Monday, August 14, 2006

Armistead Maupin Chronicles His Gay Generation

by Robert Urban, August 14, 2006

Author Armistead Maupin's works have been reaching a new national audience lately. The film version of his novel The Night Listener hit theaters nationwide last week, and the miniseries based on his Tales of the City novels is currently enjoying a successful rerun on Logo.

“I'm thrilled that Tales is reaching a new generation of gay people,” Maupin tells “The work manages to transcend the decades.”

Maupin's literary works are often autobiographical in nature, inspired by true-life events and real people he has known. “I mine my emotions for my novels,” he says. “It's not that I have a deeply confessional nature. I actually enjoy keeping part of my life private. But I do know that the closer you get to your own heart, the more believable your work is.”

A San Francisco resident since the early 1970s, Maupin's philosophy of gay life is decidedly more West Coast than East Coast. “People here are far more concerned with their insides than their outsides,” he says. “There's a lot more spiritual exploration, and the pursuit of happiness is not seen as something that involves brand names or hot bodies.”

As with many gay men, Maupin's early years were uniquely influenced by a close relationship with a special, older woman figure. In his case it was his maternal grandmother, Marguerite Smith Barton.

“She was my Anna Madrigal,” Maupin recalls, referring to the character from his Tales of the City novels. “Much of Anna's spirit came from my grandmother. Marguerite was a theosophist [a religious philosophy seeking universal brotherhood], and one of the leading women's suffragettes in England back around 1917. She read poems. She practiced vegetarianism before anyone else thought of it. She was a free spirit. My relationship with her was lovely.”

Maupin recalls an anecdote that reveals the Anna Madrigal in Marguerite: “When I was about 14, my grandmother and I were walking to a garden party. There was a woman in front of us in serious Joey Heatherton drag — lots of pink and ruffles, perfume, spike heels. My grandmother turned to me and said, ‘Any woman who is all woman, or any man who is all man, is a complete monster — unfit for human company.' That was quite a radical thing to say back in the 1950s.”

Maupin's gift for colorful storytelling was often inspired by the movies, especially those from director Alfred Hitchcock, gay dramatist John Van Druten, and gay novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood.

“Vertigo was my number one influence,” Maupin says. “I jumped at the chance to write Night Listener because I felt it was closer to a Hitchcockian exercise than anything I'd ever done.”

Maupin notes that Tales of the City also has Hitchcockian influences, and compares parts of it to Rear Window. “You have someone looking at someone through binoculars across the way. Of course, in Tales they were both masturbating,” he says with a laugh, “but it's roughly the same thing.”

Maupin says he was also influenced by Bell, Book and Candle, a film based on John Van Druten's play of the same name. “After seeing the film,” Maupin recalls, “I asked Chris Isherwood if the gay subtext of Bell, Book and Candle was intentional, and he said, ‘Oh, absolutely!'”

He elaborates: “Bell, Book and Candle is about witches living in New York City. They have special ‘witch bars,' and they are always worrying about being outed. It's one long gay parable. I screened the film as part of my Guilty Pleasures film program down in L.A. some years back, and pointed out all the gay subtext in it.”

Van Druten also adapted Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories for the play I Am a Camera, which became the film Cabaret. And Cabaret was key in helping Maupin concoct both the premise for Tales of the City and its central character, Anna Madrigal.

“Cabaret helped formulate the idea of the apartment house in my head,” Maupin says. “Chris Isherwood was basically writing about an omnisexual group of people with an eccentric landlady in his The Berlin Stories.”

Maupin adds that he was also influenced by Breakfast at Tiffany's. “I've since come to appreciate the novella far more than the film,” he says. “But the movie did suggest that apartment houses held the secret to the universe.”

Maupin's literary works have lent themselves to all kinds of artistic treatments. As a librettist, he collaborated with composer Jake Heggie on Anna Madrigal Remembers, a musical work based on Tales of the City. Perhaps the only choral chamber piece ever written for a transsexual character, the composition received its world premiere in 1999 in San Francisco.

“It's surprising,” Maupin admits. “Frankly, when I write a novel I'm not thinking about it appearing in any other form, so I'm always a little bit stunned when it happens. Jake simply said, ‘Give me two or three pages and I'll set it to music,' so that's what I did.”

In addition, Maupin's novel The Night Listener was made into a BBC radio play, and he says that “there've been offers on it from every direction,” including an offer from composer Steven Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) to adapt the novel into a musical. “Ultimately [Schwartz] found it was something he couldn't get a handle on,” Maupin says.

One of Maupin's current projects is adapting Babycakes, the fourth book in the Tales series, for film. “The screenplay is finished and I am very happy with it,” he says. “It is written as a stand-alone film. We are still looking for an outlet.”

As a novelist who has repeatedly had to edit down his books for film, Maupin expresses a special wish for a possible future project. “I would love to write an original screenplay,” he explains, “and not have the agony of having to reduce — as John Le CarrĂ© put it — ‘an ox into a bouillon cube.' It's very difficult adapting a novel for the screen. It's two different creatures entirely. Whole subplots have to be lost along the way. It would be fun to have the film as my starting point.”

Works like Tales of the City and Night Listener, which are so infused with Maupin's own life experiences, have a natural appeal for gays of his baby-boomer age group. His popular literary voice helped reveal this entire generation's gay life to the world.

“All of my work has been done in real time,” he says. “I always try to capture my emotions of the moment. If the clock says I've aged, well, so has my material. I'm not deliberately speaking to my generation; I'm speaking to my own experience . That, in turn, reaches people like me who were the first generation of openly gay men and women who chose to live their lives openly.”

Maupin is now at work on a new novel, Michael Tolliver Lives, that will no doubt reflect his own current stage in life; it is due to be published next summer. “It involves the central character, Michael 'Mouse' of Tales of the City, today,” explains Maupin. “He is now a 55-year-old gardener. Like a lot of gay men he thought he was going to be dead 20 years ago. And now he's lived to face the issues of AIDS.”

He continues: “Much like me, he has a partner who is considerably younger than he is. I've been partnered with a guy named Chris Turner for the past two years. So I'm able to draw off it — from the joy and the comedy of that experience.”

As a gay man entering his senior years, the subject of aging now takes center stage for Maupin. “I think it's the central issue of our generation,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out how to be good old gay people — how to do it well, how to be the best you can for your age. In my case that has to do with trying to be the best version of 62 I can imagine. Not to try and recreate something I felt I had 30 years ago.”

Maupin says, “Interestingly enough, my partner, Christopher, runs a personals website for men over 40.” Maupin laughs. “I actually met him on the site. I saw this handsome 34-year-old there that made my heart beat faster. I bumped into him in the street a few months later and asked him for a date.”

Maupin has no problem openly sharing his thoughts and feelings on his love relationship. “It's something we both talk about,” he says of he and his partner. “I'm interested in it from the perspective of someone who's actually ‘old.' He's interested in it from the position of someone who likes ‘older guys.'”

He concludes: “I don't feel either one of us has anything to be ashamed of. I'm happy to share because I'm so damned happy. If someone had told me life would be this great at 62, I'd be a lot more cheerful along the way. I'm having the love affair of my life, and it feels wonderful.”

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