Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Memoir of an absolute fabulist

Memoir of an absolute fabulist
Article from: The Scotsman
Article date: September 20, 2000
Author: Gina Arnold

San Francisco is a city well known for its eccentricities, but the latest one may take the cake. On the morning before local author Armistead Maupin left for a tour of Britain to promote his new book, The Night Listener, the local newspaper announced that, in honour of slain city supervisor Harvey Milk the city is going to cause a large pink cloud of steam to hover over the corner of Castro and Market Streets. Permanently.

That corner happens to be the centre of the gay district - a region which Maupin himself has celebrated and made famous via his six-book Tales of the City series and when told about the big pink cloud, his reaction was appropriately quizzical.

"Oh my goodness," he exclaimed, laughing hugely. "Are you sure? Well, I'm just going to have to move some place where a big black cloud is hovering over the neighbourhood."

Maupin's astonishment is far from feigned, but the truth is, there is something pink cloudy about the rosy vision of San Francisco he has propounded over the years. His books have achieved that rarest of statures, world acclaim, having remained in print for the past two decades.

Three Channel 4 series have been made of the books (the third instalment comes out in early 2001) but, most important of all, Maupin's view of his adopted home - witty and trenchant, sometimes unabashedly sentimental, but never smug or self-serving - has come to colour the city's perception of itself.

In short, along with a handful of other writers and newspapermen - Jack London and Mark Twain in particular - his light, dry, authorial voice has defined the city's quirky, free-spirited, and frankly homosexual ethos ever since he began publishing it as a daily fictional serial story, Tales of the City, in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976.

His voice is gentle, courtly, and still touched with the southern accent, as Maupin grew up not in California, but in Raleigh, North Carolina, where his patrician - and very right-wing - father rubbed elbows with the local gentry.

After a stint in Vietnam, and later as a fledgling TV reporter, Maupin moved to San Francisco, where he began writing the soon-to- be smash serial that celebrated (among other things) the free and easy gay lifestyle of the Castro District.

Tales chronicled the lives of a group of twentysomething characters and their mysterious landlady, Anna Madrigal, with whom they live in a cosy apartment building on the north side of the city. The protagonist of his latest book, The Night Listener, however, lives in a more western neighbourhood called Woodside.

It is, oddly enough, the same neighbourhood that Maupin himself lives in. His name is Gabriel Noone and he is a 54-year-old gay man who grew up in the deep south, did a stint in Vietnam, worked in TV journalism, and made his name in the 1970s with a serial that celebrated gay life - albeit one that appeared on radio, rather than in the newspaper. "I am," says Noone at the start of the book, " a fabulist by trade ... I've spent years looting my life for fiction."

The sentence inspires one obvious question: is Gabriel Noone a thinly-veiled Armistead Maupin, and if so, how much dirt is in here?

"Well, I'm just not going to tell you," says Maupin. "No, I'm not trying to be coy, but my best material has always arisen from my reactions to actual experiences. On the other hand, I like to manipulate the circumstances and characters to make sense of them - real life is haphazard and tedious and often contradictory.

"But you step into really uncertain territory when you start trying to unravel the two things. You'll forgive me if I don't tell you quite how I do it.

"I'll say this much," he adds, referring to several plot points in the book. "I did break up with my partner four years ago, I do have an aristocratic southern past, and an 85-year-old father who still practices law and hobnobs with Jesse Helms."

And then he relents a little more. "Gabriel is closer to me than any character I've written about so far. I have to cop to that because the physical characteristics are so close - he's an older, greyer me. But that said, Tales' Michael's sensibility was influenced by mine, and so was Maryann's.

"And Cadence Roth," - the main character in his last novel, Maybe the Moon - "was a 31in tall female Jewish dwarf, but a lot of what was on my mind at the time I said through her.
"She was just a really good disguise."

So what part of The Night Listener is fiction? "I do make some things up out of whole cloth," adds Maupin.

"I just spoke to my sister, who runs a bed and breakfast in New Zealand, and she'd just spent an hour on the phone reassuring my brother that I hadn't had sex in the cab of a truck in a snowstorm."

He laughs, delighted. "Of course in many ways I wish I had!"

Another way Maupin differs from Noone, he adds, is that "I am considerably more confident about my writing abilities than Gabriel is.

"But confidence isn't an interesting thing to explore. Insecurity is something audiences can relate to, and for that reason, I tend to say my worst things first."

For that reason Noone, who is suffering from writers' block in the novel, says he feels, "as if I'd broken into the Temple of Literature through some unlocked basement window".

Maupin denies feeling that way - although one can't help but wonder if he has suffered from the malady in question since The Night Listener is his first book in eight years.

He says he has spent the interim working on the mini-series version of Tales, (starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis) and writing a libretto for an opera.

"I'm not a compulsive worker," he shrugs. "Also, I like to have a long period of letting my life fill up, so I can tap into it for ideas."

The problem with that literary tactic, Maupin admits, is that so often life imitates fiction.
For example, in the novel, there is a strand pertaining to the importance of radio broadcasting. Via his nightly radio show, Noone's voice becomes the vehicle for the sickly thirteen-year-old Pete to come to terms with life's tragedies.

Just before Maupin finished the book, his - "what do you call it?" he wonders aloud, "former significant other? Business partner? Friend? Ex-lover?" - Terry Anderson came up with the idea of marketing The Night Listener online, as the first spoken word serial available on the web via streaming audio.

This month each chapter, read aloud by the author, became available for direct downloading on For the technophobes among us (and Maupin would count himself in that group) the hardcover version of the book is in shops now. Because the book involves a main character whose job is to read his stories aloud, it is perfect for such a project. But Maupin insists it is merely fortuitous; indeed, the book was almost done before the streaming technology for such a co-presentation was even ready.

"But that kind of stuff happens to me all the time," he says. "Like when I first invented the character Anna Madrigal, who was supposed to be real evocative of Mrs Miniver, I only discovered her name was an anagram for what she was when a reader alerted me to it, well into the story.

"And I didn't intend for D'or to be a white woman dying her skin black until someone wrote in and told me that she just seemed like a white character trying to be black. I was really hurt by that until I realised I could just go with it."

For those in the know, one character from Tales plays a central role in The Night Listener. And Milk - he of pink cloud fame - is also mentioned, as are many other San Francisco luminaries and touchstones.

The Night Listener is an updating of the San Francisco zeitgeist - although the two main things that dominate SF life right now, the profusion of businesses and the soaring price of property, are not mentioned herein.

Instead, the novel concerns the effect of AIDS, not just on those who've contracted it, but on those who haven't.

In some ways The Night Listener is scientifically up to the minute. In it, Noone's live-in lover has had AIDS for years, but protease inhibitors have eradicated the virus from his body, a circumstance that alters each man's attitude towards each other, their relationship, and even towards life itself.

The Night Listener reads like a memoir, and it certainly must be in parts, but it is also - like Tales before it - a real page turner, a plot-driven, perfectly-paced mystery of sorts, permeated by Maupin's patented light touch.

He is, as he himself says, "kind of like a comedian who can't use all his best material for fear of losing the audience".

That's why reading aloud, on his many book tours, is one of this favourite things. "Bliss," he calls it, "at least when it's in front of a live audience."

But reading aloud a nine-hour book - which took seven days in a recording studio - was a more gruelling task.

Was he embarrassed to read the sex scenes aloud? Maupin roars with laughter again. "In a single word: Yes," he shouts. "I kept wondering if the engineer could see me blushing behind the panel. And when I heard it read back all I could think was, 'thank God my mom's been dead for years.'

"But then, I've been afflicted by a perennial mild embarrassment my entire life. Sometimes," he adds, sighing, "I think I've deliberately put myself into situations to get past that - because I really believe we should be proud of who we are and what we do. If we aren't, we shouldn't be doing them."

Gina Arnold. "Memoir of an absolute fabulist." The Scotsman. Scotsman Publications. 2000. HighBeam Research. 13 Dec. 2008

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Citizen of the world

Armistead Maupin talks about getting divorced, the self-ghettoization of gay lit and the strange, true story behind his new novel of suspense.

By Laura Miller
Sept. 6, 2000

For a writer whose first book is so well-loved that people actually ask to be buried with it, follow-up can be tough. Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" series (which originally began as a newspaper serial) has preoccupied most of the author's professional life -- he's worked on two miniseries based on the books -- for the past decade or so. There was 1992's "Maybe the Moon," a Hollywood novel narrated by a dwarf actress, but it's only now that Maupin has returned to mining his own life for fiction.

With "The Night Listener," Maupin presents readers with Gabriel Noone, a successful, middle-aged, gay writer famous for his radio serial about the adventures of an outlandishly diverse passel of San Franciscans. Gabriel confronts two challenges in the course of the novel: getting over the breakup of a long relationship -- a "marriage" in all but the legal sense of the word -- and making sense of his new friendship with a 13-year-old boy, an AIDS patient and a survivor of horrific abuse who has written a moving memoir. Although Gabriel feels tremendously close to Pete and even goes so far as to refer to him as his "son," the two have never met; their relationship builds entirely over the phone. When Gabriel begins to wonder whether he knows the real truth about Pete, a remarkable mystery (the more so for being based in reality) unfolds. Salon telephoned Maupin at his home in San Francisco to learn more about his life and fiction after the "Tales."

This is your first novel in how long?

Eight years.

What took so long?

I've been working on three miniseries in the interim both as a producer and a writer, as well as adapting my last novel into a screenplay, which has yet to be produced. And there was a divorce in there somewhere, which ended up being partially recorded in "The Night Listener."

I'm also not one of those driven writers who has to produce every day or I'll fall apart. I look at my life as feeding my work, and sometimes I have to let things happen to me before I'm ready to write again.

With this book, you do almost everything but stamp "Warning: Contents May Contain Autobiography" on the cover. Most fiction writers go out of their way to stress that while there's always some autobiographical material to their work, this is fiction.

Well, we do want to have it both ways. I wanted to do that with this novel, too, because I play fast and loose with the facts, or at least with the order of things. I invented conversations that never occurred. I tried to be as emotionally true as I possibly could be, to tap my own insecurities and pain to make something that felt real to the readers. That's the single axiom I'm faithful to: Try to remain as honest and candid as possible. And don't hide behind a 32-inch dwarf actress, which is what I did in my last book.

There are two stories running through "The Night Listener," one of which is the breakup that you mentioned -- which really is a divorce because your life was so intertwined with your partner's. You began writing about that relationship in the "Tales," and part of what you wanted to do there was demonstrate an exemplary gay relationship. Did you worry about the "gay P.R." aspect of writing about your breakup in "The Night Listener," in other words, about undoing the social point you tried to make in the "Tales"?

No. I really didn't. If anything, it was my sincere belief that to chronicle the breakup of a gay relationship would record its depth and reality far more effectively than something that was all sweetness and light. I play with the idea in the novel. Gabriel dotes on this perfect gay relationship and both partners relished displaying their love to the world. Most openly gay people in the public eye have that experience. It must have been extremely exhilarating for Ellen and Anne to be lovey-dovey in public because it was both a political act and a sign of their personal happiness. And I identified with them all the more when they split because of that. But my responsibility first and foremost is to record my life and the conclusions I draw from it as honestly as possible. That process had always served me very well in the past and I knew I had to do it one more time.

One thing people love about "Tales of the City" is the community of people it depicts, people who are mixed in terms of their sexual orientations and outlooks on life. But Gabriel seems strikingly alone in this novel, which makes him all the more open to this odd phone relationship after Jess leaves him. It's not as though he, like Mary Ann from "Tales of the City," can just go downstairs in the house on Barbary and find someone to talk to.

I deliberately made Gabriel somewhat more isolated a person than I am, but I must admit that celebrity has narrowed my frame of reference to a certain degree. I tend to be more cautious about hooking up with strangers. And as I get older I find myself content in my small circle of friends. But I do have a very tight circle of friends who do cover just about every racial and sexual stripe, and I treasure them.

Certainly, though, Gabriel's agony and pain during the initial separation from Jess is drawn directly from my own experience. It was how I pulled myself through that time, by writing that first chapter, which existed for a long time before the rest of the book. I didn't have the stamina to imagine a second chapter. Gabriel at some point says, "How can I go on with this story when I don't know what the end is?" and that's how everybody feels when the rug gets pulled out from under you in such a dramatic way. All of your placid assumptions are challenged. But if you're asking me about the state of my happiness now, it's better than it's been in a long, long time!

Actually, I was wondering whether you think that San Francisco has changed in that way as well, or whether it's mostly your own circumstances that have changed.

It's a different moment for me. I'm 56 years old. I'm a writer who's had some success in the world. I live an odd, rarefied life. I've built a family out of my ex-lover and my closest friends. That's what I can write about now. I'm not 25 years old and looking for an apartment on Russian Hill, and I can't even comment about people who are. I'm often asked what the state of gay life is today, and I can't answer that. There was a point in my life where I might have been described as a gay Everyman, but I don't think I fall into that category anymore. Maybe nobody does.

It's a hard one to call. I can't disentangle my own aging process from the way the city itself has changed. I'm making every effort, though, not to piss and moan about a Golden Age that has passed because it makes me sound too much like my parents. The people I have valued the most over the years have been the people who have found something to love about the present moment. Christopher Isherwood was my mentor, and he remained charming and delightful company well into his 80s because he lived in the moment and celebrated the moment with whoever he met.

As a San Franciscan traveling in England, I was struck by how many people knew the "Tales" and kept asking me if it was really like that in the city. And I'm not even the author of the book .

The answer is that it is like that. I was accused of being a fantasist, a Pollyanna, when I first started writing "Tales of the City." Most gay people in other parts of the country couldn't imagine that gay and straight people could sit down together, cast aside their differences and be human beings with one another. That was true for me 20 years ago and it's still true for me. That's one of the reasons I've resisted the whole ghettoizing of gay lit. I've always felt myself to be writing about all of humanity, and that my redemption would come by regarding myself as a citizen of the world. It wasn't my intention with "Tales of the City" to invent a subculture we could all safely hide in.

It's always hard to talk about this because there's this assumption that I'm running away from my homosexuality. I was open about my homosexuality before most of the writers currently working.

How could anyone possible think you were running away from your homosexuality?

Because an industry has evolved around gay writing, and many of the people in that industry are interested in keeping it apart from the rest of literature. I'm not. "Tales of the City" began as a thoroughly mainstream property. It began in a daily newspaper, and what was radical about it was that I placed gay subject matter in the context of the world at large. In the marketing of "The Night Listener," I've spent a great deal of time trying to persuade the powers that be that this is not a "gay novel," but a novel that could interest anyone. At the same time I've tried to be as flagrantly queer as I can possibly be. It delights me to think that some grandmother who's reading this gripping little mystery story is going to find herself in the back of a truck with a hunky trucker before the novel is over.

Those readers are often more open to that than they're given credit for.

I think the American public is far more sophisticated about gay subject matter than it's given credit for.

The other thread in the novel is this strikingly odd, mysterious relationship with the boy, Pete. And yet this is also based in reality.

I'll go so far as to say that some of that storyline is drawn from personal experience, but to assume that it's the whole truth would be a grave mistake.

It's interesting that in the same way that some of the events in "Tales of the City" just seem too preposterous to believe, so does the idea of developing such a close relationship with someone you've never met, someone you know solely over the telephone and whose identity you might come to doubt. It seems like some cooked-up premise for a thriller!

It does, doesn't it? [Laughs] You can say I cackled demonically. However, I really feel a responsibility to not confuse the public or people I know with my fictional storytelling. All I can really say with any degree of conscience is that some of it is based in reality and it was a reality that was so strange that I felt as if I were living in a novel myself. It was really the oddest thing that ever happened to me. I've never felt more compelled to write something. And because that story remains a mystery to me to this day, it would be irresponsible to speculate publicly.

OK. Gabriel gets into this phone relationship when he's very vulnerable because of the breakup, but there's another aspect to his vulnerability, which is an unsatisfied fatherly impulse. Is that an important yearning for you?

It's not for me. Gabriel says that he didn't have any latent father instincts and I mean that to be true. It was really this particular person and the way in which they had something to provide for each other. For years, the inability to experience parenthood was offered as the big drawback to homosexuality. There are too many gay people these days who have broken that rule completely, either by choosing to have children or adopting. Those options are open to everyone. I've never really yearned for a child, I can honestly say that. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy the company of children and see them as other human beings who might enlighten me and make my life more interesting.

But choosing to have a child is not the same thing as having fathering impulses.

You're right, it's not. Part of maturity is the need to pass on what you know to younger people. I've found myself doing that a lot in recent years. I have friends who are 22 or 23 towards whom I feel extremely fatherly, and it's lovely because they're also gay, or some of them are, and I'm able to be a gay father in some sense. I'm able to pass on my life experience to a younger person and let them bounce their heartaches and dreams off of me. It makes me feel that much more useful because I didn't have anyone to do that for me when I was a young man, and I wished that I had it.

