Rita Mae Brown, author of the classic lesbian novel “Rubyfruit Jungle” (1973) and the ongoing Mrs. Murphy mystery series, will receive a Pioneer Award at the Lambda Foundation awards ceremony in New York on June 1. She spoke last week by phone from her home in Afton, Va.
The Pioneer Award recognizes individuals who have broken new ground in the field of gay and lesbian literature. Why do think these prizes are still important?
I really don’t know because I don’t think that way. I love language, I love literature, I love history, and I’m not even remotely interested in being gay. I find that one of those completely useless and confining categories. Those are definitions from our oppressors, if you will. I would use them warily. I would certainly not define myself — ever — in the terms of my oppressor. If you accept these terms, you’re now lumped in a group. Now, you may need to be lumped in a group politically in order to fight that oppression; I understand that, but I don’t accept it. But I do look forward to the ceremony. Somebody I just love and have known for years is going to do the actual presenting of the award — Gloria Steinem — so I’m excited.
You once said that in the 1970s you felt like “the only lesbian in America.”
Yeah, I don’t recommend it.
Politically, there have been huge advances: court rulings on same-sex marriage, the recognition of gays in the military, etc. Are you surprised?
I’m just surprised that they took so long. As to the marriage thing, I don’t think any government has any right to ever say anything about marriage. They don’t belong in your bedroom. It offends me to no end that a government feels that it has the right to comment or make laws on who you marry. It’s none of their damn business.
If you were to write “Rubyfruit Jungle” today, what might be different?
I probably would be more sympathetic to the mother. But I wouldn’t change anything. When you’re young, your view of the world is very narrow. It has to be! You just got into the world.
Molly Bolt’s voice in “Rubyfruit” has always been my favorite aspect of the novel. How close is she to you?
I think Molly in many ways is more concerned with other people — with social life — than I am. I’m pretty much an introvert and stick to myself, and she doesn’t. But I’d have to say we both look at the world with a cockeyed gaze. We see the humor in it. We see how absurd things are.
“Tail Gait,” your latest Mrs. Murphy mystery, was just published. Now, really, how much does your cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, contribute to this series?
As she’s now sitting in my lap, I would have to say a great deal! Actually, I’m fascinated with the way animals look at the world. My first memories in life are animals. We have a great deal to learn: They’re all winners because the animals that couldn’t learn and adjust are extinct. So I’m very suspicious of humans thinking they’re at the top of the food chain. But also, as a writer, if you can get a series going, you can live. I mean really, it’s not about literature. You got to eat. And then you got to find a hole where you can write the books you were born to write.
What are the books that you were born to write?
I think the “Six of One” series: the one about my mother and her sister. I’ve just finished a book, “Cake Walk,” that’s, in a sense, part four of the series, set in a town called Runnymede, which is on the Mason-Dixon line. It’s pretty much right where I was born. It’s really interesting to have one foot in the North and one foot in the South.
Burns’s short story collection, “The Missing Woman,” will be published in June. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton.