Author Rita Mae Brown shoots from the hip.
Rita Mae Brown may have penned the lesbian classic, Rubyfruit Jungle, but the feisty sexagenarian’s résumé also includes getting kicked out of the National Organization for Women for standing up for lesbians, participating in the Stonewall Riots and weathering a tempestuous relationship with Martina Navratilova. Today she lives in rural Virginia where she’s just finished her latest mystery novel, Hounded to Death (due out September 30 from Random House), and is an avid foxhunter. On Saturday 6, she delivers the keynote speech at Gerber/Hart’s annual gala.
Time Out Chicago: You live on a farm, but in much of your early years you lived in cities.
Rita Mae Brown: I hated them. People get so worked up over nothing in urban life. All it does is breed neurosis, but it’s where the money is, so at some point you have to do it.
TOC: Now you live in Virginia, the ultimate swing state.
Rita Mae Brown: The difference between the [two] parties is like the difference between syphilis and gonorrhea. God help anyone who believes them.
TOC: How is your fox hunting hobby tied into conservation?
Rita Mae Brown: First of all, you don’t kill the fox. You see how everything is tied together: the water and the water table, the plant material, the animals.… Once the land is ruined, it can take decades to bring it back. I really fear we’re going to destroy the planet.
TOC: What first drew you to writing?
Rita Mae Brown: Some of it grew out of the litany in the church. It’s quite beautiful, and the words are musical; it’s like a call and response. Then I discovered poetry. My mother would read me doggerel, and I thought, This is wonderful. And that was it. I was off and running.
TOC: What was it like to watch Rubyfruit Jungle go from a tiny imprint to the classic it is today?
Rita Mae Brown: It’s kind of amazing. The book allowed people to discover their own courage, and then they give me credit for it, but I don’t really deserve any credit. Everyone had to come out on their own; everyone had to suffer the abuse you still suffer. It’s still not easy, and I don’t think anyone would ever choose it.
TOC: Is it true you participated in the Stonewall Riots?
Rita Mae Brown: I was at the library at NYU late, and all of a sudden there was this eruption. Everything blew up, and there I was, a woman in the middle of this riot of hundreds of gay men, which then turned into probably a couple thousand. Somebody picked up a Volkswagen and turned it over. It was wild.
TOC: Were you arrested?
Rita Mae Brown: No. I was a woman. The police didn’t even notice me. I did manage to get away because the violence escalated. It was one of the best things we ever did. The assumption always is, or was, and still may be, that gay men are quasiwomen and of course they have no balls. These guys had balls.
TOC: How did writing mysteries start?
Rita Mae Brown: I was in Hollywood making money hand over fist, which is what you do in Hollywood—you starve or you hit it big. The Writers Guild went on strike, and it lasted a year. The bills came in, and the money ran out. Sneaky Pie, my cat, who’s incredibly intelligent, said, “Why don’t you write a mystery?” I tried it, and thank God I did because it has taught me so much. All genre fiction is a sonnet.
TOC: Are you currently in a relationship?
Rita Mae Brown: I think I’m in a relationship, but I’m not sure. We’re so far away from one another, but I’m trying. I’ve spent the bulk of my life alone, and I’ve had a few of these affairs that managed to make the headlines. It made me appear to be this romantic person who women couldn’t resist. Trust me: They can resist me really easily.… I really don’t care about gender. I just figure the body is an envelope for the soul. To get sidetracked by a couple mounds of flesh always seemed quite odd. But real love is unshakable. It might be the only thing about this species worth imitating.
Rita Mae Brown gives the keynote speech at Gerber/Hart’s annual gala.