Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Armistead Maupin: The City and the Writer


If there is one modern gay writer who is intimately interwoven with his hometown, it's Armistead Maupin with San Francisco.

By Matthew Link

The author of the beloved Tales of the City novels (the first appeared in 1978) moved to the City by the Bay at the age of 27 and has never left. Maupin recently presented the world with "Michael Tolliver Lives" (HarperCollins, 2007), featuring for the first time in years characters who appeared in his original books. Matthew Link (who lived for years in the same Cole Valley neighborhood Maupin now resides in) recently spoke with the author about his personal relationship with the city.

It's interesting to see how Michael Tolliver has grown old with the city. Does he reflect your own history with San Francisco?
Yes. It's quite an unavoidable situation as I get older. It would be kind of foolish if I kept trying to write about my characters' youth. I'm deliberately introducing some younger characters so that it's not just one great big circus of geezers, but, yeah, I like the sensation that the characters, like myself, have had this long history in the city. Sometimes I don't even note my own aging until I look at my characters and think, Oh, my God, Brian is 63 years old! Which happens to be my age, but somehow it's far more shocking in one of my characters than it is in me.

For me, living in San Francisco in my 20s was a great way to find myself. It seems like people are drawn to the city to do soul-searching.
They are still and always have been. The city is less involved with your outsides than with your insides, if you follow me. It's not a place that's big on ambition or appearances or money, although all of those things help, God knows. It's a place where you are free to make a fool of yourself and thereby discover yourself. I certainly took that opportunity and worked it to the fullest!

Nearly all of your books are set in San Francisco, and your persona is so linked to the city now. Do you think you would have become the author you are if you lived elsewhere?
I honestly don't know. The whole package was so seamless. My creativity and my personal life and everything else came together during the process of my coming out in San Francisco… For the most part I find the city fulfilling in the same ways I always have. It's so physically dazzling; it has a small-town vibe with cosmopolitan attitudes. And nowadays it's quite simply my home. And something I am so heavily identified with I probably would feel weird living anywhere else.

Do you think in this age of "Will & Grace" that San Francisco still serves the vital function it has in decades past as a gay refuge or gay mecca?
I think we created a prototype of how to function as gay people that has been copied elsewhere in the world -- there's no question about that. Every time I'm in a European country and I see that rainbow flag flying at the end of an alleyway, I remind myself that it was created here by a guy I used to chat with on the street. Apparently it still is [a gay mecca] for a lot of younger people, because they tell me they read my books and then moved to San Francisco because of them. I wish I could actually collect royalties on that! It makes me feel good because it lets me know that my love for the place was apparent in the work.

When I was 19, I saw the movie "Vertigo" and it haunted me and impelled me to move to San Francisco. Somehow, it sums up the beautiful sadness that seems to hang over San Francisco and the city's dreamlike quality.
Like no other movie, it really captures the bittersweet quality of the place and the physical texture as well. Hitchcock used a fog filter, and I think that helped in conveying the notion of what the place is all about. It's kind of soft around the edges -- the waking dream. It's heavily shaped my own work, actually. There are a number of people who fall from high places in "Tales of the City." The movie, for me, is a bit of an obsession. I find something new in it every time I watch it, and that's saying something, because I've watched it many, many times.

Alfred Hitchcock called San Fran the Paris of America --
Let me stop you right there, if you don't mind. [The famous San Francisco columnist] Herb Caen used to cringe over the years at the term "Frisco," but the only one that really bothers me is "San Fran." [Laughs] It's the term that visiting flight attendants use. It's not really a term of affection for locals. It's increased in popularity in recent years, but I cringe when I hear "San Fran." It's just a bug up my ass. We're so protective of the place, the people who live here.

It's true, people really have a deep personal relationship with San Francisco in a way they don't with many other large cities.
I think that's true. That causes other people to refer to us as smug, but it simply reflects a genuine affection for the place. But God knows it's not easy to live here. It's way too expensive; you know traffic is awful; there's a lot of drawbacks to living here. But you're so heavily rewarded by your surroundings in terms of both people and scenery -- and people who are scenery!

Every time I go to visit San Francisco, I nearly cry when I'm leaving.
I'm sure I would too if I were yanked away from it.


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