Friday, January 30, 2009

Jake Shears Interview

Interview by Gert Jonkers, portraits by Hedi Slimane.
Interview as published in BUTT 24 on pages 16,17,18,19,65,66,67,68

Five years ago BUTT ran a feature on the fun-loving Jake Shears, singer of Scissor Sisters. Instead of talking to him, we asked five ex-lovers about their time and sexual escapades with Jake. That was a fun story. But we still needed to talk to the man himself – the pop star who in recent years has roller-coastered through a succession of number-one hits and million-selling albums around the world, duets with Elton John, and partying with Kylie Minogue and Dolly Parton. On a sunny day in the spring of 2008, I picked up Jake at his band’s Discoball Jazzfest studios in New York, right behind the Flat Iron building, and we had a lovely long stroll downtown to his condo in Tribeca. Jake and his ridiculously hot boyfriend Chris moved into their new condo not too long ago. It’s a wonderful place. There’s a library, a piano, two bathrooms, and they have a turtle and a dog, Toby. I completely forgot to ask Jake about the band or a possible upcoming album, but we did talk about musicals.

Gert: I heard you’re writing a musical.
Jake: Yeah! We did a read-through last Thursday, which was really eye-opening and fun. It was really awesome.
What is it? Who wrote the story?

It’s Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Jeff Whitty did the script and John Garden and I have written the lyrics and the score. It’s penned for Broadway. I’m really excited. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done before. There’ve been a lot of really hectic moments.
You want it to be a really classic, beautiful Broadway musical?

I want it to sound natural and like it’s coming from the characters. I think there’s a big stigma attached to musicals. There’s this backlash against this Broadway sound and everyone’s trying to make Broadway musicals that don’t sound like Broadway musicals. And that’s ridiculous.
So it’s going to sound like a Broadway musical, period.

It is what it is. (laughs) I’m definitely not scared of certain things. I’m excited, it’s grown-up and the subject matter is awesome. There’s lots of gay stuff in it, there’s drugs and infidelity, and it’s positive for the most part and it’s funny…so those things all get me excited. I’ve been offered to do musicals in the past that I wasn’t interested in, so when Jeff approached me to do this, I was superexcited.
Will you be starring in it?

