For more than 30 years, New York Times best-selling author Rita Mae Brown has captivated readers with tales of sabotage, murder and mystery. After her first book of poetry, The Hand That Cradles The Rock, was published in 1971, Brown began writing novels and hasn’t stopped since.
Brown has lived her life as a political activist, devoted to the civil rights, anti-war, gay liberation and feminist movements. She was present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a defining event at the beginning of the gay rights movement. And in 1973 she earned critical acclaim with Rubyfruit Jungle, her groundbreaking novel with lesbian themes.
But Brown is also an avid foxhunter, serving as Master of Foxhounds of the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt in Afton, Va. She also started the Blue Ridge Polo Club, the first women-only club in America. Brown frequently mixes her love of hunting with her passion for writing. She recently released A Nose For Justice, the debut novel of the “Sister” Jane foxhunting mystery series, and her memoir, Animal Magnetism, in which she shares the life lessons she’s learned from animals.
Name: Rita Mae Brown
Home Base: Tea-Time Farm, Afton, Va.
If you weren’t a writer and a horsewoman, what would you do?
I’d farm. But a profession that you can make money in, I’d probably belong to that despised species called an investment banker. I do think it’s fascinating to watch money move around the world.
Real life or fiction, which is more interesting?
Real life. Because if I wrote in my fictional books what people really do, nobody would believe it.
What is your biggest self-indulgence?
Coca-Cola. I can drink up to eight a day. I try to keep to three. I was given it in my baby bottle, so I have an excuse!
What three things are most likely to be found in your refrigerator at all times?
Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola. I am not a foody remotely.
What sound is music to your ears?
The hounds in full cry.
What was the last book you read?
The Ghost of Cannae by Robert L. O’Connell.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the world today?
Overpopulation and the concurrent destruction of resources.
What word or phrase do you overuse?
“Better to mistake a sinner for a saint than a saint for a sinner.”
What drew you to foxhunting?
I did it in my mother’s womb. I cannot go out there and not see the majesty of this world and be grateful for whoever created it. And become impassioned about preserving it.
What’s your favorite hunting memory?
About 30 years ago, it was a very early, early cubbing morning. It was one of those brisk mornings, where the frost is sparkling, and the sun isn’t up yet, but there’s just enough light that you can see the world is silver. We’d gotten on a hill with undulating hills below us. Soon enough, out pops a big red fox in a cornfield. The stalks were swaying, and just as he came out, the sun came out and all the ground fog turned scarlet. It was like looking over a lake of fire. As the sun rose, they changed from scarlet to pink to salmon, to just this pale gold and then the fog evaporated. And the hounds in full cry. It was just one of those moments. Foxhunting is filled with moments like that.
What characteristic do you value most in a horse?
Mentally, I like stability. Physically, smooth gaits.
In a hound?
Drive. Which thank God I have in my pack of American Foxhounds. They will try and try and try. They would hunt through hell.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
How did you get started rescuing animals?
It started with my mother, and I’m just trying to carry on. If I find a creature that no one wants, I usually wind up with it. I work for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. They’ve all become great citizens. Dogs just wind up on my door. I think people drop them there! In Nelson County, Va., I’m also involved with Almost Home, a no kill shelter started by Bette Graham. If you can, go to the SPCA and take home an animal. If you can’t, donate $10 or $20.
As someone who is politically progressive, how do you reconcile that with your deep interest in a traditionally conservative sport?
I operate on the premise that ritual is a cohesive force in human life. People used to follow the church calendar, and those ceremonies were important. Public holidays used to be important. It seems to have pretty much gone by the wayside. But the ritual is one of the things I most love about foxhunting. When I’m out there, it’s an unbroken line of centuries. It’s a powerful emotional experience.
As an advocate of animal welfare, do you think foxhunting is contradictory?
No, because we don’t kill the fox. Ninety percent of our population lives in cities or suburbs, and they simply do not understand country life or wild animals. They think anything where you pursue an animal is wrong. In England, they kill. Their agricultural practices are different, and their land masses are different. Foxes have so many more ways of making fools of us in America. I like hunting a creature that’s smarter than I am.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I love architecture. Living in Virginia is heaven if you’re interested in architecture. Much of our original architecture wasn’t destroyed to make way for non-descript buildings in the South. I’m trying to learn about opera, but I’m slow. I’m trying.
Describe your first horse.
Her name was Suzy Q. She was this big Percheron that I was allowed to ride. That was the horse that taught me everything. She was kind and forgiving. My legs didn’t reach down her sides, and I didn’t have a saddle. She just took care of everything. I was like 6 or 7. I hung in there, and over the years, my legs got longer. She was wonderful and smooth.
Jack Russells, yes or no?
I better say yes, I’ve got one on my foot!
What one item from your wardrobe best personifies you?
My formal hunt coat.
Describe yourself in three words.
Creative, determined, forgiving.
Whom do you most admire?
Living: Lynn Lloyd, MFH Red Rock Hounds. Fictional: Hannibal.
Do you have a favorite book?
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. She’s a French author. It’s ravishing.
Which do you enjoy more—serial novels with animals or the works that made you famous in the first place, like Rubyfruit Jungle?
I always enjoy the novel I’m working on. I don’t look back. I enjoy my standalone novels because they’re the hardest. Genre has a format, and you don’t have to invent that. With others, you have to come up with a structure that you think is appropriate to the story.
