Interview with Ann Bannon
Author: Katherine V. Forrest
February 1, 2002
I found Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out the year it was published, 1957, in Detroit. I was eighteen years old, isolated in my queerness, filled with self-loathing.
In the pages of that novel, and the four books to follow–I am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, Beebo Brinker–I found a community of my own in a wondrous, mythical place named Greenwich Village. I discovered who some of us were, how some of us lived. I was no longer alone.
I met Ann in 1983, a meeting that remains one of the highlights of my life. Back in 1957 I could not have imagined such a possibility, nor could I have dreamed of the community we have today. For women of my generation these are the good new days, and we know that Ann Bannon helped to save our lives. She is one of our greatest pioneers and heroes.
Naiad Press put Ann’s books back in print in the 1980s, and Cleis Press is reissuing them with specially designed 1950s-style covers, so these books and their portraits of a vital period in our history are available to a new generation.
Today Ann lives in Sacramento. We have become friends–another undreamed of event. Recently retired from her position of Associate Dean at Sacramento State College (a Ph.D., she was a professor of Linguistics there for many years–a discipline reflected in the wonderful precision of her spoken words), she is not, as some of you might imagine, a tottery old lady leaning on her cane. She is attractive and vibrantly intelligent and looks a fraction of her age. We spoke at her Sacremento home.
KVF: Many lesbian writers like myself have had inspirational role models like you as beacons. When you wrote the Beebo Brinker series, was there any lesbian writer to inspire you?
AB: I had inspirational role models, too–although when I was just starting to write, I didn’t know who they were or where to look. Oddly enough, much credit has to go to the publishers of paperbacks, who discovered the potential in mass-market, pocket-sized books to reach a huge readership. Their self-interested marketing gave me my first introduction to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt, and Vin Packer’s Spring Fire. There they were, the first few lesbian pulps, waiting to be plucked like apples from the kiosks at the drugstore.
Like so many women I grabbed handfuls of them, stifled my embarrassment at the cash register, and dashed home and devoured them. But perhaps like relatively few, I thought: “I can do this, too. I can write these stories.” Tereska Torres’ Women’s Barracks showed me a writer who didn’t just write about women in uniform. She made me realize what they might have been doing with each other in their off hours, and took my breath away. There was relatively little other information available to me when I sat down to write. Perhaps if I’d known how much I didn’t know, I’d have been paralyzed. But I took heart from these other women who had shown the guts and spirit to embrace the idea of women attracted to one another, and to write movingly of it for publication. I wanted to be one of them, to speak to other women, if only in print. And so I made a beginning–and that beginning was the story that became Odd Girl Out.
KVF: During the time you wrote–our Golden Age of the lesbian pulps–were you in contact with some of your contemporaries?
AB: It may have been a Golden Age in some ways, but we who were writing then didn’t know it yet. While it may have been good writing “weather,” for most of us it was hard to connect with other women because of the repressive political climate, because we were isolated in our families, because there was as yet no true lesbian community, because of sheer terror and shame. If only we could have communicated during these years with women like Jane Rule, Patricia Highsmith, Gale Wilhelm, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Valerie Taylor, Isabel Miller, Barbara Grier, Audre Lorde, Joan Nestle, Paula Christian, March Hastings, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. I began to know the names of at least some of them, but the one who reached out a hand to help me get started was Marijane Meaker. I knew her first as Vin Packer, second as Ann Aldrich. She was already successful as a lesbian pulp writer and editor for Gold Medal Books. I wrote to her after reading Spring Fire. After an indecently short introduction, I presumed on our friendship to send her some of my work. She arranged for me to come to New York to meet her editor, Dick Carroll of Gold Medal Books. Dick welcomed me into his office, read my manuscript at once, and issued his now immortal dictum: “This is not a very good book. But there is a good story in it. Go home, cut it in half, and tell the story of the two young women.” He meant Beth and Laura. A couple of months later I returned with a better book. He published it without changing a single word.
Marijane Meaker showed me the Manhattan she knew, especially the marvels of Greenwich Village. For me it was the Emerald City, Wonderland, and Brigadoon combined–a place where gay people could walk the crooked streets hand in hand. It had marvelous smoky bars that were social centers for eager young women and men. In that place it even seemed rational to hope for a better world in the years ahead. Since that time, Marijane Meaker has found a whole new generation of readers in her incarnation as author for young adults, M.E. Kerr, and I have regrettably lost touch with her, but she was a lifeline for me in those early years, and I am forever grateful. Village life and lesbian socialization was invaluable to me, and I made numerous trips to New York while the Beebo Brinker Chronicles were in process.
KVF: To this very day, Beth and Laura are enduringly memorable “series characters” throughout the books. Where did they come from?
AB: Beth and Laura sprang out of my early experiences as a sorority girl at the University of Illinois. Laura–the shy, self-conscious, insecure freshman–was more closely based on one of my actual sorority sisters. She was an intelligent, pretty girl and didn’t date much, although she was obviously making an effort to fit in. I found her gracious and friendly yet restrained, and because she wasn’t as open and forthcoming as most of the others, it was easy to imagine the reasons for her reticence. When I began to write, she was right there for me as a model.
Beth was more complicated. Once again, I looked to the college girls I knew best. As a freshman, I roomed with a beautiful senior girl, the prettiest I had ever seen, socially active and president of several major campus organizations, and at seventeen I was thrilled to be under her wing. She was the girl that every young man on campus had a crush on. She was also the girl that a few young women were infatuated with, one of them quite desperately. She was unfailingly gracious to this younger girl, although I could see that it was awkward and disconcerting for her–she was straight. Physically and in terms of personality, she gave me my Beth. A footnote is needed here: if there’s something of an author in all her characters, there’s a pretty good dollop of this one in Beth. I identified with that “big sister,” and remained good friends with “Beth” throughout her life, till her untimely death of cancer in 2000.
KVF: Beebo Brinker is a great figure in our early literature, a dyke icon. Tell us about her, your concept of her and how she developed.
AB: Beebo Brinker came to life because I personally needed her so much. I scoured the streets and bars and shops of Greenwich Village for a Beebo. But she was never really there, not as I pictured her. Going back to my college days, I was looking for someone physically very like yet another sorority friend, a striking young woman, tall and lovely, with streaky-blond hair, a husky voice, and a boyish nickname she hated–sort of an improbable blend of Ingrid Bergman and Johnny Weissmuller. Now and then I would run into her in one of the big communal bathrooms, both of us in underwear, and experience a sort of electric shock. She never said a word, but I think my wary admiration flustered her. Life in those sorority houses and women’s dorms provided the occasional hothouse atmosphere that could knock the breath out of you. Be that as it may, she was not the daredevil young dyke I needed for my stories–then just fantasies in my head.
But when I first started writing, it wasn’t Beebo’s story I told, it was Beth and Laura’s. College life, I knew. Life as a dyke in New York’s Greenwich Village, I didn’t, though I urgently wanted to. I just wasn’t ready to face up to Beebo, who didn’t even have a name at that point to bring her completely to life in my mind. But the more I saw and learned about lesbians and gay life, the more I wrote, the more it began to seem possible to create a swashbuckling young butch who could literally grab the world by the tail and swing it over her head. So, while my college friend gave me a partial physical model, she wasn’t the personality I needed. It wasn’t till I was trying to come to grips with the story that became I Am A Woman that I really began to search for a way to flesh out my fantasy. And when the name “Beebo” came to me from the mists of a memory of a childhood friendship, suddenly Beebo sprang full-blown from my brow. And of course, once Beebo was down on paper, she yanked her own life out of my hands and steered her own course. I just hung on for the ride.
KVF: A strong point of the series is your sympathetic and utterly realistic portrait of the gay man, Jack.
AB: I’m glad you liked Jack. I always liked him, too, more than some of the women characters, in fact. I was still in high school when I knew him well, and saw him only briefly once I started college. He was a ringer for my Jack: short, quite plain looking, wonderfully witty and wry, utterly lovable, and not a girlfriend in sight. He would settle into a big easy chair with a footstool, and fire hilarious zingers at us, which none of us was clever enough to top. Somewhere along the line I learned that he was working for the CIA, and the last news I had was in the early 60s, that he had been sent to Saigon. I am sorry to think what might have happened to him there.
