Thursday, July 12, 2007

Teller of tales

Nearly 20 years after the last Tales of the City novel, Armistead Maupin revisits his much-loved characters in Michael Tolliver Lives. As Kelly Apter discovers, it’s no slight return

Don’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told. And yet, for fans of Tales of the City, the front of Armistead Maupin’s new book tells us everything we need to know. A blossoming flower, a bright yellow backing, and those three little words we all long to hear - Michael Tolliver Lives.

Since the release of Sure Of You in 1990, Maupin’s final book in the series, the fate of Michael Tolliver has been a mystery. Over the space of six novels, we had watched Michael grow up. From his hedonistic days dancing in jockey shorts at The Endup disco, to his role as homemaking nurseryman (of the plant variety), we were always on his side. So when Michael was diagnosed as HIV positive, Maupin’s readers prepared themselves to lose a dear friend. Only to be left dangling for 17 years.

Now, finally, Maupin has put us out of our misery. Michael Tolliver Lives catches up with the former residents of 28 Barbary Lane, and finds Michael alive and well. But while we may have fretted over Michael’s health, did Maupin always know the character was still going strong? ‘Yes I did,’ he says. ‘Because I have a lot of friends with HIV who are still alive, and I never assumed that Michael had died. That was always my answer when people would ask me during that period - hence the title.’

Charting the lives of several gay and straight residents of San Francisco, Tales of the City started life in 1976 as a newspaper serialisation. In novel form, the stories have sold millions worldwide, and been adapted into a Channel 4 mini-series. Having written Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others and Sure of You, however, Maupin felt the need for a change. Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener followed, as well as a number of screenplays. So why choose to write about Tolliver and co now?

‘Because I felt like it,’ says Maupin, laughing. ‘I know it’s hard not to sound like a petulant child when you answer that question, but that’s really what it was. I had explored other realms, and I was ready to visit those characters again.’ But Michael was only one of a number of key characters in Maupin’s series - why choose him rather than Mary Ann, Mona, Brian, Mrs Madrigal or any of the other, peripheral figures?

‘I wanted to write a novel about an ageing gay man living in the Castro district of San Francisco,’ explains Maupin. ‘And it struck me that Michael would be the perfect person to tell that story. Initially I didn’t intend to bring in the other characters, and I was quite adamant about that. But they began to audition and keep me awake at night with their demands. So I let them in one by one.’

Unlike the preceding six books, which jump from one character to another, Michael Tolliver Lives is written solely in first person. Given the change in format, Maupin stated early on that this latest book was not the seventh book in the series, but a stand-alone novel. This was a suggestion which puzzled all who read it.

‘That’s the problem with Google - you say something once and then you see it reprinted 400 times,’ says Maupin. ‘I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble about that comment, because everyone tells me that in fact it is a continuation of the story, even if the format is different.’ One slight difference, however, is the pace.

At the start, Maupin had to hook readers and bring them back to the San Francisco Chronicle each day. So heartstopping moments and jaw-dropping cliffhangers abounded. Not only that, but Michael, Brian, Mary Ann et al were all young devotees of the San Francisco lifestyle, burning bright in the fast lane.

When we join Michael this time, he’s a 55-year-old gardener with a husband. And while the book still throws dramatic curve balls at you, and some fantastically dirty sex, there’s a more relaxed tone throughout.

Was it the absence of serialisation or Michael’s advanced years that caused that? ‘It was probably a little of both,’ suggests Maupin. ‘I certainly didn’t feel the need to bring readers back day after day. But I think it’s also my instinct to want to build a certain amount of suspense into anything I write.’

Throughout the Tales of the City series, comparisons have often been made between Maupin and Michael. But now, they seem more prevalent than ever. At the age of 63, Maupin recently married his 35-year-old partner, Christopher, while Michael has done likewise with Ben, a man 21 years his junior. Similarly, Maupin’s observations about the changing face of San Francisco are voiced through Michael.

‘I plundered about the same amount of my life to create him as in the other books,’ says Maupin. ‘But the whole process of writing fiction is basically channelling characters through your own experience. Yes, there are elements of Michael that are very close to me. But I don’t consider myself to be him or him to be me. He’s a little bit me, a little bit who I’d like to be and a little bit who I’d like to sleep with.’

Aside from all the inherent humour and snapshots of San Franciscan life, Michael Tolliver Lives also has a heart. Despite claiming otherwise, Michael’s deep desire for his mother’s approval is hugely touching. And one particular moment towards the end of the novel will cause many readers to shed a few tears.

‘There was a parallel in my own life. I brought Christopher home to meet my father, who was just months away from death. And my father could not have been more generous or loving to Christopher. When we were leaving the house, he had a few words with him alone and said “you take care of that boy” - meaning the 63-year-old you’re talking to now.’

Having re-submerged yourself in the lives of these complex, vulnerable, funny and hugely likeable characters, it’s hard to let them go again. Thankfully, we don’t have to.

‘I’ve just contracted to do another book about Michael,’ says Maupin. ‘And one of the other major characters will make a much longer appearance in the next one. So it’s not the end.’

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Memoir as fiction

Memoir as fiction

July 8, 2007

..dropstart-->Gore Vidal did it. Edmund White did it. Augusten Burroughs made a career doing it. But Armistead Maupin is one gay literary titan who will never do it: Write his memoirs, that is...dropend-->

"All memoirs are selective memory," Maupin declares, bringing to mind a concept from his 2000 novel The Night Listener called "jewelling the elephant" -- or tweaking the bare facts so that a greater truth is revealed. "I come closer to the truth by pretending I'm not telling it."

With his silver hair and warm smile, the 63-year-old author resembles a less rotund, Southern Santa Claus. And he has the same air of good-natured benevolence, like someone who, at any moment, might surprise you with a special gift.

For his legion of fans, gay and straight, that's what he's been doing all along.

Maupin burst onto the literary scene with Tales of the City, which began as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976. Long before Bridget Jones click-clacked her way through the pages of the London Independent (with the help of Helen Fielding), Maupin chronicled single life in the big city with his quirky cast of characters.

There was Mrs. Madrigal, the irrepressible landlady who taped joints to her tenants' doors; Brian Hawkins, who quit the law to wait tables and have as much sex as possible; and Mary Ann Singleton, the Cleveland transplant so naïve she thought an offer of "coke" meant someone wanted to give her a soft drink.

But most memorably, there was Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, the joker of the group, but also the glue who seemed to hold them all together. By 1989's Sure of You -- the sixth and, until now, final book in the series -- it was pretty clear that Tolliver was occasionally a stand-in for Maupin himself.

Each came from a conservative Southern family. (Maupin even worked for the notoriously homophobic Jesse Helms.) Each felt happiest in his adopted homeland of San Francisco. And in some cases -- such as "Letter to Mama," the heart-wrenching chapter in 1980's More Tales of the City in which Michael comes out to his fundamentalist parents -- it seemed as if Maupin were working out his personal demons right on the page.

Indeed, the closest he may ever come to an autobiography is his latest novel, Michael Tolliver Lives. The title character, like Maupin, is an introspective gay San Franciscan who first spies his decades-younger husband on the Internet. In the book, the Web site goes unnamed; in real life, Maupin's husband, Christopher Turner, runs the matchmaking site

If Tolliver is, arguably, Maupin's most personal novel, it's also one of his angriest -- though he didn't mean to step on any soapboxes. The references to Terri Schiavo, Guantánamo Bay and the war in Iraq were simply a storyteller's attempt to capture what one character refers to as "this cold new [political] climate." Maupin's taking his time to decide which presidential candidate has "balls." (Though this may sound like an indirect dig at Mrs. Clinton, it isn't.) But in the meantime, the Vietnam veteran has a few choice words for George W. Bush -- who, he says, is "making all the same excuses" he heard when he was in combat.

"They're taking young men and women with noble intentions and making them fight for Bush and his family," Maupin says with disgust. He began writing Michael Tolliver Lives, he says, before the public reached a "widespread consensus" that the war was a mistake. Happily, by the time it was published, most of the country had caught up with "those wacky San Franciscans."

These days, when Maupin is working on a project, he writes from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. -- though, he adds with a self-deprecating chuckle, "There are very few circumstances under which I like to write." The time between novels has been filled with movie projects, such as the unproduced screenplay for the fourth "Tales" novel, 1983's Babycakes, co-written with Maupin's former partner, Terry Anderson. (Maupin declines to say whether the two are still in touch.)

"Babycakes," the movie, was shelved indefinitely when the cable channel Showtime, which aired the miniseries of "More Tales" and "Further Tales," "went out of the movie-making business" to focus on new shows such as "Weeds." It was exactly the right time for Maupin's work to transition from the small to the big screen. Director Patrick Stettner cast Robin Williams as a very Maupinesque writer in 2006's "The Night Listener," which the author proudly refers to as a "creepy little bloodless thriller."

But if Maupin now tops the bestseller lists and hob-knobs with the Hollywood elite, a few things, at least, have stayed the same. On a productive day, he churns out two pages -- about the length of one of his old Tales columns for the Chronicle. And he still mines his personal life for details, whether writing about Michael Tolliver, The Night Listener's Gabriel Noone, or Cady Roth from 1992's Maybe the Moon ("my most underrated novel").

"I have, in essence, been writing my memoirs," Maupin concedes. "But I've been doing it through my characters."

Matt Zakosek, a Chicago free-lance writer, has never been the same since reading Tales at age 12.


By Armistead Maupin
HarperCollins, 288 pages, $25.95.. Armistead Maupin

Sunday, July 1, 2007

"Mad, Stark Mad"

Mad, Stark Mad"
Thirty-five years after "defecting" to the Barbary Coast, the bestselling novelist still loves his city by the bay

By Armistead Maupin
Smithsonian magazine, July 2007

A recent episode of "South Park," the animated show on Comedy Central, was devoted to the notion that hybrid-driving liberals in San Francisco had caused a toxic "cloud of smug" to form over the city, threatening the entire nation.

That's closer to the truth than I'd like to admit.

We San Franciscans can be a little smug sometimes, a little too patriotic about our beloved city-state. But, frankly, it's hard not to feel that way when you've lived here for any time at all. This place is special—a patchwork of villages huddled on seven hills above the bluest of bays. We've got wild parrots in our trees and mom-and-pop stores on the corner and world-class olive oil down at the Ferry Building. These days we've got an elegant new museum in the park and a tree-lined boulevard where an ugly freeway offramp used to be. We've got that strapping young mayor too—who became even more irresistible to the ladies when he married some gay folks down at City Hall. Hell, we've even got the woman who is leading the House of Representatives now—the first woman to do so—and though she's cleverly disguised as a Catholic grandmother at a country club, she's our kind of gal.

And we've been right about things. Sorry, but it has to be said: we've been right about things for a very long time. Wacky, godless, treasonous San Francisco, standing alone in its madness, spoke out about global warming and the war in Iraq and George W. Bush long before the rest of America finally woke up to the truth. So those dreaded "San Francisco values"—tolerance, compassion and peace—aren't sounding quite so flaky in a country disillusioned by Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina.

Don't get me wrong. We're no wiser than the rest of America—just a lot freer. We can think our foolish thoughts and chase our foolish schemes without hindrance from church or state or the neighbors down the block. We are free to transgress—politically, artistically, sexually and spiritually—and we believe that a great deal of good has emerged from that. That's why, in the end, we don't really care what the rest of America thinks of us. We've been immune to those taunts since 1849, when the New York Post described the citizens of San Francisco as "mad, stark mad."

There was justification, mind you. The crazed fortune hunters who created this place left their ships to rot in the harbor on their way to the gold in the hills. That's how certain they were that they would never return to their homes in the East. Their ships, what's more, were dragged out of the water and into the muddy streets, where they found brash new lives as hotels and jailhouses—weird Dr. Seussian hybrids of vessel and building that stood for years as proof there was No Going Back. The past, having outlived its usefulness, had been carpentered into the future.

A century and a half later—despite earthquakes, epidemics and dot-com disasters—people still chase their dreams to San Francisco. They don't so much move to the city as defect to it, warmed by the glow of their burning bridges. Like the heroine of my Tales of the City novels, newcomers have been known to take this leap overnight, enduring high rents, low pay and joblessness in the hope of becoming someone else.

It's not that we don't revere tradition: we do, deeply. But ours is a tradition of eccentricity and earthly pleasures and a healthy disrespect for the powers that be. And most of us, I've found, love reciting the lore of our rebellious history. When visitors arrive from elsewhere, I myself can be every bit as garrulous as a docent in an antebellum mansion in Georgia. Here, for instance, are some of the things I enjoy telling them:

* That Mary Ellen Pleasant, a former slave who settled here after the Civil War, secured the right of black people to ride the trolleys in San Francisco almost a century before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that bus in Alabama.

* That Mark Twain, while steaming in a Turkish bath on the site of the current Transamerica Pyramid, struck up a friendship with a local fireman whose homespun-sounding name—Tom Sawyer—would later prove useful to the storyteller.

* That Billie Holiday was busted for drugs in a room at the Mark Twain Hotel.

* That the ashes of gunfighter Wyatt Earp were buried in a Jewish cemetery south of San Francisco so that his beloved widow could later be interred with him.

* That Jack Kerouac wandered away from Neal Cassady's cottage on Russian Hill to stumble upon Joan Crawford, larger than life in pumps and a fur, shooting Sudden Fear in the fog.

* That the Twin Peaks bar at Castro and Market was the first gay bar in America to have windows on the street, making the patrons visible to the general public.

* That Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, like Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell, were married at San Francisco City Hall.

* That Jeanne Bonnet, a swashbuckling lass who frequented the brothels of the Barbary Coast dressed as a man, later convinced some of the prostitutes to flee their pimps and join her own all-girl band of pickpockets.

* That the Lusty Lady, a modern-day Barbary Coast establishment on Kearny Street, struck its own blow against the exploitation of women when, in 2003, it became the first worker-owned peep show in the nation.

* That in 1927 a fresh-faced young Mormon named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the world's first television image in a laboratory at the foot of Telegraph Hill.

* That the brain of Ishi, the last "wild" Native American and a one-time San Francisco celebrity, was returned to California in 2000 after spending almost a century in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Maryland.

* That among the words San Francisco has given the dictionary are beatnik, yuppie, hippie, hoodlum and shanghaied.

I was none of those things when I arrived in San Francisco in 1972 to work for the Associated Press. Fresh out of the South and a tour of duty in Vietnam, I was seriously conservative and frightened to death of almost everything, especially my own homosexuality. (It was, after all, still officially a mental illness, not to mention a crime.) But when I worked up the nerve to confess my "condition" to a new friend—a young married woman with children—she stared at me soulfully, took both my hands in hers and murmured a dewy-eyed "big f------ deal." I could hardly believe my ears. Like the city itself, she was telling me to lighten up and get on with the business of my life.

That proved to be my born-again moment, the watershed from which I date my transformation. In San Francisco I found love the way I'd always wanted it. I found friends of every imaginable variety. I found my creativity and a generous audience and a seemingly endless supply of stories to tell. After too many years of searching, I found, in other words, the age-old American promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So I dragged my ship out of the harbor and made it my home for good.

Armistead Maupin's novel Michael Tolliver Lives was published in June.