No, I’m not an actor. I can’t act at all. Not.
At. All.
When did you find that out?
That I can’t act? The Scissor Sisters were on a soap opera a while ago, and I was really, really bad.
Why? Are you too camp on screen?
I am, you know. I’m really super supergay on camera.
Well, there you go! Perfect for a musical!
I don’t know, it doesn’t quite work. It’s funny: I’ve been going to lots of Broadway shows recently, and some are amazing and some are so fucking rotten. It’s interesting to see what you like and don’t like.
Is there such a big difference between one musical and the other? I mean, that’s a really stupid question, I know, but from a distance all musicals look awful to me, with really dull, cliché love-story lines.
That’s complete rubbish of course.
What else do you do at night besides hanging out on Broadway?
I love movies and I play a lot of video games. I’m holed up a lot, playing loads of games.
What do you play? Nintendo?
I’ve got Wii and PS3 and Xbox 360 and, um…
What do you play on Wii? Tennis?
Oh no! I don’t do that.
I mean, I’m a total moron. What do you play on those systems? Pong? Fairy tales?
Yeah, it depends on which system I’m playing. I mean Nintendo’s good for supercute stuff like Super Smash Bros. or Super Mario. But then on PS3 and Xbox I get into some superheavy shit. I started one last night called Condemned 2: Bloodshot. It’s the sequel to Condemned, and it’s just really, really heavy.
Really gory?
It’s not just gory, it’s genuinely terrifying. I can barely play it by myself, but I like to blast the surround sound and sit in a dark room and play it, and it scares the life out of me… The subject matter is really intense; you’re this alcoholic ex-police officer trying to find this serial killer, and you’re all drunk and you get the spins… It’s all about wanting booze, and you’re in all these ghettos with, like, alien junkies that have crystal-meth labs… So I was seriously blowing up crystal-meth labs this morning…
I find it so much better than a movie. It’s so much more exciting. I love dark shit, I love horror stuff.
What would the psychological explanation be for that?
Umm, I don’t know about a psychological explanation, but it’s actually fun to see the awesome level that games have gone up to in the past year. They’ve really crossed a line. I’ve been gaming since I was eight years old, if not younger, and I think that this last year there has been this huge leap. I encountered the first video game that made me cry a few months ago. I thought that was a really crazy moment. I couldn’t believe that I was so emotionally involved in a narrative that it really made me upset.
Do you get so into it that you end up playing 24 hours a day?
Oh no, I’m not that bad. I’d be bored out of my skull.
Are games sexy?
Some games can be really sexy. There’s this game that just got reissued on Xbox 360 called Bully, where you’re this teenage skater boy running around boarding school, and you are really mean and hot and you’ve got a great ass. You can change your clothes, you can run around in your underwear and you can make out with other boys if you want.
It’s sexy, and it’s really sadistic. You can abuse other kids. It’s superentertaining. I play it all the time. I actually bought it twice.
Because you wore out the first one?
I had it for the old system, and I bought a new one for the most recent system, but I’m also a completist. I’m a collector. I like to get everything and have it all, whether it’s games or books or movies. I’m very materialistic. I just like things. I like objects. I’m very fetishistic with belongings.
You like to consume?
Absolutely. I have what I call my old-lady mornings. I know the exact days when all the books are coming out, or the games are coming out, or the movies, or new music, and I tote my bag around… It’s like going to the butcher and the baker. Shopping. I go around and get everything that comes out. I like media. And I love giving things to friends. Of all my favorite books I like to keep at least two so that when I’m talking books with someone, I can just throw it their way.
What’s the book you’ve given away the most?
Um…let me think…
Let me guess: the bible?
Ha, I don’t even know if I have a bible in the house. I hope I do… My most-given-away book is called Blood and Water by Patrick McGrath. Short stories. I’m obsessed with it and I’ve been reading it for so many years. They’re these gross little gothic short stories.
Another gory thing…
Oh, they’re absolutely gross! There’s one about a post-apocalyptic family that is trapped in a bunker underground, and they’ve gone through all their canned food and the mom gets this disease where she’s a big fat lady and she totally dies, and the rest of the family ends up eating her. It’s the most revolting story ever and I love it so much!
Are you into Clive Barker?
I love Clive Barker! I’m a huge fan! I’ve got tons of his books and I’ve got a couple of his paintings and…
I didn’t know he painted.
Oh my god, his paintings are crazy! They are so awesome, they’re fucking amazing. You’ll freak out – they’re so wicked! He’s a trip, he’s really out of his mind. I think he’s amazing. Whenever I’m in LA he lets me come over and we hang out.
That’s nice. What do you think is the worst part of being a pop star?
Photographers. They can be the most vile people on earth. Sometimes it’s great to have your photo taken, and sometimes you feel like a cheap whore afterwards. It can be so embarrassing. I think that with doing this kind of thing there’s a big public-humiliation factor involved.
Isn’t that perhaps why you also enjoy it? The humiliation…
No, I don’t. It’s not my favorite thing on the planet. I even dread talking about it. It’s too douchy to talk about. But I think my absolute least favorite thing to do in public is a red carpet. I hate red carpets so much… It’s the most embarrassing thing on the planet.
What’s so awful about it?
You’re just standing there. What are you supposed to do? You don’t have anything to fall back on except the clothes that you are wearing, and who cares? It’s horrible.
Maybe you should make it really funny and show up on the red carpet in a thong.
Yeah, maybe I’d find it more fun then. A thong, high heels and a bra. But that’s douchy too. It’s all douchy.
But I’d bet you’re an exhibitionist.
Well, yes, I am. I find exhibitionism thrilling.
Have you ever run naked on the street? That used to be my childhood dream.
Really? Not mine. I don’t like to be totally naked. Even just hanging out at home… My boyfriend enjoys lounging around the house naked, and I don’t like it at all. I don’t want to sit with my naked ass on the couch, or at the breakfast table. I don’t want The New York Times touching my dick in the morning.
Really? I love it when that happens.
Some people do… I’ve always found men who are a little more covered, more sexy. When I first started masturbating at 12 or 13, my first jerk-off material was the International Male catalogue. I would tear off a piece of toilet paper and I would get the page with the two men together in swimsuits and I would cover their swimsuits up with toilet paper, so that it was blurry. So it looked like they were standing there naked together but you couldn’t really see how or what.
I love International Male. I bought some on eBay recently.
What? The clothes?
No, the old catalogues. The clothes were all disgusting.
Disgusting! So many poet shirts and horrible long coats and… Who was wearing that? I remember around that same time – I’ll never forget – I was growing up on San Juan Island, north of Seattle. It was a two-hour ferry ride and a one-hour drive, so going to the mainland was a big deal. It was a special thing. I was shopping with my mom and I decided to shoplift a Playgirl magazine. And it was one of the most terrifyingly horrible things I’ve ever experienced!
Were you caught?
No, I wasn’t. But I look back and can’t believe how much I put on the line to see a hard male dick. If I was caught with that, a 13-year-old, with his mom, caught shoplifting a Playgirl…it was intense. When I left the island the next year, I had to do something with it. I couldn’t just throw it in the garbage – my mother could have found it. So I took it down to the water and I burned it on the beach. That was a really sad moment for me. You know, by stealing the magazine I had admitted to myself I was gay anyway, and then having to burn it… It was pretty horrible.
It’s a kind of a rite of passage…
It was definitely metaphoric.
By the way, I know so many people who’ve been featured in BUTT who say that they’ve slept with you. I don’t think there’s anybody who has slept with more guys in BUTT than you.
I don’t think I’ve slept with that many people in BUTT. Really, I’d be surprised if I were the record holder. But I did meet one of the guys who was in the same issue with me. Did I tell you this story? It’s really good. His name is Calvin. He’s so handsome! This was like five years ago and I was on tour at the time. I never got laid much on tour. It was hard to meet anyone. Everything went so fast and I didn’t have time for sex. Anyway, me and this kid had started e-mailing each other, and when we played in London he came to the show. My mom was in town too. I was really excited to spend the night together but we had an after party in the dressing room and he got so wasted! He was so drunk he could barely stand up. So I’m like, Mom, meet my new friend… He was totally trashed. He threw up on the tour bus. So we get to the hotel, get to the rooms, and my mom’s room is across the hall. So when I quickly hopped over to tell my mom goodnight I realized I didn’t have my key. I was there in my pajamas, shirtless, and he had passed out on the bed and didn’t hear my banging on the door. So I went down to the lobby to get a new key when the fire alarm went off, so the hotel had to be evacuated, including my mom and the band. And everybody was, like, ‘Where’s your friend’ He was passed out and slept through the whole fire drill. I don’t know, is this story interesting?
Sure. Did he feel sorry afterwards?
He sent me an e-mail saying he had the best time. But being stinking drunk isn’t a turn-on for anyone.
Is it still hard to get laid on tour?
Well, that’s not really an issue anymore. Chris and I are monogamous.
Really? What dedication.
It’s a novel idea! Chris is very, um, old-worldly and I like that. I like that he gets jealous if he thinks I’m flirting with someone. That’s how I want my husband to be. I’d be really worried if he wasn’t like that, if he didn’t care.
(We arrive at their new condo). Wow, this place is wonderful!
Thanks. We’re superhappy here. I’d been in this closet in the East Village for eight years. It was super supersmall and it got a little depressing. The whole apartment was the size of our current bedroom. When you’re staying in nice hotels and stuff and you’re coming off the road and your own place is a total dump, it’s depressing. I feel like our lives have changed to such an extent since we moved here. We’re having loads of people over all the time. Dinner parties, impromptu parties, film nights, potlucks, we cook lasagna for twenty people…
Was it easy to find a place like this?
Absolutely not! I went under the assumption that you work hard, make money, make a living, save your money, and buy a house. But it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t matter whether you have the money to buy it or not. I couldn’t get into a co-op at all. The minute they found out I was a musician it was all over.
They think you’re going to trash the place?
I don’t know. They want, like, hedge funders. They don’t want artist types.
So this isn’t a co-op?
No. But even with condos you really have to sell yourself. You’d think the money should speak for itself, but it doesn’t.
Anyway, I remember that one of the guys we interviewed about you years ago in BUTT said that you had the hardest prick he had ever encountered. Is that still the case?
The hardest prick? He could be right. That article was funny… The guy who said that was one of my first true loves, from when I was 21 and he was 33 or whatever. It kind of hurt my feelings a bit. I thought what he said was a bit dismissive.
To reduce the whole affair to the hardness of your cock?
Yeah, you know…he knows as well as I do that there was something more… He’s a lovely guy though. I’m still a bit crazy about him. Maybe it’s one of those unrequited-love situations.
This was in Seattle?
Were you in a band in Seattle?
We had a band in high school. We were called My Favorite Band.
That’s a good name.
It was sweet. We had sweet songs. I dated this guy Paul in high school who was 15 years older than me. He was a junkie and kind of a punk legend. He used to be in a band called the Fartz with someone from Guns ‘n’ Roses. He was a good guy. I always wonder what happened to him. I’ve searched for him but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was dead.
Isn’t it funny how some people really aren’t traceable through Google? You try to find old friends and their name has absolutely no search hits.
Yeah. Every once in a while I search like crazy for my 6th grade teacher, Sheila Deyer. She changed my life. I loved her so much. I’d love to see what she’s up to. She was so fierce – a total granola-hippy with hairy armpits. She was superinspiring.
I’ve tried to Google my first boyfriend about a thousand times, although I don’t know what I would do if I did find him. Send him an e-mail? Maybe not a good idea.
I don’t like communicating on computers. I don’t do MySpace or Facebook and I hate e-mailing. I think e-mail is a total drag. Just because a certain technology becomes the norm, you are obliged to communicate that way. I don’t like it.
But you do have a computer I presume?
Oh yeah, totally. I use it for listening to music and every morning I get on Drudge Report, Metacritic, and Pitchfork Media.
Drudge Report, that’s a conservative pile of conspiracy theories, right?
No, it’s this tabloid of a closeted gay tabloid journalist who has way too much power. He’s kind of demented but that makes him interesting. I think he’s really funny. The pictures and the headlines together are so funny. He’s really conservative, but it’s his own conservatism; it’s his own set of rules. Like, he’s totally pro-Obama.
I love your dog. He’s really jolly.
Isn’t Toby gorgeous? Last night he ate our bottle of lube. That’s why he looks a bit funny today.
Really? What flavor was it?
It was Gun Oil, so it was tasteless.
Not strawberry or vanilla flavored?
Ew no, that’s disgusting! Who wants flavored lube?
I don’t, but some people do.
I think any sort of reference to food in a sexual situation makes me want to fucking barf. You know, every once in a while you stumble upon pictures of guys throwing whipped cream on each other’s asses. Ew, it’s so gross! Whipped cream on your skin is going to curdle. It’s disgusting. Or chocolate covered strawberries for a romantic evening, couples feeding each other… It’s so gross.
Chocolate and strawberry aren’t necessarily a bad combination.
Yes, but not in a sexual context. Any fruit dipped in chocolate that you’re supposed to feed your lover. I don’t want anyone feeding me.
By the way last year I went to the burrito restaurant in Seattle where you used to work.
Bimbo’s Bitchin’ Burrito Kitchen.
Right. I had the spiciest burrito I’ve ever had. It was so spicy it hurt for two days.
Like it hurt your rear end?
Yes, isn’t it awful how a burrito can burn your ass the next day?
Yeah, that’s terrible. I hate spicy food.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Six-word Memoir

If you had to convey your entire existence in six words, what would you say? Here at, we've been thinking. Bolton condensed his whole life into: "Push rock, rolls back, push again." (We think he's being overdramatic.) Megan went with "Urban bumpkin seeks savings account, chickens." Yep, that's about right. And now we can't stop summing ourselves up.

The folks at SMITH magazine have been compiling tiny memoirs for a while now, first published in print as Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Contributors range from ordinary people who submitted their six words online to not-so-regular folks like Amy Sedaris ("Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.") and Chuck Klosterman ("Nobody cared, then they did. Why?").

Now, they've followed up with Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: By Writers Famous and Obscure, being released just in time for the most polarizing of saint-based holidays. Some of our favorites include Elizabeth Minkel's "Silently suffered his facial hair experiments" and Jaynel Attolini's "Among your sexiest attributes: health insurance."

We couldn't help but get sucked into the spirit of Valentine's Day, and picked some titles for lovers and haters alike — guaranteed to cement your bliss, fuel your rage, or give you something to look forward to — like Armistead Maupin's six words: "He still needs me at sixty-four." Aww.

But, wait: now, it's your turn! We're going to give you a chance to get your little life story published in the next book in the seriesWe're going to give you a chance to get your little life story published in the next book in the series, "It Was Fun While It Lasted: And More Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure," scheduled for release this fall. Imagine the chagrin displayed on the faces of all those high school A-holes at your next class reunion when you walk in wearing a button that says, "Just published my memoir. No biggie."

Simply post a comment containing your six-word autobiography below — a general summation, not limited to love or heartbreak. (But really, is it ever about anything else? Sigh.) We'll pick 10 finalists, to be featured on our blog, and submit them to the HarperCollins panel of judges, who will choose the soon-to-be-published author.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Straight From the Heart

With his Tales of the City series, author Armistead Maupin introduced a cast of eccentric characters who challenged the definition of "normal" and won the hearts of readers around the world.

