Interview with Rita Mae Brown
The Homestead, November 6, 2003
by Janet Justis
Award-winning novelist, screenwriter, poet and collaborator (with Sneaky Pie) on the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series, Rita Mae Brown agreed to share some of her thoughts about writing, family and Virginia.
VL: You have had a long and successful career. How do you explain your longevity?
RMB: Knowing Latin and having two years of Attic Greek gave me the strong foundation upon which I've built a career. I think the classical training, more than anything, has provided me with longevity.
VL: What keeps you motivated?
RMB: I love literature, the English language and storytelling. I also have thirty horses and seventy foxhounds to feed.
VL: What do you think keeps your readers coming back?
RMB: As to why my readers keep coming back, you'd have to ask them. I don't know.
VL: You received your first library card from the Martin Library when you were five. You wanted to check out Bulfinch's Mythology, Alcott's Little Women and Strickland's Queens of England, Volume I, but the librarian thought some of your choices were age-inappropriate. How did you and your mother persuade the librarian that you were ready for those materials?
RMB: Mother made me stand on a chair and read aloud from Little Women. That convinced the librarian to give me my card.
VL: Many librarians are concerned with provisions in the Patriot Act that allow law enforcement officials to request patron records (including books checked out and websites visited) while lowering the bar for showing just cause. Even more disturbing is the provision that librarians cannot tell patrons that their records have been requested. As a writer and user of library materials, how do you feel about this Act?
RMB: It is a clear violation of our civil liberties.
VL: Since librarians cannot tell patrons if their records have been requested, some libraries have put up posters or publicity about the potential risk. They are doing this because of the difficulty in getting the word out to our citizens. This type of legislation is not well understood and the average person usually thinks, "It can't happen to me."
RMB: I guess you are right about the difficulties of making the realities obvious. The public might better understand it if what they are watching on TV is suddenly being tracked.
VL: You have been quoted as saying, "Writers will happen in the best of families." How has your family influenced your writing?
RMB: My family remains endlessly amusing, infuriating and wonderful. The gene pool is encoded with a love of life and a certain suspicion concerning rules.
VL: When you first published Rubyfruit Jungle, did you expect it to become a classic maturation/coming out novel?
VL: In Alma Mater, you revisit the struggles of young women "coming out." Where do you think we are as a society in understanding and/or accepting homosexuality?
RMB: The breakdown appears to be age-related in that people under forty have much less difficulty accepting homosexuality than those over forty. Who knows if the polls one reads are true, as I know many people in their seventies who couldn't give a fig over who sleeps with whom as long as you don't do it in the streets and scare the horses (to quote Mrs. Patrick Campbell).
VL: Another key theme in Alma Mater is the idea of the importance of "home place." For many Southerners, the concept of generations of a family tending and nurturing the land is as natural as breathing. Would you share the importance of home place in your life?
RMB: I'm not sure I can share the importance of my home place in a sentence or two. Pretty much the idea and reality of Virginia underpin my work with some exceptions.
VL: How did you research the historic events depicted in High Hearts and Dolley?
RMB: The University of Virginia is a Federal depository library. I was able to read a great deal there. The dispatches from the battlefield from the various commanders proved useful. And since the battles described in the novel took place here, I could go to them, which I have been doing since my childhood. We must never forget this war.
For Dolley, I visited Montpelier frequently. Many of the letters are at Guilford College in North Carolina.
VL: Is there another figure from history about whom you would like to write?
RMB: Eleanor de Montfort, Harriet Tubman, Hannibal, Turner Ashby--there are a lot of fascinating people, not the least being the Virgin Mary, who is always presented as Goody Two-Shoes; surely she had to be more interesting than that!
VL: In 1987, Crossing Press published Poems, which included the earlier volumes Songs to a Handsome Woman and The Hand That Cradles the Rock. In the introduction, you stated that while rereading the poems you were reintroduced to yourself as a young brash person. How have you changed as a writer? As a person?
RMB: Wish I knew, but what I can see is Nature's frosting in my hair and wrinkles.
VL: You have described writing poetry as an art form demanding perfection. In Poems, when asked why you hadn't published other volumes of poetry, you stated, "I haven't had time to polish the work and therefore it doesn't get published. You wouldn't send your child out naked, would you? Neither will I." Are you still writing poetry?
RMB: Yes, I still write poetry. It comes naturally to me, but from a technical point of view it forces me to pay close attention to language and to scan.
VL: You have been quoted as saying, "A screenplay may be beautifully written, but it's not literature." Would you share your experiences in writing screenplays?
RMB: Mostly my experience has been very good. I had to learn the image is not the word, which is a jolt for a literary soul. But it has served me well in terms of understanding plot, in terms of watching actors develop characters.
VL: Your collaboration with Sneaky Pie in the Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series has been very successful. When did you discover that Sneaky Pie had literary talents?
RMB: When she kept sitting at the typewriter.
VL: In the introduction to Poems you write, "Were I a cat, surely a more highly evolved life-form than the human, I wouldn't worry about time, I wouldn't care about what I was, what I am and what I might become. I would simply exist quite gloriously in the present." In addition to living in the present, what other feline traits do we humans need to consider adopting?
