“That book is a disgrace, and should not be read by children,” the sour elementary school librarian said when she and a young me were looking at a poster of all the books that were awarded the Newbery Medal. That evening when my mother and I went to the Racine Public Library, of course I immediately checked out From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (and loved it). Growing up, any book that I was discouraged from reading possessed great allure. I sought out The Chocolate War and Catcher in the Rye.
In junior high, controversial or sexy books were passed around like illegal contraband. In the 8th grade, a lesbian friend was excited after reading Rita Mae Brown’s bestseller Rubyfruit Jungle.
Books written by gay authors were of particular interest. As soon as I could get my mitts on Rubyfruit Jungle, I gobbled up the story of gay Molly Bolt, growing up and moving from Coffee Hill, PA. to New York City, dreaming of a better life. I’ll never forget the scene in which a man pays Molly to throw grapefruits at his naked body.
Rita Mae went on to write books of great variety, non-fiction and fiction, poetry and writing guides. Years later, I lived in New York and had the privilege of working editorially on her bestselling mysteries. I also had the distinct pleasure of becoming friends with this 2015 winner of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award. A total hoot, she never fails to make me laugh.
A queer question: Are gay authors gay writers?
Rubyfruit Jungle has become a classic, and was repackaged two years ago upon its 40th anniversary. The book has sold many millions of copies. A longtime political activist, Rita Mae has definite opinions and bristles at being deemed a “lesbian writer.” She’s not even queer; she’s polyamorous, apparently interested in everyone (but they must have good manners and like animals). I spoke with Rita Mae, and asked her if there was such a thing as a gay writer.
Rita Mae: “No. There are individuals that have written about characters who are gay. It is limiting to be called a gay or lesbian writer because you are not addressing the rest of the human race.”
I didn’t quite give up: “You are a classics scholar. When the Greek philosopher Socrates was in the company of beautiful males, he lost his senses. Surely that influenced his writings. Was he a gay writer?”
Rita Mae: “They didn’t even have words for heterosexual or homosexual. It probably made him happy and excited, and his wife was a bit of a shrew. I’m for him.”
Dana: “At the time of its publication, how was Rubyfruit Jungle received?”
Rita Mae: “It did not come out in hardcover so it wasn’t reviewed. It did not exist. It never had an advertisement. In a couple of months, it sold 70,000 copies by word of mouth.”
Dana: “Who banned the book?”
Rita Mae: “It was on the Catholic banned list so it was banned in Boston, and in other Catholic countries. It may still be banned in Ireland and Brazil.”
Dana: “How did you feel when it was banned?”
Rita Mae: “I didn’t care. The approach is so outdated so I don’t know how anyone can take it seriously.”
Dana: “Any advice for aspiring authors—gay or not—who want to write about gay-or-not subjects?”
Rita Mae: “You can’t truly write until you understand your tool: the English language. English is significantly different from other languages. It’s Latin and Anglo-Saxon, like fire and ice, an incredible inheritance.”
Rita Mae Brown’s latest “Sister Jane mystery,” Crazy like a Fox, hit bookstores on Halloween.