Armistead Maupin admits that most of his main characters are pieces of his own personality. That's an extraordinary thought to anyone familiar with the colorful and very eccentric characters he has managed to bring to life in his hugely popular Tales of the City series of novels. "I simply looked into another corner of my own heart to find them, and some I’ve borrowed from friends," says Maupin. Two of the main characters, the naive newcomer, Mary Ann Singleton, and Michael Tolliver, the hopeful gay romantic, are clearly at the heart of both the author and his stories.

Armistead Maupin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1944. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and served as a Naval officer in Vietnam before working as a reporter for a newspaper in South Carolina. In 1971 he moved to San Francisco to take up a position as a reporter with the Associated Press.

Maupin found plenty of inspiration in his new city, and two years after settling there he started to write the "Tales of the City" as a serialized novel for the "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper. The series chronicled the lives and loves of the colorful clan that resided at the fictitious 28 Barbary Lane and grew into a global sensation when Maupin released his tales as novels. Nearly three decades later there are over four million books in circulation worldwide. The six books have been translated into 12 different languages, and several have become television miniseries.

"A Letter to Mama"

It was shortly after his move to San Francisco that Maupin went public about his homosexuality. "San Francisco is the place where I found my own soul," he says. "I reprimand myself for every moment of my youth that I wasted not telling the truth, not loving who I wanted to love, and being who I wanted to be because that turned out to be the most attractive thing I could do and my success grew out of my ability to do that."

Maupin became the first of a new breed of openly gay authors, and homosexuality has remained a central theme of most of his books. "When I came out of the closet I nailed the closet shut," he says, quoting the words of the gay character Michael Tolliver from Tales of the City. Maupin also used Michael to come out to his own parents. In "A Letter to Mama," the fictional Michael wrote home of his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and asked his parents to accept him for what he was. "When I wrote it, it took me less time than anything else I had ever written," says Maupin, "because I had been composing it in my head for about 15 years." "A Letter to Mama," Maupin’s most widely published work, has even been set to music.

The storyteller

Already at an early age, the young Armistead had a deep desire to be a storyteller. "I was the little nerdy kid who would make other kids sit down around the campsite and listen to my stories," he says. He continues to be at ease with certain aspects of the art -- and he's as much at home on the stage as he is on the page. "I write to be read aloud," he says, "so I think of the 'concert version' as the ultimate form of my work. At any rate, I enjoy it the most."

His readings are unconventional and often include a free-form "conversation" with the audience that draws heavily on his life and work. "I feel no relationship with the stuffy side of literature," says Maupin, "I work very hard to make my art entertaining and my entertainment artful."

Life-affirming humor is another leitmotif in Maupin’s books. "I survive by laughing at myself. I have to do that in order to explain what a big mess I am sometimes," he says. "When your humor is self-deprecating then people find it very easy to identify with. And it forgives them their own sins, when you talk about yours and laugh about them."

In 1992, the novel Maybe the Moon became another international bestseller and marked Maupin’s departure from the Tales of the City series. It chronicles the misadventures of a dwarf actress working in Hollywood and again demonstrates Maupin's incredible empathy with his characters. "The character made the perfect disguise. I could tell the most extraordinary things about myself and never fear being discovered," says Maupin. He dedicated the book to his friend the late Tamara De Treaux, the dwarf actress best known for inhabiting the costume of E.T. in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film of the same name.

A new tale to tell

His latest book, The Night Listener, has also been inspired by events in Maupin’s own life. "It is sort of part memoir and part mystery story," he says, adding that it is "in many ways an effort to fold in personal experiences and stories that I'd been telling my friends for years, which they said I really should do something with."

The Night Listener explores the question of how we tell stories, to whom, and why. The central character is a late-night radio storyteller in San Francisco. In the midst of a personal crisis the broadcaster receives unexpected comfort from a 13-year-old fan. The young boy, a talented writer, has somehow survived and recorded a life of the most horrible abuse. Through a series of long-distance phone calls the aging storyteller becomes attached to the youth, who seems much wiser than his years.

"I don’t think it is such a big distance actually between Tales of the City and The Night Listener," says Maupin. "They both have the same intention at heart -- to envelope the reader and not let them go until they are done with the book. In The Night Listener I found a story that was capable of that without the soap opera structure of Tales of the City."

The Night Listener became a "New York Times" bestseller and reached No. 1 on the bestseller list in France. Maupin has already started work on the screenplay.

I want to be an institution

After spending time in New Zealand, Armistead Maupin is today once again residing in San Francisco. He is happy to be back in the city closest to his heart. Being in love, he says, and having plenty of good friends in his life are enormously important to him. But he has no intention of simply sitting back and enjoying his success. He is constantly composing and discovering new stories. "I’m a good eavesdropper," he says, "I am always absorbing and taking things in. I am a vampire who sucks things out of people almost on the spot."

"Sometimes," says Maupin, "I have to stop and realize that I am somewhat of an elder these days and that there's some joy in that." He pauses for a reflective moment before revealing his wish, "I hope I'm lucky enough to live for a while and someday be considered an institution. I think that would be a great deal of fun."

Breandáin O'Shea

Honest Talk With the Outspoken Maupin

Author Armistead Maupin shoots more than the breeze with OutSmart's Blase DiStefano

How appropriate that Armistead Maupin is part of our Gayest & Greatest issue-he's way GAY, what with being extremely open and honest about his sexuality, and he rates GREAT, what with being a best-selling author and a damned good writer. Maupin is probably best known for his TALES OF THE CITY series of books, which produced five best-selling books and two wildly popular television mini-series, with a third on the way. TALES OF THE CITY and MORE TALES OF THE CITY interwove gays with straights with bisexuals with transgenders with AIDS with dope with sex. If you haven't read them, take some time to do so-they were ahead of their times and are still considered controversial. If reading doesn't flip your wig, rent the two videos, which are true to Maupin's originals. And now available for your reading pleasure is Maupin's newest piece of fiction, THE NIGHT LISTENER. (True Maupin die-hards have been listening to a "radio serialization" version of the novel read by the author on from Sept. 5 to Sept. 29, an Internet first-"like having Uncle Armistead read to you every night before bedtime," Maupin describes it.) Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy these nonfiction tales.

OutSmart: Hi, this is Blase.
Armistead Maupin: Hi, Blase, it's Armistead Maupin.

How are you doing?
I'm fine, how are you after all these years?

Well, I'm fine. The last time we talked was 1985.
Back when you were with TWT, right?

That's right... So, I read your book [THE NIGHT LISTENER]. It's wonderful. It's been so long since your last one. What took you so long?
Well, I wrote and produced two mini-series. I was actively involved in TALES OF THE CITY and MORE TALES OF THE CITY. I was there on the set...

That's why they were so good.
Thank you, I believe that, too [laughs]. It's important for the writer for any property to remain close to the material, to see it survive. Especially something this personal. It would be so easy to get it wrong culturally. So I've been present for that, and I spent about a year and a half adapting my last novel, MAYBE THE MOON, as a feature film and have yet to find a producer. There's been a fair amount to occupy me and a story that was very slow in coming. I had the general mystery outlined in my head for a long time, but I was lacking an additional dramatic element which life managed to provide for me when Jerry and I broke up four years ago. I realized I could weave the experience of that into this little mystery.

What percentage of the book is...
True? [Laughs] It's FICTION, Blase. Writers write from every aspect of their own lives and weave it together. In some ways it's not true at all, so I won't even go down that road with you. I'd like to think it's all emotionally true. I tried to stay very close to my feelings when I wrote that novel and expose them, warts and all. I made myself a promise to be as honest as possible even when it was unattractive.

I actually started reading it at around 6:30 or 7:00 one evening and I didn't put it down until it was around 1:30 or 2:00. I finished the book.
That's just what I like to hear [laughs]... That continues to be the strongest drive I have when writing-the need to make people want to keep reading.

At the end of that first chapter, I was in tears. And then the story changed, and I was enthralled.
Good. Do me a favor when you write about it-try to stay as mysterious as possible without giving the surprise in the middle of the book.

Consider it done.
A couple of the advance reviewers gave very positive reviews but almost all of them went too far, [which] was tremendously frustrating.... Most of my life I've been inspired by the film VERTIGO. It had a big impact on me when I was a kid and it still moves me in ways that surprise me, especially now that I'm approaching Jimmy Stewart's age. And I've always wanted to write a novel that was about human longing and obsession that stays very close to the bone emotionally, but that completely turns you around halfway through.

And that it did. So, you're coming to Galveston in October.
I'll take your word for it [laughs].

