Friday, December 11, 1992

Armistead Maupin Shoots the Moon

''Maybe the Moon'' -- The author of the best-selling ''Tales of the City'' takes a look at the dark side of Hollywood

Armistead Maupin's political correctness is as steadfast as his fashion sense: For a decade, he has worn the same style of handmade peasant shirt, which he owns in four colors. Yet here he is in New York entertaining people by reading a passage from his new novel, Maybe the Moon, in which a hapless dwarf gets her butt sniffed by a dog on Rodeo Drive. The sweet Southern comfort of his voice hypnotizes the crowd of black-clad bohemians, who hoot and chortle over the dwarf's plight. Maupin keeps them laughing until he breaks their hearts.

This is vintage Maupin, who has made his name writing fiction as strange as life itself. His million-selling, six-volume ''Tales of the City'' series enthralled readers from Iowa to the U.K. by detailing the wildly intersecting orbits of a variety of fictional San Franciscans — pot-smoking landladies and lesbian debutantes, naive Midwestern transplants and greedy television priests. Maupin never excludes anyone. And now, with Maybe the Moon, he is refracting Hollywood through the prism of Cadence Roth, an actress who is five inches shorter than a yardstick. The irony of her career is that her brightest and darkest moments came at once: She appeared in the second-biggest movie of all time — hidden in a mechanized rubber suit. Based on Maupin's 12-year friendship with 31-inch-tall Tamara De Treaux, who was sweating inside the E.T. costume when the alien waved goodbye to Elliott, Maybe the Moon not only tweaks Steven Spielberg but also serves as a parable of Hollywood. ''Even though she had made a Hollywood myth, kids were freaked out by Tammy on the street,'' Maupin says of his friend. ''She was only made acceptable by her rubber suit. And the point is, we're all wearing rubber suits.''

Actually, Maupin, 48, shed his costume long ago. In 1967, working as a reporter at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., he was the protégé of ultraconservative Jesse Helms, an executive of the station before his election to the Senate. Next Maupin was a Navy volunteer in Vietnam and in 1971 accepted an award from President Nixon for building housing for disabled South Vietnamese veterans. Everything changed later that year when he moved to San Francisco as an AP reporter and acknowledged what he had known since the age of 13: He is gay.

Soon after, Maupin began mirroring the diversity of life through the ''Tales'' series, which started in 1976 as a daily fiction column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Readers clamored to see their lives reflected in print. They dried out rain-wet papers in the microwave and staked out newsstands in the small hours, eager for the paper's earliest edition. Finally, in 1978, Harper & Row began publishing the series as books. Six novels later, Maupin had become established as an open-minded observer of the literary territory somewhere between Erma Bombeck and Charles Dickens. By the time the ''Tales'' series ended two years ago with the best-seller Sure of You, Maupin had a following as loyal as Trekkies.

Those fans are now flocking to his Maybe the Moon readings. Maupin first took on Hollywood in ''Tales of the City'': Long before his friend Rock Hudson was forced out of the closet by AIDS, Maupin had urged the heartthrob to come out. Hudson refused, and Maupin eventually described the elaborate ruse of Hudson's life in ''Tales,'' disguising him only as ___ ___. Now, with Maybe the Moon, Maupin spares no barb. His book is a deft and often hilarious skewering of a whole breed of power players, especially those who cower in closets. ''It's far more interesting to comment on a general mind-set than on a particular person,'' Maupin says.

Still, he was inspired by one particular life — that of his friend De Treaux, one of three people who took turns inside the E.T. suit. ''Initially, Spielberg didn't want to destroy the illusion of E.T.,'' Maupin says. ''So he forbade any of the little people to talk to the press. And when the tabloids called Tammy and she talked, that was it.'' In 1990 she died at 31 of heart failure, after almost a decade of being ignored by Hollywood.

Maupin saw De Treaux's story as a metaphor for the industry's treatment of gay talent. ''Invisibility is killing us,'' he says during a somber moment. He looks over at his lover of seven years, Terry Anderson, 33, who is HIV-positive. As Maupin's business partner, Anderson has a feistiness that often prompts him to say what the quieter Maupin expresses best in his writing. But as the two sit in their New York hotel room, Maupin flares: ''Hollywood is a hypocritical town. They raise half a million at a gay-and-lesbian fund-raiser for AIDS, and they're all patting each other on the back. But really, wearing a red ribbon to an AIDS benefit is the best way to get laid whether you're gay or straight.'' The men exchange a look, both surprised at which one is venting the vitriol. ''Hey,'' Maupin says, laughing, ''stereo radical. I like it.''

He has earned his bitterness. For a decade, Hollywood courted him for the rights to ''Tales of the City.'' In 1979, he dined with a writer at Warner Bros. who praised his book from the aperitif to the hazelnut torte before mentioning one little change: You know that gay gynecologist? We want to make him a serial killer. ''This was way before Basic Instinct,'' Maupin notes. Then, in the 1980s, he was wooed by CBS executives who also served up compliments but then also suggested a teensy change — excising the gay characters.

Maupin held out for a happier ending. Next spring the British producers of My Beautiful Laundrette will start shooting a ''Tales'' TV series — gay characters and all — with thirtysomething writer Richard Kramer in charge of the teleplays. ''There's no Hollywood money involved,'' Maupin says. ''So at least we know it won't end up looking like Melrose Place.'' So far, the major U.S. networks have passed on it, and a gay executive at a PBS affiliate turned it down as ''too quirky.''

Maupin argues that his work is not quirky; it's representative. That is his subtext as he presses himself through a grueling 22-city book tour, which he recently interrupted by canceling his reading at a Denver bookstore. Colorado's voters had just passed an antigay amendment, and he said he could not ''participate in the commerce of a state that had officially relegated me to subhuman status.''

