MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES
By Armistead Maupin.
277 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $25.95.
NY Times Book Review
By Armistead Maupin.
277 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $25.95.
Armistead Maupin's enormously popular "Tales of the City" series, published between 1978 and 1989, told the story of a disparate group of San Franciscans brought together under the roof of Anna Madrigal, a transsexual lady of a certain age who ran a boarding house on a street called Barbary Lane while growing marijuana on the side. Reviving a 19th-century tradition, Maupin wrote the Tales in the form of a serial, with installments appearing daily in The San Francisco Chronicle. After "Sure of You" came out in 1989, Maupin declared that the series was finished, and went on to write two other novels. He changed his mind, however, and now he brings us "Michael Tolliver Lives," a sort of coda to the Tales, in which he catches us up on the many characters who populate the earlier books — and in particular on Mike Tolliver himself.
As the first chapter opens, it is 2006, and Mike, at 55, is surprised to be alive. Twenty years ago he was certain that he would die of AIDS; now, much to his own bewilderment, he's thriving, thanks to "a fine-tuned mélange of Viramune and Combivir." Life is good for Mike: he owns his own house, runs a successful business as a gardener and landscape architect, and was recently married to Ben, who is handsome, charming and 21 years his junior.
And yet, let's not forget that we're in Armistead Maupin's San Francisco. Thus Mike's burly assistant, a self-proclaimed "bear cub" named Jake Greenleaf, turns out to be a female-to-male transsexual with whom Mike once had a gender-bending one-night stand. Mike found Ben, on the Internet, on a site devoted to older men and their admirers, on which Ben identified himself as CLEANCUTLAD4U. And their wedding was part of the communal ceremony that took place at San Francisco City Hall after the city declared marriage between same-sex couples legal, with Mayor Gavin Newsom presiding, "so young and handsome and ... neat ... that he actually looked like the man on top of a wedding cake."
As for Anna Madrigal — the doyenne of Barbary Lane, played so memorably by Olympia Dukakis in the PBS adaptation of the series — she's now 85, and has moved from her boarding house to a small apartment where she watches lovingly over the three young "trannies" upstairs. Along with Mike, she's trying to keep an eye on Shawna, the daughter of Mike's straight best friend, Brian. Shawna has grown up into a sort of Outward Bound explorer of the erotic wilderness, whose adventurings — recounted on a widely read blog — include a stint working at "the Lusty Lady, a peep show in North Beach that recently became the nation's first worker-owned strip club." Even the domestic bliss that Mike shares with Ben is distinctly San Franciscan in flavor, with Ben casually giving his older husband testosterone injections and the couple negotiating just how open they want their marriage to be. ("You're too young to be monogamous," Mike tells Ben. "And I'm too old.")
Such, though, is life in the city that Mike's Orlando-based relatives call "Sodom by the Bay" — a life whose audaciously self-conscious particularity Mike finds alternately delightful and exasperating. Reflecting on a restaurant menu's description of ingredients as "artisanal" rather than "homemade," he observes: "Sometimes Northern California just wears me ... down, and I get fed up with our precious patois, our fetishizing of almost everything." It's as if, for Maupin as much as for Mike, a certain malaise has settled in; as if "the City" they love so well, with its population of latex fetishists, foot worshipers and people who like to have sex in clown costumes, has started to seem even to them a little too, well, cute.
Like its predecessors, Michael Tolliver Lives" is a novel only in the loosest sense of the term. The chapters are independent yet interdependent, flowing into one another gracefully while remaining very much singular entities. If there's a plot, it's a casually constructed one, culminating in the simultaneous collapses of two very different women: Mike's "biological" mother, dying in a nursing home in Florida, and his "logical" mother, Anna, hospitalized in San Francisco after a heart attack. The choice of which bedside to run to — of which mother is the real mother — provides some dramatic tension, if only in the final pages.
The most interesting part of "Michael Tolliver Lives" is probably the sequence of chapters that takes Mike and Ben to visit Mike's family in Orlando. It's here that Maupin catches his stride as a writer, displaying in great furls of prose both his instinct for comedy and his linguistic verve. He gets Central Florida spot-on: the McMansion in which Mike's sister-in-law, Lenore, enlists his
proto-gay great-nephew, Sumter, in constructing puppets for her Christian puppet theater; the Gospel Palms nursing home, in which Mike's dying mother strikes up a friendship with her black hairdresser (with whom Mike and Ben later have a three-way); the gay B&B owned by "a pair of retired Italian queens from Queens" who each night leave an orchid floating in the toilet bowl.
All this is rendered with balance, good humor and compassion. And indeed, if I have a complaint about "Michael Tolliver Lives," it may be that for all the pleasure it takes in its own transgressiveness, it comes off as a little too nice. For example, what in the '70s we called "four-letter words" pepper the novel, yet they're almost always used as terms of endearment. No conflict lasts for more than a few sentences, every flare-up is becalmed by sweetness, and though all the characters are interesting, none are difficult. I once heard the British actress Mollie Sugden observe in an interview that there could be no comedy without threat. Yet for all Maupin's ponderous references to George W. Bush, Enron, Abu Ghraib and AIDS, threat is oddly remote from the landscape of "Michael Tolliver Lives." On the contrary, the characters live in a landscape more distinctive for its buffered gentleness than its dangers.
Despite this, the book is great fun to read. Maupin is a master at sustained and sustaining comic turns. Of these, my favorite is probably the story of Carlotta. Carlotta, to be precise, is the name Mike and Ben have given to the voice in which their Toyota Prius's navigation system gives them directions: "female, elegant and a little bossy." On a trip through the Southwest, Ben, noticing a chill in the air, tells Carlotta, "Seventy-two degrees." She answers that "there is no fifth destination." Realizing Carlotta must have misunderstood him, Ben asks: "If that's the answer, what's the question?"
Unfortunately, like so much else in this novel, Maupin domesticates this moment of spectral strangeness, much as the city he loves and loathes domesticates the perverseness in which it also takes such pride. "From that moment on," Mike tells us, " 'There is no fifth destination' became our all-purpose pronouncement. ... It became our way of saying 'big deal' or 'who the hell knows?' or 'lighten up, for God's sake, you won't get out of this alive.' "
All very nice. And yet I couldn't help wondering: What would Nabokov have done with Carlotta?
David Leavitt's novel "The Indian Clerk" will be published this fall.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/24/books/review/Leavitt.html?ex=1183608000&en=21026be71f25e78d&ei=5070
Monday, June 11, 2007
Unlike his friend Nora Ephron, Armistead Maupin doesn't feel bad about his neck. Sure, it's a little creaky -- a touch of arthritis -- but he looks on the bright side. "I wake up in the morning with the loveliest guy in the world, with incredibly geezery aches and pains," Maupin says with a laugh.
His point is, he wakes up. And he does so -- with his husband, Christopher Turner, a Web site entrepreneur -- in a cozy aerie, tucked in the woods above Parnassus Avenue at the top of a zigzag of brick steps.
The house has a spectacular view of the city, as does Maupin, creator of the beloved "Tales of the City" series.
Started in 1976 as a newspaper serial following the adventures of the various eccentrics living at 28 Barbary Lane (a stand-in for Russian Hill's Macondray Lane), "Tales" ran for years in The Chronicle, spawning six books and three television miniseries.
After 18 years, Maupin has returned to Barbary Lane with a new book -- "Michael Tolliver Lives," out Tuesday from HarperCollins -- which is another love song to Maupin's adopted home.
Tuesday, the city returns the compliment; Mayor Gavin Newsom has declared June 12 "Michael Tolliver Day in San Francisco."
Unlike its predecessors, the new book is written from the point of view of Tolliver, the sweet male Southern belle.
"I was nervous that people following the series might be thrown off by a first-person novel that has all the characters treated equally," says Maupin, settling into a deep champagne-colored couch and looking very Brooks Brothers in a green gingham shirt and crisp khakis. But as the book took shape, he couldn't resist giving preferential treatment to some of the characters.
"They started auditioning for me, begging for a place in the chorus line," he says. These folks are still kicking, despite the devastation of AIDS and advancing age, and therein lies the theme of Maupin's newest "Tale."
"I wanted to illuminate the process of growing older as a gay man, and make it easier for people who think life is over," he says. "Gay men who are growing old are incredibly lucky to be here."
Maupin's life hasn't been untouched by AIDS; like so many, he lost a loved one. The optimistic outlook he has today has been hard won.
"But if I'd known that 63 was going to feel this good, I would have been a lot more cheerful along the way," says Maupin. He and Turner, who is 27 years younger, were married this year in Vancouver, British Columbia; Turner runs a Web site for gay men over 40 who are searching for younger partners.
"Age is the last closet you come out of in the gay world," he says, and that's more than just a snappy coinage.
"There are such gloomy visions of gay men aging. But if you worship beauty above all else, if you worship sex above all else, you're in trouble. If you're not working on your heart every second, you are going to have a very sad old age."
