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.

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