Interview: April 2, 2004
April 2, 2004
In this interview with Bookreporter.com reviewer Bethanne Kelly Patrick, Rita Mae Brown talks about the themes, setting and characters in her latest Mrs. Murphy Mystery, WHISKER OF EVIL. She also speaks lovingly of her feline companion (and co-author) Sneaky Pie Brown and expresses her passion for animal welfare.
BRC: You co-wrote WHISKER OF EVIL, a Mrs. Murphy Mystery, with Sneaky Pie Brown, your feline companion. You have said that this series began because you had no intention of writing mysteries, but Sneaky Pie wanted to. How has the collaboration evolved? What has Sneaky Pie taught you about writing --- specifically dialogue?
RMB: The collaboration evolved because The Writers' Guild struck for nine long months in 1988. The money from Hollywood dried up but the bills flowed regularly. Sneaky Pie informed me that we should work together. She wanted to do mysteries but I was horrified, considering genre fiction the suburbs of literature. I have come to repent my original evaluation because both Sneaky Pie and the mystery structure have taught me a great deal about driving forward plot. Those lessons now carry over into my own novels.
The collaboration hasn't evolved. I just do what Sneaky Pie tells me.
What she has taught me about writing is that everything is easier for cats, seeing as how they are smarter than humans. Should you doubt this, I ask you: Have you found someone to put a roof over your head, allow you to commandeer the best seat in the house, feed you on time and tell you ad nauseum how beautiful and wonderful you are?
Regarding dialogue, Sneaky can't teach me a thing. You may interpret this response as my recognition that I have a great gift for idiosyncratic speech or that I am too arrogant to learn.
BRC: Mary Minor Haristeen, or "Harry," is your protagonist and an amateur sleuth. In this book, she's at a turning point, in more ways than one. Anything you can tell us about her future direction(s)?
RMB: Harry's future direction forces her to resolve her financial crisis, which is allied to her emotional crisis over her ex-husband, Fair Haristeen. She's finally forgiven him, but can she forgive herself? Then, too, does she really want to be married again? There's a lot to be said for a woman remaining single.
BRC: WHISKER OF EVIL involves a lot of information about the world of thoroughbreds, which is fascinating. How, when and why did you first start learning about thoroughbreds? What, if anything, did you need to learn for this book?
RMB: I grew up with horses, Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds and Percherons for farm work. My mother, Julia Ellen Buckingham Brown, adored racing --- whether flat, harness or steeplechasing --- so I spent a lot of time at the tracks as a child. In those days no one thought the prospect of seeing adults gamble would harm our young minds. Today, children are prevented from the backstretch, the gaming windows, etc., but are found strong enough to withstand the daily onslaught of violence and crudity supplied by television and film.
Obviously, hanging around with Mom at the tracks did not emotionally bruise me. She knew a good horse, having a keen eye for conformation, and she spent some time on pedigrees. To her credit, she won more than she lost.
I didn't have to do any research for the horse part of the novel except to say that I still study pedigrees; I make it a habit to go to sales at Keeneland or Saratoga if I can get away. I visit Lexington, Kentucky, usually two or three times a year just so I can see the horses in the back pastures as well as observe the stallions. I've been helped tremendously by Joan Hamilton of Kalarama Farm (Saddlebreds) and also the proprietor of Rose Haven Farm. Joan and Mrs. Paula Cline (Rose Haven) have been known to run a Thoroughbred or two.
For the record, I breed Thoroughbreds and TB/Quarter horses crosses, which we then raise and train for foxhunting. Not many people do that anymore because it takes so much time to make a reliable hunting horse. People can't make any money on it. I break even, which I consider a great victory. Last year I even nudged into the black a little bit.
BRC: In this book, you describe the Southern tradition as one that seeks to draw people together, to create community. Certainly the interaction of your characters supports that --- they're constantly bringing each other baskets of food and tempting each other with libations, both alcoholic and non. How do you keep track of how your series characters have grown, changed, etc., especially in their dealings with each other?
