Katherine V. Forrest: A Different Light
Author: Victoria Brownworth
January 7, 2014
Curious Wine had just been published. Forrest’s publisher, Barbara Grier, co-founder of Naiad Press and herself a literary icon, took me aside and said, “Katherine’s going to be one of our most important writers. You should know her and she should know you, since you’re both going to be famous.”
Grier was rarely wrong–as she would have been the first to tell you–and she wasn’t wrong about this, either. Curious Wine was one of those books that shifted the landscape of lesbian literature and opened the door to both a new generation of lesbian fiction and a new style. In Forrest’s fiction, the door didn’t shut on the bedroom as it had in previous novels. In Forrest’s fiction, the door was open to the reader and the women kissed and touched and were thoroughly real. There was no moral quandary of “I can’t do this!” Forrest’s women had crossed that divide and brought us, the lesbian reader, with them.
When I met Forrest for the first time, those of us who had grown up in the shadow of Stonewall still didn’t have a viable literary canon. In high school I had of course read that erstwhile classic of “inversion,” The Well of Loneliness. I also read everything else I could find by Radclyffe Hall or her circle, little of it satisfying. I read all of Gertrude Stein (and lived to tell the tale) and Henry James’ The Bostonians, Violette Leduc’s Therese and Isabelle and the book of Frank Marcus’s play The Killing of Sister George.
I searched the library for anything under “lesbian.” I stole some pulp fiction from a hidden shelf at the home of someone I babysat for; those books by Ann Bannon and my all-time-favorite lesbian novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith writing as Claire Morgan–were passed around from girl to girl at my all-girls high school right up until the day I was expelled for being a lesbian just before my 16th birthday.
When I started college there were a handful of other books. Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah were the most well known, other books by Daughters Inc. and Persephone Press are on a book shelf in my library still, but their titles and authors escape me. Naiad Press reprinted books from the lesbian literary canon of Paris in the 1920s–Renee Vivien, et al.
And then there was Katherine Forrest.
It’s difficult to explain to a generation that had yet to be born when I first met Forrest what it meant to meet a lesbian writer in the era before LGBT visibility. To people who can watch Robin Roberts and Sam Champion in the morning, Ellen Degeneres in the afternoon and Rachel Maddow in the evening, it’s hard to approximate the impact of out people when so few people were out.
We were on our own in those days. No one was making videos about how it gets better and no politicians were courting the gay vote and there was one gay sports person who had come out, Martina, and most people dismissed her as not-American. It had only been a few years between when I’d been thrown out of my high school for being a lesbian (even as many of the teachers were closeted lesbians) and when I met Forrest.
Our lesbian and gay writers were our celebrities, then, and many of the women still demurred about their lesbianism. (Brown, for example, does not identify as lesbian.) Forrest was out there–an open lesbian who looked like a lesbian and wrote about lesbians who were women like the ones I knew or thought I might know.
It was a revelation.
I had already met and interviewed Rita Mae Brown, Mary Daly, Audre Lorde and Charlotte Bunch when I was in college and was host of the nation’s first lesbian radio program, Amazon Country, on the University of Pennsylvania’s station, WXPN-FM. Brown had even stayed in the guest room in the apartment I shared with my college girlfriend.
But Forrest was different. Forrest was a writer in the tradition I had been warned by my mother to stay away from–genre fiction. Forrest had written a romance and she would soon turn to mystery/detective fiction with a side-step into science-fiction.
My mother was rarely wrong when it came to all things intellectual, but she was wrong about genre fiction. I tire of the “unserious” rap it gets from some quarters. I remind my students that Austen and Tolstoy, Proust and Flaubert were romance writers, that Dostoevsky, Poe and Maupassant were crime writers and that Dickens was a paid-by-the-page hack
Don’t talk to me about “genre” fiction.
As Forrest said to me about Curious Wine in an interview I did with her in 1994 for The Advocate, “I think it’s political as hell.” She noted that the novel’s main characters were “two women who had a lot of choices in life, a lot of options, and out of all of those options they chose the hardest one, which was to love each other.”
As Forrest noted then, 20 years ago, her groundbreaking book “broke through many misconceptions about lesbians and lesbian relationships.” The ones that had been codified by The Well of Loneliness where women like Stephen Gordon never got the girl or Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour where Martha, with her illicit feelings for Karen, has to kill herself rather than face her truth.
