Rita Mae Brown says trust yourself first

Rita Mae Brown's latest novel "Cakewalk," set for release Oct. 18, continues the narrative of Runnymede, a fictional small town filled with colorful characters first introduced nearly 40 years ago in "Six of One."

Perhaps none captivate as much as the spirited Hunsenmeir sisters, Wheezie and Juts, based on Brown's mother and her sister.

"Whenever my mother and her sister are around, they do tend to dominate in a way," Brown said.

And that's an interesting thing about women's oppression, said Brown, who has fought for women her entire life as feminist and activist.

"There have always been women who did what they wanted," she said. "Within the compass of their lives, they were pretty much free beings, and I think a lot of women were like that."

Speaking from her longtime home in Afton, Va., Brown, 71, may as well have described herself: a free being. Fearless, frank and funny as ever.

The pioneering author visits Williamsburg on Oct. 1, attending both the Williamsburg Book Festival as headlining author and the College of William and Mary's "An Evening with Rita Mae Brown," her first time speaking at the college.

With more than 50 books to her name, Brown has written all her life. She still has no idea what drew her to the profession, but she never questioned the desire.

"All I ever wanted to do in my life, really, was hunt hounds and write," Brown said. "And I've been fortunate enough to do both."

Brown spends her days in Afton surrounded by her horses, fox hounds, basset hounds and several other animals—including the feline co-author of her Mrs. Murphy Mysteries, Sneaky Pie Brown.

"Rubyfruit Jungle" (1973), Brown's first novel, would become her most well known, a groundbreaking book in its depiction of lesbianism.

But when Brown set out to write it, she really only had one thing in mind.

"I just wanted to have a good time. Everybody was so serious, you know, in all the movements," she said. "It was all just misery and anger."

Are people oppressed? Yes, Brown said, and you fight it.

"But if that's all you do, what kind of life do you have?"

Brown holds several degrees, including a Ph.D. in literature and doctorate in political science. But because of her outspoken views on gay rights, women's rights and race, at the time, Brown said no university wanted to hire her.

"I was alone," she said. "I always make a joke: I was the only lesbian in America, and I don't recommend it."

Much like her passion for writing, though, she never questioned her activism.

"I never had a moment's doubt that this was not an important thing for an American to fight for," she said. "Does the Constitution belong to some of us, or does it belong to all of us?"

Brown reads history frequently. Reading and studying the great thinkers and writers, doing "the homework" as she called it, has formed the foundation of Brown's writing.

But perhaps the most integral part of her process is listening. Brown can't begin a book until she hears the characters.

"I have to hear their voices, the same way I hear my hounds' voices in the hunt field," she said.

It's unpredictable in that Brown never knows when she'll hear the voices, loud and clear, but the process has yet to fail her.

"Trust yourself," she said. "Trust yourself first, and everything comes from that."

Brown will continue trusting.

And you can bet she'll continue writing, endlessly inspired by the English language.

"Because it's so complex. It can be extremely beautiful. It can be harsh. It is a majestic language," Brown said. "It has the largest vocabulary in the world and, in a sense, it's conquered the world."

And Brown will continue doing her part to change the world, one word at a time.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Williamsburg Book Festival

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Oct. 1

Where: Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary St.

An Evening with Rita Mae Brown

When: 5:30-6:30 p.m., Oct. 1

Where: Andrews Hall, William and Mary

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