The Boston Phoenix
November 1999


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Sister in crime

Katherine V. Forrest talks about dyke detectives, the closet, and Curious Wine

by Devra First

Police detective Kate Delafield is interviewing Peri Layton, a hotshot female paleoanthropologist whose father's body has just been found at the La Brea Tar Pits. Not terribly romantic circumstances, but nonetheless, the two are making eyes at each other. The officer shouldn't be flirting -- her girlfriend is waiting for her at home -- but she can't help herself; the paleoanthropologist is awfully attractive.

A lesbian detective? You betcha. Cross Miss Marple with k.d. lang, Sherlock Holmes with Candace Gingrich, and you've got Kate Delafield: ex-Marine, homicide detective for the LAPD, queer-as-the-day-is-long heroine of seven mystery novels and counting. In Kate's newest vehicle, Sleeping Bones (Berkley Prime Crime), it's up to her to find out who murdered Peri Layton's dad. Could it have been the sexy paleoanthropologist herself? Will anything come of Kate and Peri's attraction to each other? What's the deal with the mysterious fossil that turns up at the tar pits? And will Kate's new partner be homophobic?

The person who determines the answers to these questions is writer Katherine V. Forrest, Kate Delafield's creator. The 60-year-old San Francisco resident has won much critical acclaim for her mystery novels over the years, both from the queer press and from mainstream literary publications. She has won two Lambda Book Awards for Kate Delafield books, one for 1989's The Beverly Malibu and another for 1991's Murder by Tradition. But Forrest is perhaps best known for her romance novel Curious Wine, first published by Naiad Press in 1983.

Ask a lesbian who came out before then what the first lesbian novel she ever read was, and she'll probably tell you -- with a look of wry disdain -- that it was The Well of Loneliness. But ask the same question of someone in her late teens or early 20s, and if she smiles, looks dreamy, or gets an "I'm now remembering my first love" look on her face, chances are that her answer will be Curious Wine. The antidote to the unhappy tale of Radclyffe Hall's "invert" Stephen Gordon, Curious Wine presents the story of Lane Christianson, a lawyer, and Diana Holland, a personnel assistant, who meet at a cabin at Lake Tahoe. Irresistibly drawn to each other, Lane and Diana fall in love, and -- after some, but not too much, turmoil and confusion -- live together happily ever after.

"There's nothing I love more when I'm making appearances around the country than meeting some young woman who tells me that Curious Wine was the first lesbian novel she ever read, because The Well of Loneliness was the first one I ever read," says Forrest. "I'm just really glad there's a very different world out there, and that I've been a part in helping to change things somewhat."

Her fans are glad, too. Guen Gifford, 27, came out at the age of 12, just one year after Curious Wine was published. Although it wasn't the first lesbian novel she ever read, it was one of the most significant. "I read several mostly mediocre and unsatisfying dyke romances in high school," she says, "but didn't find Curious Wine until I was 21. For me, it's the most beautiful. I've read some other good ones, but it's the one that most moves me. It's the one that fills me with the beauty and wonder of women loving women."

Although some might consider romance novels frivolous, Curious Wine broke through many misconceptions about lesbians and lesbian relationships. Lane and Diana are both attractive professionals in their mid 30s who have had plenty of heterosexual experience. They're hardly corruptible naives, or women too ugly to get men. "I just attacked as many stereotypes as I could in that book," Forrest says. "I consider it a very political book, even though nobody else sees it but me. I basically wrote the book that I wanted to read, because prior to Curious Wine there was just nothing I could find that conveyed the passion and the rightness of our relationships, and how beautiful women are

This veiled politics is just as much a part of the Kate Delafield series. When she started working on it, concerned about accuracy, Forrest tried to find a gay or lesbian member of the LAPD who would take a look at her manuscript. No one was willing to talk to her. So she began writing about the homophobia entrenched in the police department, about what life was like for gay and lesbian officers in and out of the closet. "The whole issue of the closet," she says, "is one I think all gay and lesbian writers should be writing about. It's still the great unfinished business of our community. It's a big issue in my work."

Indeed, Kate Delafield herself has only one foot out of the closet, and she pulls it back in whenever anyone is looking. "Kate is a woman with great personal integrity who has a lot of character, but she does not see her one great flaw, which is that she is in the closet," says Forrest. "She doesn't see that it's isolated her professionally, she doesn't see that it's very much starting to impact her relationship with the woman she loves, who is out of the closet. The truth of the matter, and one of the things that I try to show in the series, is that the closet kills. It kills us spiritually, and it kills us emotionally, and sometimes it kills us physically."

