Memoir of an absolute fabulist
Article from: The Scotsman
Article date: September 20, 2000
Author: Gina Arnold
San Francisco is a city well known for its eccentricities, but the latest one may take the cake. On the morning before local author Armistead Maupin left for a tour of Britain to promote his new book, The Night Listener, the local newspaper announced that, in honour of slain city supervisor Harvey Milk the city is going to cause a large pink cloud of steam to hover over the corner of Castro and Market Streets. Permanently.
That corner happens to be the centre of the gay district - a region which Maupin himself has celebrated and made famous via his six-book Tales of the City series and when told about the big pink cloud, his reaction was appropriately quizzical.
"Oh my goodness," he exclaimed, laughing hugely. "Are you sure? Well, I'm just going to have to move some place where a big black cloud is hovering over the neighbourhood."
Maupin's astonishment is far from feigned, but the truth is, there is something pink cloudy about the rosy vision of San Francisco he has propounded over the years. His books have achieved that rarest of statures, world acclaim, having remained in print for the past two decades.
Three Channel 4 series have been made of the books (the third instalment comes out in early 2001) but, most important of all, Maupin's view of his adopted home - witty and trenchant, sometimes unabashedly sentimental, but never smug or self-serving - has come to colour the city's perception of itself.
In short, along with a handful of other writers and newspapermen - Jack London and Mark Twain in particular - his light, dry, authorial voice has defined the city's quirky, free-spirited, and frankly homosexual ethos ever since he began publishing it as a daily fictional serial story, Tales of the City, in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976.
His voice is gentle, courtly, and still touched with the southern accent, as Maupin grew up not in California, but in Raleigh, North Carolina, where his patrician - and very right-wing - father rubbed elbows with the local gentry.
After a stint in Vietnam, and later as a fledgling TV reporter, Maupin moved to San Francisco, where he began writing the soon-to- be smash serial that celebrated (among other things) the free and easy gay lifestyle of the Castro District.
Tales chronicled the lives of a group of twentysomething characters and their mysterious landlady, Anna Madrigal, with whom they live in a cosy apartment building on the north side of the city. The protagonist of his latest book, The Night Listener, however, lives in a more western neighbourhood called Woodside.
It is, oddly enough, the same neighbourhood that Maupin himself lives in. His name is Gabriel Noone and he is a 54-year-old gay man who grew up in the deep south, did a stint in Vietnam, worked in TV journalism, and made his name in the 1970s with a serial that celebrated gay life - albeit one that appeared on radio, rather than in the newspaper. "I am," says Noone at the start of the book, " a fabulist by trade ... I've spent years looting my life for fiction."
The sentence inspires one obvious question: is Gabriel Noone a thinly-veiled Armistead Maupin, and if so, how much dirt is in here?
"Well, I'm just not going to tell you," says Maupin. "No, I'm not trying to be coy, but my best material has always arisen from my reactions to actual experiences. On the other hand, I like to manipulate the circumstances and characters to make sense of them - real life is haphazard and tedious and often contradictory.
"But you step into really uncertain territory when you start trying to unravel the two things. You'll forgive me if I don't tell you quite how I do it.
"I'll say this much," he adds, referring to several plot points in the book. "I did break up with my partner four years ago, I do have an aristocratic southern past, and an 85-year-old father who still practices law and hobnobs with Jesse Helms."
And then he relents a little more. "Gabriel is closer to me than any character I've written about so far. I have to cop to that because the physical characteristics are so close - he's an older, greyer me. But that said, Tales' Michael's sensibility was influenced by mine, and so was Maryann's.
"And Cadence Roth," - the main character in his last novel, Maybe the Moon - "was a 31in tall female Jewish dwarf, but a lot of what was on my mind at the time I said through her.
"She was just a really good disguise."
So what part of The Night Listener is fiction? "I do make some things up out of whole cloth," adds Maupin.
"I just spoke to my sister, who runs a bed and breakfast in New Zealand, and she'd just spent an hour on the phone reassuring my brother that I hadn't had sex in the cab of a truck in a snowstorm."