Elsewhere, his admirers are out thanking him. Early in the tour, a woman told him that her brother had been buried with his beloved copy of Sure of You. In Manhattan, a white-haired man thanked Maupin for finally giving him the courage to come out. And a man no taller than four feet approached, praising Maupin for writing a book about a dwarf. ''But,'' he said, ''if you write about short people again, we gay short people have our own issues.''

''I'll keep that in mind,'' Maupin says. And he will. Anderson calls him a magpie, storing away shiny objects for the stories he has yet to tell. ''Jesse Helms thought I was the hope of the future,'' Maupin is fond of saying. ''And he was right.''

| Published in issue #148 Dec 11, १९९२,,312670,00.html

Tuesday, October 13, 1992

Out on the Edge With the Divine Mr. M

October 13, 1992

David Hockney faxes art to him. The BBC made him the subject of a documentary. Standing in line at a recent book signing was a fan named Jay Leno. Armistead Maupin is riding high.

Then why did he decide for his most recent novel to inhabit the life of a 31-inch woman who once was an elf in a movie?

Maupin has learned to trust fate. The story just came to him. Actually, it rubbed up against his leg while he was cruising on San Francisco Bay. The lead character in ``Maybe the Moon'' (HarperCollins, $22), a little person named Cadence Roth, is based on the late Tamara De Treaux, 31 inches of heart and wit who became Maupin's friend after he ran into her on that bay cruise.

It was her true story that inspired him -- the story of a dwarf whom Steven Spielberg stuffed into a rubber extraterrestrial suit and then scorned because she went on ``Entertainment Tonight'' and ``broke the magic'' about the wizardry behind the movie, ``E.T.''

Says Maupin, ``When Spielberg told her she shouldn't have gone to the press, she told him, `I'm an actress, not a person into rubber.' ''

But Cady Roth, the fictional character who has an affair with a handsome black piano player, owes more to Maupin's imagi nation. It's an imagination less bridled by convention because this is his first novel written without the restrictions placed on his ``Tales of the City'' characters who made their literary debut in The Chronicle in 1975.

Nothing like being in the morning newspaper to restrict a character's sex life.

In one of the new novel's pivotal scenes, the relationship between the female dwarf and the tall black man turns sexual while they are swimming naked in a pool on Catalina Island.

"I was constantly teetering between absurdity and pornography,'' says Maupin, who was afraid reviewers would be shocked.

Maupin himself was more hesitant to write about the black lover than the tiny woman. Like most writers in the Bay Area, he knew the risks of racial cross-dressing. He was afraid he'd be accused of perpetuating the stereotype of the black man as sex object.

"I had fear and told myself that it was PC bull- - - -. That's what made `Tales' lily white.''

Not only has Maupin added more sex, but another break from his six previous novels is the setting.

"Maybe the Moon'' takes place in Hollywood, although Maupin, 48, lives a quiet life in San Francisco with his lover -- that's the word he prefers -- Terry Anderson.

To research the novel, Maupin learned everything he could about little people. He walked on his knees, sat in a car on his knees and negotiated everything from stairs to bathrooms to see things from that vantage point. He read Walter de la Mare's classic ``Memoirs of a Midget.'' He can reel off such esoteric facts as, "There are more retired Munchkins living near Phoenix than any place else.''

Maupin's own works occupy six full bookshelves in his home. Many of them are editions and translations of his books, from a tawdry- looking paperback edition of "Tales of the City'' to a German edition titled, "Geschichten aus Frisco'' and "Neue Geschichten aus Frisco'' -- "More Tales of Frisco.'' But "Maybe the Moon,'' with its new characters, new setting and greater eroticism, is "a great stretching exercise for me.''

"I try to write about things I know,'' says Maupin, who as a homosexual has known a life as closeted as Cadence Roth, the dwarf whose career is trapped in an elfin freak suit.

It's a rare interview that gets this far without mentioning Maupin's sexual orientation. He's been called everything from "the gay Dickens'' to "the gay Woody Allen'' to "Proustian.''

Says Maupin, "Of course I've been called Proustian. That means a fag who writes about a city.''

Now he wants to be both mainstream and gay. "I think it's possible. I've seen it happen with black women writers. An unpleasant thing about modern society is we tend to find cubbyholes for everything that's not straight, white and male.''

As he embarks on a 22-city book tour for "Maybe the Moon,'' he's been criticized for bypassing appearances at some gay book stores he visited on previous tours. "I continue to be just as queer as I possibly can everywhere I go.''


Maupin might be also be called "the gay Josephine Baker.'' His books, which are frequently best- sellers in the United States, are even more wildly successful in England, where"Tales of the City'' is being made into a television series written by "thirtysomething'' head writer Richard Kramer. The series is set to appear on British TV in the fall of 1993.

In England he even outsells such popular British writers as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. But as far as being a bigger hit abroad goes, Maupin deadpans, "I hope I'm not the Jerry Lewis of literature.''

Despite rumors that he's moved to Hollywood or Britain, and the fact that he and Anderson maintain a retreat in New Zealand, Maupin still lives in the city he fell in love with as a young Vietnam vet. He came here after being raised in a traditional Episcopalian home in North Carolina, where the inevitability of becoming a lawyer led to his first rebellion: walking out on his first-year law school exams.

The writing bug bit him in high school when a piece he read on sleep drove his teacher, Miss Peacock, to feign snoozing in class. He became a campus radical in college -- a right-wing radical -- writing a column for the University of North Carolina student newspaper that made him a young Pat Buchanan.

"I came to San Francisco an intact fascist in 1971,'' he says.


Intact but no longer virginal. The seminal event of his life had occurred two years earlier, while a young Navy officer stationed in Charleston, S.C. "I was sitting in a park near a battery where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and a man came up to me . . .''

It would be six more years before Maupin's official coming-out party, in the form of a letter written by one of his characters and published in The Chronicle.

He almost didn't make it to San Francisco. En route, Maupin was called by Bob Haldeman to come to the White House and receive an award from Richard Nixon for work he had done in Vietnam. After shaking hands with Nixon, he continued west by northeast. When he arrived in his adopted city, "I was utterly charmed by the look of the place and the people that went with it. I finally allowed myself to unwind.''

Today, from his "penthouse,'' a fourth-floor walkup in the Mission District, the wonders of the hills, the bay and even the gritty life below are inescapable. Even as he spoke of that life, his car was broken into. They took Terry Anderson's Eddie Bauer jacket, but notes Maupin, "Here's the real insult -- the crook left the audiotapes of my book.''


Armistead Maupin is one of 200 Bay Area authors who will appear at the San Francisco Book Festival from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth Street, San Francisco. Admission is free.

This year's festival will include:

-- The Multicultural Publishers Exchange, a network established by publishers of color.

-- 300 booths by bookstores, publishers and libraries.

-- Celebrity-chef cooking classes.

-- A literary rap contest.

-- Children's creativity corner with storytelling.

-- Readings and signings by authors including Isabel Allende, Pat Cody, Francis Ford Coppola, Diane di Prima, Carl Djerassi, Susan Faludi, Barry Gifford, Adair Lara, Terry McMillan, Gary Snyder and many more.

-- The Booklovers Ball, 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday at the San Francisco Centre, Fifth and Market streets. Tickets for this event are $15 through BASS and at the festival.

For more information on the festival phone: (415) 861-BOOK.



Armistead Maupin will appear at the following Bay Area locations:

--Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, 8 tonight.

--A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Opera Plaza, San Francisco, 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

--Walden Books, Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, noon Friday.

--San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival, main stage, 3 p.m. Saturday.

Thursday, October 1, 1992


Here is an article from 1992 about the Armistead Maupin book, "Maybe the Moon."

Interview by Amy Rennert from San Francisco Focus Magazine October 1992

"Let me tell you a story," Armistead Maupin says as we sit down to begin our conversation. "I met this extraordinary woman on a Bay cruise many years ago. I was in the middle of this very crowded party and I moved just a little bit and I heard someone say, `Watch it, Buster!' I looked around, then down, and here was this tiny, thirty-one-inch-high woman speaking brusquely. She came off as a condensed Bette Midler. Well, her name was Tamara De Treaux, and we hung out together for the rest of the cruise and became instant fast friends.

"I'm gay. She wasn't, but she usually preferred gay and lesbian company because we understood the sense of outsiderdom that she had to deal with all the time. Her experience was so similar to mine in many ways, and yet it put mine to shame in terms of the very real challenges she faced every time she left the house. She couldn't turn off the stares of ignorant people, so she learned to convert their curiosity into a sort of fame for herself. Anyone who met her discovered that after an hour or two, not only were they at ease around her, but they also felt privileged to be in her presence. "She changed my life and I guess I changed hers. She was living in San Leandro and I introduced her to Bud Cort, the actor. He asked her to be in his singing group, Bud Cort and the Medflies. Later, she was performing with Cort at some night spot on the Sunset Strip in LA when one of Steven Spielberg's producers came in and discovered her. He saw that she was just short enough to fit the suit for the extraterrestrial creature in E. T. Tammy couldn't give me any story-line details at the time because there was such secrecy surrounding production.

"So there she was starring in one of the biggest Hollywood hits in history, yet she was invisible. Being inside the creature with all the circuitry surrounding her head made Tammy feel like she was living inside a pinball machine. In the credits she was one of a dozen or so people listed under the headline `E.T. Special Movement.' It's not the most fulfilling role for an actress. In fact her invisibility was the single thing required of her.

"It occurred to me that there was a very strong parallel between her and gay and lesbian actors who are required to stay invisible, to remain in the closet. Spielberg was explicit about not wanting Tammy to go public. His attitude was, the less the public knew, the greater the fantasy. So when she broke that restriction and granted interviews with Entertainment Tonight and several of the tabloids, Spielberg was extremely upset. Tammy's response was, `I'm an actress, not a little person into rubber. I have a right to say who I am and what I'm doing.'

"She was the inspiration for Cady, the lead character in my new novel, Maybe the Moon. I want people to understand that the human heart is pretty much the same in everyone. It's a little corny but it's truly what I believe about life. To learn the art of empathy is what we're put here for. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening in America. I don't see enough people trying to walk in someone else's shoes."

Armistead Maupin has done well in learning the art of empathy and the art of storytelling. His six-book Tales of the City series developed a cult following here and a mass following in En- gland, where he regularly outsells such hot British writers as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. The comic novels' cast of memorable characters- moved from the heady party days of the seventies to the AIDS-stricken eighties. They reflector world rarely found in literature or film but certainly found in San Francisco-a world where gay and straight people live, work, and love side by side.

Maupin never could have written the books if he hadn't left North Carolina. For years, he tried to fit into his archconservative father's shoes. It is an early life he now condemns. He served in Vietnam, worked for Jesse Helms, and received a presidential commendation from Richard Nixon before coming to and out in San Francisco.

"My talent developed after I came out of the closet," he says, "because I was able to look into every corner of my heart and see what was there." Some of the Bay Area's best writers are already heaping praise on his new novel. Pat Conroy hails Maybe the Moon as "a hilarious and tragic odyssey through Hollywood. This is new territory for Armistead and he succeeds brilliantly." Amy Tan concurs: "By writing about what's seemingly different Armistead always manages to capture what is so hilariously and painfully true for all of us." HarperCollins has high hopes-an initial print run of sixty thousand and an eighteen-city book tour. Maybe the Moon may be the book that brings Maupin the kind of celebrity here he has enjoyed for years in England.

Maupin lives in a spacious Mission penthouse with his lover, business partner, and best friend, Terry Anderson. In his stories, in his books, and in person, the forty-eight-year-old writer is thoughtful and playful, gentle and direct. Maupin is a man who has blended the best of his Southern roots with the consciousness of his adopted San Francisco. He has a big laugh and it punctuates his stories, even the painful and poignant ones.

SF Focus: When you were writing Tales of the City, you said that all the main characters represented some side of you. How much of you is in Cady?

Armistead: Cady is really a merger of me and Tammy. I was able to draw on a lot of my instincts in writing the character, and yet obviously I had to draw on her experience. I made it clear to her that I was not writing her life story, because I knew that it would be too easy to get entangled in my responsibility to her, and to lose the real freedom I feel in writing fiction. So I drew on many of her reactions to life, but told a story that was entirely original.

I don't think I could write a novel without dealing with the outsider's point of view and without imbuing it with a certain sort of humanistic philosophy that I think colored Tales of the City.

SF Focus: I don't want to give away the wonderful ending of your novel, but I couldn't help be reminded of your own experience with Warner Brothers. What exactly happened with the studio?

Armistead: In the early days of Tales of the City, I came very close to signing a deal with Warner Brothers to allow CBS to make a series out of the property. But just before signing, they told me there was one small detail that had to be ironed out.

SF Focus: And what was that?

Armistead: They wanted to eliminate every gay and lesbian character. Tales is tremendously threatening to the Hollywood viewpoint, not because there's explicit sex in it, not because it's particularly raunchy or antifamily; it's threatening precisely because it suggests that gays and lesbians have families and experiences that are not that much different from their straight friends and neighbors. And Tales' biggest offense is that it takes such a matter of-fact approach to all of the characters that everyone is assumed to be living the way they should be.

SF Focus: Didn't you have a second close encounter in which someone wanted to make a "small" change?

Armistead: A producer invited me to dinner with someone he felt would make a good screenwriter for the property, and I was told for at least two hours how brilliant I was and how beautiful everyone in the book was and what a terrific movie it would make. Finally, over dessert, the screenwriter turned to me and said, "You know, there's one little change I'd like to make. You know that gay gynecologist? Wouldn't it be more interesting if he were... a serial killer?" [Laughs]

SF Focus: This wasn't the screenwriter who later penned Basic Instinct was it?

Armistead: No, but they certainly perfected that concept over the years!

SF Focus: Hollywood isn't making Tales of the City but British television is. Will we get to see the series here?

Armistead: My producers in London, Working Title Films, came to Los Angeles to scout for provisional money to make the film, offering a guaranteed place in which it would be aired-Channel Four in England-and paying for the bulk of the production. All they needed was a place to air it in the United States. We approached every major network, including Fox. And they all turned us down, never really stating their reasoning, but clearly because of their fear over a homosexual program. It gives you an idea of how far behind Hollywood is to realize that something that appeared as a daily newspaper serial in San Francisco-what? sixteen years ago-is still not acceptable to the Hollywood mentality.

SF Focus: How would you rate Hollywood and television in their portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen?

Armistead: The sad part about TV's portrayal of homosexuality is that it goes back to square one about every eight years. There's no accumulated knowledge on the subject. They continue to demonize it and then undemonize it and then demonize it again. In 1972 That Certain Summer was on network television and we were shown a civilized view of homosexuality. Thirteen years later An Early Frost aired and everyone fell all over themselves as if this were the most historic breakthrough in television. But I remember reading at the time that Sylvia Sidney had a line in Early Frost in which she was supposed to say, "I like your friend," to her gay grandson, and it was cut by the network because it appeared to endorse homosexuality.

SF Focus: PBS recently aired The Lost Language of Cranes and Portrait of a Marriage. What did you think of them?

Armistead: Even there we're seeing homosexuality as an angst-ridden subject, as a cause for great pain and consternation and stress. I think one of the great fallacies put across by television and the movies is that gay people have a lifestyle-a preference we can choose to change at any moment-rather than a life.

SF Focus: What do you think about gayness? Do you think people are born gay or straight? Or is it a matter of choice?

Armistead: You know, I don't know, and I long ago ceased caring, because I'm happy with who I am. I think even to question the cause of it is to suggest that it's an illness that can be fixed.

SF Focus: That's a very carefully crafted, politically correct answer, but I'm really trying here to find out more about you personally. How did you discover your own sexuality?

Armistead: I know that I felt different from many of the kids around me at a very, very early age, certainly before I had any sexual feelings. I knew from the time I was five or six that I didn't see things the way other boys did. I would go to war movies only because I loved movies and it was the only movie playing, and I'd wait for the scene where the lady came on. The lady always brought with her gentleness and kindness and compassion and soft music and a momentary respite from all the gunfire. I didn't feel any need to be part of that. Now I know there must be plenty of gay people who grew up loving war movies and loving sports and loving the whole fascist male competitive thing, but I never did.

SF Focus: And yet you grew up in a family that embraced the military and competitiveness. How did that shape you?

Armistead: Well, my father was the captain of a minesweeper in World War II, with a very strong love of the military. Sometimes I think the war was really the biggest thing in his life. And when I was a child, my mother, sister, and I were often driven around the country to visit graveyards and battlefields of the Civil War. And my father flew a Confederate flag in our den. He marched the entire family out of the Episcopal church when the minister gave an antisegregation sermon. I came from a very rightwing, militaristic background.

SF Focus: As a youngster, did you question your father's conservative politics?

Armistead: No. In fact, I think I tried to ape it, because that's where approval came from. I knew the best way to please my father was to be a little carbon-copy conservative. So I was reading National Review while I was still a teenager, and idolizing William F. Buckley, Jr., when I was at Chapel Hill. I wrote a column for The Daily Tar Heel in which I espoused various conservative policies in a witty way, but certainly in a way that would turn my stomach today.

SF Focus: Did you have any sense then that you were doing it out of wanting approval, or did it feel true at the time?

Armistead: It felt true to me, and I think that grew out of the fact that I had to have some place to put my anger and frustration, so I homed in on this particular political cause. I think you can scratch a lot of Tories and find a homo, if you ask me.

SF Focus: Why?

Armistead: Because right-wing thinking requires a certain kind of rigidity that you learn when you're trying to keep your sexuality secret. There's an enormous amount of discipline and inflexibility that's required when you're trying to hide what you're all about.

SF Focus: Speaking of right-wing thinking, Jesse Helms is a friend of your father's. You went to school with his daughter and later worked for him. What was your relationship with him?

Armistead: I was his golden boy at WRAL-TV. He would invite me to his office to discuss the left-wing plot of the week. He talked about black militants then very much the way he's talking about gay militants today. The subtext was that he didn't disapprove of all blacks, just the militant ones.

SF Focus: Do you think he'd listen to your views today?

Armistead: No. He is a deeply evil and hateful man who has spent most of his political life railing against one disad-vantaged group or another, and all he's got left now is the fags. He used to be able to attack blacks with impunity. He can't do that anymore. So he's going after the last group that scares him. Strangely enough, several years ago on a book tour I ended up back in Raleigh being interviewed by the very TV station that I used to work for Jesse's station.

SF Focus: But not by him, I assume. Did they know how you had changed?

Armistead: Apparently not. A very dumb newscaster who had not done her homework at all asked, "What is your book about?" and I knew that I wasn't going to waste my three minutes on the book. So I said, "I think it's much more interesting to know that I worked at this station twenty years ago, and now Jesse Helms has left, and I've left, and he's out running around talking about militant homosexuals and I'm out running around being one." She went white as a sheet and cut the interview short--a live interview. She cut me short and brought on a dog and the SPCA. [Laughs]

SF Focus: When you look back, do you have compassion or contempt for the young man you were growing up in North Carolina?

Armistead: Mostly I feel contempt for him-that he couldn't figure things out any quicker than he did, that it took him twenty-six years to have sex with anybody, that it took the acknowledgement of his own differentness for him to be kind to other people. When I came out of the closet almost every other prejudice evaporated. I'm deeply shamed that as a teenager, as a young man, I adopted my family's racist attitudes, because I thought it would make me one of them. I know we're supposed to love our inner child, but I don't approve of that person very much.

SF Focus: Has being different helped you in other ways?

Armistead: I think it rescued me from tedium beyond belief. I might be practicing law in North Carolina. Terry, my lover, and I often discuss the fact that we feel our homosexuality forced us to develop alternative rules, and in doing so we opened our lives in ways far beyond our sexuality.

SF Focus: How else is your life different because you're out of the closet?

Armistead: Once you've broken the biggest taboo of all, everything else is a piece of cake. Not only that, you become the mother or father confessor to the entire world. A homosexual out of the closet is the perfect person to tell your darkest secrets to, so your straight friends tell you the most amazing things.

SF Focus: That's after you come out. But how difficult was it for you initially to open up to your straight friends?

Armistead: My friend Jan Fox completely blew off my first big effort at coming out. [Laughs] I had to have three Mai Tais before I could tell her. She was washing her babies in the tub and I said, "I have to talk to you about something. "She came out and took one look at me and thought, "This must be something really terrible." She sat down, and I told her, and she said just three words: Big fucking deal.

SF Focus: And from there, you told people when it was appropriate?

Armistead: Appropriate, hell! [Laughs] I told cab drivers, I told-I get so tired of hearing these stories about "Oh, the torture and the torment of coming out." There's no torment in coming out. The torment is in being in. Coming out is total joy. That's what Ian McKellen will tell you. He's been buzzing along like a twenty-year-old for several years now.

SF Focus: If it were up to you we'd all know who's straight and who's gay, right?

Armistead: I come from the extremely radical position that since homosexuality is a matter-of-fact part of life and is practiced by 10 percent of the American population, it should not continue to be the greatest taboo in society. Therefore I've always talked about who's gay and who isn't, often to the press. It's never printed, because the American press has a policy about that. That policy is what I'm questioning. I think outing is a phony issue because individual citizens aren't really capable of outing someone. It ends up being a journalistic pursuit.

SF Focus: How do you feel when the press uses terms like "admitted homosexual"?

Armistead: You never hear them talking about an "admitted stockbroker" or an "admitted Korean." I think we have a right to ask people in the press to start questioning this taboo. A straight friend of mine called up today very angry, because she'd just read an in-depth cover story in the Times' Sunday magazine about [Armistead names a prominent woman writer in New York], and nowhere was there any mention of the fact that she lives with another famous woman. The fact that they are a couple is known by hundreds, maybe thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, all of whom would tell you that no secret is made of it. So why does the press feel duty-bound to withhold that information from the great unwashed public? What that conveys to us is the notion that there's something here to be ashamed o£ God knows they feel free to ask her about any other detail of her private life. We discuss incest, alcoholism...

SF Focus: Don't be so sure the reporter didn't ask. Perhaps the subject of the story chose not to talk about her relationship. Shouldn't people have the right to keep their private lives private?

Armistead: I've never felt that the mention of someone's sexuality was an invasion of their private life. It's not considered an invasion of privacy when you ask a movie star who his girlfriend is or about his wife or home life. But if you were to ask me what Terry and I do in bed I would tell you to mind your own business. Most heterosexuals would have the same response. What I'm saying is that we have to start seeing homosexuality as an arena larger than sexual activity. Hunter, who produced most of those Doris Day movies, actually told the press that he had no knowledge whatsoever that Rock Hudson was a gay man. Well I had to tell the Washington Post that I'd been to gay parties with Ross and Rock and that I knew this was an out-and-out lie.

SF Focus: How much do you think it bothered him to stay in the closet?

Armistead: He suffered a lot because of the secrecy. He had a groove in his fingernail, and I asked him about it once. He jokingly said it was an old war wound but someone else pointed out to me that the groove was there because he was constantly rubbing his forefinger against his thumbnail. He deformed his hand because of this nervous tic.

SF Focus: It seems like there was a collective participation in hiding his homosexuality from the public. How do you think the situation should have been handled?