In Curious Wine the women get each other. Their love comes first. They come first. It was the birth of a new genre, the genre of lesbian acceptance.
Unlike the other lesbian writers I had met prior to Forrest, she was not a political theorist nor essayist. She wasn’t an academic. She was a fiction writer and she was a lesbian and putting those two things together has been her literary raison d’etre. The result has indeed been purely political, yet with the exception of her novel Flashpoint which is about politics, the politics of her novels is subtextual, it doesn’t bludgeon the reader.
In this era of lesbian mysteries where J.M.Redmann’s Mickey Knight and Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless are ever-present and Val McDermid is writing her long, discursive crime novels that pack a whole lot of blood and guts into 500 pages, the importance of Forrest’s key protagonist, Kate Delafield, may have been lost.
So let me remind you: Forrest was the first. Kate Delafield, Forrest’s lesbian police detective featured in nine novels, including her latest, High Desert, was the first such character in fiction.
First, first, first.
Of course Forrest won’t remind you of this. Her Canada nice prevents her from touting her achievements, even though they are myriad. And as she approaches her 75th birthday in April, she doesn’t mention her age, either. But in the 31 years since Curious Wine hit the bookshelves and became the best-selling lesbian novel of our era, Forrest has published 25 books, edited countless more for Naiad, Bella and Spinster’s Ink and has been a driving force in maintaining the Lambda Literary Foundation when it was in its darkest period and nearly disappeared, taking our LGBT literary history with it.
When I spoke to Forrest in her California home the day before her wife of 22 years was about to celebrate her 60th birthday, we talked about the history we had shared since we’d first met three decades ago. Neither of us could remember how many times I’d interviewed her, how much correspondence we’d had over the years, all the places we’d ended up together. She’d even been my editor on more than one occasion.
I’d written the Afterword for the anniversary re-issue of her second novel, An Emergence of Green in 2005 and I remember how struck I was as I re-read the book of how emotional it was–how deep the connection was between the women, yet totally without the desperation that was inherent in so many of the lesbian novels of the 1950s and 60s, where the closet and compulsory heterosexuality put lesbians in such terrible straits
Kate Delafield is in terrible straits in Forrest’s latest novel–her first in eight years–but that’s part of who Delafield is as a character and part of who Forrest is as a writer that she felt the need to go there, take Delafield into retirement and have her drunk and alone with her best friend dying of lung cancer and her detective partner MIA and her former girlfriend seemingly the same.
Getting to the place of High Desert (Bella) took some time for a range of reasons Forrest was eager to explicate. When writers as prolific as Forrest don’t produce for years at a time, questions always arise–where is she and why isn’t she writing?
Forrest explained, “I think a number of people are wondering why it took so long–it’s been eight years–I’m really glad this book has turned out so well and when you’ve been gone so long from your own craft, you wonder, how will it turn out?”
Much of those eight years have been spent, Forrest says, “Completely immersed in Lambda Literary Foundation. It is the most important repository of our history since 1987 and every year the Lambda Literary awards are a statement of our being, of our being here and out andgay.”
Forrest is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. Those of us who have known her for a long while can count the number of times we have heard or seen her angry on the fingers of one hand–and not all the fingers. But when she speaks of LLF, her voice intensifies and her passion for our books–our LGBT history as told through our literature–is palpable. She even says it: “I feel very passionate about our literature, about Lambda, about why Lambda has to continue and why we need it, about where our books are going. Our literature is so new, so very new.”
The time she spent working to put LLF back together again was “time really really well worth it,” she says and asserts that the board is populated with “really really great people now.”
But her involvement with LLF took her further afield from her own writing, it didn’t bring her closer. As she worked to solidify LLF, she became more and more invested in our LGBT literature–especially the lesbian part.
“I went back into editing [for Bella Books and Spinster’s Ink] and I considered that really important.” She explained that being involved with new writers, helping to propel them forward, was elemental for her.
“They are part of the next generation of lesbian writers. The craft of writing. It’s difficult to master it,” she admitted. “Being able to work at the line edit level–that’s both an honor and really important. It’s essential that our lesbian novels be out there and that our lesbian literature continues to flourish. So of course I got absolutely immersed in that.”
