Thursday, May 11, 2006

60 SECONDS: Armistead Maupin

Author Armistead Maupin has won the first Big Gay Read competition. His Tales Of The City books were a cult hit in the early 1980s thanks to their wacky characters and depiction of San Francisco's colourful gay scene. They were adapted for TV and a musical version is on the way. Maupin collects his award tomorrow in Manchester as part of the Queer Up North Festival.

Why are your books so popular?
The characters give people permission to be whoever they are. In many ways the Tales Of The City novels are like British comedies focusing on a small band of eccentrics. They have a sense of cosiness. They cover the darker side of life, too, but they’re essentially hopeful in their messiness. I’m not good at analysing the appeal of my work, it all comes instinctively and people seem to like it.

Have the books dated?
I was worried about that but they don’t seem to have. I hear from a lot of teenagers these days who are obsessed with the books. The storytelling aspect of it probably prevails over the period aspects.

Does writing get more difficult as you get older?
Yes. My critical faculties have improved with age. I’m more aware of what good writing is and I’m tougher on myself. There are times when I simply lose my energy and don’t want to write. Writing requires full engagement with the page and a sense of fun. If it becomes drudgery, the words reflect that.

Are you embarrassed by your early stuff?
I don’t look back very often. I don’t want to cringe and think, ‘I want to change that.’ Sometimes I read the odd paragraph with one eye closed and think it’s pretty good. I can’t remember what I’ve written so I can read myself as if I’m another author. I think, ‘Oh did I say that? That’s pretty funny.’

You’ve said your inspiration is sex and cannabis. Is this still the case?
Pretty much yes, ha ha ha. I use a vaporiser these days which is supposed to eliminate the harmful effects of the smoke. I’m not sure how it works though.

Research shows prolonged cannabis use can lead to cannabis psychosis. Are you showing any symptoms?
Ha ha ha ha. I’ve used it for 30 years so far and I still seem to be doing OK.

You had a brief romance with Rock Hudson. That must have been interesting.
It was friendship that’s been depicted as a romance, which it wasn’t. It taught me a lot about how to deal with someone who carries the burden of celebrity. The more famous someone is, the more desperate they are to be seen for who they are and not be objectified. Nothing turns me off faster than when people do that to me.

You were criticised for outing Rock Hudson shortly before his death – do you regret that?
Not even slightly. What I did gave him a dignified treatment from the press. They finally stopped speculating about his sexuality. The American press grew up that year and learned how to write about gay people. I’m not upset by it as I know Rock didn’t have any bad feelings towards me when I did it. I was the first person he sent his biographer to.

Some liberals threatened to leave the US when Bush got re-elected. Were you one of them?
No. Some of my friends said they’d leave but I wasn’t about to let the bastards win and drive me out of this beautiful country. It’s easy to say that in San Francisco, though, because we’re saner than they are in the rest of the country. We’ve led every social movement of the last century and are thought to be wacky and zany because we arrive at things first. We were the only place in the US that openly opposed the Iraq war for instance.

So what trends are occurring in San Francisco that the rest of us can look forward to?
Everyone’s buying hybrid cars, myself included. I like mine because it talks back to me. Sometimes she – I named her Carlotta – says ‘there is no fixed destination’. I have no idea what it means but it sounds terribly profound. One time I got angry at her and told her to go f**k herself. She replied ‘system is showing hairdresser icons’. My partner turned to me and said, ‘I think she just called you a queen.’ Ha ha ha.

You’ve said the books were better received in Britain than the US. Why is that?
The books are well known in America but, per capita, I’d say they’re more popular in Britain and Germany. I get to reap the benefit of the European fascination with San Francisco. People who live abroad have much more interest in the mythologising of the city.