And the cats and the horses and the foxes and the…
By Steven Foster
Current photo by Betsy Sinsel
It would have been difficult to imagine that the young woman who penned a firebrand bestseller known for its frank depictions of lesbianism in the early ’70s would later become more noted to a new generation of readers through a series of books “co-authored” by her cat. Still, whether it’s the pungent citrus of the Rubyfruit Jungle or the sweet confection of the Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries, Rita Mae Brown has continued to confound, surprise, and enthrall with the diversity of her talent, as well as political and sociological fearlessness. This is a liberation advocate who famously tussled with pioneering protofeminist Betty Friedan over Friedan’s vocal exclusion of lesbians in the women’s right movement. This is a cultural explorer who sported a mustache and man drag to infiltrate the infamous Club Baths in New York, all in an effort to study gay male sexuality. Brown’s private life was as attention-getting as her literary and socio-political excursions. Among her list of lovers were politician Elaine Nobel, the first openly gay candidate elected to a state legislature, and actress-comedienne and Fried Green Tomatoes author Fannie Flagg. In the late ’70s, Brown scandalously bedhopped from tennis star Martina Navratilova to Navratilova’s notorious, litigious ex, Judy Nelson.
But through every juncture of her career, Brown has always kept one love central and constant in her personal, professional, and political life. Never has this passion been more apparent than in her latest book, Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small (Random House). In the memoir, Brown tells tales of animals loved and pets lost, using each fur-covered or feathered companion and canine acquaintance as bellwethers of emotional connectivity, spiritual renewal, and continual reminders on the preciousness of life and the imminence of death.
OutSmart spoke with Brown while she was in Detroit as part of a promotional book tour. The freewheeling conversation began with talk of animals, but quickly began to encompass spirituality, gay marriage, the politics of economics, angry ex-lovers, the origins of American loneliness, and Brown’s greatest professional regret.
Steven Foster: Congratulations on the book. Is this something you wanted to write for some time now, or was it a notion? All of a sudden?
Rita Mae Brown: Judy Sternley, who was the editor at the time, was the one who suggested it. She came down to the farm and she met one of my old foxhounds who was retired, and she just fell in love with him. His name was Chaser, and I told her about his accomplishments and this and that, and she said, “You have to write about this.” And then she met other animals on the farm, and she kept saying, “You have to write about this.” So I thought, Well, you know, she knows more than I do. One of her authors won the National Book Award, I guess I better write about this.
[Laughs] I think one of the surprising discoveries of the book is that it isn’t just a “my pets” memoir. You use these stories of animals to tackle some very heavy issues while delving into some heartbreaking recollections. Was that difficult for you? Going to such a painful autobiograph ical place?
I think it always is when you have to recall those moments. On the other hand, it once again reminded me of how incredible those animals were.
And it’s not relegated to just one species. You seem to have a touch with all animal life.
Well, I don’t know about that, but I know I pay attention to them. A lot of it I think is just being alert. But I grew up with animals, and I’m afraid most people these days don’t, so they don’t know how to communicate with them.
There are some wonderful pieces in the book. One of the first quotes that struck me was, “If there aren’t any foxes in heaven, I don’t want to go.” And then you say, “I’m a bad Christian, but I’m too old to be a good anything else.” Where is your spirituality these days?
I think where it always was. In nature. Seeing how everything fits together. I mean, once you get into dogma, I really don’t think it matters whether it’s Christians or Jews. There’s conservatives, reform, orthodox. That’s all about the human ego. That’s not about spirit.
You talk a great deal about your mother in the book. She had an uncharacteristically (for the time) low regard for monogamy.
Yes, she did!
And you’ve gone on record as saying you’re not pro-marriage. What’s your position on the gay marriage debate? Do you have a low opinion of monogamy?
I think it’s an ideal. If one can accomplish it, more power to you. But I don’t think people should beat themselves up over it, which is why the marriage vows are difficult. You have to make a promise in your 20s or 30s, whenever you do it, without any idea what happens as life goes along, what happens to you or your partner. I don’t care if people want to get married, it doesn’t really interest me. I understand the medical reasons, I understand all the legal reasons. Of course, I would never stand in anybody’s way or stand in the way of that movement. But me, personally, I’m a lot more interested in job security. I mean, what’s the good of being married if you can’t eat?