But what really kept Forrest from going back to Delafield was rumination on where Delafield needed to go as a character.
“I thought this would be the last of the Kate Delafield novels,” Forrest said. “She just collides in everything.”
When I expressed my shock that the novel opens with Delafield several months into a (forced) retirement, Forrest said simply, because she knows Delafield so well after so many years, “She needed to leave or she would have died.”
Forrest is pleased with High Desert. It does what she wanted it to do, although she doesn’t think it’s the end of Delafield as she though it would be.
“This book is really very hopeful on so very many levels,” she asserts as we discuss the many nuances in the plot. “It brings out the strength of this character. It was enjoyable to bring back some of the characters from the earlier books, too.” Like Maggie Schaefer from the Nightwood Bar.
There is an almost visceral nostalgia in her voice as Forrest tells me, “There was this unconscious reluctance to let go of Kate. We’ve been together for so many years.”
And then she talks about Delafield and who and what she’s been for all that time. All detectives have a flaw that sets them apart from others, makes it difficult to connect. It’s a fundamental aspect of the genre, a layer of the noir.
Delafield’s great flaw, Forrest declares, is the closet. “The closet has been my great passion as a writer. Kate has spent much of her life in the closet. The closet kills. It kills us. The damage it’s done to Kate….”
She doesn’t say it, but we all know the word: Irreparable.
Forrest continues, “It’s what we’ve all been fighting for. All the marriages, all the everything. This past year has been the most remarkable year in our civil rights. But that was brick after brick. It didn’t happen all at once. That was us doing it–you, me, so many of us. We were there.”
Her voice is no longer Canada or transplanted-to-California nice. The passion is incendiary. As we talk about the LGBT history we have both lived through, about what we’ve seen, who we’ve met and known, as we talk about the impact of Barbara Grier and I talk about an article I’ve just finished prior to our interview on the Lesbian Herstory Archives and how amazing Katherine’s contemporary, Joan Nestle, was in putting that together, Forrest reiterates the importance of our literature in getting our stories told.
“I’m proud of our lesbian fiction. Our lesbian sisters’ images of ourselves. It was just this glorious time together.”
Forrest is working on a biography of Grier. She talks about “the sheer force of nature that Barbara was. She so loved the lesbian community–she just had this white-hot passion. And the first time I went to the ABA [now BEA] and to see those gay pride flags over everything.
She practically lassoed people to get them involved in that. And she was just at the center of it all. We needed someone with her dynamism and total confidence that lesbians are wonderful.”
Forrest had a falling out with Grier when she left Naiad to publish in the mainstream. Forrest was Naiad’s big money maker, but as Forrest notes, “I’d given her many books. And It had to be done. Gay men were publishing in the mainstream and lesbians had to also. We had to be published by mainstream publishers–it was a statement that had to be made. I knew that I would get mainstream reviews, which I did. Me, Ellen Hart, Dorothy Allison. We made a statement. Imagine if Bastard Out of Carolina had been published by Firebrand instead? We just had to get that mainstream recognition. It was difficult to make that transition and difficult for the small presses who felt like we had abandoned them, but we all benefitted.” It brought lesbian literature into the limelight.
Now, Forrest says, she’s back with small presses because that is “were my heart is” and because she thinks small presses are doing new and important things for lesbian authors.
As we wind down our conversation–two hours later–Forrest harkens back to those early days again, of the intensity of the excitement.
“Walking into the Different Light bookstore the day after it opened, seeing the work there.” She takes a breath. “Our publishers created the literature but our authors created the lesbian identity in our books. It was a magnificent era to be a part of. I’m proud of everything that we did.”
And what does our lesbian writer emeritus think the future holds for lesbian literature? “I find it enormously exciting,” she asserts. “The new technology has made it more accessible and easy to get. We’re writing about new areas of our lives. We have so much more to write about. The first wave was our coming out stories and now we are writing about so many other things. Ours are the only untold stories–it was true then, it’s true now. We’ve invented our lives. It’s just exciting to me, the books yet to be written.”
She pauses, then says, “I want to read what we did, I want to read where we’re going. I find it all enormously wonderful. Our amazing community. We are so fortunate to have seen it grow and helped to grow it.”