KATHERINE V. FORREST has written 16 books and edited many others. This is notable by any measure, but it’s even more impressive when you consider that her first book, Curious Wine, was published when she was 44 years old. That 1983 novel — a book that proved that a lesbian love story could be a bestseller — has sold over 300,000 copies. Forrest has written across a number of genres, including romance and science fiction — but she is best known for her nine-book mystery series featuring LAPD homicide detective Kate Delafield. Detective Delafield — an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran — is tough, smart, and ethical. She was also the first-ever lesbian police detective in fiction.
Collectively, the Kate Delafield novels present a social history of Los Angeles, with chapters on the downtown business world, old Hollywood, the Rampart police scandal, and other episodes. They also capture, seemingly in real time, changing views on LGBT Americans — from the early 1980s, when Delafield was still afraid of being outed, to now, when same-sex marriage has been legalized in 37 states.
Born in Canada, Katherine V. Forrest has lived in California for many years: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Palm Springs. In addition to writing, she worked for a decade as an editor at Naiad Press, and has also taught writing. Forrest has been widely recognized for her writing and activism, and was the recipient of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award.
NINA REVOYR: The central character of your mystery series, Kate Delafield, is an LAPD detective. What made you create a protagonist who works inside of law enforcement, rather than a private eye who functions outside the system?
KATHERINE V. FORREST: The first book, Amateur City, began as a mystery featuring an amateur sleuth, Ellen O’Neill, who begins her first day of work in a Wilshire Boulevard high rise and becomes witness to murder. In the course of writing the book, when I realized I needed police detectives on the scene, I began to think about the fact that women had finally won the court cases that allowed us to move from restricted work in jails and with juveniles into the higher echelons of police work. And so LAPD Homicide Detective Kate Delafield walked onto the page in February, 1984, unwelcome and resented by her male colleagues, but seized upon by me with great eagerness. Little did I realize that she would become the first lesbian police professional in American literature.
At the time I began the Kate Delafield books, the genre itself was a gift. Kate was a deeply closeted homicide detective in an implacably homophobic LAPD, and Amateur City gave me my first opportunity to address issues of urgent importance to my LGBT community within a storytelling format that could confront injustice in a compelling way. The first priority of any fiction writer is of course to tell a good story, and mystery readers of all stripes came to my books for the quality of my stories, not my or Kate’s sexual identity or our politics. From their letters to me I know many readers learned first-hand about our LGBT lives through the series.
You’ve written many kinds of books, including science fiction and romance. What drew you to writing mysteries — and to staying with them?
Sara Paretsky was a modern pioneer for many mystery writers of my generation. Her private investigator V.I. Warshawski remains the template for proactive women with strong core beliefs, with angry passion and commitment that imposes change on the world around them. Female readers were, and still are, starved for portraits of strong women in print. On film as well — something that Hollywood has at long last figured out, as female action heroes prove they too can light up the box office just as female writers do the bestseller lists.
Your books often address topics from history or current events: the McCarthy-era blacklist of Hollywood actors and writers in The Beverly Malibu, the Vietnam War in Liberty Square, police misconduct in Apparition Alley. How have you chosen your subject matter?
My books invariably begin with a dramatic situation I want to explore.
Murder at the Nightwood Bar (1987) was designed to connect the deeply closeted Kate with her community via the murder of a young lesbian in the parking lot of a lesbian bar. The multi-culti patrons of The Nightwood Bar underscore the uniqueness of our community: the only subculture that includes all races, all creeds, and all colors, as personified by Kate’s love interest, African American Andrea Ross. Kate moves from confrontation with her own community, who view her as one of the enemy, to the emotional final chapter, when she attends her first gay pride parade in West Hollywood. This novel was in development for many years by various film companies [under noted director Tim Hunter], but never quite broke through to production.
The Beverly Malibu (1989) took shape from an idea to have Kate investigate a homicide at an apartment building abutting Beverly Hills with older tenants from the motion picture industry during the 1950s and 1960s. Depicting the McCarthy period became a perfect overlay for the LGBT community because it was ongoing for us: we were being thrown out of our jobs, our churches, our families, the military, and to have our sexual orientation discovered was often catastrophic.
Liberty Square (1996) emerged from Kate’s background in the Marines. She is dragooned to Washington, DC by her well-intended partner to attend a highly fraught 25th-year reunion of the men and women she served with in Vietnam. In my research on women in Vietnam, I learned facts that were infuriating: for example, between 15 and 30 thousand women served in that war. Back then no one could be bothered counting us. Aside from the exceptional TV series China Beach, the national media emphasized the men who suffered the tragedies of that war, even though our “15 to 30 thousand” served in an alien country where the front line was everywhere. The story involves a present day murder, of course, but in writing that novel all I came to care about was doing justice to these women and their stories, what these extraordinary women gave of themselves on behalf of our country.