Exactly. And speaking to that, of being with a partner, another line from the book: “As in all higher invertebrates, the woman controls the deal.” So how is the deal controlled in a lesbian relationship?
You know, I’m not sure. I really don’t know how that works out. And in a way it’s kind of wonderful. Whether you get two men or two women thrown together, they don’t have societal models to fall back on. I mean, models at least under patriarchy or at least 10,000 years old. So they either have to make it up as they go along or just imitate what they see around them. And I’m for the ones that make it up as they go along.
You’ve had your fair of relationships.
Well, not really. I got my fair share of attention. [Both laugh] I can’t mate in captivity.
I’m with ya on that one, Rita.
I wish I had said that first, but it was Gloria Steinem who said it. But she did finally get married in her late 60s.
She’s amazing. Still. So vital and intelligent.
She’s one of the smartest people I’d ever met in my life. And one of the kindest, too.
The longest relationship I was ever in was five years, and that actually wasn’t a struggle for me. But I think it’s a struggle for the other party, whoever it is. I’m not irritable, I don’t have PMS, I’m not one of those people. I’m not particularly emotional—which may be the problem. And when I write, I’m not there. And people think, “Gee, it’s great that you’re a writer.” But after a while I think [lovers] perceive that withdrawal. Even though they intellectually know better, it seems like a loss of love, and it really isn’t. It’s just that it takes everything I got to do what I do. And then they get what’s left over. And then when the book is finished, of course, they get everything. But people aren’t accustomed to living that way. And I just don’t know how else to do it.
It’s asking a lot of a partner. Speaking of, you were in a relationship with Fannie Flagg.
Well, yes, but it just kills her every time I mention it, because, for whatever reason, Fannie thinks people don’t know she’s gay. Particularly when she was younger, and she was just really homophobic on so many levels, and I couldn’t understand it. But she’s always despised me for telling the truth about her and the two of us. And, you know, it’s too bad, because she’s one of the funniest, most delightful people I have ever known. But she just has that blind spot. And I hope maybe now it’s not there anymore. But I think she always loathes me.
I could never get it. I was always surprised she wasn’t more open with that part of herself.
There were a lot of people like that in Hollywood in those days—the closet with the open door, or people who thought others didn’t really know. But I will always mourn that, and I’m sorry she felt that way and felt that I was a terrible person by mentioning it in my autobiography. But it’s done, ›
there’s nothing I can do about it. Why would I be ashamed to be in a relationship with her? I kinda thought she was ashamed of being in love with me.
Are you in a relationship now?
How’s the single life?
Well, it’s mostly all I know, really. And it’s fine. I recognize that most people want to go in twos. If I find myself in that situation, I’m sure it will be good, but I don’t look for it.
One of the strange, and actually quite challenging, lines from your book was in the chapter “Finding My Way.” The very first words are, “The core of American emotion is loneliness.”
Think of it. 1607. We get here on this little ship and we wind up in Jamestown, or what’s now Jamestown. You’re in a lower latitude than you know, but it’s close enough that it’s not going north to south, in which case knowledge doesn’t travel environmentally, because it’s so different. So there was enough that we could connect to as Europeans, and there was so much that was different, and there were people that were already here that were so completely different from any British or European experience.
And there’s no women. And there weren’t women for a long time. I mean, occasionally there were a few. They’d send over prostitutes or women who were having to escape difficult circumstances, but it took awhile for things to grab hold.
There is this isolation and loneliness. And I think it’s one of the reasons we are so hospitable. Americans are really a very warm people. Even if you were from another country, if you were broken down on the road, someone would stop to help you. If you broke down on the road in Germany, they’re all gonna fly right by you. And I hope we never get so dependent on government, we don’t take care of one another. That’s what really terrifies me.
Are you saying American empathy is rooted in a core of loneliness?
So often it is, even a hundred years ago on the prairie, in these vast spaces, in very few what you would say “sophisticated” settlements, or even small cities. And most of them are on rivers. [Then] somebody comes by, and you haven’t seen anybody but your blood family for months. Oh my God, you’re gonna open the doors! You want to know everything they’ve seen and heard, what’s going on in the world. You’re gonna feed them even if you don’t have much.