I've been involved with a group called LYRIC that provides support for gay teens. A lot of gay people have been leery about that for fear of looking like pederasts, but to think that way is to rob gay kids of the chance to experience a mentor relationship.

Gabriel does bump up against that anxiety in other people. However, Pete is straight, and one of the great points in "The Night Listener" is when Gabriel sends Pete a Playboy.

That's more like being an uncle or grandparent. They get to commit that kind of sacrilege and thereby become closer to the children.

Nevertheless, a lot of straight people who are comfortable with gays in most other ways are still not quite comfortable with this. It must be very painful for gay people of either gender, who want to have that elder relationship with a young person, that it has to be so fraught.

For many people it's fraught with those fears, but it's just another aspect of homophobia that gay people must cast off. Most children today, most teenagers today, are perfectly comfortable with the concept of homosexuality. At least, they know what it is and they're often more blunt about the subject matter than a middle-aged gay man in San Francisco might be. I have some very civilized friends here who chose to make me and my lover Terry the godparents of their two boys, one of whom is 18 now and the other of whom is 6. The 18-year-old has known since he was about 5. He won the Ernest Hemingway award, which is a high school journalism competition, for writing about his relationship with me and Terry. He's the coolest dude on the planet, and he's as straight as they come. His parents never communicated any uncomfortable feelings about me and Terry, and so consequently, he never had them. It was a wonderful, rich opening-up for me because I was able to let go of that feeling that I better be careful or it'll look like I'm proselytizing, whatever that means.

As if you could!

Yes, as if you could.

One of the things that Gabriel is still trying to come to terms with, even in his 50s, is his relationship with his own father. I wonder if you think that it's taken him so long because he's gay or if, conversely, the process is happening at all because Gabriel's gay. Does the fact that they have this big issue to deal with force them to really talk to each other in ways they wouldn't have otherwise?

Well, I can say that, on a personal level, my homosexuality helped differentiate me dramatically from my father, so that we could finally arrive at a loving friendship between two different people, not just Armistead Maupin and Armistead Maupin Jr. As far as confrontation goes, I don't know how being gay figures into it, because both my brother and my sister are -- in their 50s -- finally reaching a sort of (unclear) with my father, and they're both rampantly straight.

Something really lovely arose as a result of this novel, which is a far closer relationship with my father. He called me up to tell how much he liked the novel, how proud he was of me, how he thought it was my best work yet, and how he was sure it would be a bestseller. I was stunned! I had imagined every possible response -- from him never speaking to me again to him being heartbroken -- except for the one he came up with, which was to behave in a completely generous and loving manner. It was pretty damn amazing.

Perhaps one thing he liked, which is something dads often seem to like, is that you've crafted a plot that's a bit like that of a thriller, though I wouldn't exactly use that term for "The Night Listener."

I always flinch a little when I pick up the TV guide and see "Vertigo" described as a thriller, because that was the single work of art that most influenced me in my writing.

Really? The sensibility seems so different from yours.

If you look at the bone structure of "The Night Listener," you'll see that, like "Vertigo," there's a major turnaround in the middle of it. It involves obsession and longing and switched identities and a middle-aged man on a quest. It's very interesting for me to watch "Vertigo" today and see so much in Jimmy Stewart's performance that reveals so much to me about the state of being single in your middle years. It's a very complicated and interesting performance. Most of my friends look at the relationship between him and Barbara Bel Geddes and say "That's just like a gay man and his best friend." It was very radical at the time to show two grown-ups of the opposite sex who were actually friends who did things together, who went to the movies together.

Though their relationship is hardly that simple.

Yes, that's true. It's very complex. The movie deals with every possible human longing and the nature of loneliness, and also with that experience of arriving at the place where you began. "Tales of the City" was a sort of train that I got on and its form dictated what I had to do. There were moments when you could glimpse my fascination with mystery stories and those darker themes, but for the most part it was a sunnier, more optimistic climate. I love mystery novels and movies that test you mentally, that are about human themes and that don't resort to violence and mayhem as part of the excitement.

Yet most of those books and movies aren't autobiographical. We don't think of them as being true to life. It must have been strange to take the elements of your life and put them into the kind of plot that's usually thought of as being escapist because it's contrived and not at all like real life.

No one marries memoir to mystery! I think you can do both. I tried to arrive at some kind of heart truth in the course of telling a gripping suspense story. I used the autobiographical stuff to serve the story and not the other way around. I've always wanted to keep people interested more than anything else.