"Pervert" and "moral degenerate" were a few of the printable insults hurled at my youthful head in 1973 when Bantam Books reprinted Rubyfruit Jungle, which had been originally published by Daughters, Inc. a year before that. The first print run was only a 1,000 copies.
Assuming you may not have read the novel, it's a coming-of-age story of a poor white Southern girl who along the way discovers the delights of sleeping with women. Gloria Steinem did me a great favor by saying it was autobiographical. The fact that Daughters, Inc. couldn't fill the demand, along with Gloria's interest, was not lost on Elly Sidel, the bubbling editor who convinced Bantam they should publish me. They still do.
Suddenly I found myself the only lesbian in America. I don't recommend it.
My friends -- and I am blessed with wonderful friends - know I have a whimsical disregard for gender. Rubyfruit Jungle wasn't truly autobiographical. My mother's response to the uproar was, "It's one thing to be born stupid, another to parade it." In other words, why bring it up? Her outlook was that life is theater, you play your part. When the make-up comes off, do what you want and don't get caught. Mother's secrets contained a few flirtations, she was like catnip to men, but her big secret really was gambling at the racetrack. Spending part of my youth on the back stretch taught me to love horses; it also taught me that I didn't want the tension from hiding such a secret.
In that way, Mother was responsible for Rubyfruit Jungle. Given that she had an operatic relationship with her sister, given to endless recitatives, Six of One followed, the first of a trilogy. There's a fourth one still to come if I can shake loose enough time to write it. Now that Mother and Aunt Mimi (Wheezie in the books) are gone, I treasure those novels more than ever. I open one and am home. I was accused of being the dullest in the family so perhaps it was so I could exercise unobtrusive sanity and record their flamboyant disregard of same.
Not until my middle thirties did I consider myself a novelist. My vagrant recollections seemed to rivet people so I kept at it. True, I had taken a lot of Latin and two years of Attic Greek. I was and remain drenched in Western literature but I didn't think this would be my path. I thought I would farm. Of course, after the Rubyfruit Jungle uproar I considered myself lucky to grow tomatoes since so many were thrown at me.
Soon I found myself in the odd position of being too gay for many straight people, yet not gay enough for some gay people. Again, I don't recommend it.
To be clear, I fought for The Constitution of the United States, the greatest political document ever written, and for The Bill of Rights. The Constitution protects every American, one's sexuality is irrelevant. There are no exceptions.
Hollywood called just as I crested thirty. My novels did not and still do not interest them, but my writing ability did. Now I'm considered too old as there is tremendous age bias in that industry. My first experience was writing two films for Roger Corman. I loved it and respected him. However, a woman in her thirties could go into menopause waiting for a script to make the big screen, so I switched to movies-of-the week. Lucky me. I earned two Emmy nominations for writing, and two of the shows I had written were nominated for best in their category.
It's fashionable to decry Hollywood but I learned, and enjoyed the actual process of shooting and met wonderful people. Sure, I met a few who make a compelling case for free abortion on demand but you'll find some of them in any industry.
But I wasn't meant for the West Coast, nor for cities. I feared parking my nether regions on a seat all day. What if my butt grew so big you could show a movie on it? Time to return to farming and hard physical labor.
The Writer's Guild strike of 1988 blasted me back home to Virginia. Television money comes in fast, novel money comes in slow (if it comes at all), but nothing comes in faster than the bills. I did not live high on the hog while in Los Angeles, but I was struggling as the strike lasted near to nine months.
Fate stepped in as she so often does. An old clapboard farmhouse that I'd sold but held the second mortgage on came back to me as the buyer bellied up.
The kitchen was gutted. No tractor, no truck, a sagging sheep pen, but the barn stood firm. One year's worth of weeds choked the place. My boyfriend, Chic Thompson, cleared up the weeds, made the outside presentable so I wouldn't suffer too much shock when I first beheld my old home. Bad as it was (and good as he was) I was blissful. I could farm again.
But I needed money. Since I worship in the cathedral of the English language, I don't find writing a chore. Whenever I read testimonies of other writers who decry how painful the creative process is, how much they suffer for art I really want to say, "Are you crazy? Life is too short to be as miserable as you say you are. Do something you love." I didn't mind going back to the typewriter but what to write? I'm not the type of author to revel in the heights of amorous recrimination which seem to fuel many a novel. I wanted to write Bingo, the second in the Six of One series, but Mother and Aunt Mimi were still recovering from the first one.
If you live with animals you know they are more insightful than we are on many things. My black Great Dane, India Ink, was brilliant and harbored no literary pretensions. Sneaky Pie, the cat, did. She suggested I write mysteries with a thinly disguised feline being the heroine -- disguised as her, I mean. Horrified, I refused. Me, sink into the suburbs of literature, genre fiction? Me, who read Aristophanes in the original Greek, who swoons at the mention of Turgenev's name? Never.
The bills rolled in. I relented and the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series was born. You might ask but I wrote for Hollywood, so what is the difference? So did Faulkner. The public doesn't notice the screenwriter, but my name is on the spine of a book.
Now my name and Miss Pie's name are on the spine. Bless her for yanking me off the path of literary snobbery. And I bless her for her patience.
Then I started a foxhunting series which is so dear to my heart. (American foxhunters chase, we don't kill.) Sneaky Pie is no help because she's not a main character. Never underestimate the ego of a feline. It's in a gaseous state, ever expanding. But the main character of these books, Sister Jane, means a great deal to me. She lost her son when he was 14 and later her husband. Now 71 she lives in a world deep with memory and the light of lost loves but vibrant with natural life: foxes, horses, hounds, owls, otters, etc. As of now, that series is on the shelf. The sales, while good, weren't good enough for what they expect of me. I desperately hope I can somehow get back to Sister Jane because I think it's one of those series that will build slowly. Perhaps I feel this way because so many of you reading this have suffered your own losses and can see in this character the resiliency that comes from accepting the pain.
I have no idea what will come next in my writing life or life in general. I like not knowing, but I know what I want. That doesn't mean it will happen, but I'll give it my best try. I have six stand alone novels connected by theme but not by subject matter that I'd love to write someday. I want to plant alfalfa this spring, continue my small equine breeding program, and hunt with my adored hounds. Those are my dreams and goals.
I don't want to be too good because only the good die young. With luck perhaps I can still stir up a scandal. Mother called scandal cayenne pepper for the brain. I confess, I am failing in that department but the wish is still there.
I usually rise at 5:30 AM but sometimes I will stay up to midnight to savor the last flicker of the old day, breathe in the hope of a new one. I wonder, reader, do you ever do the same?
If so let's hope together and never hope more than we work.