RMB: If we'd cull our young, we'd be doing the entire world a favor! And, if we disciplined them. Cats are strict. Actually, instead of culling, how about not breeding in the first place? One should ruthlessly examine one's gene pool before perpetuating it.
VL: Is Sneaky Pie working on something new?
RMB: Must be a secret.
VL: Librarians and cats have similar qualities. Both are curious and able to use clues to solve a good mystery. Would Sneaky Pie ever consider working with a librarian on a case?
RMB: Sneaky Pie would be happy to work with a librarian. In fact, she has her very own library card from the Staunton Library.
VL: For example, suppose there is a government information reference librarian from Tidewater who visits the stacks at Alderman and uncovers a stash of letters that reveal the hidden past of a local politician with national aspirations. Her discovery puts her in danger. Can Sneaky Pie help?
RMB: Your example is really good and, of course, Sneaky would be in her element.
VL: Your affection and respect for animals is evident throughout your work. In Outfoxed, Hotspur and your latest novel Full Cry, you explore the world of riding and foxhunting. Some of your readers are confused by your participation in foxhunting. How did you become involved?
RMB: I was born to foxhunting. If readers are confused, it is because they don't understand foxhunting. If they'd start with Outfoxed, they'd feel much better about it because they'd learn that American hunting is quite different from English hunting because we don't hunt to kill. Even if I wanted to kill a fox, I couldn't. They're too smart and they have too many ways to escape me, whereas they don't in England.
VL: Having written poetry, novels, screenplays and mysteries, do you have a favorite genre?
RMB: Novels. Once I got off my high horse, I pretty much write what I like.
VL: You've been quoted as saying, "If you don't like my work, write something of your own." Is there any advice you would like to give aspiring writers?
RMB: Learn Latin and for Christ's sake, don't whine.
VL: In the introduction to Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer's Manual, you state, "It's an act of faith to be a writer in a post literate world,...but a book will remain what it has ever been: the most intense, private form of communication between two minds." What role do books play in an age of technology where the Internet may be the preferred way of seeking information?
RMB: I don't know, but I expect people will still pick up a novel rather than read with the computer in their lap. Fortunately, the power can go out and all you need is a candle. If the electricity goes, the computer is roadkill.
VL: In your memoir Rita Will, you talked about your early involvement with the National Organization for Women (NOW). Eventually you decided to leave NOW. Would you talk about the differences that caused the split?
RMB: I raised the issue of class differences between women and the fact that leadership of NOW was throttling anyone who was a lesbian, locking the closet door. (For those few who were in the closet, there weren't that many gay women in the early days of NOW.) My thoughts were not appreciated and this was quickly followed by my person not being appreciated. Silly girls.
VL: At age 25, you bought your first Mont Blanc fountain pen because you said you felt it was the symbol and tool of a real writer. You stated in Starting from Scratch, "If I live to be a mean old lady, I will have dozens (of these pens)." How many do you have?
RMB: Six. Two are wearing out, being over forty years old, and I've had them rebuilt. I only use the big one, the 149, also called The Diplomat, a medium Mont Blanc pen. It is an instrument of beauty and so well built.
I only buy the best equipment; then I only cry once. For instance, John Deere tractors, with the exception of one 40HP Ford I bought years ago from my cousin. I wear white T-shirts, all cotton, and Levi's 501 jeans or Wrangler 13MWZ. In short, I'm a purist. I only drive a truck with a regular cab and an eight-foot bed. Purist.
This is one woman's opinion, but I was taught by my mother: Never, ever follow fashion. Create style. Mom had phenomenal style and a great sense of color. It helped that she had a great fit body that she kept until she died. She never moved like an old lady but she walked and danced the night away. She was a terrific example to me and she was very honest with me. She told me I had the body of a sixteen-year-old boy and it wasn't going to change, so I'd better steer clear of ruffles, lace, and frou-frou, stick to clean lines.
One thing she taught me, "You're going to be dead a long time, so do it now!" She smoked, drank a little, flirted non-stop and lived with her foot pressed full down on the accelerator. Thanks to her example, I can wonder about these people worried to death over what they eat, nicotine, etc. What's the point of prolonging your life if you don't enjoy it? It's your body. Do whatever you want with it. Better to wear out than rust over.
Footnote: As Ms. Brown was leaving the hotel after her keynote address and book signing, she reached for a doughnut. A fan ran up to her and said, "How do you stay so thin with such bad habits?" Ms. Brown smiled. "I have many bad habits, but you can eat 3,000 calories a day if you exercise--farming, for instance."
Janet Justis, Government Information Reference Librarian at Old Dominion University, would like to thank Ms. Brown for her candor and support of libraries. Janet lives with a tiger cat named Quatro, who prefers antiques to literature. Of course, it's more fun to jump to the top of Mom's antique china cabinet; besides, those books take up lap room and Mom's undivided attention. Both can be reached at email@example.com.