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

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