The walls of Turner and Maupin's terraced Arts and Crafts cottage are lined with paintings, photographs and mementos.
A photo-portrait of Maupin by David Hockney hangs in the tin-lined stairwell. Facing it is a sultry watercolor of Turner by Don Bacardi, partner of author Christopher Isherwood (a mentor of Maupin's). Nearby is a pencil sketch of Ian McKellen as Gandalf, a self-portrait the actor left as a gift on his last visit.
Among the treasures displayed on a beautifully figured oak table by the front window is a gilt-edged edition of "Mademoiselle de Maupin." French writer Theophile Gautier's 1835 novel is the story of a woman seeking truth and beauty through cross-dressing. The character is one of the inspirations for Anna Madrigal, the transsexual landlady in "Tales of the City" who was played on film by Olympia Dukakis.
Also holding places of honor in Maupin's home are the sepia portraits of his maternal grandmother. She was an English suffragist, theosophist, palm reader and actress who moved to Asheville, N.C., during the First World War. One photograph shows her wide-eyed and in character as "The Madwoman of Chaillot," a satirical French play from the 1940s. Maupin saw her perform when he was a boy, and still recalls the moment she took the stage in that role at the Raleigh Little Theatre, rising through a trapdoor in a curtain of dry ice.
She would often read his palm and ask what he wanted to be when he grew up. "A lawyer, like Daddy," he would say, and she would close his palm tenderly, with a look that said "probably not."
When he last visited her, at a convalescent home in Virginia, "Tales of the City" had just been published. At 95, she was dressed up as always, but she didn't know him. On an impulse, he reached out his palm. "Teddy," she said, using his family nickname, "you're in your 30s now."
Through "Tales of the City," Maupin became an activist.
"We've had a revolution over the years, and I'm really happy to have been part of it," he says. "My whole career has been motivated by my determination that people shouldn't have to be in the closet. I'd spent time there myself."
Some newer fans of "Tales of the City" may not know how far he has come. Growing up in a prominent North Carolina family, Maupin was an "adamant young conservative." He began writing while in college, with a column in the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was "part Art Buchwald, part William F. Buckley."
After serving in the Navy, Maupin returned from Vietnam a vocal supporter of the war. Through his father -- whose law firm ran the Congressional Club, a fundraising arm of the conservative right -- he went to work for North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. "It's my so-called dark secret. I was Helms' golden boy," he says. "I think I've done enough to atone." In a twist Maupin relishes, Helms later condemned the film of "Tales of the City" on the Senate floor.
But looking back, "being a conservative and in the closet go hand-in-hand, because it's easier if you insist everyone else keep the lid on," he says. "The Rev. Ted Haggard is no rare exception." Haggard, a Christian-right preacher, was outed last year by his longtime male escort.
A move to California helped spur Maupin's self-acceptance -- but not right away.
"I was moving to San Francisco to work at Associated Press when I got a call that the president wanted to see me three days hence," he says mischievously.
Helms had recommended him to President Richard Nixon ("a terrified little man") as a potential counter to John Kerry, the charismatic member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War whose 1971 speech -- "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- electrified Congress.
"It's bitterly ironic to me now," Maupin says, "because in the last election Kerry was nowhere near left enough for me."
When he finally did report for his AP job in San Francisco, his editors -- intentionally, he thinks -- sent him to cover a peace march downtown. "That's when I saw my first public nudity," he says fondly.
His own coming out was gradual, and San Francisco, he believes, made all the difference. "It opened my heart," he says. "It let me examine my own bigotry. And it let me have a good time doing it."
Maupin has more than returned the favor. After all, in his seven Dickensian "Tales" -- inspired by his own adventures and those of his friends -- the real protagonist is the city by the bay.
Tuesday is "Michael Tolliver Day" in San Francisco. Armistead Maupin will appear at 12:30 p.m. at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, #42, San Francisco, (415) 835-1020, www.bookpassage.com; and at 7 p.m. at Books Inc., Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness, San Francisco, (415) 776-1111, www.booksinc.net.
Maupin revisits ‘Tales of the City’ hippies
But thankfully for fans worldwide, Maupin's newest book, "Michael Tolliver Lives," revisits many of the same larger-than-life characters that propelled "Tales" from a weekly San Francisco Chronicle column to six books and a Showtime mini-soap opera.
The book debuts Tuesday, when Maupin kicks off a tour and Mayor Gavin Newsom declares "Michael Tolliver Day" in San Francisco.