The excitement of seeing another person, that’s still ingrained in us. And I’ve been in other places of the world and, believe me, it’s not there. It’s not that the people are hateful, but they don’t have that impulse. First of all, their societies are, in some cases, thousands of years older than ours, and they’ve evolved different systems. And personal responsibility to another human, in this respect, is not the same.
They’re not wired like we are.
But they’re good people. They look at it differently. We’re an incredibly open group. The media’s been hijacked by hot-button issues. That’s not who we are. We really are not people who are focused on single issues. If you talk to most Americans, they know it’s all bull. They know it doesn’t have any place in politics. They may have strong feelings about how you should behave. But let me make this real simple: most Americans know you cannot legislate morality. So let’s focus on what we can do.
I find your perspective so incredibly relevant. But you said something in your book about chicken one day, feathers the next . . .
. . . that maybe one day people no longer wish to read what you write and that this country worships the new and the young. Do you still feel relevant in this gossip-girl generation?
No, not in terms of the popular culture. I actually think I could be more useful now than I ever was when I was younger, just because I’ve lived so much longer and seen so much more. But you just accept it. This is a youth-obsessed culture. Why? Because they’ll buy more. They know less, but they’ll buy more. They’re gonna get married and establish homes—they gotta have refrigerators and cars. Think about it. Television doesn’t exist to teach you anything, it exists to sell you products. I worked in television, I know what I’m talking about. I mean, I’ve got two Emmy nominations. Wonderful those shows may have been, and I sure thought they were, and I loved the people I worked with, but those shows [exist] to sell you coffee or deodorant.
Do you still work in Hollywood?
No, I don’t, because there’s a tremendous age bias. And I’m actually part of a class action suit through the Writers Guild of America about it. I don’t know what’ll come of it, but it’s a pity, because I know more now, and ›
my skills are better now than when I got those Emmy nominations. But I was so glad I had that experience, and some of those people are still my friends—actors or producers or whatever. I’m not bitchin’ and moanin’, it’s just the way it is, and I’ll do the best I can with it. But at least with a novel, I could be two years older than God. Who cares as long as it’s a good novel.
How are you with the writing process? Are you a good disciplinarian? Do you wake up, hit it at six a.m., and make sure you crank out 100 pages?
I am disciplined, and it depends on the season. In the summers, I’ll go out in the morning and get all the animal chores done and work the horses and walk the hounds and all that. Then I’ll come back in the afternoon, because I can sit in the air conditioning. In the winter it’s in the reverse. But I’m very disciplined. That’s the thing about writing. If you’re not disciplined, it’s not going to happen.
“Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.” You said that.
[Laughs] That’s the truth.
You also said, “Good judgment comes from experience and often experience comes from bad judgment.” What was one of the worst judgments you had that gave you your greatest lessons?
[Long pause, then a sigh] Not fighting harder to get the women’s movement to delay all that energy spent on the Equal Rights Amendment. I think that was the worst mistake I ever made.
I was young, I was 22. They didn’t listen to me. They wanted to start out by amending the constitution, and how many amendments are there? They never did the work on the local and state levels. They got some great coverage on television, and they gave great speeches, and they thought they were a lot stronger than they were. They just didn’t know how everybody really lived. They were intellectuals, and intellectuals are always a disaster in government. I shouldn’t say “always,” but it’s not the right mix.
And lawyers are another problem. And we’ve got a cabinet now, and there’s not one person in this cabinet that has ever held a real job. They’re all lawyers or intellectuals. There’s not one person in this cabinet who ever farmed. No one made payroll. No one knows what it is to make payroll. I mean, that terrifies me. We need practical experience. We don’t need a bunch of people where their ideas are fabulous and marvelous and they look great on paper, but they don’t work.
I’m so with you on that. My dream would be a government mandate for everyone to wait tables in this country for eight months.
[Laughs] God, you are so right! [Laughs] I mean, it’s incredible to me the lack of practical experience and the lack of what the average American has to do to make a living. When you work from January to June to support the government! Think what you could do with that money if it were actually put into the economy.
So what’s next for you? What are you doing now?
Well, I have to go to a taping. That’s what’s immediately next. But once I’m off the book tour, I wanna go home, and even though it’s winter, I have to order my seeds for the spring because you get a discount if you order early. So I gotta go through all the catalogs, order alfalfa seeds, and all that kinda stuff. I know it sounds boring, but I really love it.
I think it sounds pretty nice, actually.