Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists For Choice. Ann Bannon, in my opinion, is the queen of lesbian pulp fiction. Her books in the Beebo Brinker series served as a roadmap for many lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s. I was introduced to Bannon’s work in a Women’s Studies class at ASU. Bannon’s novels helped me navigate my own coming out process. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I was given the opportunity to interview her.
1. What was your initial inspiration for writing the Beebo Brinker novels?
I began by falling in “fascination” with the first original lesbian pulp novel, Spring Fire, by Vin Packer. It’s a story of two young women who meet in their college sorority house and fall in love—not a terribly original premise these days, but a dangerous and thrilling one then. The consequences of being outed in the 1950s were appalling, and I had been close enough to a similar disaster in my own sorority to empathize with the girls in Packer’s novel. I knew I wanted to write, and it turned out that this little pulp paperback I had found on a newsstand shelf was the creative trigger.
I had no idea who Packer was. But what I did have was admiration for her and a strong need to launch my own writing career. I was a stay-at-home newlywed, so I was lucky to have the chance to write during the day, and I did, compulsively. The result ultimately became my first novel, Odd Girl Out. And the kicker to the story: Vin Packer helped me get it published. She turned out to be Marijane Meaker, a wonderful writer under a variety of pseudonyms, and a lifelong friend.
2. The Sixties were a time of sexual revolution in general. Was it difficult to find a publisher who would accept your novels?
I should have had to struggle to get into print, like most young authors. And I thought I would. But it didn’t happen that way. Strangely — or maybe not, given the times — publishers were desperate for lesbian fiction. It was not the aristocratic hard cover houses that were looking for authors; it was the rough-and-tumble, upstart paperback publishers. They were trying to claim their share of the readers’ market, and it did not escape their notice that two remarkable books, published in the early and mid-50s, were bringing in eye-popping sales. The books were Vin Packer’s Spring Fire, and a reprint of a hard cover novel by Tereska Torres about French women in the WWII resistance called Women’s Barracks. But while these two novels were flying off the shelves, no other young lesbian authors had stepped forward to take the chance of wrecking their lives by approaching this taboo topic.
When I went to New York with my overlong manuscript in hand to meet Packer (Marijane Meaker), she skimmed a few pages and said, “You need to meet my editor.” She introduced us, and the editor, an old movie script writer and producer named Dick Carroll, pounced. He didn’t love my maiden manuscript as it was, but he loved the potential and sent me home to do some serious editing. I followed his instructions — primarily, to shorten the story and focus on the two young women — and when I sent it back to him, he published it without changing a word. So I never went through the baptism of fire most young writers endure trying to find a publisher. I caught a wave I didn’t even realize existed, and rode it all the way into the 1960s.
3. Why do you think that Beebo Brinker had such a broad appeal when the books were initially published?
Beebo was sort of everyone’s dream girl. If you were butch, she was an ideal you could laugh with, drink with, hang out with, and aspire to be. In fact, she taught you how to live as a butch in a big city with a lively gay community, even in those difficult times. If you were femme, she was the romantic swashbuckler of your fantasies — tall, strong, fearless, and knockout handsome. Surprisingly, she wasn’t anyone I had yet had the luck to meet, but I wanted and needed to meet her real-life twin.
Since Beebo wasn’t immediately available, I made her up. I was standing on the roof of a little apartment building on the upper west side, inhabited mostly by Columbia University students. A friend of a friend had offered me a bunk while I worked on a manuscript in New York for a week or so. Inspiration and floods of coffee having failed me, I walked up the stairs to the roof, and stood there looking out at the sparkling flower bed of lights that was Manhattan, wondering if anyone there would ever know my name. Gradually, in my mind’s eye, I saw a stunning woman coming around a corner in Greenwich Village, the gay Mecca of my era. And as I saw her, the name came to me, courtesy of a childhood friend who hadn’t been able to pronounce her given name correctly. She was a Beverly; she re-christened herself Beebo. The name confirmed the character, and suddenly I had her, whole and entire. Good and bad together, she taught a generation of young butch women about the passion, the losses, the intense joys and looming dangers of big city gay life in that period.