RMB: That's an interesting question because I don't keep track of the characters. I don't really think about them, they're just there in the manner that my friends are there. I'm not an author who manipulates characters to serve the plot. For me, character is plot even in a mystery.
BRC: Some of your characters (Miranda, for example) are able to quote appropriate Scripture verses at will. You are a Christian, but you also have strong views about the church and how others read the Bible. Could you comment on why it's so important for these characters to bring in Scripture. Is it part of their culture or done for your plot purposes?
RMB: In the South, regardless of whether we're high church or not, we're raised with the King James Version of the Bible. This is the English language at its richest; it's the language of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlow. Plus, we had to memorize a lot, which was good mental training, and it's amazing how that stays with you, not just what you memorized, i.e. The Twenty-third Psalm, but the music of the language. The biggest scalawag can quote a little bit of Scripture in this part of the world. Some of them even wind up on television, ah yes, the electronic church. You've heard of the Church of Christ Scientist. Good old Mary Baker Eddy. Hey, we've got the Church of Christ Television. So it goes.
BRC: Although most of your books have been set in the South and are steeped in its mores and manners, at one point in this book you have a character allude to some of the South's problems (i.e., the bad old ways of the bad old days). Please talk about what Southern ways mean to you, and what, if anything, you reject about them.
RMB: Even if I wanted to reject the Southern ways, how could I? It comes in with your mother's milk. Racism has been hung about our necks but that's awfully convenient. My definition of being black is of fighting on both sides of The Civil War and still losing. Racism is a national problem. For instance, whenever I'm in San Francisco, I'm brought up short by what the attitudes of some are concerning Asian Americans. You go to the Southwest and Mexicans come in for a fair share of nastiness. Head up to upstate New York and you hear jokes about French Canadians or Newfoundland residents or immigrants.
For whatever reason, humans desperately need to look down on other humans based on irrational criteria. Were the criteria rational, they'd have to face competition from the "out" group.
Sneaky Pie has no time for any of this. Humans are beneath the salt and that's the end of it.
BRC: In the South, as you point out, appearances matter. Could you talk about this in terms of the mystery --- both as a Southern woman who has chosen to write about things beneath the surface, and as a novelist whose characters often need to delve deep in order to save themselves?
RMB: How you dress, how you address, are forms of respect. The South is an honor culture and this is something people from other parts (except the true West) don't get and probably never will. The outward forms reflect the inner organization. After a while, those good manners become a kind of ethics. I wouldn't change it for the world. In fact, I think all Southerners should take a solemn vow when they turn eighteen: Go forth now and civilize Yankees.
BRC: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? If not, why not --- what does being a Southern writer mean, if anything?
RMB: I don't identify myself by my work. That's what I do. It's not what I am. But for those who read my books it seems natural they'd want some kind of label so they can find the novels in the bookstore. They can call me anything they want but they'd better be careful about how they address (that word again) Sneaky Pie. "Her Highness" will do nicely.
BRC: Polo plays a large role in your own life; will you have any Mrs. Murphy books revolve around polo? If not, why not?
RMB: Polo is an addiction if ever there was one. I haven't played in three years because my ponies got so old I retired them and I haven't scratched up enough money to buy another string. Also, my polo seat (forgive the term) has improved so I need a much quicker, faster pony than before, which of course means more money.
You may ask, well, if you make foxhunters why not polo ponies? I want to make the best foxhunters out there. That's where the time and energy goes. I don't want to make okay polo ponies. I want to buy polo ponies from someone who takes their training as seriously as I take bringing along foxhunters. Robert Lyn Kee Chow still brings them along correctly as do some others. But again, thanks to a tax structure that favors service industries, corporations and punishes agriculture, most people in the horse business have to turn over the horses quickly. You get a lot of bad horses that way and a lot of breakdowns. I can't fault people for needing to make a living. I can only fault them if they don't tell the truth about the horse. But what I do fault is the fact that the city now holds the country hostage and I fear this far more than I fear terrorism because, in the long run, the ignorance of the city dweller will destroy everything I love.