Instead of randy hippies who smoke joints, as they did when the series began in 1976, the aging lefties of "Michael Tolliver Lives" pop joint and arthritis pills. Instead of plotting nightly sexual conquests, as they did as 20-something singles, many profess shock at the level of promiscuousness practiced by today's youth.
The book — which would certainly earn the literary equivalent of an R rating — centers on Michael Tolliver, the endearing Southern gay man who came to San Francisco in 1971 and lived at 28 Barbary Lane. Now Michael is in his mid-50s, a mildly arthritic and HIV-positive landscape architect married to Ben, a handsome furniture designer and yogi 21 years younger.
Michael first spots Ben on an Internet dating site, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop results in romance. They get hitched over Valentine's Day weekend in 2004, when the city began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Except for Ben's weekly forays to bath houses in Berkeley, they're homebodies who watch sappy movies and tease each other about their lack of cooking skills.
"I wanted to tell the story of a gay man getting older — especially one who thought death was imminent and is now confronting normal mortality," Maupin, 63, said in the living room of his 1907 Craftsman overlooking the San Francisco Bay. "I didn't want to say it was a 'Tales' sequel because I didn't want to disappoint fans."
For readers looking for updates on "Tales" characters, Maupin delivers. Mary Ann, the straight-laced girl from Cleveland who moved to San Francisco to find a husband, is now a wealthy wife in Connecticut. Brian, once a sex-crazed heterosexual who relished his bachelor status, is a single father uncertain whether to embrace or stifle his precocious daughter's bisexuality.
Politics play heavily in novel
The biggest difference between "Michael Tolliver" and earlier installments is Maupin's emphasis on politics. Several chapters take place near Orlando, Fla., where Michael visits his dying mother and introduces Ben to his born-again Christian relatives.
Michael bristles at Dick Cheney, the War on Terror, the radical right's influence in Washington. His relatives — racists and homophobes who live in a mansion and drive SUVs and a gas-guzzling boat — pray that he'll pick a straight "lifestyle" and repent before he goes to hell.
Maupin, a North Carolina native and Vietnam War veteran who came to San Francisco in 1971 as a reporter for The Associated Press, says the novel's political edge mirrors the polarization between red and blue America. It's also the logical result of Michael's maturity, he says.
"By the time you've reached my age, you're a lot less tolerant of bull---- from your family, even though the bonds still connect you and you still want to please," Maupin said. "We've made progress from utter invisibility 30 years ago to prominence in the cultural scene, but with that prominence has come a more rampant form of homophobia. My hope is that we're close to the time that homophobia takes on the status of racism today — normal, mainstream people don't accept it."
Maupin didn't create Michael Tolliver in his own image; the author's relatives welcomed his husband, Christopher Turner, into the family. But other parallels are obvious.
Maupin first saw Turner three years ago on an Internet site for older gay men, which Turner founded and runs. Maupin refused to solicit a date online and figured he'd never see Turner in real life.
Weeks later, he spotted Turner walking in the Castro, the city's gay enclave. Maupin stopped him, they exchanged numbers, dated, moved in together and married in Vancouver in February. Turner is 27 years younger than Maupin.
"I'm blessed to have found a man who loves me for who I am," said Maupin, who has bright but watery eyes and ruddy cheeks. "I am trying to be the best 63 I can — and I'm happy that I don't have to try to impersonate a man of 35. I want the novel to convey the fact that love, sex and connection are still there for us as we get older, just like it has been for me."
Tales of the City, the enormously popular series that Armistead Maupin began in 1974, is set at number 28 on a quiet, tree-dappled lane in San Francisco; Maupin himself lives at number 27 on a quiet, tree-dappled lane in San Francisco. After an interval of almost 20 years since the last Tales of the City book, Sure of You, Maupin's new novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, is published on June 18. Michael, the much-loved gay character who appears throughout the series, is now in his 50s and enjoying unexpected marital bliss with a much younger man, whom he first spotted on a gay dating website before serendipitously running into him on the street; Maupin - which the author pronounces, with a determined lack of pretension, as "Moppin" - is now in his 60s and recently married a much younger man, whom he first saw on the internet and then bumped into on the street soon after.
There are many other parallels between Maupin's work and his life. The novelist Patrick Gale, one of Maupin's closest friends, observes: "The thing with Armistead's work is that it's so inextricable from his personality. This is true with a lot of novelists, but especially so with him because he so blatantly mines his own life for material." In his Tales, Maupin has taken what Gale describes as his "'Madame Bovary c'est moi' syndrome" to extraordinary lengths, spreading his personality among the characters, from gentle Michael to the out-of-towner naif Mary Ann Singleton to Mrs Madrigal, the wise landlady with a mysterious past.