Trust me, you will be here in October [doing a speaking engagement].... I wondered what that entails.
It'll entail reading the first chapter of the book, probably the first chapter, usually is. And chatting with the audience and answering questions. It's what I like to do the most. It allows me to have direct interaction with the readers. So I'm doing that and a number of gigs in seven or eight different halls around the country.

I'm glad that Galveston is one of them. That should be neat because the Grand 1894 Opera House is an intimate little place. It'll be perfect.
Yeah, it fills my age-old desire to tell stories directly. I used to do that when I was eight years old-you know, make my friends sit down around the campfire and tell ghost stories. It's changed a bit, I just make a living at it. Still the same little queen I was then.

[Laughs] So how is FURTHER TALES OF THE CITY coming?
FURTHER has wrapped. And it's being edited as we speak. It should be on Showtime in April or May of 2001.

So, what do you think?
Oh, I'm thrilled to death. It's twice as sexy as the other shows.

I can deal with that.
I thought you might like that. All of the actors get naked at one point. They've been extremely generous in that regard.

Is Thomas Gibson...
He died in the last one.

Oh, stupid me.
He's furious about that, by the way. I talked to him a few days ago, and he doesn't like to even hear me talk about the new show: "You could have let me come back as a ghost or something." But he remains a dear friend, but unfortunately we killed off Beecham last time around. Billy Campbell's coming all his naked beautiful glory. And so is Paul Hopkins. We have the whole cast from last time around, including Mother Mucka (Jackie Burrows) who wasn't actually in the book. I never really dealt with what happened to Mother Mucka and I decided this time around I wanted to flesh out that storyline. And Lea DeLaria plays a bush pilot in it.

A what pilot?
A bush pilot. What other kind would you expect? It's like an Alaskan float plane pilot who flies through the bush.

[Laughs] Oh, that is too perfect.
She had such a laugh out of that. She wanted us to credit her that way on the credits, where it would say, "Lea DeLaria as The Bush Pilot." And Joel Grey has a cameo this time around playing the guy that presides over Rock Hudson's Boy Party. Rock Hudson is called Cage Tyler in FURTHER TALES OF THE CITY, not because I felt any compunction about avoiding naming him, but I was afraid viewers would spend their whole time saying, "That's not Rock Hudson." So we made him into a sort of generic closeted superstar named Cage Tyler. It happens that the actor we picked has some qualities that are very like Rock. So it was quite eerie for me to watch that portion.

Because you were friends with Rock Hudson.
Oh yeah, and the pathetic little sexual escapade you'll see in FURTHER TALES was drawn from my own life. [Laughs] It's pathetic, you'll see. It's in the book that way, but it's basically Michael...well, never mind. Lots of kissing, lots of humping. I think it's sexier, funnier, sadder, faster, and more adventurous.

And on Showtime!
Yeah, so far there have been no restrictions whatsoever. Several times I stood in front of the monitor during a love scene and found my own jaw dropping [laughs]. I turned to this woman producer and said, "Oh my God, are we doing this?"

Are you concerned about the editing process at all?
Oh sure, and I'll have a chance to look at the rough cut, to make suggestions if I feel the directors made a choice that doesn't comply with what I imagined the scene to be. But I also trust our director a great deal. We've come to know each other very well and like each other. His name is Pierre Gang. And he's gay and has a wonderful combination of sentiment and liberal sexual attitudes. And a great visual sense.

I may have to order Showtime just for that. The only other thing, when you were doing CELLULOID CLOSET, did you write that with other people?
I wrote the narration myself.

Then Lily Tomlin came in and narrated.
Oh, you don't want me to dredge up that tired old thing all over again.

What I was going to say is that I had read, probably a couple of months ago, that she actually came out.
You know, if Lily Tomlin had come out a couple of months ago, it would have been big news.

It was in a little publication.
That's where it always is.

Oh, so you think they just made it up?
I don't know, I don't know. She's been walking the line for such a long time that I've lost interest whether she's in or out. If she came out, it would supplant Ellen DeGeneres, you know. Lilly Tomlin's a major established star. The sad reality is it's too late for Lily. She had her chance and she missed it. And Ellen made that abundantly clear when she came out.

And it was remarkable, too. I'm not really jaded when it comes to that.
Oh, I'm hugely moved by what Ellen DeGeneres did. I have no patience whatsoever with gay people who find fault with her in any way. It's hard to imagine how she could have done it with more class. I don't know if you've seen her new HBO special. It's funny and honest and just gay enough. And totally her. I was sitting all by myself just hooting.

I'm looking forward to the video. And thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
You're very welcome, Blase.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Congrats to Laura Linney (loved as Mary Ann Singleton in "Tales of the City") for her Golden Globe win tonight for "John Adams".


Armistead Maupin figures on just about every list of gay fiction you will ever see - and not without reason - his Tales Of The City series of novels broke every record selling over six million copies; they has now been translated into more than ten languages. In this in-depth interview, Nick Alexander spoke to "uncle" Armistead at length about his latest novel - Michael Tolliver Lives - writing, HIV, France and Jacques Chirac's wife...

Nick: So how are you today?
Armistead: I'm very good, great in fact. My husband and I went up to the High Sierra - we just bought a piece of property and have been kind of fantasizing about the kind of cabin we want to put on it...

Nick: How funny. My last novel is about a gay American couple moving to a cabin in the hills, and doing the whole Off the Grid thing.
Armistead: Well, that's exactly it. We're thinking about going green and operating off solar power.

Nick: Huh! I just wrote about it, which is kind of weird. Because you're actually living it.
Armistead: Sounds like it. I'd love to read it.

Nick: Well, I'll send you a copy. But you still live in San Francisco, right? The place up in the hills isn't a permanent move?
Armistead: No it's just a retreat, as it were.

Nick: And do you still love San Francisco, or is it just habit?
Armistead: Well I guess I must love it (laughs). No, I can't imagine living anywhere else. I love to travel and see new horizons, but San Francisco suits me very well, it's part of my lore now… I feel as if it's my destiny.

Nick: So what have you been working on lately?
Armistead: Well, the promotion for Michael Tolliver Lives. Sometimes you write and sometimes you promote what you write, and I'm in the middle of a promotion right now.

Nick: Do they drive you hard to promote the book?
Armistead: Not at all - they organize it very well, and I rather enjoy the process.

Nick: I find writing is a lonely kind of process, so it must make a change.
Armistead: Absolutely. I love the gregarious nature of getting out into the world and actually getting to meet the readers. That's the real reward as far as I'm concerned.

Nick: So will Michael Tolliver Lives be coming out in French?
Armistead: Oh, absolutely. They're busy translating it as we speak.

Nick: So will there be a book tour in France too?
Armistead: Yes, I think it will be next spring.You know I sell more books per capita in France than anywhere else. It took me years to break into the Paris literary scene. They're very careful about the Americans that they let in. But once they embraced me they did so with open arms, and that felt very, very good, because I think of Paris as one of the great civilized centers of the world. I met the mayor not long ago in San Francisco.

Nick: Bertrand Delanoe.
Armistead: Oui (laughs). He did a little bow when he heard my name. That made me feel very good.

Nick: Do you speak French?
Armistead: Un petit peu. (giggles) Not enough to talk to the mayor however.

Nick: Because Maupin sound very French, I guess they might expect you to speak it.
Armistead: Well it is. It's a Huguenot name. They were the people who fled France and settled in Virginia. I have a little schoolboy French, but as soon as people like the mayor hear me using it they think I really can speak it and launch into normal conversation, and then I have no idea what they are saying. But Parisians are extremely gracious if you make any effort at all with their language. Madame Chirac actually turned up at one of my book signings in Paris.

Nick: God how dreadful.
Armistead: Yeah, it was shocking.

Nick: But cute.
Armistead: I think she saw that I had the longest line, and it seemed like the right one to go to. I'm not sure she was personally a fan.

Nick: Tales of the city changed the way a lot of gay men perceive themselves. For my generation Michael Mouse was often the first positive gay role model we came across.
Armistead: How old are you Nick?

Nick: I'm 43… but I was a late bloomer.
Armistead: So was I (laughs).

Nick: It was incredibly useful for me to open this book - a girlfriend recommended it -and just stumble upon this incredibly sensitive and positive gay character. Do a lot of people say the same thing?
Armistead: Yes they do. But I never tire of hearing it. It means more to me than almost anything.

Nick: It's been 18 years since the last Tales of the City novel. Why such a long break?
Armistead: Well there were other things going on in between. Like three TV mini series, and two novels, both of which, by the way, contained characters that related to the Tales of the City story. There are minor characters in both Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener. I always point that out because people tend to miss it.

Nick: I'm afraid I missed it too. Any clues?
Armistead: Well, Anna, Gabriel's book-keeper, the character played by Sandra Oh in the film, is actually one of Dee Dee Halcyon-Day's twin daughters. She had Anna and Edgar. So Sandra Oh is playing is Anna.

Nick: Sorry, I did miss it. Shame on me.
Armistead: No no, I didn't underscore it.

Nick: You changed to first person narrative for this book. Why so?
Armistead: Actually the last two novels, Maybe The Moon and The Night Listener were first person. It's just the earlier books that weren't. I enjoyed the process of writing that way - I feel it allows for a more intimate glimpse, and I thought that people might enjoy seeing Michael - seeing the world through Michael's eyes. The Tales do that, but they do it in third person, and first person is far more revealing. I wanted to concentrate on that character and the way he interrelates with the other characters.

Nick: Don't you ever find it frustrating - the fact that you can't reveal why other characters are doing what they're doing?
Armistead: Well, it's a more limited viewpoint, but maybe a richer more revealing one in the end.

Nick: Well it certainly works for you. Michael Tolliver Lives is a much more intimate read than the other books in the series. Do you still feel nervous when you release a book to the public or have you got used to it by now?
Armistead: No I still feel nervous. It's like a debut every time. But I have four or five close friends, including my husband, who give me their feedback before I let it out into the world, and their reviews have been good, so I'm happy about that.

Nick: Michael seems to be having more sex than he ever had before.
Armistead: Well, I think it's described more. I'm not sure it's a greater frequency. As you get older quality becomes far more important than quantity.

Nick: Was it a conscious decision to make the sex more up front in this novel?
Armistead: I think it just grew out of who I am and how the world is today. Sex is discussed everywhere, and I didn't see any reason why I should exclude it, especially because I think that there are things about it that are revelatory, and funny, and inspiring.

Nick: Edmund White said that younger guys don't imagine just how much sex older guys are getting these days.
Armistead: (laughs) Well I know one younger guy who can imagine. My husband. Nowadays, thanks to the magic pill, it just doesn't stop! If you want sex then you can have it for a very long time.

Nick: So, both you and Michael Tolliver are dating younger guys.
Armistead: Well, he's actually married to a much younger guy. So am I.

Nick: Sure. Sorry. The French writer Didier Lestrade is another one dating a youngster. He suggested that the only people that open, well-balanced people in their fifties and sixties can date are the generation that haven't been made bitter and twisted by the gay scene, what do you think?
Armistead: Laughs. Well, my husband once told me that it was very difficult finding people of my generation who aren't fucked up - which I took as an enormous compliment. But it's not a new phenomenon. Christopher Isherwood was forty-eight years old when he met the eighteen-year-old Don Bachardy back in the early sixties, and they were a great inspiration to me, both as friends and artists. Don is seventy-two now, and he was the younger member of that relationship. And if you really want to get picky about it, you can go back to the Greeks. In the end, whatever the generation, what matters is if the two of you are compatible. Whether you can stand to spend time with each other and still have things to say to each other.

Nick: I was just wondering - there seems to be a bit of a theme here, with older writers dating younger guys.
Armistead: Well, the Internet makes that possible. My husband actually runs a website, called - a personal site for gay men over forty.

Nick: Did you meet him on that site?
Armistead: I saw him on that site. But I met him in the street.

Nick: So the same as Michael does in the book then.
Armistead: Yeah, pretty much. (laughs).

Nick: Sounds like a pretty cheeky strategy. Running a dating website, I mean. That way you get first pick. Did he contact you as soon as you joined?
Armistead: (laughs) No, I never actually joined. I saw him on the site, and then when I saw him in the street, I knew that he liked older guys, so I just kind of accosted him on the street. It was a very non-techno kind of link-up.

Nick: As well as being sexy and funny, there seems to be a fair bit of death in this novel.
Armistead: (laughs). Well that's another thing that you get more of when you get older. I'm sixty-two. It's no mystery - some of my friends are going to be dying. For many years they were dying prematurely… Now they're dying of so-called natural causes.

Nick: Yes, well it gives the book a kind of melancholy magnificence that maybe the other books didn't have.
Armistead: Ooh. Melancholy magnificence. I like that. I hope you're reviewing the book.

Nick: I am. And Melancholy magnificence is already in it.
Armistead: Well good. Thank you.

Nick: So Michael Tolliver has been HIV positive for twenty years in the book.
Armistead: So many people have.

Nick: How do you feel about the fact that HIV infection rates are rising again? That brutal and unsafe sex are becoming more and more common?
Armistead: I think it's stupid and unconscionable. I'm horrified that there is a generation that has become blasé about taking care of themselves and the people they love. It speaks to me of a residual self-loathing.

Nick: Many people of my age have, you know, come through the whole thing by being careful and taking care, for, what, twenty years now. And we're suddenly confronted with these twenty year olds announcing that they have become HIV positive. I find it quite difficult to be OK with that.
Armistead: Well, I'm not OK with it. I'm not OK with it at all. I'm not OK in fact with a number of self-destructive things that gay men do. Lung cancer strikes gay men more than the general population because of smoking. I think there are a number of signs that we don't maybe love ourselves as much as we should.

Nick: So it's like a suicidal desire almost.
Armistead: Well, there's certainly an element of that. There are bug-chasers out there who want to get infected so they can join the club. I can't imagine what club they think that is… The diarrhoea club… the lypodistrophy club maybe. Because anyone who is sick will tell you that it's not fun at all.

Nick: Writers like Larry Kramer in the States and Lestrade here in France have been very critical of the gay community. Have you ever felt like attacking them over…
Armistead: Oh, there have been many times. I don't attack any community - because we're not one thing. I attack certain behaviours - my characters make observations about foolish behaviour. But there are many individuals who rise above the adolescent thinking that a lot of gay men still participate in. But I'm never gonna be as grumpy as Larry Kramer.

Nick: Well luckily. I mean, that's why Mouse is such a great role model for us. He wasn't living a permanently tragic empty existence. You need positive role models too.
Armistead: Well, it simply wasn't the life that I was living. When I came along and started to write, the image presented in gay literature was pretty damn grim. And as soon as I realised that it didn't have to be that way. If you chose your friends carefully, and behaved in a way that was worthy of love, then you could escape from that terrible fate - of being a depressed old queen. And you know, I have my ups and downs like anyone else, but I'm happier at sixty three than I've ever been, because I know more about myself. And because, (laughs) the wonders of science have allowed me to continue my sex life.

Nick: Well it's good to think that I might have another thirty years of sex in front of me.
Armistead: Well yes. There are plenty of eighty-year-olds having sex, and you might as well think about it, because you're gonna get there one of these days, and you'll be glad that that's true.

Nick: And what's your feeling about where the gay community is at today?
Armistead: I think we fall into traps when we talk about the gay community. That's what homophobes do. They think that we're all one thing and make generalisations about us. But I don't do that. There are plenty of gay people I can't stand. And I find their behaviour abhorrent. So I don't know which bit you mean when you say the gay community. I don't buy into the whole notion that we're one big thing, whether that be a market, or a political entity, or anything else. Because we just aren't. There are plenty of gay people out there who are reprehensible closet cases, and they're no part of my community.

Nick: There just seem to be more and more people around me who are saying that they don't feel they fit in. They don't like the bars and the sex clubs...
Armistead: So what you mean by the gay community is bars and sex clubs? (laughs)

Nick: No, but they are saying that they find it hard to find places to go meet people, because they don't like the places on offer...
Armistead: Well, the Internet relieves that to a certain degree. You don't have to go sit in a bar or a bathhouse - you can actually hook up with people online. Or, heaven forbid, you could say hello to someone on the street, like I did. This is about keeping your heart open, and not becoming hardened to the world around you. That's what keeps you happy as a gay person; that and a certain amount of residual pride, or arrogance if you prefer. Something that says, I'm not trying to be as good as anybody else. I am as good as anybody else, and maybe even better because of the life I've had to lead…

Nick: The fact that Michael Tolliver met his partner in the street after seeing him online, it makes us suspect that Michael Tolliver is actually Armistead Maupin.
Armistead: Only in some ways.

Nick: Just the cute ways?
Armistead: (laughs) Yes, just the adorable ways. I've always plundered my own life for fiction. I did it when I was writing Maybe the Moon, about a heterosexual female, Jewish dwarf. She was as much myself as Michael Tolliver. You know that as a writer, I'm sure. You draw on your own storehouse of emotions.

Nick: Yes, only in fiction people have to be more defined, more black and white. So you tend to isolate just one part of yourself for each character.
Armistead: That's right. That's what I found too. With a whole apartment-house full of characters in Barbary Lane I had to do it that way. I would lean on certain aspects of myself in order to create the character.

Nick: So does Art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Do you try out scenarios for your own life in your books, or...
Armistead: Oh absolutely. My books are often driven by the way I imagine my life to be - how I want to fix it, or change it. I use my fiction as a way of directing my own life. It allows us to make some kind of sense out of the chaos of life. Real life is disjointed and messy, and disorientating. But fiction, no matter how loose, has a certain pattern to it, which is comforting to the reader and the writer.

Nick: And other people. Do you steal parts of their lives for you books?
Armistead: Sure, sometimes. I usually tell them though. There's a story in Michael Tolliver Lives about a guy who wants to eat pussy by the time he's forty years old. And a girlfriend helps him out, but she freshens up with cinnamon douche. And the result is that the guy feels this aversion to breakfast rolls ever after. (laughs) That happened to someone I know. I wrote it down as he told me - I told him it was going straight in the book. My ears are constantly open for such things.

Nick: - Have you ever upset anyone, by writing about them?
Armistead: Oh, there's a local socialite, who recognized herself in the Prue Giroux character in Tales of The City. She spent twenty years upset about it. But nowadays she brags about it.

Nick: Well that's pretty much all my questions. Thanks for that. You've been great. What else are you doing today?
Armistead: Oh, some phone interviews, and the launch party for a book about fag hags to raise money for a gay teen suicide helpline, and probably taking my dog to get washed.

Nick: You have a dirty dog?
Armistead: Yeah, she just got back from the country, so its time for her to go to the beauty parlour.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theatre Rhinoceros Plays 'Three On a Party'

pPosted online 4/10/09

THEATRE RHINOCEROS and WORD FOR WORD present Three On a Party, opening on Saturday May 16 at 8 PM (press night), on Theatre Rhinoceros, Mainstage in San Francisco (previews May 13-15). Three On a Party features three stories by some of the most important queer writers of the twentieth century, Two On a Party by Tennessee Williams, Miss Furr and Miss Skeene by Gertrude Stein, and Suddenly Home by the Bay Area's very own Armistead Maupin.

Three on a Party charts both a history of queerdom in the twentieth century and the slow coming out of this thing called “same-sex marriage.” Directed by Delia MacDougall (Miss Furr and Miss Skeene) and John Fisher (Two on a Party and Suddenly Home) the Three On a Party cast includes Brendan Godfrey, and Ryan Tasker; with Sheila Balter, and JoAnne Winter both Charter Members of Word for Word; JoAnne is founding member and Artistic Director of Word for Word (member of Actors Equity Association).

Armistead Maupin has called Stein and Williams “the king and the queen” of LGBT writing, but he is unarguably the third of America’s great queer literary royal family. On Sunday May 17, 7 PM join the company for An Evening with Armistead Maupin in conversation with the audience and Theatre Rhinoceros Artistic Director John Fisher following the performance. (Tickets $30-50). On Friday May 22 following the performance there will be a post show discussion with Gertrude Stein expert and collector Hans Gallas.

From Stein’s Dadaesque tale of two lesbians in 1910, to Williams’ richly written fantasy of unbridled sex in the straight laced fifties, to the hilarious shenanigans of Maupin’s very San Francisco extended family in the 1990s, Three on a Party takes a literary journey across time and genre as it amuses, titillates and lays bare the passions of gay men and women. Gertrude Stein’s “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” is set in 1910 America and Paris. Stein's subtle, experimental word portrait is the saga of two women’s lives, exploring their entry into the Bohemian world and the change between them as lovers and as devotees of life outside artistic and sexual convention. In Tennessee Williams' short story "Two on a Party" a very unlikely couple takes a sexual road trip in this startling picture of the sexual mores of the 1950’s. When Cora meets Billy they are just a couple of hungry predators on a couple of New York bar stools. But soon, they find a bond in their ravenous lust for men. A heartbreaking tale of companionship, and certainly one the funniest and fun filled stories Williams ever set to paper, conveying all the heat, whimsy and aching desire of the Master’s great plays, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.

In the wake of Harvey Milk and liberation comes a story of responsibility and commitment, Armistead Maupin's "Suddenly Home" which tells the story of Tess, a woman doubting her romantic relationship. She looks for guidance from her brother and his boyfriend and sees in their relationship the true meaning of love. America’s master narrator of “the gay life” turns his pen to a tale of same-sex marriage. Laced with all his familiar wit, compassion and love of San Francisco, Maupin’s tale captures Baghdad by the Bay at a time of dramatic change, the late 1980’s. Maupin’s little family struggles to find answers to life’s confusing propositions.

Director Delia MacDougall (Miss Furr and Miss Skeene) is an actor and director working mainly in San Francisco for the past twenty years. Delia is a founding member of three San Francisco theater companies. Delia has been a part of the Intersection’s resident theater company, Campo Santo, since its beginnings directing their second production, the world premiere of Erin Cressida Wilson’s Hurricane . Most recently she directed the world premiere of Denis Johnson’s Purvis at the Intersection for the Arts.. Other world premieres with Campo Santo include Naomi Iizuka’s 17 Reasons (Why) and The Language of Angels, (nomination: Critics Circle Award best production). She also directed the West Coast premiere of Naomi’s Polaroid Stories (Winner: Backstage West: Best Director/Ensemble) and for the Harbor Theater the west coast premiere of Jose Rivera’s Sonnets for and Old Century. Delia has directed over ten productions for Word for Word and the Z Space studio since 1996. Original Word for Word productions with premieres at the Magic Theater in San Francisco include: Immortal Heart,(Winner: Critics Circle Award: Production/ Director /Ensemble) Oil! The Ride, Winesburgh Ohio,(Winner: Critics Circle Award: Production /Director) Mrs. Dalloway’s Party and The Confessions of Madame Psyche.

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Director John Fisher (“Two on a Party” and “Suddenly Home”) is now in his seventh year as the Executive Director of The GLAAD Media Award Winning Theatre Rhinoceros. He is also a nationally produced playwright and director. His plays include The Joy of Gay Sex, which was performed in New York City, and Medea: The Musical which was produced on HBO. Recent projects include Ishi: The Last of the Yahi at Theatre Rhino and Red Scare on Sunset at ACT. John is the only two-time winner of the Will Glickman Playwright Award, and a recipient of the NEA Grant, a GLAAD Media Award, two L.A. Weekly Awards, a Garland Award, two Cable Car Awards, a San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award, and ten Bay Area Theatre Critics’ Circle Awards. John holds a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from the University of California, Berkeley, but you don’t have to call him Doctor, and he has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and, for the past two years, at the Yale School of Drama. He makes his home in the Haight-Ashbury District with his life-partner Michael. He met Michael in his college dorm in 1982.

Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City Series, The Night Listener) was one of the first of a new breed of openly gay authors; his appeal has always resided in his inclusiveness as a storyteller. For over thirty years his beloved characters from 28 Barbary Lane in the Tales of the City series have cut an unprecedented path through popular culture-from a groundbreaking newspaper serial to six internationally best-selling novels to a Peabody Award-winning miniseries starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. Maupin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1944 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he served as a naval officer in the Mediterranean and with the River Patrol Force in Vietnam. Maupin worked briefly as a reporter for a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, before being assigned to the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press in 1971. The climate of freedom and tolerance he found in his adopted city inspired him to come out publicly as homosexual in 1974. Two years later he launched his "Tales of the City" serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the first fiction to appear in an American daily for decades.

Maupin is the author of nine novels, including the six-volume Tales of the City series, Maybe the Moon, The Night Listener and, in 2007 he revisited one of his most beloved Tales characters in Michael Tolliver. Three miniseries starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney were made from the first three novels in the Tales series. The Night Listener became a feature film starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette. Lives, a musical adaptation of Tales of the City is in the works from Jeff Whitty and Jason Moore (creators of the Tony award-winning hit Avenue Q), set to bow on Broadway in 2009. He is currently working on his next novel, Mary Ann in Autumn. Maupin lives in San Francisco with his husband, Christopher Turner.

Theatre Rhinoceros (John Fisher, Artistic Director), America’s longest running (29 years) professional queer theatre, remains committed to founder Allan Estes’ original vision of developing and producing works of theatre that enlighten, enrich, and explore both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of our queer community.

Word for Word Performing Arts Company is an ensemble whose mission is to tell great stories with elegant theatricality, staging performances of classic and contemporary fiction. Founded in 1993 by Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, Word for Word believes in the power of the short story to provide solace, compassion, and insight into our daily lives. We bring stories from diverse cultures to our diverse communities, and develop future audiences' love for the printed and spoken word. Word for Word is a program of the Z Space Studio.

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Z SPACE STUDIO strives to fuel the development of American theater on a national level by nurturing new voices, new works, and new opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area. We fulfill the function by supporting a culturally and aesthetically diverse community of theater artists working together to develop Bay Area Theater and theater audiences. Led by Executive Director Lisa Steindler, the Z Space Studio has become one of the nation's leading laboratories for the development of new voices, new works and new directions in American theater.

The Z Space Studio employs hundreds of artists each year in the process of developing new works through its three principle programs: Word for Word, Z Plays, and Youth Arts. Since the founding of the Z Space Studio in 1993, the Studio and the Bay Area artists served have racked up an impressive list of awards and other notable achievements, including the Helen Hayes Award, the Kesselring Prize, the MacArthur Award, and two Pulitzer nominations. In 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2008, Z-produced projects have landed in the San Francisco Chronicle's "10 Best Theater Events of the Year" list. --

The Stealth Warrior

We have Armistead Maupin to thank for bringing gay characters into the mainstream. Almost 35 years after his exuberant Tales of the City debuted in a California newspaper, the writer is still plowing fresh ground.

By Josh Kilmer-Purcell
Armistead Maupin and Christopher Turner

I admit it. When climbing the landscaped stairway in front of Armistead Maupin’s Noe Hill home, which backs up into the magical Sutro Forest in the heart of his beloved San Francisco, the first thing I look for is pot plants.

My stomach has been lurching over the hills on the taxi ride to his house, and a little of Anna Madrigal’s special blend would do wonders. Not spotting any plants, I continue climbing, aware of how much I desire Maupin to resemble, in spirit, the eccentric transsexual landlady-matriarch Anna Madrigal from his groundbreaking Tales of the City series.

We gays do that to our lions as they age. We desex them. We strip them of their power and influence. We mock their vast accomplishments as quaint. In an age when coming out can often be as breezy as joining a junior high gay-straight alliance, we look back on the hushed secret languages of those who came before us and think of them as somehow weaker than we.

So when the man standing at the door isn’t wearing a caftan and drinking Frannie Halcyon’s famous mai tais but is instead a sturdy, handsome, genial snow-haired daddy type, I think, To hell with the weed. Pass the poppers.

Already a local celebrity by the mid 1970s thanks to his weekly serial in the San Francisco Chronicle (to which the series had migrated from the Pacific Sun), Maupin (pronounced maw-pin) catapulted to widespread fame after the 1978 publication of his first book, Tales of the City. Five collections would follow, each taking up where the previous one left off, tracing the lives of an increasingly familiar set of San Francisco–based characters through to the late ’80s.

While the last Tales book was published in 1989, its characters have resurfaced intermittently through Maupin’s other acclaimed novels. For devotees, it’s akin to receiving postcards from far-flung friends—nice updates, but not the same as getting together for one of Anna Madrigal’s dinner and pot parties. And while Maupin is reluctant to classify his latest book, Michael Tolliver Lives (released this month), as a sequel in the series, ardent fans will likely be overjoyed with the return of Michael Tolliver—or “Mouse,” as fans have come to know him—and his circle of friends. For a lot of gay men, Mouse was our first gay sighting—the first time we spotted a gay man in our culture who wasn’t hidden behind euphemisms, villainously perverted, or tragedy-bound. It’s hard to reconcile today how groundbreaking the idea of two men lying in bed next to each other—having a normal conversation about life, friends, and family—was in 1974, when Mouse first appeared in a mainstream newspaper.

The concept was so new, Maupin recalls, that a chart in his managing editor’s office logged the sexual orientation of various characters. “One column was labeled ‘homosexual’ and the other ‘heterosexual,’ ” he remembers. “Each time a new character was introduced, the name was entered into its appropriate column. I was strictly forbidden to make more than 30% of them gay.” (In an effort to stack the deck, he once tried to include in the heterosexual column a dog that humped a woman character’s leg. It didn’t stick.)

“Today, we take for granted the world Armistead was writing into,” says fellow gay author, filmmaker, and friend Clive Barker. “Even as late as 1984 my agent and editor—who were both gay themselves—demanded that I remove a short story from a collection because it had gay heroes. This was a full decade after Maupin began creating his magical world of Dickensian characters.”

Maupin didn’t grow up in an environment that allowed anywhere near 30% of its people to reside in a homosexual column. It was more like zero.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1944 and reared in North Carolina, Maupin had an upbringing that—like much of his life—is thinly veiled within the pages of his fiction. The son of conservative but loving parents, he was outed to his mother when she read a Newsweek profile of ’70s antigay activist Anita Bryant in which her son was described as “the prominent homosexual columnist Armistead Maupin.” She hid away in the library secretly reading up on his “condition,” keeping it a secret from Maupin’s “crusty archconservative” father.

Maupin, himself, started down quite a different path from the brazenly liberal thruway on which he wound up. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he enrolled in (and later dropped out of) law school. Echoing his upbringing, he penned a conservative column for the school paper that caught the eye of a local television station vice president and family friend, Jesse Helms, who gave Maupin his first job. Yes, that would be the same bigoted Jesse Helms who later vehemently denounced PBS’s Tales of the City miniseries.

Maupin’s youthful experience of writing from such an insincerely conservative vantage point might have been the catalyst for his disdain for the closet. In three decades of writing, the only “bad” gay characters he’s created are those who are not out.

“He is properly intolerant of hypocrisy and lies,” says actor Ian McKellen, a close friend of Maupin’s. “Neither in private nor public, however, is he self-righteous. His humor would not permit that.”

McKellen is speaking from experience. Although today he’s considered a pioneer for gay actors and actresses coming out, it took a gentle nudge from Maupin to bring him fully into the spotlight.

“In 1987, at his home in San Francisco, I asked Armistead what he thought about my completing my coming-out journey by speaking openly in the media,” McKellen admits. “His encouragement to do so was crucial.”

For over 30 years Maupin has been steadfastly making the world a gayer place, though not in any disproportionate sense. It’s through him that people have come to realize how many of us are among them. And that’s made all of our lives much, much easier.

“Armistead’s own honest and rigorous sense of responsibility,” McKellen concludes, “has made him the godfather to all of us who have learnt his lesson that coming out changes life forever for the better.”

Introducing gay characters in mainstream story lines was just the beginning of Tales breakthroughs, which occurred on a weekly basis as stories unfolded. With the series covering subjects such as AIDS and gay parenting and introducing a rare sympathetic transsexual character, there are few topics in modern LGBT history that we didn’t hear about first from Maupin. In 1983, he introduced a plot in which a straight man discovered the woman he was sleeping with had AIDS, a notion akin to science fiction at the time—only gay men got AIDS. Coincidentally, when the installment appeared, a report ran in the same paper on a handful of women in local hospitals purported to have contracted the disease. Maupin, it sometimes seems, is not simply in the vanguard—he’s prescient.

And then there’s the subtle power of his writing to break “gay news” to his mainstream audience in such an entertaining and nonthreatening way that he avoids the militant backlash of more overt activism.

“He’s such a cunning storyteller,” says Clive Barker, “cleverly making the reader identify with his people [so] that, before you know it, you sort of love everybody. You love the world.”

Perhaps that’s why, when taken out of context, his story lines seem so dangerous to the intolerant and bigoted. When Tales of the City aired on PBS in 1994, it received official condemnations from the legislatures of South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Georgia, mainly for showing scenes of two men kissing. The PBS affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., received bomb threats. It all seems silly now, after Will & Grace and Queer as Folk. Then again, so does tallying up characters in heterosexual and homosexual columns. By the time we realize the number of breakthroughs Maupin has accomplished with his wry humor and sentimental story lines, the moment of threat has long passed.

“I could not believe the violently dramatic reactions of people like Jesse Helms and what we now call the religious right,” says Olympia Dukakis about the controversy whipped up around the miniseries. Dukakis played the transsexual Anna Madrigal in all of the Tales miniseries.

Maupin’s “spoonful of sugar” activism often catches even longtime friends off guard.

“The quality of Armistead’s activism didn’t quite hit me until I saw him give a speech at a [Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] event,” says Laura Linney, who played the naive Midwesterner Mary Ann in the TV series. “Here we were at an event where everyone was deservedly celebrating their successes, and then Armistead stood up to speak. There was my sweet, kind, loving Maupin telling everyone in the most passionate and firm manner that it was not time to rest on their laurels. And he did that in the way only he could—with such great love and humor that people were able to embrace the message rather than be demoralized.”

Maupin himself sometimes ponders his activist legacy.

“I think a lot of people—a lot of mainstream people—think of me as a sort of warm, fuzzy, safe gay author,” Maupin says. “I sort of resent that because I feel I’ve been breaking ground every inch of the way.”

But is it possible for a set of characters who are by now in their 50s to blaze any more trails? It’s hard to imagine, in this day and age when gay people are liberally peppered throughout pop culture. But, as the author says, “Life has a way of providing.”

Three years ago life provided Maupin with Christopher Turner, whom he married earlier this year in Canada. Maupin’s 1996 breakup with his last partner was painful and fairly public. But after a few years spent recuperating as a bachelor in the Castro, he is in love. And happy. But what’s so groundbreaking about being happy and in love?

