Rita Mae Brown Fights Her Way Out Of A Literary Wilderness

by Michelle Erica Green

Rita Mae Brown has a reputation for being outrageous -- and proud of it. The 41-year-old author, feminist, civil rights advocate and owner of six cats says that, although reports of her life have been exaggerated "beyond any measure of good taste," she wouldn't change places with anybody.

"Nothing fazes me," she says. "I'm really very easygoing."

Though the fictional characters she creates are even more fantastic than she is herself, Brown's life has not exactly followed a traditional route. Renowned at an early age for writing one of the most notorious books of the 1970s, Rubyfruit Jungle, she became fodder for scandal sheets when her relationship with tennis star Martina Navratilova became public.

People who have read Rubyfruit Jungle, the story of a lesbian's coming of age, expect Brown to be like Molly Bolt, the novel's irreverent and indignant heroine. People who have read tales about Brown in the tabloids expect her to be a tiger woman. All this fuss about Rita Mae Brown has obscured the exuberant woman who lives apart from her public image.

"When Rubyfruit Jungle first came out, the publisher touted it as semi-autobiographical," she explains. "I had no power, I had no publishing clout, I had no control over the way the book was sold -- at first I was astonished. But then I figured, what the hell? It's a good joke. Why not go along with it?"

She is quick to add that the book -- featuring a bewitching narrator who loses her virginity to a girlfriend in sixth grade, gets thrown out of college for demanding equal rights and takes up with a lesbian circle in Greenwich Village -- is fictional. "[Rubyfruit Jungle] doesn't parallel my life," she stresses. "It parallels aspects of my life, or at least intellectual concerns I had at the time."

While Brown and her novel eradicated the stereotyped image left over from Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness and other books which portrayed lesbians as introverted would-be men, it did not gain her social or literary popularity. After its rejection "by every major publishing house in New York," the book was published by the small, feminist Daughters Press, causing its author no small amount of hostility.

"Everybody rejected me," she says of her experiences in the early 1970s. "N.O.W. [the National Organization for Women] tried to stop me from joining. The women's movement looked like it was going to splinter over the lesbian issue. The same thing happened when I demonstrated for civil rights -- the whites were angry and the blacks didn't want me. Here I thought I was fighting oppression, and I was encountering it from the people who were supposed to be my allies."

Brown's frustration with what she perceives as hypocrisy in the women's movement is evident in her writing. But she tries to make light of the problem using sarcasm rather than anger. In her novel Sudden Death she condemns the refusal of cosmetics companies to support women's tennis because they fear association with "dykes" will hurt their sales. In Rubyfruit Jungle, she criticizes women who support women's rights but exclude lesbians; her poem "Dancing the Shout to the True Gospel" is subtitled, "The Song Movement Sisters Don't Want Me To Sing."

The literary establishment has also treated Brown harshly. "I've got splinters in my nose from the best doors in town," Brown chuckles ruefully. "Nobody wanted [Rubyfruit Jungle]. People were brutal. They said, 'You have no talent, this is a perverted book, you're a terrible person.' Some of the rejections were violently personal, as though I were a member of the Nazi party or something."

Although Rubyfruit Jungle gained acceptance as the women's movement gained momentum, Sudden Death, a novel about the international women's tennis circuit, caused renewed attacks on the author. The bestseller, which Brown says she finished only because of a promise she had made to a dying friend, was published shortly after the end of her much-publicized relationship with Navratilova.

Instead of reviewing the book's literary merit, critics accused Brown of creating a thinly-veiled allegory of real tennis players and using it as a platform to express her feelings about them. Brown denies responsibility for the controversy. "It wasn't even my book -- I only wrote it to fulfill a promise," she says. "Martina and I have laughed ourselves silly over it many times."

Her latest book, Starting From Scratch, is a writer's guide that was spurred by Brown's desire to help would-be authors avoid the pitfalls she encountered.

"I've wanted to write [a book on writing] for years and years, because I learned everything the hard way," she says. "Maybe not everyone has to go through it as I did."

The guide includes advice on areas seldom covered in writing manuals -- chapters dealing with writers and alcoholism, avoiding redundant character development and writing from the perspectives of people of various ages, sexes and sexual preferences. She concludes with an outline of courses and reading list for prospective writers.

Her advice is given with a dose of humor: "In the theater you are the king. In publishing you are a demigod. In film you're the hired help." She recommends that all writers own a cat, because "a cat will not sit on a bad poem."

Many of the ideas in the book, including a regimen of exercises for writers, were developed while Brown taught at schools such as the University of Virginia. "My challenge when I teach people is to get them to stop thinking in terms of 'Creative Writing,' in capital letters, because that just paralyzes them," she says.

Though Brown stresses that a solid liberal arts education is the basis of all good writing, especially knowledge of foreign languages, she is quick to add that academia can be limiting for writers. In Starting From Scratch, she labels universities "the nurseries of orthodoxy."

"I have real concerns about academic life," she says. "I think your pool of contacts is narrowed, and that's dangerous for a writer -- on vacations you've got to get as far away from that university setting as possible. Of course, if you work in a corporation, your contacts will be limited there as well."

While Brown is unenthusiastic about graduate writing programs, she adds that such programs give writers a chance to get established before leaving school. "Most graduate writing programs are far short of the mark and I don't necessarily think that's the fault of the people teaching," she says. "New writers are lucky to get 35 people to show up at a reading. I don't know how those people live. So the university's necessary for their survival."

"Lest I sound like I'm anti-university, I really feel like there's a point when you should go back [to teach]," she adds. "Just by virtue of being out there, you're bound to know something that an academic doesn't. You can't give anybody talent -- there's an old expression, 'You can't put in what God left out' -- but you can save them from making some awful mistakes."

Brown's most recent novel, High Hearts, tells the story of a woman who pretends to be a man so that she can fight in the Civil War. It was a success in both hardcover and paperback. She has a new novel coming out this fall.

"I know people call me irreverent," Brown concludes. "But I have a real reverence for words. What writer doesn't?"

This interview originally appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian, March 1988.

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