Maupin explains that because he kept his homosexuality a secret until relatively late in life, and led "a secret interior life for so long, it has always felt very natural to bounce between very different characters". The Night Listener, one of two books that are not part of the Tales series (and which has been made into a film starring Robin Williams), seems to be the most closely autobiographical of all his novels. It tells of a popular San Franciscan storyteller, Gabriel, who made his name through "grabby little armchair yarns ... My characters were a motley but lovable bunch, people caught in the supreme joke of modern life who were forced to survive by making families of their friends" - which, in self-deprecating fashion, pretty much sums up the Tales series.
Maupin concedes that his novels "are all emotionally autobiographical, and I often need the fires of real life to get the fiction going. But I tamper with the facts to such a degree that I don't see them as autobiographies ... As long as it's fiction, you can get to the truth without embellishment. Vanity comes into play once the author starts suggesting that this is reality." It is for this reason, perhaps, that the book he feels closest to is Maybe the Moon, the story of a Jewish female dwarf's search for stardom in Hollywood: "I could say the most intimate things about myself and look into the darkest corners of my soul through her."
This sense of liberation coincided with his own self-discovery around the time he started to write Tales: "I've been very open about myself for years because, once I came out, I felt such exhilaration about telling the truth that I thought it had endless possibilities." He even came out to his parents - a conservative lawyer and housewife in North Carolina - in the same manner as Michael, who, in the second book of the series, writes a letter to his parents telling them that he is gay. Maupin wrote that letter when he was 33 - "too old".
Maupin was born in Washington DC in 1944 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. A shy, unsporty boy, he compensated by storytelling: "I was the one who made everybody sit around the campfire and listen to my version of North Carolina ghost stories. I was quite humiliated at sports, so it was wonderful to discover when I was 10 that I had the power to control people that way." His favourite books as a child were the Hardy Boys mysteries, which "really whetted my appetite for storytelling", and the influence of their gripping storylines and cliffhanger chapter endings is clear in the Tales. A slightly later, and perhaps more surprising, influence were the films of Federico Fellini, which showed him that "there was another world out there with a great variety of humankind, far more than I could imagine in North Carolina".
Maupin was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. However, law school proved to be rather uninspiring, so he "flunked out - although, if you ask my parents, I left". He then, improbably, worked briefly at the TV station of the notoriously rightwing senator Jesse Helms: "It was something I did to please my father, because deep down I knew I had this secret that would one day blow him out of the water," he says.
In the late 60s he enlisted in the navy and was posted to Vietnam, where his chief job was taking an admiral's wife and the wives of visiting dignitaries on shopping trips in Saigon - "they knew what to do with the queer boy". He also spent several months on the Cambodian border, where there were "a couple of mortar attacks but mainly it was pretty safe".
When he returned to the US, he worked for Associated Press in Charleston, and was posted to San Francisco when he was 27. He immediately loved the city, but hated the job, feeling restricted by the facts, the deadlines and the formulae, preferring instead "to spend hours polishing my prose". He quit after five months and wrote "a little weekly serial" for the local newspaper, Pacific Sun, about a woman who recently moved to San Francisco and the people she met in her building. In 1976, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle spotted it and recommended it to the newspaper's publisher. This became Tales of the City. "So I came in and met this very stuffy old gentleman and I said I wanted to write a serialised story about a new girl in town, not telling him who the new girl in town really was ..." Maupin recalls with a wicked laugh.
Even in the relatively liberated atmosphere of mid-1970s San Francisco, Maupin's tales of the lives of gay men in the city were a shock. There were references to bath houses, drugs and men cheating on their wives with men, but rarely any graphic details, and at first any suggestions that two men might be sleeping in the same bed were made obliquely.
After two more years of writing the column, Maupin was approached by a publisher to collate the instalments into a book. He spent two weeks hammering them together in Rock Hudson's house - with a dismissive wave, Maupin says he'd met the actor "in the usual gay way, there was a party ...", and they were briefly lovers, then lifelong friends - and these became the first two books in the series.
The tone was strikingly new. "It's not so much that he gave the gay world a voice, but that he gave it a sense of humour," says Peter Burton, the former literary editor of Gay Times. "Much of what was coming out of America at that time was either very po-faced or pulp." The novels were so unusual that it was rumoured that Maupin was a mysterious pseudonym, an idea aided by the discovery that his name is an anagram for "is a man I dreamt up". When one reader accused him of being "a lesbian collective in Marin County", he solemnly replied: "Sometimes I feel like a lesbian collective in Marin County, but I'm not."
