Rita Mae Brown: Loves Cats, Hates Marriage

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Mark Homan / Bantam Dell Publishing

Rita Mae Brown and her kitty

Correction Appended: March 20, 2008

No one could ever accuse Rita Mae Brown, 63, of having lived a boring life. The bestselling author of 37 books is nothing if not versatile: feminist activist, mystery writer, lesbian pioneer, fox hunter, screenwriter, novelist, animal rescuer. She even became a tabloid star during her three-year relationship with tennis superstar Martina Navratilova. TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke with Brown, who was in Pennsylvania on tour for her latest book, The Purrfect Murder (Bantam).

TIME: What does Mrs. Murphy, the feline star of The Purrfect Murder, do differently this time?

RITA MAE BROWN: Well, it's not anything she does differently. She's just smarter than any of the humans.

Can you tell me a little bit about her fictional owner, Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen?

She went to Smith College and she was an art history major, which her mother opposed as foolish. And she's one of those people who is bright but not terribly ambitious. She wound up being a postmistress in this little town, and that went on for years until the Federal government began making ever more regulations. They built a new post office and she couldn't take her animals to work. You can't do this and you can't do that. And she said, the hell with it and walked out, and [went ] back to farming. She turned 40 the book before this and lives there with her husband, who is a vet and just gets in one mess after another because she's too nosy.

And how do cats figure into this mystery series?

Well, their senses are so much smarter than ours. I mean, they're much sharper. Also they're physically more adept. If we had the jumping ability of a cat from a standing position, we'd be able to jump on the top of a two-story house. It's pretty amazing. The other thing is, animals are not hagridden by ideologies. There are no screens between them and reality, so they see things much more clearly than people.

How many cats and dogs do you have?

I'm on a farm [in Virginia], so I have eleven cats, some of which are barn cats. In terms of house dogs, I have five. And then I have a pack of fox hounds, which is about seventy hounds.

You also have the Sister Jane Arnold series of mysteries about fox hunting. Tell me about that.

Well, I hunted in my mother's womb because she rode a lot. It's just what I know and what I love.

You still fox hunt now?

Yes, I'm the Master of Hounds at Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club. And I also hunt them, so I'm the Master and the Huntsman. And it is just the grand passion of my life.

Is that contradictory with loving animals?

No, and this is one of the things that is so frustrating for American fox hunters. When people think of hunting, they think of England, and in England they hunt to kill. And you know what? There are good reasons for that because of their agricultural practices. They're not brutes. But we don't have those problems. So in America, you just hunt to chase.

Oh, and you let the fox go.

It's not a matter of letting him go. I couldn't get him if I wanted to. He's a lot smarter than I am. There's a reason since Aesop we've had the phrase, sly as a fox. And when you're close to them, you understand why.

You really love animals, don't you?

More than people.

Your 1973 book Ruby Fruit Jungle was a groundbreaking lesbian novel, and a media phenomenon. How did that change your life?

Well, I didn't know I was going to be famous. All that happens, and I was like, what is all this crap? Excuse me for swearing.

That's okay. What did you expect the reaction to be?

None, because nobody wanted to publish it. I mean, I've got splinters in my nose from the best publishing doors in town. Finally this little tiny company that just started, called Daughters Press, gave me $1,000 and published it. I never had a book review, never had an ad, didn't have a hard cover until I guess one of its anniversaries. It exploded and they couldn't keep up with the sales. They couldn't print them fast enough. So Bantam bought it. [ A million copies were sold.]

What do you think the impact of the book has been?

I don't have a clue. I really don't. I don't think you can ever assess your work. I don't think Turgenev could assess his any more than I can assess mine, and his didn't have a social impact as much as great literary impact. I mean, people come up and tell me "the book changed my life," but I don't know.

The book was a roman a clef, right?

Yes and no. Let me put it this way. There are very few people who are creative and imaginative. Therefore, fiction is difficult for people to embrace. They always believe it has to be your life or somebody you know or whatever, because that's all they could do, if they could even do that. This is no criticism at all. It's just different kinds of minds. Sure it's based on some things I saw and knew, but other things are just pure fiction.

Tell me about your experience in the early days of NOW (the National Organization for Women). Did you resign in protest?

Hell no. They threw me out. Here I am, a southern country girl, so I was easy to write off as a stupid kid. I still had my accent — I have it when I go home, but I hadn't learned how to disguise it. I raised the issue of class differences between women and racial differences. At this point this was really quite an important band of women in America, but not necessarily representative of all women's concerns. Then, of course, I raised the issue of gay women. That was all it took. [Betty Friedan] got rid of me in a hurry.

You didn't go quietly at the time though, did you?

Hell no. I fought. I wrote in the newsletter and I fought. It didn't do any good because everybody was scared sh--less of her. But I'll give Betty credit. I don't know if you ever met her. Bombastic, rude, self-centered. Brilliant. And you know what? Fundamentally a moral person and about 20 years later she apologized to me in public. It took a lot. She said, I was wrong.

Do you feel as though things have changed a lot for lesbians and for gays?

Yes, I think so. I think you can judge the level of success for any group of people by the reaction against it. And given the reaction of the so-called Christian Right — I would put that in quotes because I don't believe they're Christians at all — I would have to say that people have been wildly successful.

Do you have thoughts about gay marriage?

Yes. I don't understand it. I don't even know why straight people want to get married because you invite the government in your bedroom. But that's okay. It seems to be a very basic human need that I don't share.

Are you friends with Martina Navratilova now?

No, we fell out over her divorce with Judy Nelson, and it was an extremely foolish and ugly affair on both of their parts. I was the middleman, and whenever you're the middleman you lose both. But you know what? I think I solved the problem, which is I kept them out of court. I mean, I'm sure their lawyers deserve some credit. Judy sued her for support, and wanted some astronomical sum. And I believed that she was part of her success. She was the person who organized, scheduled, made sure she ate right, etc., etc. What wives do. And Martina — when she is done with you, is emphatically done. She couldn't care less about you. Not in an ugly way necessarily, but she cannot imagine that other people still have feelings because she doesn't anymore. And she may have changed, but that's the way she was then. She just wants to go to the next person and have a good time. That's a kid thing, you know? And she was still pretty young.

What was it like living in the media spotlight when you were with her?

Well, I don't know. A lot of cheap sh--. People just make up stuff. What are you going to do? Sue everybody that prints something that's wrong? I mean, I can't imagine that anybody is that interested in anyone else's private life. I can only figure out that they don't have one of their own.

You really never came out, did you? You were out.

The funny thing is, I don't believe in straight or gay. I really don't. I think we're all degrees of bisexual. There may be a few people on the extreme if it's a bell curve who really truly are gay or really truly are straight. Because nobody had ever said these things and used their real name, I suddenly became the only lesbian in America. It was hysterical. It was a misnomer, but it's okay. It was a fight worth fighting.

Do you wish things had been more open when you were growing up?

No, because I wouldn't be who I am now. I was equal to the fight. I'll go to my grave knowing I didn't back down.

The original version of this article incorrectly referred to the title of Rita Mae Brown's book The Purrfect Mystery. The title is The Purrfect Murder.