Maybe it’s that he’s happy and in love with a man nearly 30 years his junior.

Given the way Maupin’s art reflects his life, it’s perhaps no surprise that in Michael Tolliver Lives, Mouse, now 54 years old, is dating a man named Ben who is 21 years his junior. Interestingly, this is also the first book set in the Tales milieu written in the first person, from Michael’s point of view…mostly.

“Michael is a mix of who I am, who I’d like to be, and sometimes who I’d like to fuck,” Maupin answers—probably for the millionth exasperating time—to the question of whether or not he is Mouse.

The book’s atypically graphic descriptions may shock readers familiar with the Tales series. Unlike the previous books, the narrative doesn’t stop at the bedroom door. Maybe I too was one of those people who considered him to be my warm and fuzzy gay literary uncle instead of my warm, fuzzy gay literary daddy. But I’m not alone in being slightly discomfited at finding my intrepid hero Mouse—who in the first Tales book famously won the underwear dancing contest at the Endup—now worrying about his “falling ass.”

When I point out the new sexual descriptiveness, Maupin notes that both his editors and agents wondered whether or not he should “tone things down.”

“Maybe what’s making everybody squeamish is the idea of someone my age having a three-way,” he muses in that same way he deftly turns observations into pointed questions aimed back at the questioner.

The uneasiness is not simply a manifestation of ageism. After all, this is a 54-year-old man having a threesome with someone young enough to be his son. We haven’t seen a lot of this in gay literature. Or movies. Or even porn.

Which makes me wonder whether the rest of his readership—a large number of whom are straight women now old enough to be Ben’s mother—will think Mouse has turned into a, um…

“A dirty old man?” Maupin finishes my sentence for me. “Look, there’s always the assumption that it involves money or power or actual daddy issues. Who the hell knows what turns anyone on?”

As usual, Maupin attacks preconceived notions with reality. “I went to a great deal of trouble in Michael Tolliver Lives,” he says, “to explain that Ben was as much the aggressor as Michael. In fact, he was advertising for such a relationship.”

Was the same true of him and Turner?

“Christopher has known of his attraction to older men since he was a teenager. I had to get used to believing him. Really? You want me? It was a huge surprise and delight to find out that he was every bit as turned on by me as I was by him,” Maupin says. “And that’s been very good for me in terms of eliminating any residual self-loathing I feel.”

In our youth-obsessed, chicken-hawk culture, it’s novel for a younger man to be not only an aggressor but a teacher—and not for reasons of power or wealth, but for true romance and attraction.

And did Maupin ever date older men when he was younger?

“Hell, no,” he laughs. “I don’t get it.”

Turner is handsome. But not in the twinkish way one stereotypically imagines of much younger husbands. When I meet the couple for lunch, I’m struck by how Turner’s goatee and pensive eyes give him the demeanor of someone older than his 34 years.

Proving that it’s not only the differences but the similarities that make any relationship work, it’s not surprising that Maupin’s new husband is just as passionate about exposing unexplored aspects of gay life to the world. The two met after Maupin saw Turner’s personal ad on—the dating Web site the latter founded five years ago. Now his company, Pantheon Productions, owns another site,, for which he produces porn movies featuring older men.

“I never imagined myself running a company that produces porn,” Turner says. “But a lot of my motivation was political, believe it or not. I wanted to say that it’s OK to be attracted to older guys, and I wasn’t seeing my kind of man being celebrated.”

It’s hard to argue that intergenerational gay romance is simply a niche fetish: Turner’s personals site alone has over 100,000 members. But such relationships are certainly not discussed frequently in gay media. And when they are, they’re often viewed with suspicion.

Turner is under no illusions as to how his relationship with Maupin might be received by those who don’t know them.

“There’s always the assumption that if there’s a big age difference,” Turner says, “the two parties are using each other in some way.”

The discomfort works from the inside out as well. Turner admits that it was a little daunting bringing Maupin home to meet his parents.

“He’s a couple of years older than my parents. It took my dad longer to warm up to him than anyone else. Armistead is the first person that I have ever taken home. I just wanted to get it right before I introduced someone to my whole family,” Turner says, adding that after a short time together, “it really was no issue for anyone.”

Which is pretty easy to believe. For 30 years Maupin has made us all comfortable. Through his Tales of the City characters he’s made many straight people comfortable with fun-loving, flag-waving homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, and “others.” He’s made closeted gay people grow comfortable enough to step out into the world they fear. And now he’s easing a self-obsessed gay youth culture into being more accepting of sexuality among the older generation they will eventually belong to. It’s all in a day’s work for Maupin, essentially.

“Armistead doesn’t try to break ground,” Dukakis laughs when I call him a stealth activist. “He just, as Tennessee Williams would say, ‘goes forth’ and writes about it. And then everyone else calls it groundbreaking.

“When in reality,” she continues after a moment of thought, “what feels so new to us is simply ‘honesty.’ ”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Armistead on Harvey Ginsberg

Armistead sent me the following to share with the readers. His first and former editor, Harvey Ginsberg, passed away in January, Armistead wrote the following for the memorial.

Harvey Ginsberg (1930-2008)

I owe my career as a novelist to Harvey Ginsberg. It was Harvey who, on a trip to California in 1977, spotted my fictional serial in The San Francisco Chronicle and wrote me to suggest that there might be a novel there. This was the sweetest sort of windfall, since I’d already approached my newspaper’s own publishing arm, Chronicle Books, and been told that “Tales of the City” was too parochial for a national audience.

At Harvey’s request I sent him Xerox copies of my first two years of work, and we were off and running. (My $5000 advance was the largest amount of money I had ever received at one time.) Harvey didn’t micro-edit me, but he offered a suggestion that probably rescued me from oblivion: He urged me to remove the murder mystery subplot that I’d invented out of fear that my daily readers might lose interest in the serial. “If you leave it in,” Harvey told me, “the book will be reviewed as a mystery novel and not a comedy of manners, and I don’t think that’s what you want.” He was dead right, of course.

Harvey initially wanted to bind “Tales of the City” with a metal spiral – a stunt that had just worked successfully for Cyra McFadden’s “The Serial,” a compilation of her own storytelling for the Pacific Sun. To my huge relief, the spiral proved too costly for Harper & Row, so I was spared the embarrassment of looking imitative. We ended up with one of the first new oversized trade paperbacks. The cover was whimsical map of San Francisco by Sausalito cartoonist Phil Frank; the back offered a key to most of the major locales in the novel. There was nothing to describe the contents, so the novel sometimes got shelved in the travel section of bookstores. It stills amuses me to think how many horses that may have frightened out there in the streets of middle America.

I may have frightened some of Harvey’s horses as well. He was a buttoned-down old-school kind of guy with highbrow inclinations, and as much as he championed my work I think my particular brand of breezy California faggotry was just too much for him sometimes. I remember his dry-as-tinder response to the photograph I submitted to Harper & Row for publicity purposes: “We’re still recuperating from it, Armistead.” As I recall, my longish blond hair was parted down the middle and I was wearing a tweed sports coat without a shirt of any kind. (C’mon, it was the seventies -- or maybe I’d just been overly influenced by Truman Capote’s debut jacket photo.) On another occasion I suggested to Harvey that perhaps we should let the public know that there were elements of “Tales of the City” that might be – ahem – of interest to the homosexual population. Harvey just sighed deeply and said: “Toujour gai, Armistead. Toujour gai.”

As his obituary made clear, Harvey was a private man, but there are some things about him I can tell you for sure. He was an editor who loved words and language and the process of guiding a young writer to the best possible version of himself. He was blessed with taste and intelligence and fierce loyalty to his writers. “Tales of the City” was hardly an overnight success – we took 25 thousand returns, if I remember correctly – but Harvey was wonderfully gentle about it, assuring me that a good story will eventually find its audience as he ordered me to get back to work. Thirty years and nine novels later I still remember his no-nonsense encouragement. And I’ll be remembering next year, I hope, when a musical version of “Tales of the City” is slated to open on Broadway.

So thank you, Harvey, for sending me off on this great adventure.
And bon voyage yourself.

The following is Harvey's obituary from Publishers Weekly 1/8/09

Harvey Ginsberg, a veteran editor who worked in publishing for more than 40 years, died on December 30 after losing his battle with Parkinson’s. He was 78. Ginsberg worked at G.P. Putnam's Sons, Harper, and William Morrow & Co., among other companies, and edited such authors as John Irving, Saul Bellow, Rita Mae Brown, Thomas Harris, Caleb Carr and Armistead Maupin. A graduate of Harvard, where he was president of the Harvard Advocate, Ginsberg won the Roger Klein Award for Lifetime Editorial Achievement in 1988.