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.’