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'Rubyfruit' Author Rita Mae Brown in Chicago Dec. 9
by Sarah Toce

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Award-winning author Rita Mae Brown is taking the rails to Chicago to promote her new adventure in the literary world—Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. In a new partnership with Amtrak, Brown, who came out as a lesbian early in her career, will be the railway giant's first writer in residence.

The Virginia resident, who tuned 70 years old Nov. 28, was excited about the concept of traveling and conversing to promote her new book and Amtrak's new promotion with Random House, but had one stipulation. "My publisher wanted me to [start the tour] as soon as the book came out, which was Nov. 4 and I said, 'Oh please, please let me do it in December so I can see all the Christmas lights.'"

Her wish was granted.

"I'll start in Chicago, and then from Chicago I go to Denver and San Francisco. I'll be on [the train] at least three days, and I don't know what will happen because you don't know what the weather will be. I might wind up on a landing or a sidecar somewhere," she joshed.

Brown revealed next what readers could expect from the new addition to her fox-hunting series, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.

"The book starts at a hunt, and after hunts there are what are called 'hunt breakfasts.' Even if it's 4 in the afternoon it's still called a hunt breakfast. So at this particular hunt breakfast, a grave has been harmed by a storm. Part of the covering got cracked and an end went in and dug into the earth and [we find out it's] an equine graveyard—the oldest equine graveyard in America," Brown teases. "It's truthful, that's based on a real graveyard."

What happens next sets the tone for the rest of the mystery.

"So they pull this big piece of slate out and there's an old pocket watch," she said. "They start digging and they find the bones of a dog and of course they find the bones of a person who's been there a long, long time. That's really what kicks off the mystery part, this old, old murder. Who is it? Why is he there? Why is he buried with a dog and a horse underneath him? Well, eventually we find out, but a couple other people have to die in the meantime."

While Brown's cat Sneaky Pie normally maintains credit for much of her matriarch's work, it's all Mama Mae this time.

"She doesn't get any credit for this one. She thinks she invented the world, you know. All cats believe the world started when they came into it," Brown said.

Perhaps it's Brown's proximity to antiquity that most inspired her latest feat.

"I'm surrounded by stories and history, particularly in Virginia. I mean, after all we got here in 1607. It's hard to miss. And almost anybody you meet is a novel, really. People are interesting. We all show one another our social faces. And that's necessary for smooth working of business and of friendships. You can't just always say what you feel. But everybody's got secrets. Everybody's got disappointments. Everybody's got joys. You just start talking to people and if you can finally get through to them, people are really interesting," Brown shared. "One of the saddest things in the world is [that] most people don't really think much of themselves. They don't realize how unique they are, and that's kind of unfortunate."

The celebrated Rubyfruit Jungle scribe was famously linked to tennis star Martina Navratilova for three years. After their very public split, Brown told Time magazine in 2008: "People just make up stuff. What are you going to do? Sue everybody that prints something that's wrong? I mean, I can't imagine that anybody is that interested in anyone else's private life. I can only figure out that they don't have one of their own."

Rubyfruit Jungle, a lesbian coming-of-age autobiographical book, came out in 1973. Did coming out early in her career hurt or help it?

"Well financially, of course, it worked against me and I couldn't get a job. I always tell people I was now a lesbian in America and I don't recommend it. It was a long time ago and it was ugly. And the worst people were other gay people. They wouldn't talk to you because then they would be afraid people would think they were gay," Brown recalled. "So I was all alone, pretty much, but I learned a lot from it and I kept plugging. And so here I am. I don't regret it—I wouldn't want to live through it again, let's put it that way—but I don't regret it."

Even the thought of coming out seems a bit foreign to Brown.

"Well, I think it depends on the career; it depends on what your work is. Why is it necessary to come out? Again, it depends on what your job is. If socializing is an important part of your job then yes you better do it, or you better marry and put a good face on it, however you decide to play that game. But if it's a career—like if you're in banking, people don't need to know what you're doing. So to me everything is a judgment call," Brown said.

"Is [coming out] easier than when I was young? Hell, yes it's a lot easier. Nobody's going to beat you up. I got knocked around. And people aren't going to face that—I got spit on, I mean, it was really horrible in a lot of ways," Brown said. "The good thing is I stood up to it, so there's not much that really rocks my boat."

In her opinion, has Virginia become more accepting in recent years?

"Oh, Virginia was always accepting, but you had to do it the Virginia way. This is the South and in the South you can do anything you want as long as you play your part and you have good manners. So had I married and had an heir and a spare I could've done whatever I wanted as long as I was somewhat discrete. There are ways in which the South is very, very sophisticated and always has been," Brown explained. "It takes three generations to make true social change. We're only really at one and a half. So I won't live to see it, but I've seen a lot."

As a feminist once linked to the National Organization for Women ( NOW ), what did Brown think of Harry Potter star Emma Watson's United Nations address?

"I'm proud of anybody who speaks out for what they believe in. I mean, in a lot of ways I'm proud of people like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin. And people can say, 'How can you say that?' Because they went forward, they used all the work that we did for them and they did it their way. Do I agree with them? Absolutely not. But the fact that they could do what they did meant we were successful," she said. "Do you know when we will know when we're completely successful? When a woman becomes head of a crime family. When we will have reached the top in every possible line of work, including crime."

Brown's upcoming visit to Chicago is an anticipated one.

"It's such an exciting city and such a big city, everything is there—it has a great library, it has great museums and it also has really great theater," Brown said. "And the lake, oh my god! I mean that is really something. For those of us that are not raised by the Great Lakes, it's just overwhelming."

Brown added, "One of my feelings about Chicago is if you can make it in Chicago you can make it anywhere. I mean it's a great city, it has many resources, but it's a tough city. And people have to be pretty tough to come through. But they do, I mean look what that city's given us. So I'm excited."

Regarding her reading at the Chicago Public Library, Brown was frank. "I have no idea who or if anybody's even going to show up, but I hope somebody does. Because, you know, they have other things to do, so if they take the time to see me I get really excited. And if there are any fox hunters, they better show up."

Meet Rita Mae Brown in Chicago Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014 at the Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, at 6 p.m. Find out more here: mae brown/event/54529fba3d26ba7c6700e3c6 .

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