Mystery writer steeped in classics

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2012 - 6:53 PM

The author (with her cat) of the Mrs. Murphy mysteries has a deep love for animals -- and good dictionaries.

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Author Rita Mae Brown

Photo: Mary Motley Kalergis,

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Born into a horse-loving family in Pennsylvania (her mother used to gamble on the races in order to make ends meet), classically trained and deeply educated (she reads Latin and Greek and holds a Ph.D. in political science), Rita Mae Brown might be known to you for her Mrs. Murphy mysteries, co-written (she says) with her cat, Sneaky Pie (at right).

Or maybe you know her for her blockbuster first novel, "Rubyfruit Jungle," which was both critically acclaimed and sensational for its frank lesbianism. Or perhaps you know her for her poetry, her civil rights work, her work rescuing hundreds of cats, dogs, foxes and horses.

The 20th Mrs. Murphy mystery, "The Big Cat Nap," has just been published, and Brown will be at the Galaxie Library in Apple Valley on April 10 as part of the Club Book reading series through the Metropolitan Library Services Agency. We caught up with her via fax machine (she doesn't do e-mail). Study the classics, she advised; invest in a good dictionary. And read to your dogs.

Q Describe your writing room.

A The writing room is the size of four good horse stalls (12 by 12 feet). High ceiling, hunter green walls, the ceiling is Benjamin Moore linen white. It's actually a library, and the fireplace and bookshelves are mahogany with chaste detail. I prefer classic proportions.

I look at a marvelous painting by the late Heather St. Clair Davis, of a gentleman in a top hat, black frock coat on a gray thoroughbred coming off a green bank, sort of a drop jump over a thin stream. The sky is blue with clouds of white and light gray, a touch of melon in the upper right-hand corner. I love this painting.

Every time I look at this dashing man, crop in left hand, reins in the right with just the right amount of loop, I think, "If he can do it, I can do it."

Q What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?

A Put my butt in the chair and get it done. No rituals unless I have to check a word in "The Oxford English Dictionary." These 13 volumes are the only dictionaries that truly matter. If all you can afford is Webster's, go for it. But once you make any money at all, if you are a writer, this should be your first purchase. It's an investment in your career.

Q How do you get past writer's block?

A I have never had writer's block. I suspect it's a way to get attention. I love to write. Usually, I can't wait.

Q Do you have a favorite book from childhood?

A "Bulfinch's Mythology" and "The Wind in the Willows."

Q What books do you re-read?

A The above. The 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes and "Memoirs of Hadrian," by Marguerite Yourcenar.

Q What's on your desk?

A Two huge piles of breeding notes for Thoroughbreds and the American foxhound and the crossbred foxhound. I study and keep studying and I will never know enough.

Q Where are you right now? Describe what you see.

A I'm in my workroom and see the Heather St. Clair Davis painting. On my bookshelf to the left is a photo of Mother holding up money she won at a steeplechase race, a photo of the late Jean Beegle waving to me, a photo of Melvin Poe, a photo of Joan Hamilton winning the blue at a Saddlebred horse show, and one of Larry Hodge, also winning. These photos are in front of my classics books, theater books and volumes of the writings of Thomas Jefferson.

To my right are my treasured old hunting books, some of them handwritten chapbooks, others finely bound works printed on high-quality paper. Obviously, publishing and printing have changed. Books rarely are works of art in and of themselves. There's also a photo of my late best friend, Dr. Herbert C. Jones. When times get tough, I look at him smiling and think how lucky I was to have him in my life.

Q What are you reading now?

A "The Winter King" by Thomas Penn, and I am re-reading "The Master of Game," by the Second Duke of York, which he wrote between 1406 and 1413. It's a crib on Count Gaston de Foix's "Livre de Chasse," and I much enjoy it, but it makes me very happy that we now have copyright laws.

Q What's been the best place to do a reading?

A In the barn to the horses, or the kennels to the hounds, because they truly seem to like the sound of my voice and so far none of them has embarked on a career of criticism. Each litter of puppies born is read poetry, so they learn rhythm and my voice. So I have a Catullus litter, a Tennyson litter, and so on. My hounds are better educated than most young people laboring away in our public schools, I suspect.

Q What authors have inspired you?

A Aristophanes, Euripides, Sheridan, all the Restoration playwrights, Shakespeare (but that goes without saying), and, always and ever, Mark Twain, the first American to write in ou own idiom.

I am classically trained but I am not a literary snob. I do think we have cynically abandoned our young via education by dumping Latin, the foundation of our culture, by assuming they are too stupid or unmotivated to drink from the wellsprings of our culture. They will be competing with Europeans who had to knuckle down, with the Japanese and the Chinese, and now with Indians, Brazilians, etc., and I do not think those parents or those educational systems have lightened the load.

This may not be what you will print or want to know, but I ask your readers, "What are we doing to our children?"

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302

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  • Sneaky Pie

  • RITA MAE BROWN

    What: Club Book, reading from her new book, "The Big Cat Nap: The 20th Anniversary Mrs. Murphy Mystery."

    When: 7 p.m. April 10; free.

    Where: Galaxie Library, 14955 Galaxie Av., Apple Valley.

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