Since Forrest began writing the Kate Delafield series in 1984, enough people have followed in her footsteps to make lesbian mystery a genre in its own right. There's Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano series, Claire McNab's Carol Ashton series, Mary Wings's Emma Victor series, Ellen Hart's Jane Lawless series -- even Martina Navratilova has written a mystery series, with co-author Liz Nickles, about tennis star/sleuth Jordan Myles.

Why do so many lesbian authors write mystery novels? "I can't speak for my sisters in crime," Forrest says, "but it's a wonderful method for me to address some of the issues that really matter to us as a community. You can do it without preaching to readers; readers hate being preached to, this one included. You can have some of these really serious issues like gay bashing and child abuse and the closet, and have them be absolutely intrinsic to the plot." And then there's the hottie, er, the role-model factor: "You have a strong female character as your central figure, and I think that lesbians -- and all women -- are very hungry for those images in our fiction, because they're still not all that common. In these books, a very strong lesbian figure actually goes out and is proactive and makes a difference."

Forrest is modest about her role in the development of the lesbian-mystery genre. "They say life is all luck and timing," she says, "and I think I've been very lucky and I've had really wonderful timing to come of age as a writer just as our community went on this incredible rocket ride of visibility, and just as our literature started to take off in so many wonderful different directions."

But writer Melissa Hartman gives her a lot more credit than that. Forrest -- who worked as an editor at Naiad for 10 years -- edited Hartman's first book, The Sure Thing, and also helped out on her new book, Talk Show, recently published by New Victoria. "The fact that mystery, particularly the lesbian serial detective mystery, is the lesbian fiction genre that is published today is due in large part, if not wholly, to Katherine and her creation, Kate Delafield," Hartman says. "I think that Katherine has set the industry standard as far as the genre goes. Her writing is as much a model for writers today as it was in the early '80s, when she was one of the few `out' there, doing scary, brave things that have allowed people like me an opportunity to write that otherwise would have been denied."

The Lambda Literary Foundation agrees: it gave Forrest its Pioneer Award earlier this year. "I don't feel like a pioneer," says Forrest, chuckling, "but nevertheless I felt like I couldn't exactly hand it back and say, `Could you wait a few more years, please?' "

In 1996, Forrest switched publishers, from Naiad to Berkley Prime Crime, a division of Penguin Putnam. Forrest feels that the work she's been applauded for by the gay community has not been compromised by this move. "Nobody [at Berkley Prime Crime] has ever asked me to change any lesbian content, and the word `lesbian' is plastered all over my books," she says. "They have pink triangles on them. I think that there's an assumption out there that you're going to somehow tone down or pare back your books at a mainstream press, and I can tell you that I haven't done that. I've not been asked to, and frankly I wouldn't do it if I were."

Says Gilda Bruckman, co-owner of New Words bookstore in Cambridge, "Katherine Forrest has gone from being published by one of the oldest women's presses to being published by one of the largest mainstream presses. She's maintained her following in the lesbian community and, I imagine, expanded it. People always come in and ask for her books."

The expanded audience is a nice fringe benefit, but that wasn't what prompted Forrest to switch publishers. "I wasn't trying to reach a mainstream audience," she explains. "I was hoping for wider review coverage so that more lesbians would know about me and would find my books."

Nonetheless, if film director Tim Hunter has his way, a mainstream audience soon will be learning about Forrest's work. Hunter has optioned the Kate Delafield book Murder at the Nightwood Bar, and, after many false starts, it looks as if the movie might finally get made. "If and when this does get to the screen," says Forrest, who envisions someone like Sigourney Weaver playing Kate, "I think we should make Tim an honorary lesbian for the sheer determination he's shown. I've given up many times, and he never has."

In the meantime, Forrest says, she's got a few more Kate Delafield novels up her sleeve -- maybe three or four -- and she's currently at work on a sequel to her second book, Daughters of a Coral Dawn, which is a work of science fiction. "Not very many people in this world really get to do what they love. To have had the opportunity to build a career and build a body of work -- I've just been extraordinarily fortunate," she says. "What also keeps me writing is being a member of this community. There's a lot that we still need to do, and I feel like I'm one of the people recording our history. I'm glad to be there. I'm proud to be there. I'm gonna keep on being there."

Devra First can be reached at dfirst[a]phx.com.

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