This year’s recipient of the annual Lambda Literary Award’s Pioneer Award is bestselling author Rita Mae Brown. To celebrate her remarkable career, Bantam is reissuing her groundbreaking first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle.
Recently, noted author and activist Joe Wenke (The Talk Show, The Human Agenda: Conversations about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) spoke to Brown about her writing, her latest accolade, and the future of the LGBT cause.
JOE WENKE: Could you talk a little bit about what it was like for you to write Rubyfruit Jungle? In the introduction to Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, you say that for you writing “was a gift.” Was that what the experience of writing Rubyfruit Jungle was like? Was it a gift?
RITA MAE BROWN: It was fun. I loved it. Of course, my background is Greek and Latin, so I’m well trained, let’s put it that way. I have the basic skill; it’s like being an athlete. If you’ve spent ten years perfecting your tennis stroke, you don’t have to think about it.
JW: How did you think the book would be received when you first published it?
RMB: Well, it was published by a tiny little press and they printed a thousand paperback copies. So I didn’t really think there would be much response. But it sold 70,000 copies by word of mouth in a year. Without one ad! And there were no reviews. There was nothing. But this is what happens when you tell the truth.
JW: I think it struck a very deep chord with so many people. For example, I’m really struck by the fact that the protagonist, Molly Bolt, is so uncomfortable in her home. She’s rejected by her stepmother. And, as you know, family rejection is such a huge issue. It’s really a life and death issue for so many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids.
RMB: Well, I’m a person for whom it is not an issue. And I always feel bad for those who, in a sense, cede their authority to others, let others make major decisions about their life and actually believe them. When you’re tiny, you have no choice. But as soon as your mind starts working, you pretty well figure it out. And you realize you’re a hostage until you’re old enough to leave. But as long as you have that goal—I will get out of here—you’ll be OK. But if you believe them, you’ll be damaged badly.
JW: Why do so many people care about who other people are attracted to or who other people have sex with?
RMB: Because they’re bored. And they’re hoping somebody else is having a more exciting life than they are. And then they can sit in judgment of it. So they get the illicit excitement without having to pay the bill.
JW: Rubyfruit Jungle is obviously a landmark work of literature. How do you think about it yourself after all of these years?
RMB: I hope that it still makes people laugh, that it takes them away from their troubles. I hope it makes them think, too. I mean, I’m not a person who worries too much about what I’ve done. I’m glad because it helped me write the second book, and the third, and the fourth. And now I’m into, like, my 56th book. I mean, how lucky can you get?
JW: So you’re always thinking of the next book and not looking back?
RMB: I love English literature. You bet I’m thinking of the next book.
JW: How do you feel about the Lambda Pioneer Award?
RMB: Obviously, I’m excited. And I can’t wait to see Gloria; Gloria Steinem is going to give me the award. We’ve known one another for years. I might write her a letter once or twice a year, but I haven’t seen her in about ten years, and I can’t wait to see her.
JW: What are your thoughts on where we are right now in terms of the struggle for gay and lesbian rights and equality, and also on transgender rights and equality? There’s been so much progress on same-sex marriage, but on so many other issues we’re still a long way off.
RMB: I think it takes three generations to make significant social change. And we’re really only at the beginning of the second generation. So all of those issues are for the people who are younger than I am. Those are their issues. And God knows what will pop up after three generations. But by that time, it should fairly well be resolved that people will be married and that being transgender will not be a big deal. But we will always be a minority. And you have to accept that.
JW: There are always going to be people who don’t view us as equal. But you do think we’re going to get to where we need to be?
RMB: I do. But there are people that won’t understand. They may not be intentionally cruel. They just don’t understand. Here’s something that troubles me: I’ve worked all my life. I think I have been more than, shall I say, a comrade to my gay brothers. But where are they on rape? So, we have a lot of work to do. You know what Benjamin Franklin said: “If we don’t hang together, we surely will hang separately.”