Although Maupin's characters deal with highly emotive issues, not least Aids, the writing is always warm and lightly humorous, thereby bringing into the mainstream subjects that were still fairly off-limits at the time. But it was Maupin's depiction of gay and straight men comfortably mixing together that was particularly new. "He dared to remind the increasingly self-ghettoising gay communities around the world that life might be healthier and happier lived somewhere a little more mixed," says Patrick Gale. "He also dared to say that gay people can be air-headed jerks at a time when all gay fiction felt honour-bound to portray gay men as cute or victimised."
It is possibly for these reasons that some gay critics in America criticised Maupin, and continue to do so today. In Europe, Maupin is far more accepted by what he calls "the gay literary mavens" than he is in the States. In America, he didn't even make the Publishing Triangle's recent top 100 gay and lesbian authors, whereas he beat homegrown authors such as Sarah Waters and Alan Hollinghurst to win Britain's Big Gay Read. In The Night Listener, his doppelgänger narrator Gabriel confesses that he feels "illegitimate as a writer, as if I'd broken into the Temple of Literature through some unlocked basement window". But Maupin was very comforted by some advice his friend Christopher Isherwood gave him early on in his career: "Don't let anyone put you in a cubbyhole of being 'a gay author', and don't be embarrassed to create entertainment."
Michael Tolliver Lives, unlike the preceding Tales, is written in the first person, from the point of view of the eponymous Tolliver, who is now HIV positive. Maupin "lost whole generations of friends - and readers, I might add - to Aids, and I listened to their stories and try to appropriate them". The book also contains many swipes at the current political situation in the US - including references to "phony Florida elections", "secret American torture camps" and "a far-from-intelligent president". He wanted "to record the times and the fabric of San Francisco discourse".
Maupin has been compared to Mark Twain and Jack London for putting San Francisco on the literary map, and has become something of an urban landmark himself: taxi drivers point out his house, and Quentin Crisp once introduced him with the flourish: "This is Mr Maupin, he invented San Francisco." "It makes me incredibly proud, I love this city - it is part of my soul now," he says.
The elegiac tone of Michael Tolliver Lives has led some to assume that it is the last in the Tales of the City series. "Not at all," Maupin smiles. "I'm rejuvenated and this is the first chapter of a new series."
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini
Read the article on ew.com http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20041807,00.html
San Francisco icon Armistead Maupin tells EW about revisiting his ''City''-scape 18 years later in ''Michael Tolliver Lives,'' his feelings on closeted gay stars, taking his husband to meet his dying father, and the perils of self-Googling
Thirty-one years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published the first fizzy chapter of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a serial set in sexually free-wheeling 1970s San Francisco. The characters were gay men, ladies who lunch, ladies who had once been gentlemen, and bewildered straight-arrows from the Midwest. The original Tales spawned five popular sequels, and a hit miniseries; Maupin is about to release Michael Tolliver Lives, the first update on his much-loved characters since 1989. EW talked to Maupin, 63, in the shingled San Francisco bungalow he shares with 35-year-old web producer Christopher Turner, whom he married in Vancouver five months ago.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you prefer ''queer'' or ''gay?''
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: Either is fine. And I don't have a problem with ''faggot.'' Words are all about the tone in which they're spoken.
So, is it really true that your family only learned you were gay by reading Tales?
Pretty much. My mother knew before I knew that she knew because a girlfriend of mine — who apparently was expecting to receive a proposal from me — found out when she came to visit. So my mother knew and was creeping off to the stacks of the library in Raleigh, N.C., to study the subject without telling my father. Then, in 1977, I had Michael Tolliver write a letter to his parents, and that's when I date my personal statement to my parents.
It's all about how you define coming out.
There are celebrities who say, ''Well, I've never been in the closet!'' because they have a circle of friends who have made them feel safe. But they've never declared themselves to reporters and go to great lengths to avoid those questions. There are whole P.R. phalanxes organized to take care of those questions. Does that mean we cater to it? If a movie star were to conceal his Jewish origins because they felt bigots might not go to their movies, we wouldn't tolerate that. The message that's being sent by these stars who remain silent is that there's a dark secret that must be protected at all costs, and that perpetuates the stigma of homosexuality. It's that simple, as far as I'm concerned, and I have no respect for it.
But there's nothing new in that, right?