4. Your books have become a hallmark of the LGBTQ movement. How does it feel to have such a lineage of authors, such as Elizabeth Kennedy and Martin Duberman, who have followed in your footsteps?
What the writers of the post-World War II period provided to those who followed was a sort of launch pad for serious gay literature. Somebody had to step forward and claim the empty space where the stories of LGBTQ people belonged. There had been some brave, often cautious, efforts made in the 20s, another post-war period, with delicate allusions made to gay and lesbian characters and their lives. Too often these were pitying or apologetic or handled with a pair of linguistic tongs. To be sexually different was a pathology no one would willingly admit to back then, except perhaps cabaret and circus performers. But for many such people, it’s not a concealable condition.
For all their faults and excesses, the gay writing of the decades of the 50s and 60s provided a vitality that had been largely missing in the work of previous generations, a sense of possibilities in life, a defiant grab at happiness. Despite the trash that was published, there was a category of so-called “quality sleaze”: well-written stories told with biting humor, a wide range of newly imagined roles, and most important, with happy endings. You could be LGBTQ without having to forfeit your place in the sun. That — as I fondly hope — is the trend we set in motion. And it’s an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with Elizabeth Kennedy and Martin Duberman.
5. What motivated you to pursue your PhD? And how do you feel the academic writing process compares to writing for a popular audience?
I was a little played out by the 1960s. We had moved to California, I was the mother of two young children, and those two facts, plus a husband who was deeply disquieted by my writing, began to wear on me. The Village and its lively inhabitants had been my natural habitat, and it was 2000 miles away. I did fly back to New York on occasion, but lost my sense of a place there. Further, I had written six novels in five years. Even for the pulps, that’s a hot pace. I needed a breather.
We made several moves for my husband’s work, and in the mid-60s, found ourselves in Sacramento, the state capital. I thought, why not go back to school? Get a teaching credential? See what it’s like? Somehow, I kept going till I had a master’s in English/Linguistics. The momentum I built up propelled me on to Stanford for the Ph.D. in Linguistics, and Sacramento State, where I got the M.A., immediately hired me. I loved teaching, although I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the lesbian pulps in my past. But news leaked out, and I discovered that the New York Times hardback editions were part of the library’s collection. News like that scorches every ear on campus, but people were surprisingly circumspect about it, and luckily, I never suffered negative repercussions.
Academic writing is a whole different breed of cat from creative work. In the context of scholarly work, you are building consciously on the research of predecessors, you must meticulously credit them, and you try to find a new approach, an insight, a nugget of data that will push the boundaries of your field. Although an occasional witty aside can be tolerated, trying to be funny is definitely infra dig. And you are expected to reach a reasoned and defensible conclusion. In the context of the novel, you’re a god. You can make it up, you can fly like a hawk, and you can breathe life into your storybook people. You can turn your inner poet loose and make your language sing. You don’t even have to stay on earth, and you certainly need not supply a logical conclusion, although you should offer a satisfying one. If you’re an astrophysicist, you may play among the stars, but you can’t remake them. In a novel, you are playing among the stars you made yourself.
6. Do you feel that the queer community has reached its ultimate goal now that same-sex marriage has been legalized? Or do you feel that our focus needs to be on a broader target, such as the deconstruction of sex, gender, and sexuality.
No one can look at the joy on Edie Windsor’s face when her lawsuit brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, and fail to see the dazzling progress that has been achieved for all LGBTQ people over the past half century. It was a signal event for the community, the country, and the world. But same-sex marriage is only one of many issues that needed to be addressed. In a sense, it stood in for all the others to which we can now turn our attention. And the rejection of gay people in many religiously and politically conservative communities elsewhere in the world cannot be overestimated. It is rampant and rabid.
The Western World is becoming much more accepting, based on the courage of those who have come out and lived their lives openly. When you realize that someone you know, respect, perhaps even love, is gay, and more than that, that they are in many ways admirable people, your bias begins to fade. You can look at it analytically and begin to revise your views. But that hasn’t happened in most parts of the world, just as few have ever undergone anything like the great Enlightenment of the West. So I think what has been achieved with the triumph of same-sex marriage is the construction of a strong foundation to support the work to come. And that will include full and fair acceptance of those who are differently gendered—not just in the advanced nations, but around the world.
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.