness of Southern writers lies in our being more aware of humanity's dark side. Could you elaborate on that?
 
If it weren't for Southerners and Jews — Faulkner and Roth, for example -- there wouldn't be any American literature after that New England crew died off. But you have to give Longfellow credit. He wrote a long poem [Evangeline] in English in perfect hexameter. That's not easy to do. But look at the period after World War II. … There could never be a Faulkner from New Jersey or a Flannery O'Connor from Connecticut.

How do you see yourself fitting into that Southern literary tradition?

I write in the Southern idiom, and I'm always concerned about capturing a sense of community as opposed to writing about a more closed situation. I don't mean to say that someone in Illinois can't write about community, but it's more apt to be an emphasis on something like a member of the police department pitted against the rest of the department -- as with Antigone against the king in Greek mythology. I want readers to come away from my books knowing great minor characters as well as the major ones. Sometimes the minor characters are the most interesting.

What personal traits do you have that you consider Southern?

We all have a social face, of course, and in the South, we do it better than anyone else. Like every good Southern lady, I always ask about the dress code when I put an event on my calendar. If I were presented to the queen of England, I would know what to do -- she speaks first, you don't reach out your hand to her, etcetera. I had to go to cotillion so I do have ease with social discourse. Social life is theater. I always say it's “magnolias upstairs and skunk cabbage in the basement,” which makes great writing material.

I understand your next novel is the beginning of a whole new series. What's the thread of the first book in that series coming out in September, A Nose for Justice? 

This is really unusual for me. It takes place in Reno, Nev. I became very attracted to Nevada over the years because I have a friend out there who hunts hounds, and the environment is so very different from here -- only seven inches of rain a year and an economy primarily dependent on gambling and mining, but they're trying to do something about that. Nevada fascinated me, and I saw it as an untapped canvas. Mark Twain was there, and I thought if Mark Twain was here, there's got to be a lot to explore.

The emotional core of the book is a woman born in 1924 who was part of the women's air force, though, of course, it wasn't called that then. The women did the same work as men in those big, old planes and got none of the benefits -- they couldn't go to a PX [commissary], for example. A fair number of these pilots are still living.

The main character's great-niece, who is 34 and beautiful, is part of it. She's lost everything in the stock market and needs help -- the arrogance of youth. I'm not pointing a finger because I've been there, too. Her aunt tells her she can't give her money, but she can give her a place to live. For the past eight years, I've been in and out of Nevada. You don't see much on book tours, but even in a blizzard, which I experienced once, it grows on you. I love its spare beauty, and Nevada country people are tough.

What animals figure into the book?

A German shepherd mix, and a wire-haired dachshund from Manhattan, who's funny because the only thing this dog has seen in the way of country is Central Park.

Are you worried about the future of publishing in this era of technology?

People are always going to read books, but writers aren't going to make what they made in the past. The real problem isn't the technology -- it's China ripping off everyone's copyright. Sonny Bono was the person who knew the most about copyright law in the U. S. [Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, 1998], but that can't help us with China.

You have many times explained the difference between American and English fox hunting — that in the United States it isn't a blood sport because the fox isn't killed. What do you love about fox hunting? 

I love the ghosts. Think about it: Balzac, Faulkner -- even George Washington was a fox hunter. I swear to God, there's no atheist in the hunt. When you see how it all fits together -- and the mist rising off the open meadow -- there's nothing like it. Every creature has what's appropriate for it -- that's the dazzling thing about creation from my point of view.

We're medium-sized predators. When I'm fox hunting, I'm on this large prey animal, but I'm pitted against a small predator whose senses are so much better than mine -- and he can process information so much faster than any human being can even imagine. I'm always wrong-footed compared to my prey.

Have you been part of animal-rescue efforts all of your life, either formally or informally?

I've rescued animals since I was a tiny thing -- but my whole family did. We were always feeding and giving a home to strays. What I do now is very small compared to what a lot of people do. Through the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, I've adopted Colebrook Lake and a horse from seven or eight years ago that I got out off the backstretch and saved TRF money that way. We call him Gunsmoke. I have four more that I got that way. I give them a year or so to ease into hunting -- sometimes you need that just to get them off steroids. Thoroughbreds are the greatest athletes in the world -- you just have to make sure they have the mind for hunting.

What is it that animals get that we humans don't seem to get, and what traits distinguish us humans?

Dogs have deep emotions -- we all know dogs are jealous -- and dogs have a vocabulary of 400-500 words so they're very communicative if we pay attention to them. But no animal will compromise, and we humans have the ability to compromise. Compromise is our unique gift. If we lose that, we'll have lost a lot. When you have people motivated by irrational forces, whether it's politics or religion -- communism is a form of religion -- it's very destructive.

You turn 66 on Nov. 28. What advice do you have for aging boomers?

All the sugar is at the bottom of the cup. This is the best.

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