The situation in Hollywood is far more contemptible today than it was in the days of Rock Hudson. Rock was a friend of mine, and he didn't bother to get married again after that first beard marriage. He took young men to restaurants in Beverly Hills and he was relatively protected by the industry. Now the industry can't protect anyone from the press, so stars get married, have kids, and create a completely fake life for themselves, often with the help of the Church of Scientology. But we've got Rosie [O'Donnell], we've got Ellen [DeGeneres], we've got a lot of great smart folks. By the way, have you been catching Rosie lately? Whoo! She's good.
Do you watch a lot of TV?
I can tell you this: I'm going to be watching American Idol tonight. I'm torn tremendously about American Idol because I hate the moments when they mock the bad singers and weird people. On the other hand, I'm very touched by the process of watching these kids work their way toward their dreams and fall in love with each other in the process. Their tears seem to be genuine. And it's one of the few places on television where you can see a variety of young people. They're fat, they're skinny, they're of every race. And there seem to be a few gay people in there, though it's never talked about. They don't look like the kids on The O.C.
Now for books: Have you read anything lately that you liked?
I really loved a memoir called I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. And I love the books of Stephen McCauley. He writes from the heart with great intelligence and restraint and sweetness.
You were one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in Babycakes, which was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1983. What kind of a response did you get?
A lot of people criticized me for interrupting their morning entertainment. A lot of gay people! They said I was pursuing a political agenda and Tales was supposed to be about entertainment. Of course it was really supposed to be about life, and that's what life had thrown us and I saw no way I could NOT write about it.
Unlike the other Tales novels, this one is written from one character's point of view: Michael's. Why the change?
I was interested in pursuing the life of an aging gay man, and I knew he would be the perfect vehicle. However, as soon as I started writing about Michael I found that one by one all the other characters stepped forward and asked to be present. And it felt natural, so I went with it.
How much do you care about what people write and say about your work?
[New York Times book critic] Janet Maslin eviscerated me on the last book and I didn't get over it for days, until I reminded myself that it was on the bottom of a bird cage somewhere. I think Janet was trying to show she could be Michiko [Kakutani, the New York Times' Pulitzer-winning lead book critic]. But when you reach a certain age, and a certain level of success, you can tell yourself you must be doing something right because people are still interested in what you have to say. And of course it feels good when you get praise. It feels like heaven. Especially if it's thoughtful, analytical praise.
There must be infinite possibilities to read about yourself on the Internet.
I Google myself all the time. I hate to admit it but I do. I'm a flagrant self-Googler. I think that's unhealthy after a point, especially if you're a people-pleaser like me because you obsess about the one person in the blogosphere who doesn't like you.
To what extent do you draw from your personal experience for your fiction?
I have a lot in common with all of my characters because I channel their personalities through my own emotional experience. Every writer I know works that way. But I do tend to lean heavily on my own experience to give my writing the ring of truth. If I can say it about myself, I can almost always say it about someone else, and the more shocking the revelation the more universal the experience. A remarkable number of people come up to me and say, I didn't know anyone else who did that!
When I was reading Anne Lamott's book Operating Instructions, she revealed the shocking fact that in the rigors of childbirth she delivered not only a baby but a small turd on the delivery table. I thought that was the boldest thing I'd ever heard anyone say and it made me love her more than I already did. It's also very clever in the end: You think this woman would not lie to me! I adore Annie. She's the only Christian I'll listen to.
A centerpiece of Michael Tolliver Lives is Michael's trip with his much younger partner to visit his conservative family in the South. Did you base the interlude on personal experience?
A few years ago, I got the news that my father was very close to death and it would probably be good if I came home. So I went with Christopher to North Carolina and my father was marvelously sweet and took a real shine to Christopher, which took some doing, I'm sure, given the fact that there's a 28-year age gap between us. But it was all in all a pretty lovely time and I was very glad my father had a chance to meet my new love. It's odd that that it should matter to you when you're over 60, that you're looking for approval from your 90-year-old father for your 30-something boyfriend. But amazingly he gave it to me. And even more amazingly we missed Jesse Helms by about half an hour. If that doesn't show you the convergence of the old and new South, I don't know what does.
You are very identified with San Francisco's gay Castro district, but you no longer live there. Do you miss it?
Well, it's five minutes away and I go almost every day. I like the Gayberry experience, as I call it. It really is a small town. I know the folks at the post office, the movie theater, the ice cream parlor, and it gives me a real sense of community. It gives me, in essence, the small-town family values that Red State America is so fond of talking about but doesn't really enjoy anymore.
Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?
I don't write continually. I'm the anti-Joyce Carol Oates, if you know what I mean. I've heard she actually writes novels in the backs of cars when she's on book tours. I find that completely reprehensible!
Could you imagine moving away from San Francisco?