He laughs, delighted. "Of course in many ways I wish I had!"
Another way Maupin differs from Noone, he adds, is that "I am considerably more confident about my writing abilities than Gabriel is.
"But confidence isn't an interesting thing to explore. Insecurity is something audiences can relate to, and for that reason, I tend to say my worst things first."
For that reason Noone, who is suffering from writers' block in the novel, says he feels, "as if I'd broken into the Temple of Literature through some unlocked basement window".
Maupin denies feeling that way - although one can't help but wonder if he has suffered from the malady in question since The Night Listener is his first book in eight years.
He says he has spent the interim working on the mini-series version of Tales, (starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis) and writing a libretto for an opera.
"I'm not a compulsive worker," he shrugs. "Also, I like to have a long period of letting my life fill up, so I can tap into it for ideas."
The problem with that literary tactic, Maupin admits, is that so often life imitates fiction.
For example, in the novel, there is a strand pertaining to the importance of radio broadcasting. Via his nightly radio show, Noone's voice becomes the vehicle for the sickly thirteen-year-old Pete to come to terms with life's tragedies.
Just before Maupin finished the book, his - "what do you call it?" he wonders aloud, "former significant other? Business partner? Friend? Ex-lover?" - Terry Anderson came up with the idea of marketing The Night Listener online, as the first spoken word serial available on the web via streaming audio.
This month each chapter, read aloud by the author, became available for direct downloading on Salon.com. For the technophobes among us (and Maupin would count himself in that group) the hardcover version of the book is in shops now. Because the book involves a main character whose job is to read his stories aloud, it is perfect for such a project. But Maupin insists it is merely fortuitous; indeed, the book was almost done before the streaming technology for such a co-presentation was even ready.
"But that kind of stuff happens to me all the time," he says. "Like when I first invented the character Anna Madrigal, who was supposed to be real evocative of Mrs Miniver, I only discovered her name was an anagram for what she was when a reader alerted me to it, well into the story.
"And I didn't intend for D'or to be a white woman dying her skin black until someone wrote in and told me that she just seemed like a white character trying to be black. I was really hurt by that until I realised I could just go with it."
For those in the know, one character from Tales plays a central role in The Night Listener. And Milk - he of pink cloud fame - is also mentioned, as are many other San Francisco luminaries and touchstones.
The Night Listener is an updating of the San Francisco zeitgeist - although the two main things that dominate SF life right now, the profusion of dot.com businesses and the soaring price of property, are not mentioned herein.
Instead, the novel concerns the effect of AIDS, not just on those who've contracted it, but on those who haven't.
In some ways The Night Listener is scientifically up to the minute. In it, Noone's live-in lover has had AIDS for years, but protease inhibitors have eradicated the virus from his body, a circumstance that alters each man's attitude towards each other, their relationship, and even towards life itself.
The Night Listener reads like a memoir, and it certainly must be in parts, but it is also - like Tales before it - a real page turner, a plot-driven, perfectly-paced mystery of sorts, permeated by Maupin's patented light touch.
He is, as he himself says, "kind of like a comedian who can't use all his best material for fear of losing the audience".
That's why reading aloud, on his many book tours, is one of this favourite things. "Bliss," he calls it, "at least when it's in front of a live audience."
But reading aloud a nine-hour book - which took seven days in a recording studio - was a more gruelling task.
Was he embarrassed to read the sex scenes aloud? Maupin roars with laughter again. "In a single word: Yes," he shouts. "I kept wondering if the engineer could see me blushing behind the panel. And when I heard it read back all I could think was, 'thank God my mom's been dead for years.'
"But then, I've been afflicted by a perennial mild embarrassment my entire life. Sometimes," he adds, sighing, "I think I've deliberately put myself into situations to get past that - because I really believe we should be proud of who we are and what we do. If we aren't, we shouldn't be doing them."
Gina Arnold. "Memoir of an absolute fabulist." The Scotsman. Scotsman Publications. 2000. HighBeam Research. 13 Dec. 2008