Armistead: Right after Rock became ill people in Hollywood-some of his closest friends-all ran off and slammed their doors in the face of the press a and refused to talk about his illness. And I had a dream, a fantasy, really, that those people and other stars partici-pated in an advertisement in which all of them were photographed, and the headline read, "Half of us are gay and half of us aren't. We don't think it matters." I wanted some gesture of love and support, something that said it was no shock to them that Rock Hudson was homosexual-because I don't know anyone who didn't know it. But we still feed the notion that homosexuality is a dark secret that must be protected at all costs. And I don't see it getting any better. That's the depressing part.

SF FOCUS: Has your openness about being homosexual caused you problems professionally?

Armistead: Gordon Pates, who was managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle when I started Tales of the City, was this sweet, avuncular man in his sixties whose horror increased with every week of the series. He knew I was gay and several weeks into it, he shook his head and said, "Oh, what a terrible waste this is, young man. Surely you can find a nice girl out there." When he realized that I intended to include gay characters on a full-time basis, he developed a chart that he kept in his office, with two columns, one labeled Homosexual and one labeled Heterosexual. Every time a new character was introduced, he would place that character into the appropriate column, his rule being that the homosexual characters should at no time number more than one-third of the entire cast.

SF Focus: And did you play by the rules?

Armistead: I spent weeks trying to find a way to queer 'this, so to speak. I wrote an episode in which Franny Halcyon, the Hillsborough matron, has an affair with her Great Dane. This was done very subtly and tastefully, of course. I suppose an affair would be an inaccurate way to put it. She had passed out drunk in the Rose Garden and woke up to find the dog on top of her, but didn't want to complain because she knew the dog didn't mean it. After I wrote this episode I came into Cordon's office and told him that the dog had to go into the heterosexual column. That was the end of it.

SF Focus: Do you find being truthful about who you were in terms of your sexuality, enabled you to be more comfortable with people and more truthful about other things?

Armistead: About everything. And to become impatient with hypocrisy over secrets, essentially. Coming out of the closet made me lose my respect for secrets. I always tell people, "If you've got a secret, don't ask me to keep it for you, because there aren't many that I consider worth keeping. "You become so intoxicated by telling the truth that you can't go back, you can't do it the other way.

SF Focus: Still it must have been difficult telling your parents, given their background.

Armistead: Well, my mother knew because a girlfriend of mine told her, a girlfriend who came out to San Francisco expecting me to ask her to marry me, apparently. I didn't feel she had any reason to believe that I had a sexual interest in her. But she had persuaded herself otherwise and came out to see me. We had a couple of Irish coffees at the Buena Vista. We went out and sat on the pier at Aquatic Park and I told her not only that I was gay but that I'd met a man I thought I was in love with. She appeared to take it okay, but went back that night and took a couple of Valium and called my mother and told her. .So my mother carried this secret-as Southern women are wont to do-for a number of years.

SF Focus: How did you finally tell your parents?

Armistead: There's a letter in my second novel in which Michael, the central gay character, comes out to his parents just after they've told him that they've joined an antihomosexual crusade organized by Anita Bryant. That letter appeared in the paper at the time, and it was essentially my coming out letter to my parents. It was the fastest thing I ever wrote---forty-five minutes-because it was a speech I'd been trying to make for almost fifteen years. And a lot of people actually clipped it out of the newspaper and crossed out Michael's name and wrote in their own and mailed it to their own parents.

SF Focus: I know your mother died of breast cancer a few years later. Were you able to reconcile with her before her death?

Armistead: She came out here with my father, to visit and to meet my friends and my San Francisco family, and as fate would have it, their last day in town was the day that Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot. Dave Kopay [a former Forty-Niner running back] had arranged for a little gathering at his house for my parents so my friends could all be with them. At the end of the evening we realized that this incredible march was hap-pening and I had to tell them that it was important to me to be in this march, so I had to say goodbye to my mother for what I thought might be the last time. We left them and rode in Dave's little Toyota down to the march. We were making our way toward City Hall when one of my friends tugged on my arm and said, "Look over there." I looked across the street and there were my mother and father walking along the march. I went over and took their arms and marched them up to the front of City Hall, where Joan Baez was beginning to sing. I'm sure my father thought Joan Baez was the Wicked Witch of the West, but [pause] because they loved me and because they understood the significance of that moment to me, and because we didn't have any more time together, we spent it there in front of City Hall.

SF Focus: That story brings tears to my eyes. Did you see your mother again?

Armistead: My sister called me six months later, when it looked like my mother was really close to death, and told me it was time to come back to North Carolina. So I did, and my father and I spent the last night of my mother's life sleeping on the floor of her hospital room, much to the chagrin of the nurses. That night my father told me, probably at my mother's instruction, that he was sorry he had not brought up my homosexuality before, because he had suspected it for a long time and he thought he would have made it easy for me if he had been the first to talk about it. At one point my mother told me privately, no one else around, that she wanted me to write a "sweet novel"-Tales of the City had come out the year before and had slightly horrified her-and then said that I should come back in the morning because she had an orderly that she wanted me to meet. [Laughs]

SF Focus: How has your relationship with your father changed since then?

Armistead: I get very angry sometimes that he's not able to be more communicative. I know a lot of people whose fathers are this way and a lot of people whose mothers tell them, "That's just the way he is." But it still makes me angry. It makes me angry that he's unable to be more involved in Terry's illness than he is. He's quite fond of Terry and has spent time out here with Terry and has even gone so far as to tell me that Terry is the best thing that ever happened to me. It's probably the only thing we agree on.

SF Focus: It must be difficult for you being between an aging parent and a lover who both face death.

Armistead: You know, one of the things that I'm sad about is that for years my father has been telling his children, "You'd better be nice to me, I might not have any time left." He was telling me this twenty years ago, years before my mother died. And now I stand a very good chance of losing everybody who's ever mattered to me in my life before my father actually dies.

SF Focus: You live your life so honestly and openly. Have you been able to confront him on some of these issues?