Apparition Alley (1997) developed from an idea suggested to me by Sergeant Mitchell Grobeson, one of the heroes in our LGBT community, the first police officer in America to file suit — and win — against a police agency — the LAPD — on the basis of sexual orientation. Mitch suggested that Kate defend a fellow officer brought up on a bad shooting charge. To set up the situation, Kate is off the job, wounded during a bad arrest as the novel opens, and her mandated sessions with a police psychologist provide a keener look into this complex woman. The story is intertwined with a hot topic in our community at that time: outing. What would happen if Kate were made privy to a secret list of everyone at the LAPD who was lesbian or gay?
From the start of the series I had made the same decision that Michael Connelly made about his Harry Bosch novels: that they occur in real time, and Kate would not be ageless. So the latest novel, High Desert, takes place five months after Kate has taken mandatory 30-year retirement from LAPD. All of Kate’s demons catch up with her, and it was a difficult book, for Kate and for me. But there will be others.
I remember reading Murder at the Nightwood Bar in the mid-1980s, and feeling a sense of connection and familiarity. It was set so close to where I grew up, and featured characters I could have known. Which writers did you read in your formative years who gave you that same sense of recognition?
Without doubt, Ann Bannon. In the 1950s and 1960s we all lived lives of isolation, of fear and self-hatred. Her five books [Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, and Beebo Brinker] were beacons on a mountainside. They told us who some of us were, how some of us lived. They told us about a mythic place called Greenwich Village. They told us we were not alone. They saved lives — and I should know, because one of those lives was my own. Because they told us about each other, they led us to look for and find each other. They helped lead us to the end of the isolation that divided and conquered us. And once we found each other, once we began to question the judgments of us, our civil rights movement was born.
You’ve continued to write vivid and specific novels set in Los Angeles, even as you’ve lived in other places. Is Los Angeles your muse? If so, why does she have such a hold on you?
Los Angeles is a city of endless resource for me and for many writers. America’s melting pot city is a reflection of and precursor to the mind-bending changes and cultural stresses in our country. It remains America’s most fascinating city, a city of hopes and dreams and possibility, of creativity and transformation. The Delafield books track the city through many of its cataclysms, the O.J. Simpson trial, the riots, and most especially — through the lens of Kate Delafield — the dramatic upheavals and cultural changes in the LAPD.
You worked for years as an editor at Naiad Press, a legendary feminist/lesbian publishing house. Your own books have been published by both small presses and large ones. What is the role of small or specialized publishers — and has it changed over the course of your career?
My 16 books in toto have been published internationally by small and mainstream publishers — a small press to begin with, because mainstream presses rarely considered lesbian work. Welcoming publishers such as Naiad Press had emerged out of that vacuum. My decision to publish Liberty Square in the mainstream in 1996 had a political component. Gay writers were by then very visibly in the mainstream, while lesbians, for the most part, had remained loyal to the sisterhood of small press. But we too needed to make the statement that our books are part of the major literature of our nation. And so I joined some of my lesbian colleagues, and four Delafield mysteries were published mainstream. I’ve since returned to my roots at Bella Books and Spinsters Ink.
Is Kate Delafield an alter ego? What were you able to do, and explore, by staying with the same character over a number of years — even decades?
There probably are elements of me in Kate — writers cannot write from outside ourselves — but she is not an alter ego. There are times when she irks me, seriously irritates me. She makes choices I would never make and wears blinkers about whole aspects of herself. She has the capacity for insight; she simply refuses to look inward until she’s forced to. I deeply admire Kate for her intrinsic courage and integrity and her loyalty to the people she loves. And from the start, she represented the best possible case for being in the closet, an unparalleled opportunity for me to explore the high-pressure, high-visibility life of a lesbian police officer in a paramilitary, homophobic organization in America’s cutting edge city, in nine books over three decades. The Closet is my great passion as a writer, because my own life experience has shown me that our closets destroyed us emotionally, spiritually, physically. Kate, admirable as she is in so many ways, becomes more and more affected by the psychological consequences of her years in the closet and the pressures of her profession. Choices that left her isolated on the job and walled her off from Aimee Grant, the woman she loves. Kate indeed does edge out of the closet over time, the books, as they follow her, mirroring our struggle for equal rights in our country. But for Kate Delafield, the consequences of her life choices, including chances for redemption, remain to be explored in future books.