Rita Mae Brown is a lot of things: a gay-rights activist, an Emmy nominee (for penning the 1982 variety show I Love Liberty) and the writer of the landmark lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle. But there are two things she relishes more than anything else: She’s a farmer and an avid animal lover. Escaping Hollywood for a Virginia farm complete with foxhounds, horses, dogs, cats and other creatures big and small, Brown took a break from co-authoring murder mysteries with her cat, Sneaky Pie, to share stories of her childhood spent with animals, including Mickey, the cat who accompanied her as a youth, in her latest memoir, Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small.
Brown took a break between chores on her farm to discuss Animal Magnetism, what she’s learned from animals and why it’s important for writers to get beat up in life.
Advocate.com: What inspired you to return to nonfiction after 12 years and pen another memoir?
Rita Mae Brown: My editor, Judy Sternlight, had come visit the farm and met one of my hounds -- an older fella named Chaser -- and just fell in love with him. She said, “Why don’t you write about the animals in your life?” She’s smarter than I am, so I figured that I better do it. [Laughs]
Who are the three "creatures" you describe in the book that taught you unconditional love?
It was Mickey (Brown’s childhood cat), Suzie Q (a horse) and Chaps (a retriever). With humans, everything is quid pro quo, even your parents really in a way. With animals they just accept you as you are; they aren’t trying to make you into something else; they aren’t trying to get you to subscribe to belief systems that may not correspond to reality; they just live in nature and are happy for you to do so as well. They don’t care if you’re pretty, they don’t care if you’re rich; they don’t care if you’re male or female; they don’t care about anything. If you’re good to them, they’re good to you and sometimes they’re good to you even if you aren’t good to them.
How have animals influenced you personally and professionally?
Personally I think they’ve taught me how the systems that humans build always rely on the subjugation of many for the benefit of the few. It doesn’t matter if they say they’re egalitarian as in communism, it’s still the subjugation of many for the benefit of the few. Animals don’t do that; even when they live in herds. Herds, pack animals like horses and dogs -- and we are -- we are a pack animal. We create hierarchies that are often very damaging. For whatever reason, (animals) are much better able to accept the world as it is instead of constantly trying to pervert it for their own ends. I mean, what is technology but a perversion? I mean, it’s a wonderful perversion; I love central heating (laughs) but we’re beginning to forget how the world really works. That’s the most important thing they taught me. And the other most important thing is to think for myself; don’t accept received wisdom, learn it. I was a classics major but don’t necessarily accept it; question everything. And I don’t mean that in a combative way. Question quietly, think through and then go your own way.
How has observing animals on your farm helped you gain insight into yourself and others?
Well it always shows me I’m a step behind. As Mama would say, I’m a day late and a dollar short. They’re ahead of me, particularly foxes; they can process information so much faster than I can. Their senses are better than mine; they get the information long before I do. The other thing it teaches me is to just be quiet, which is my natural state anyway. I mean, people see me and they think that I’m a naturally chatty person. I’m actually not. When I’m out in public I have to be. But on my own I’m pretty quiet, I don’t say much because I’m trying to process everything around me.
Why do lesbians as a group tend to be such animal lovers?
Because we’re often isolated. Nobody rewards you for being gay. You may be tolerated, you may even be accepted today in perhaps most big cities and out in the country. Actually, I find the country to be much more open-minded in many ways although cities think they are. But everybody would prefer if you weren’t (gay). It’s just an easier life if you’re not in many ways except it’s not easier emotionally or spiritually because you’re violating yourself. Animals don’t care.
How has each stage in your career -- working in Hollywood, the feminist and gay rights movements, to now working as a farmer influenced your life as a writer?
I’ve come full circle because I started on a farm. That’s all I really wanted to do. I think what influences any writer is the years. A musician can be brilliant young; a writer rarely. You might have a breakthrough novel in your 20s, in which case, thank you Jesus, but the really good work comes when you’re older. It may not be the commercially viable work but it’s the good work. You have to live; you have to get beat up by life.
Do you feel like you’ve been beat up?
Yeah! But I gave as good as I got. It’s my nature. I’ve been knocked around. I was the only lesbian in America and I don’t recommend it. The funny thing is I really don’t care; I don’t care who does what to whom and I personally don’t care all that much one way or the other. My fight was the Constitution applies to all of us, not just some of us, and that means gay people. I don’t know why this was such an incredibly revolutionary idea; all you have to do is sit down and read the Constitution. They’re for everybody.
Do you have any plans to return to writing lesbian fiction?
never know. I mean the books just appear like babies; you don’t know
what you’re going to grow into. It’s funny, there are some writers that
will tell you endlessly how brilliant they are and how they’ve got this
and that and they intended that and this character is supposed to
represent that. Not me. I haven’t a clue.
How much of a role/influence did Sneaky Pie have when it comes to Animal Magnetism?
Not a thing, the lazy ass! She’s happy to work on her books, but she’s not going to help me with mine! [Laughs]
What's next for you?
are books that I want to write that are what I would call stand-alone
books and I’ll get to them as I can. But the next book I’m going to do
for what I would call the fall books, it’s going to be in Reno and it’s
going to be about the fight for water rights in Nevada, which is a
fascinating environment and one that people don’t see to be much
interested in. The fight for water rights has never ended, really. It’s
been going on since the late 1800s. So I’ve just got really interested
in it because everyone talks about global warming but there’s only so
much water under the ground and there’s now a lot of people