Armistead: I haven't yet. To a certain degree I know what it's all about, so I forgive him. Many men of my father's generation are emotionally crippled. I know that my grandfather killed himself, blew his brains out in my father's bedroom when my father was away at college. And I know that my father was able to talk about that-the pivotal event in his life-only twice in the course of a forty-year marriage to my mother. He told her once shortly after they were married. Then just before she died, he got very drunk in a room in Switzerland and threw things and ended up crying, saying "Why did he do it to me? Why did he do it to me?"

SF Focus: No wonder you have little tolerance for secrets.

Armistead: Secrets were all my family was about. My sister had what was called a "woman's problem" in her early twenties, which my mother disguised as an appendectomy because she felt it would somehow besmirch my sister's femininity. My sister and I laugh about this kind of nonsense now.

SF Focus: Pat Conroy, another Southern writer, also talked with us about battling secrets and cover-ups.

Armistead: I identify so much with that. I told him. I read The Great Santini, which nearly killed me, and then I saw it, and I vowed I would never see the movie again because it's so close to home it's extremely painful to watch. He captured it exactly. I think we came from identical backgrounds. The sweet, gentle placating mother who's always saying, "He's your father, you must respect him, he's your father," and who put up with incredible, abusive shit because she felt that was her role in life. On the other hand, not to paint too dark a picture, my father has a really robust sense of humor, which I think I inherited from him.

SF Focus: I talked with a friend of yours, Peggy Knickerbocker, who says, "Armistead has a laugh at the end of every breath." And the humor is always present in your writing. That's from your father?

Armistead: My father did have the capability to laugh and to see ironies, sometimes even in his own life. And I'm grateful for the general Southern tradition of storytelling, because I think that's what my career ultimately grew out o£ It was a merger of this very old fashioned concept of telling a pure and simple story, with brand new material that hadn't been tapped before.

SF Focus: Do you think of yourself more as a storyteller than a writer?

Armistead: Well, they're virtually inseparable for me. I never write a line without imagining how it will sound when read aloud.

SF Focus: I've always thought you had a great ear for dialogue.

Armistead: That's why it takes so much time for me to write what are often regarded as light, fluffy entertainment pieces, because there are rhythms to the writing that are extremely important. And I've built those rhythms and breaths into every line. And that was the way I developed self-worth as a child. When the other kids could do sports and the sort of conventional skills that bring attention to children, I was able to at least gather them around the campfire and tell a good story.

SF Focus: Were either of your parents storytellers?

Armistead: My mother was in a lot of little theater productions, and she loved to perform. And her mother, who was a fairly well-known suffragist in England, who traveled all over England speaking for women's rights, used to do public readings and performances all the time. She was the biggest inspiration in my life-a very fey old lady who read palms and drank gin and tonics and wore big picture hats and was the first person that told me that it was all right to be me.

(At this point Armistead's lover and business partner, Terry Anderson, returns home and joins the conversation.)

SF Focus: You're both from the South. You could live anywhere in the world now. But you choose to stay here. Why?

Terry: I felt like a complete alien in Georgia. No one in Atlanta understood the concept of living your life in the open and not being ashamed of any aspect of it.

Armistead: I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Physically, San Francisco still dazzles me and it gives me great vicarious pleasure when I take people from outside around. Terry and I actually have something we call The Tales Tour, which we've used lately for producers and for friends. It shows the high points from Tales of the City, which are what I find to be the most beautiful places in the city. We've had plenty of chances to see the rest of the world. We've toured everywhere. New Zealand is a wonderful alternative for us because it allows us a couple of months of peaceful, isolated rural life in a beautiful setting with very civilized neighbors who all regard us as simply one more couple who lives in the valley.

SF Focus: Even though you're entirely comfortable with your relationship I understand some of the media are not. Didn't you recently have a run-in with HG magazine when they tried to get you to take out a mention of Terry on the contributors' notes?

Armistead: You know what Terry said? "Who are they going to offend? All those truckers who read HG?" [Laughs] It's ridiculous.

SF Focus: So what happened?

Armistead: It got to the point where I said, "If you don't do this I'm pulling my story. You'll get your money back." The piece was published.

SF Focus: Are there other problems with the media?

Armistead: All the time. It never stops, and that's the maddening thing. You don't come out once. If you have any pride at all you have to come out over and over again. You have to take a stand. When we went on the national book tour in 1987 for Significant Others, Terry told me that he wanted to talk about being HIV positive. And the toughest job was persuading the journalists that he was perfectly serious about wanting to be public about this. He would sit there and have a conversation as we're having right now, and then they'd say, "Well of course we won't print this." And we would have to say: "No, we want you to print this."

SF Focus: Terry, why was it important for you to talk about being HIV positive?

Terry: I just tend to talk about everything in my life. I know how good it is for me to talk about it, what a catharsis it has been for me to be able to talk about it. And I know that there are millions of people out there in the same boat who still, in 1992, don't have any support. I think that's why I decided to talk about it. It's important for people to know they're not alone. Also, there are people who have been living with it for ten years now and that story rarely gets told.

Armistead: Yeah, it's frustrating. It's complicated, but your diagnosis does not end your life. It changes it, but you have a life to live, and the way people are living those lives-that's what the real news is, if you ask me. The biggest problem is how society has not acknowledged death and dying in our culture as a part of life. It's the thing to avoid. People don't want to get old. We got an invitation to a fortieth birthday coming up this weekend for a gay man who says he's somewhere between thirty-nine and death, and he's having a funeralesque party.

Terry: And I'm like, "Excuse me, but those of us who may not make it to forty find this a bit of an insult. You're getting older; be happy you are. Don't run the other way."

Armistead: This man never stops pissing and moaning in front of Terry about the fact that he's turning forty and I'm totally mystified that he doesn't see how callous that is.