No. Everything is better in San Francisco. Even our rich people.
Another book about the Tales characters. I've lived in that world for 30 years, even when I was writing non-Tales books. Whatever I have to offer seems to come through those characters, and I see no reason to abandon them.
Author Armistead Maupin cleans out the closets.
by Leilani Labong
posted on June 01, 2007
Looking back on Armistead Maupin's work, you may recognize a theme of slippery identities—Anna Madrigal, the matriarchal landlady from Tales of the City, was once an Andrew, and the 2000 book (and subsequent 2006 film) The Night Listener was based on Maupin's real-life telephone friendship with a woman who posed as Anthony Godby Johnson, an imaginary 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS. His fascination with the topic could be attributed to the fact that the 63-year-old Parnassus Heights resident values integrity and candor in his own life—he's not shy about craving praise, or admitting that he's an American Idol fan. And, as you will see, one breath is all it takes for Maupin, who was raised in North Carolina, to make a dig at our country for not recognizing same-sex marriages and to condemn two celebs—by name, no less—for hindering the gay movement. The author will receive the Barbary Coast Award at the Litquake festival in October; his new book, Michael Tolliver Lives (HarperCollins)—a present-day tale about the beloved Tales of the City character—hits stores this month. Here, SF's most-beloved wordsmith speaks his mind.
Your name is interesting.
The BBC did a documentary on me they called Armistead Maupin is a Man I Dreamt Up. "Is a Man I Dreamt Up" is an anagram of Armistead Maupin, so that promulgated the notion that I was a work of fiction. I am technically Armistead Maupin Jr.—it's two family names stuck together. Southerners have a way of doing that.
Was Tales of the City meant for San Franciscans, or for outsiders?
When I was writing it, I thought it was a total in-joke. I had no idea it would have such global appeal. Many people around the world see San Francisco as their last great hope, full of possibilities and experimentation and earthly pleasures.
Tell us about Michael Tolliver Lives.
I've been reluctant to call it a continuation of Tales of the City because it's in first person and it focuses on one character. The people who've read it say, "Stop being coy—it is a continuation." It's Michael at 55; he's an HIV-positive gardener living in San Francisco with his husband of three years—they got married at City Hall—still friends with 85-year-old Anna Madrigal and a number of other characters from the old series who pop up. I told myself I was going to limit the cameos to only one or two, but they all came back and haunted me.
Your partner, Christopher, is 28 years younger than you are. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the age difference?
Believe me, it's mostly benefits as far as I'm concerned. I've never been this happy in a relationship, and that has more to do with Christopher's character and kindness than it does his age. But it is tough sometimes when I make '60s cultural references—I end up becoming a sort of a boring tutor. We just got married in Vancouver, BC, in February. We had to become expatriates to have our union recognized.
Are there any negative gay stereotypes in pop culture today?
The negative influences on the gay culture are being promulgated by people who are widely known to be gay and who continue to act as if it's a topic of non-discussion. I'm thinking specifically about people like Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper. They're gay, but never talk about it. Go ahead and print that in 7x7!
They are perpetuating the notion that being gay is a secret shame. We still respect closets far too much in this society.
Have you ever been interviewed by Anderson Cooper? Would you turn the tables on him?
No, I haven't been interviewed by him. And now I probably never will. I'd turn the tables on him. I've had a fair amount of success there, you know. I'm very proud of the fact that Ian McKellen once asked me if I thought he should come out, and I said yes—and he's credited me with that. I tend to be a little cheeky about this topic because I think it's important—there are teenagers still committing suicide over their sexuality.
Had you ever met or corresponded with JT LeRoy?
No. But I had a similar experience with Anthony Godby Johnson, essentially JT's predecessor. Even when I was suspecting Anthony Godby Johnson, I never doubted the stories I heard about JT LeRoy. JT showed up in public places, and of course the people who saw him said without a doubt that they thought it was a woman, but were too embarrassed to ask because they thought there was some politically correct transgender thing going on.
Litquake is honoring you in October ...
That's what I understand.
... do you like the limelight?
When people praise me, they often begin by saying, "I know you've heard this a thousand times.… " I tell them, "It doesn't mean I don't want to hear it again!" Writers are very insecure creatures, and praise is always welcome.
What's your most cherished possession?
Ian McKellen gave me a 16th-century clay pipe that he dug out of the mud at the Rose Theatre in London. Apparently, traces of cannabis have been found on a number of those pipes. There may have been a lot of high people watching those early Shakespearean productions [laughs].
Do you smoke dope every day?
Yes, ma'am, I do.