ALTHOUGH HER official photograph is tigerish, in person Rita Mae Brown is more house catlike-smaller than you pictured, and not ferocious at all. Quite the opposite-quite, in fact, the picture of a poet and a classics major. "I leaned heavy on Aristophanes, my senior thanks was "Evolving Metaphor in The Bird. " It figures. If you have read Rubyfruit Jungle and/or her new mood, Six of One, you here been struck no doubt by certain similarities to Aristophanes Political points made through the use of ribald humor, and an emphasis on the poor (or had polled, as old A. would say)as the fountain of homely, practical wisdom. And a funny approach to sex.
Six of One deals in the mata with the continuing eternal relationships between women: mothers and daughters, sisters, best friends, lovers. Women created of strength and simplicity, strength and complexity, strength and intelligence with just a few happy weaknesses thrown in for laughs. The Julia Ellen in her book ("Juts") is absolutely modeled on Julia Allen Brown, Rita Mae's mother. ("I just talked to the Big Juts yesterday; she's preparing for stardom.") In Juts' sister Louise, she drew a less flattering than is true portrait of her mother's sister Mary, but even so, "the two of them are just giggling and having such a good time with this book." And, as for Cora, the grandmother, who could neither read nor write, but who possessed all the wisdom and joy of living the world could bestow, yes, Rita Mae's grandmother was like that. "As a child, I had no knowledge of what a gift I had been given. It wasn't until I grew older that I realized that many people weren't like that; they grew old, but they didn't necessarily grow wise. But she did. God, she was a glory.
"The first 11 years of my life I lived almost on the Mason-Dixon line, and then we went down to Florida. It was wonderful drawing from both cultures. Dad was Amish, actually a Dunkard - it's the agrarian mentality, slightly more modern. They drive cars but they paint them black. Mother was southern, from Maryland, so I had both cultures inside the house as well as outside."
At the moment Rita Mae is living out of her suitcase; she owns a little house in Los Angeles, because she's writing screenplays when she's not on the promotion trail for Six of One. Her ambition for the present is to make enough money to settle in Charlottesville, Virginia, "which is where I want to be." There, she promised me, she'd take up her Greek again. "You just look at that blue ridge and those undulating green hills and the earth is so rich that it nourishes me. And that university is wonderful; it's a very civilised little place."
She is working on another novel. She intends to write part two of Six of One, but that's not her next project. What she's into now is the story of two families in Montgomery, Alabama, both working for the Louisville-Nashville railroad line. "I loooove trains," she drawis, "so this is my chance to get the trains in there. But I don't know how long it will take me to do the research. WIth Six of One, it took me $10,000 and a year just to do the research. With this, I have to learn everything about the railroads, from 1898 to today. But that's all right; it makes me happy."
We now enter into some small disagreement about her novel; I press her to admit that, in the time frame of Six of One, women could not have been as free, as educated, as liberated as she has depicted them. She disagree. "I grew up with these two almost mythical figures around me, my mother and my aunt, who didn't give a rat's a - what anybody thought. They'd say anything to anybody, and they, did as they damn well pleased. We were so poor, who cares what poor people do? Literature is predominantly written by middle-class people for middle-class people and their lives were real different. As a girl, I never saw a woman knuckle under to a man, or a man to a woman, for that matter. Although once I did see my mother go after my father with a frying pan. The people closest to me were all very dominating characters. The men weren't weak, but somehow the woman . . . they were the ones you paid attention to.
"But those of us who were the under-class who have gained new educational skills [WORD ILLEGIBLE] women will tell vastly different stories. I feel that my responsibility is very similar to the responsibility of an Aristophanes or a Euripedes or even old [WORD ILLEGIBLE], in that I have a responsibility to the community, even though that community is so gigantic that I don't have face-to-face recognition with most of the people in it. It seems incumbent on me and I believe on every other artist to write books and plays that, if they do show the bad part of society, they do it in a way that's constructive instead of cheaply glamorizing it.
"I think American literature is approaching its golden age. I think that after we're dead people are going to look back and be amand at the number of writers working now and the quality of the work they're producing. A lot of that quality is in nonfiction because that's being promoted more heavily than fiction. They make more money, too. I just rotated onto the Literature Panel of the National Endownment for the Arts, and the people who have been there have said that in the last three years the volume and quality of the manuscripts coming in has tripled - exploded. Maybe it hasn't reached into the general culture yet, but it's sure going to.
"In the South, we lost a war a hundred years ago, and I think we produced more writers than the rest of the nation.Now the U.S. has lost a war in Vietnam, we've lost face, our economy is s-, we don't have that old ebullience we used to have and we look at the world differently. There is a more mature vision emerging - not perhaps from all the population - but even in Periclean Athens you would have the lows and the highs in terms of intellect.
"To me it's an amazing time, and I feel that my job is to reveal us to ourselves. Perhaps I will do that more gently than say Maya Angelou, whom I adore. Now that's somebody I really pay attention to. But it's still my task and I will go about it in the only way I can. I suppose underneath is still that Protestant belief that we can improve, that there is such a thing as progress, and that it's our duty to try."
We shake hands, and she writes an inscription in my copy of Six of One, in dustily remembered Attic Greek. We get hung up a moment over whether an alpha should be an eta, and I'm three blocks away from where I left her when I realize that we've failed to decline the word, and that it appears as a masculine, singular nominative when it really ought to be dative case, and feminine plural. Now there's nice Athenian irony for you, Rita Mae.