BRC: We know you have a cat (Sneaky Pie) and a Corgi (Tucker), but where did you learn so much about the other animals, domestic and wild, in this book --- whom do you call on for research?
RMB: My first memory of life is Mickey, a long-haired tabby in my crib. We were inseparable until I was seven and he passed away of old age. My grandfather kept foxhounds in his house (not unusual for his time, he was a WWI vet, learning hunting in the 1980s) and I played on the floor with them and slept with them when I visited him.
In fact, I can't live without animals, most especially cats, horses, hounds and regular dogs. I even love my chickens and I had them as a child.
I can't say that I research them. I just know them, and in many ways I feel closer to them than humans.
I do however research medical advancements, i.e. retinal atrophy in certain breeds. The hardest thing for me when I'm on tour is not the lack of sleep (you're lucky if you get four hours because of travel time to and from airports plus the search and delay once there) or even the lack of food because few things bore me more than having to sit down and eat anyway. What drags me down and makes me blue is that I'm apart from my American foxhounds, my cats, my horses and all the rescue dogs currently sprawled on the sofa. If there aren't animals in heaven, I'm not going.
BRC: In all of these books you introduce the world of Charlottesville, Crozet and their environs. You grew up there, moved back, lived through the 80s celebrity "invasion" and have stayed long past that as both a local and a national celebrity yourself. What is the best thing about the area? The worst?
RMB: The best thing about central Virginia is the people. They're funny, eccentric, even, always ready for a good time and deeply compassionate. Don't listen to what they say. Watch what they do.
Also, it's so beautiful here no matter the season that every day is a prayer of thanks.
The worst thing is the influx of new people who love the beauty, think we're charming and then bitch and moan if your hound crosses their five acres upon which sits a $750,000 mansion. You have to realize no true Southerner can understand why someone would put all that money in a house instead of buying more land. The other thing is the comeheres want everything new, new, new. Even their Georgian revivals are new. The idea of a Chinese carpet that's from 1870 and has some threadbare areas is anathema to them.
I can pretty much get along with anyone but if you're coming to the South, and especially Virginia, you'd better get used to hounds crossing your land.
BRC: You're obviously passionate about animal rights, and that includes animal understanding, if you will. What one thing do you wish people understood about animals that they don't?
RMB: I'm passionate about animal welfare, not animal rights. Animal rights calls up the spectre of groups like PETA who engage in violence against others and smear campaigns against those who don't agree with them. These people do animals more harm than good.
As to animal welfare I believe every house pet should be neutered. I am opposed to puppy mills and the pet stores who sell those unfortunate specimens. I believe in No-kill animal shelters, the exception being made for a dangerous animal or one terminally ill. I believe the penalties for animal abuse should equal those for human abuse and here's why: very often those who torture and kill begin with animals. Let's identify them early and hit them hard.
What I wish that people understood about animals that many don't is that all the higher vertebrates are quite sophisticated structurally, mentally and emotionally. The balance and gifts vary with the species but since the dawn of patriarchy (about 10,000 years ago) the intelligence and emotive gifts of animals have been downgraded or outright denied. This is what humans do when they seek to enslave or kill. One has only to read and see how the Al Qaeda fanatics have cast us as The Great Satan to see this full blown.
Depending on the species and the individual, I believe that many animals have a greater and deeper capacity to love than we do.
We left Eden, they didn't.
BRC: You've long been known as a lesbian, an activist, an activist writer, and by oh so many other labels. However, many of your novels, such as this one, has a balanced view of life. Have you mellowed? Or do you simply feel you're calling it as you see it?
RMB: Not only have I not mellowed, I have more fire than when I was young. The trick is, I better know how to direct it.
Pretty much I call it as I see it, but I am a Virginian, so I might call a spade a delving instrument in the interest of preserving harmony and a more productive conversation.
BRC: What's next in the Mrs. Murphy series? Are there other book projects that you are working on?
RMB: Sneaky Pie says she never divulges her ideas. I should also tell you that, as I write this, she has just dragged in a large field mouse so there's no living with her.