If you don't think you should discuss politics, sex or religion in polite company, disregard your manners with Rita Mae Brown. At 62, the Pennsylvania-born author is opinionated, outspoken, brash and passionate. She believes the difference between Democrats and Republicans is the difference between syphilis and gonorrhea (she's a Libertarian) and that the last Christian died on the cross.
At home in Afton, Brown has authored many screenplays and more than 35 books, the most recent of which, "The Tell-Tale Horse," the sixth in her New York Times best-selling fox-hunting mystery series, is out this October. Brown sees nothing odd in the juxtaposition of her civil rights/lesbian persona with the blend of Southern manners, wit, virility and murder in her more recent novel.
"After all those years of cotillion, it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, all those old biddies are going to get you," says Brown. "The South is absolutely right in trying to make parties pleasant, while Northerners think straight talk is the right way. Southerners are gathering enormous information emotionally through 'small talk.' We work through people; Yankees work through ideas. I think there's a moral foundation to it."
A classics and literature major at New York University in 1967, Brown helped found the Student Homophile League at Columbia, the very controversial and first gay student group of its kind, and in 1969 she participated in the massive Stonewall riots in New York City. By the age of 20 Brown had a readership in underground newspapers, and at 26 she published "Rubyfruit Jungle," a forerunner of lesbian literature and a book that still sells well. As for changing the world, Brown insists on humility.
"If you believe your own press releases, that's the way of madness. I just get up and do what I need to do that day," she says. "I feel sorry for people that need to be famous."
If feminist-icon-turned-serial-mystery-writer seems a mystery in itself, Brown says the clue was desperation. After a successful career screenwriting for film and television (including "The Long Hot Summer" and "Slumber Party Massacre") in Hollywood, she says the writer's strike in 1988 led to a conversation between Brown and her cat, Sneaky Pie, on paying the bills.
Writing about fox-hunting, however, is really not such a stretch. "I fox-hunted in my mother's womb," says Brown. "If I was a good girl, I got to eat and sleep with the foxhounds in the kennel. A few years ago, when my best friend died, I slept with hounds that night and I felt better."
Of great importance to Brown, American fox-hunters do not kill the fox. She has been hunting long enough to personally know all of the foxes and their kits in Nelson County. "They are more intelligent than we are, and I'm not just saying that to be cute," she says. "We have ideologies that make us stupid. The fox has no ideology. They see reality exactly the way it is."
As master of foxhounds at Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club, Brown seems to connect perhaps more honestly and consistently with the animals than with her human counterparts. Half of the characters in her foxhound series are quadrupeds and speak English. "Language reduces experience," she acknowledges. "We can't even imagine the depth of their ability. They can smell time. They know how long a scent has been there. I recognize as a human I'm tremendously limited." But still, as a writer, Brown would like to give these animals a voice.
And a voice is something this author never seems to have gone without. Brown says that when she's 100, there will still be books she'll want to write. At the moment she can think of six forthcoming stand-alone novels, one of which will be titled "The Dueling Grounds."
"That's all I'll tell you," she says. "Oh, I just love the English language. It's like living inside a fabulous cathedral; the sound bouncing off these beautiful walls." S
Fountain Books presents Rita Mae Brown speaking at the Richmond Public Library Monday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. to read and sign "The Tell-Tale Horse." Call 788-1594 or visit www.fountainbookstore.com.