What drew you to the mystery genre?
The Writers Guild strike in 1988. I was working in Hollywood at the time. I’d gotten some Emmy nominations for producing work on television shows. I was on a wave. Then the strike came, and there was no work for nine months. I was a classics major, so I was pretty much a literary snob. I had already written some books, but no money was coming in. Someone suggested I try mystery. And I said I would never do genre fiction. Another month passed and no money. I finally saw the wisdom. It forced me to look at writing in a whole different way. It’s like a sonnet. The format is set. If you stay within it, you can say whatever you want. It does save you some brain cells! I like the foxhunting mysteries the best.
Can you elaborate on your experience in Hollywood? How did you earn your Emmy nominations?
I worked for Roger Corman who produced inexpensive movies. He could identify talent. I learned a lot from him. Then I left Hollywood because I’d made enough to come home and buy land and figured I’d never return. Then Norman Lear called. I got some work and started to get called to do movies of the week. There’s a big age prejudice in Hollywood. Once you’re on the other side of 40, you don’t get a lot of calls. I’ve met wonderful people and not-so-wonderful people too. I loved being on a sound stage when the cameras roll. My first Emmy nomination was for “I Love Liberty.” And then I did a show called “Long Hot Summer.” Then kept doing movies of the week. TV is pitched towards a certain age group just like film. But you’re just entering your prime at 40. It’s funny I can do novels too. Many screen writers can’t. They have difficulty with narratives. They’re used to the actress correcting their flaws. We all have them. I’m not saying I don’t have them!
I found the horse people in Hollywood. We always find each other. Some of whom are very good riders. William Shatner is a very good rider.
It’s interesting how horse people always find each other. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are. Either you can ride the horse or you can’t.
Is there any place you would like to live besides Virginia?
I really like Sheridan, Wyo. and Missoula, Mont. I like the freedom. I like the fact that there aren’t so many people.
Why did you start the Blue Ridge Polo Club?
The men didn’t want to play with us. When anyone begins playing a new game, they’re awful. Polo is the most difficult game I’ve ever played, and I’m a natural athlete. I said, “To hell with you!” and started a women’s polo club. We had big crowds on Friday nights, and some of the women got very good. Then the men would let them start playing with them. Everybody grew up and realized that gender is irrelevant. If I had the time and money, I’d still be doing it. I just like sports is what it comes down to.
How does the thrill of the chase compare to the excitement of the civil rights movement and the Stonewall Riots?
Far beyond it. Better than any political riot I’ve ever been in! Truly. Once people start arguing about ideas and politics, they think they’re smarter than they really are. I include myself in that category. When you’re out in nature, you’re just another animal. It doesn’t matter whether you have a Ph.D like I do.
Can you tell me about your participation in the Stonewall Riots?
I didn’t participate! I was walking past the library at NYU. I was a graduate student at the time. I walked past Sheridan Square. The next thing I knew, there was a Black Maria (police van) in front of this bar. They were shoving young men into the trucks. The next thing I knew, all these men ran out of the bar. It was like somebody dropped a match in a tinder box. I shared their anger. I knew I needed to get out of there. People were picking up Volkswagens and throwing them. It was the rage of decades, exploded in that one night. It sure changed things.
How did you get involved with the women’s rights and gay rights movements?
I got started when I was 18. My mother was 15 when women got the vote. She had marched for it with her mother. She impressed upon me that change only comes if you commit yourself. You have to accept the bad things you will get if you try to change the power structure.
When the National Organization for Women started, I was the youngest member. I didn’t fit in at all. These were white, middle-class women, all very well educated. I was becoming well educated but did not come from that background. They viewed me as sort of a redneck mascot, because of my Southern accent. I was intrigued by the ideas and felt that it was true.
The Constitution doesn’t belong to some of us. It belongs to all of us. My goal has always been: Let’s live up to this document. It‘s very hard for people to do. Irrational prejudice is hard to root out. The one thing I learned is that science is always in the service of politics. All of a sudden, people will call for surveys to prove that women aren’t as intelligent as men or that gay people are subhuman. Study after study, and it’s always justified. I learned early to mistrust science, and it has never left me. Whenever someone does gender studies or race studies, the red warning light goes off in my head. They have nothing to lose but their perceived status. It’s not about monetary status, it’s about status and power.
My analysis is that it takes three generations to make social change and to have it become part of society. And we’re close. I’m glad I wasn’t a coward and that I didn’t hide. If I did nothing else in my life, at least I told the truth.
But I wouldn’t go back to those days for anything. It was dreadful. What I saw was the ugly, petty, irrational side of our country. But I also saw the brave side. You face that kind of ugliness. It’s still there. Like the preacher who is going to the funerals of servicemen. I know some people can’t imagine such behavior, but I can. I’ve seen it; it’s been directed at me. There are always going to be those kinds of people, thanks to the media. Basically they’re media whores. And so are politicians. They make extreme statements to get TV time. They just want the attention. They have no dream, desire or plan of solving our problems. It’s an amazing time to be a citizen. We are not what is Washington. We are better than that, and we better wake up to it. The media is as big a problem as the political loss of will. I’ve lived long enough to know that. I’m not a person that dwells on the negative. I find wonderful things in life. If we want to solve these problems we will.
What passing thought would you like to leave with people?
If you can’t raise consciousness, at least raise hell.