Long before the original “Jack” disappeared, I had worked him into most of my books, with all the humor, compassion, and irony that belonged to the original. I’ve always had a great feeling of tenderness for gay men. To this day one of my best friends in the world is a brilliantly accomplished, charming, and good-hearted gay man, one of the treasures in my life. Jack reflects that admiration and affection which started long ago in my life.
KVF: Did publishers of the time change or edit what you turned in?
AB: If anything, they were probably dismayed that my novels were so circumspect. Far from being edited for prurience–or for much else, either–I was pretty much allowed to go my own way.
I remember serving on a literature panel one time in the 80s with Marion Zimmer Bradley, and we old pulp authors got to talking. She said she was often handed a formula, or even a story outline, and if she hoped to get paid she had to stick to it. It was a disastrous way to work and she soon gave it up and went on to magnificent work of her own. But when you’re young, starry-eyed about writing, and eating a lot of catsup with salt, pepper, and crackers, you tend not to be too picky about assignments.
Some paperback publishers with bottom-of-the-barrel standards gave the whole genre a purple reputation. Gold Medal Books were actually pretty good, for the most part. Under noms de plume they published a quite remarkable list of authors, including Gore Vidal (as “Cameron Kay”) and Evan Hunter (as “Curt Cannon”). Many of their books were made into successful films. Dick Carroll tried to sell I Am A Woman for me. I met him and several agents at the Beverly Hills Hotel in the early 60s. But all I got out of it was a quick peek at Sal Mineo and several old-time character actors. My subject matter was still much too controversial to be considered for a mainstream feature. To my knowledge, not a single lesbian novel was sold from Gold Medal Books at that time, much less made into a film.
KVF: Many of your loyal readers want to know: any chance of Ann Bannon rejoining the world of literature?
AB: Yes! Of course I want to rejoin the world of literature. I create slowly, partly because I have had to learn to pace myself after a decade of mysterious exhaustion–better now, but not gone. I can’t sit at the computer for more than a couple of hours at a time. But the ideas are there, the stories roiling around in my head. I’ve targeted 2002 as the year to get started. With a little luck, I may even get a project finished before the year is out. It’s a daunting prospect to realize that people will actually look at anything new I produce. It won’t be like the old days when I could almost sneak a book into publication and remain well hidden behind my anonymity. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to a little trepidation there. But I’m not daunted and do want to get the next story told. After all, Beth and Laura and Beebo are still handsome women, still kicking, as I said in the new introduction to I Am A Woman, due out in early 2002. I left them back there on the road a few decades ago. It’s about time to come around again and see what they’ve been up to in the meantime.
KVF: From this distance of four decades or so, how do you view your books and our books now?
AB: Back then we did not always recognize much less resist the biases of the times. It was hard to feel good about being a criminal just because you loved somebody. We tried to walk a fine line, hoping, I suppose, that we could thereby preserve some pretension to moral rectitude.
As for changes in the world, the most valuable surely is that we need no longer be an island entire unto ourselves. No young gay person is thrown in jail anymore for just the suspicion of homosexual activity. They expect to live good lives–not problem-free, but certainly with the possibility of making their voices heard, and opening the necessary doors to career and personal success.
Looking back from a distance of over four decades, and speaking of my fellow authors, I see the lesbian pulp paperbacks as acts of individual valor. That some of them managed also to be well-crafted stories, movingly written, a few of them actual works of art, is something of a miracle, given the repressive atmosphere when they were produced. If a messenger from the next century had popped in on women writers then and told them, “Go for it, girls. This is the Golden Age of the Lesbian Pulps!”, we would have been stunned, one and all. And yet, it was. We did achieve something. We built a bridge to isolated, frightened women and told them they were not alone. When we got their long personal letters asking for reassurance and help, we wrote back to them, to share what we knew. And we told the tales that moved our own hearts. We were exploring a corner of the human spirit that few others were writing about, or ever had. And we were doing it in a time and place where our needs and hopes were frankly illegal. And so I take heart: if we got it wrong sometimes, we got it right a lot, too.