by Len Lear
Long-time Germantown resident Victoria Brownworth is a highly respected Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist whose latest work, “Ordinary Mayhem,” is a just-published (by Bold Strokes Books) horror novel. “Mayhem” tells the story of a female photojournalist who reports on horrific violence in Afghanistan and Congo. It is available online and at major booksellers.
Brownworth also will host a horror writing workshop Saturday, March 28, 6 to 8 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy. Among her many journalistic accomplishments, Brownworth was the first “out” lesbian to have a newspaper column in a daily newspaper and also had the first lesbian radio program in the country, “Amazon Country,” on WXPN-FM.
In 2010, she co-founded Tiny Satchel Press, an independent young adult press with an emphasis on books for LGBT children and children of color. She teaches writing and film and also runs a mentoring group focusing on writing and reading, KITH (Kids in the Hood), for inner city youth. She lives with her partner, painter Maddy Gold, and several cats. Following is an interview we conducted last week with Brownworth:
How old are you?
Where did you grow up and go to high school and college? Degrees?
I grew up in Germantown, attended Cecilian Academy Catholic School for Girls in Mt. Airy and then Girls’ High. My undergrad was at Temple, and my grad was at Tulane (New Orleans) and U of P. Undergrad history/women’s studies. Grad/American history.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I was always a writer, and actually had my first book published when I was a college freshman, but I always wanted to be a doctor and work in the developing world. I began college with that goal, never with the idea of being a writer. But things changed when I was a college senior, and I changed from medical school to liberal arts. After working in the domestic Peace Corps and then as a reporter/editor in New York City, I moved back to Germantown in 1990.
How did the idea for “Ordinary Mayhem” come about?
I had a lot of stories I had covered as a reporter still in my head. I had written a long short story of the same title for an anthology, “Night Shadows,” edited by the award-winning mystery writers Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann. The short story won Honorable Mention for Best Horror in 2012, when I was in the company of Stephen King, which was awesome, and I was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, which is huge. But I always felt the story was unfinished, and my editor, Greg Herren, suggested I expand it to a novel.
Is it based on real people?
It’s based on real life. I think most fiction has elements of autobiography, of course, because we write what we know, or at least the best writers do. The news stories that the character covers, however, are indeed stories I covered as a reporter, just fictionalized to a degree.
Where do you teach writing and film, and since when?
I am currently on a medical leave from teaching, but I have taught at University of the Arts since 1999 and prior to that, taught at Community College and Temple since graduate school.
What non-writing jobs have you had, if any?
I’ve been a journalist since grad school, so except for the usual waitressing and bartending in college and then my years in the domestic Peace Corps, where I also taught writing and did writing, I’ve only been a writer, taught writing and been an editor. Once I decided I wanted to be a writer, I told myself I would never do a job that was not writing or related to writing, and I haven’t.
What would you like to mention about the newspapers and magazines you have written for?
I loved being an investigative reporter. It’s the best job in the world, I think. And had I not been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 30, it’s the only thing I would have done for the rest of my life. But circumstances alter our lives in ways we can’t expect. So I became a columnist and features writer, still doing occasional investigative pieces. I loved working for the Inquirer and Daily News and Baltimore Sun and have loved working for Curve magazine, where I am still a contributing editor and columnist. I also write weekly for the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter and am a contributing editor for LLR, a literary review. I wrote a lot for years for Philadelphia Gay News, and my most recent investigative series that won awards was for them. I wrote a weekly column for the Germantown Courier (now the Independent) for 23 years until 2014. And I do other work for both local and national and even international publications, like several newspapers in the UK and Australia.
Did you always know you were gay?
I don’t actually know if I always knew I was a lesbian, but I was expelled from high school for being one, so I guess the answer is probably yes.
How has that knowledge affected your life?
Well, it hasn’t been easy, living openly as a lesbian as I have my entire adult life. And starting out by being expelled from your public high school for, as my principal at Girls’ High told my father, “Being a bad moral influence on all the other girls” when there were teachers at the school who were lesbians and a significant number of my classmates were lesbians or bisexuals, was rather a dramatic start. Like most “out” lesbians and gay men, I have had problems at jobs and faced a lot of discrimination and actively been told to silence myself. When I began writing young adult fiction, my editor at the time requested that I use a pseudonym so as not to “upset” the parents of my readers who would discover if they Googled me that I was a lesbian. Yet some of the most popular children’s book authors, Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”), were both gay.
I read somewhere that you had at least one horrific experience with sexual violence? Are you willing to discuss this, or would you rather not have that mentioned?
Like an increasing number of our young women, I was raped at college when I was 17 by two men. It was pretty brutal, I did not go to the police or tell my parents. I saw our general practitioner, who took care of me. Then a few years ago I was raped outside my home in a neighbor’s yard by a serial rapist in Lower Germantown who had, I discovered from police, already raped several other women in the immediate vicinity. All the rapes happened in broad daylight — crimes of opportunity — and were very violent. I was beaten quite badly, bitten, choked.
The police were pretty terrible, unfortunately. Philadelphia has a very bad system for victims of sexual assault. I wrote about my experience for Huffington Post, where I am also a columnist. We have a lot of work to do in this country to make it safe for women, girls and even male rape victims to report. Philadelphia MUST do better. If I, as a white, 40-something reporter used to dealing with police for my job was so badly treated, what of young women of color who already feel unsafe with police?
More information about Brownworth’s appearance this Saturday at 215-844-1870 or www.bigbluemarblebooks.com.
— To be continued