SF Focus: The majority of people who are HIV-infected are in the unique situation of usually feeling and looking healthy even though they are in the early stages of a frightening progressive disease. Can other people really understand what that's like?

Terry: To wake up some days and feel really shitty and to have a fever of 102 and to be thirty-three years old and look at the end of your life is not something it's possible to totally empathize with unless you're going through it. I don't think anyone else gets it, and that includes Armistead, because he's not HIV positive. Recently we were with some friends at Shell Beach in Inverness. I had been sick and wasn't really well enough to go swimming, but when all my friends dropped into the water and swam out to this raft I decided to be macho and not let them show me up. I went out about halfway, enough to get in over my head, when I completely ran out of energy and panicked. And I thought of all of them out on the raft with the energy and ability to come back when they wanted while I was stuck and possibly drowning. The dichotomy struck me-no matter how close I am to them they couldn't know, couldn't understand . . .

SF Focus: How does that make you feel toward them?

Terry: Well, there are times like that-occasions when I see yuppie couples sitting in a cafe who don't seem to have a care in the world and their life is stretched out before them and their 2.3 kids will stretch out before them-when I just want to run them over with a car. But what are my friends supposed to do-not swim out because I can't? That's preposterous.

SF Focus: How has the diagnosis changed your relationship? Did you meet before Terry tested positive?

Armistead: It was almost simultaneous.

Terry: We'd known each other about six months. It didn't dramatically change, because most of our relationship, the last six years, has been with me being positive and Armistead being negative. So, it's kind of the only relationship we really know. Armistead was tremendously supportive when I came home and said the test result was positive.

Armistead: Terry said, "Now's your chance to get out of it." And it didn't even occur to me, because I was so in love with him and so excited about the fact that I had found someone.

Footnote: Armisted Maupin and Terry Anderson split up in 1996. Armistead Maupin met Christopher Turner. They have been together since 2004. Armistead and Christopher were married in Canada in 2007, and were legally married in California October 4, 2008.

Tuesday, September 1, 1992

A Californian Goes Kiwi

"A Californian Goes Kiwi" by Armistead Maupin
House and Garden, September, 1992

My boyfriend, Terry Anderson, and I discovered New Zealand's Banks Peninsula in early 1990 at the weary end of an international book tour. After bidding farewell to the last reporter, we rented a car in Christchurch and set off on a leisurely loop around South Island, ending up in Akaroa, the southernmost French settlement in the world. We glimpsed the village first from the peninsula's historic Hilltop Tavern, gazing down on an impossibly blue harbor making jigsaw dents in the volcanic hills, and were instantly seduced. Our hostess at a local inn, a transplanted Californian, recognized the crazed light in our eyes and told us about a small colonial farmstead for sale across the harbor.

The next morning, without waiting for an estate agent to guide us, we took off in search of the property. After several false starts-and a phone call back to the innkeeper-we found it at the end of a winding dirt road: a two-acre or so plot containing an empty farmhouse, a cowshed, several outbuildings, and an apple orchard. Peering furtively into windows, we determined that the interior of the house was dark and cramped and, worse yet, paneled with characterless fiberboard. Still, the old garden had been lovingly maintained, and the view of the South Pacific out through the headlands was nothing short of heart stopping.

Here, we realized, was the weekend house we had always dreamed of in northern California, complete with a babbling brook, a huge Monterey cypress, and a wraparound vista of grazing sheep. What's more, the price was comparable to that of a nice garage back in the Mission District, our neighborhood in San Francisco. The only daunting part was the prospect of a "summer place" at the bottom of the world where no other landmass stood between Antarctica and us. Could anyone in his right mind construe this as a practical commute?

The thought that we might be victims of end-of-tour hysteria occurred to us immediately, so we avoided the subject for a while and lost ourselves in sightseeing. We booked onto the Canterbury Cat, a local tour boat, in the hope of spotting one of the rare Hector's dolphins among the world's smallest-that make their home in Akaroa Harbor. We saw several little blue penguins and a cormorant or two, but there wasn't a dolphin in sight. One of them had died earlier in the week, the captain explained, so the rest were most likely in mourning.

Disappointed, I let my mind wander back to our previous obsession. I scanned the nearest hillside with my telephoto lens until I found the telltale cypress and, beneath it, the little iron-roofed house. As I handed the camera to Terry and we began to fantasize anew, we heard a collective gasp from the people next to us and turned to see a trio of Hector's dolphins, frisky as poodles, cavorting off the bow. If their perfect timing wasn't an omen, it seemed enough like one to set our minds racing again. It was our last day there, but on our way to the airport we opened an account at the Bank of New Zealand. And less than two months later, we closed the deal by mail from San Francisco.

The following July, while I was in New York sweating over the book for a musical, Terry returned to the chilly Antipodes to begin renovation of the house. Working with a local contractor, he tore out the offending fiberboard to reveal the original "matched lining" (tongue and groove paneling) of native rimu. He replaced the modern mismatched windows along the veranda with French doors he found in salvage yards and ripped out several interior walls. He designed a new kitchen, using rimu for the countertops. Perhaps most dramatically, he created a windowed alcove on the veranda for a large bathtub commanding a view of the South Pacific. "Just make sure it's supported," he told the builder. "This thing has to hold two fat men and a lot of water."

We named the place Kahikatea-or, more accurately, renamed it, since it had once been called that-after the venerable native tree that stands where our driveway crosses the creek. Taking occupancy in mid October just as spring was arriving, we received a welcome as warm as the weather. A neighbor we'd never met had filled every room of the house with flowers from her own garden and left a batch of homemade brownies on the kitchen table. Another neighbor spent most of the day unclogging our spring and teaching us the mysteries of our water supply. Even more amazingly, our local "postie" (mail carrier) let us know that she would gladly deliver to our door any items we might have forgotten at the general store. By the time we joined our fellow valley dwellers and their kids for a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire at the beach, we felt as if we'd lived there all our lives.

Copyright ©1996 by Armistead Maupin