Monday, June 25, 2007

The long tale

The long tale
Writer Armistead Maupin reunites his fictional family
By Lauren Mechling
June 25, 2007

Long before Sex and the City and the concomitant vogue of the apple martini, there was another juicy newspaper column-turned-book-turned-blockbuster television series: Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s saga about life in San Francisco. In lieu of Carrie Bradshaw, readers rooted for Connie Bradshaw, a freewheeling stewardess (this being the ’70s, there was no such thing as a “flight attendant”).

Connie was lucky enough to live in a rambling boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane, where the residents included 25-year-old Cleveland escapee Mary Ann Singleton, beturbaned pot-smoking landlady Anna Madrigal and the angelic Michael (Mouse) Tolliver — Maupin’s fictional alter ego — who made sure to take time from his busy schedule at the gay bathhouses and dance contests to cheer up the girls’ lives.

Tales started out as a detour. In 1974, Maupin was working as a reporter for the city edition of the Pacific Sun, a small weekly newspaper in Marin County, Calif. One day he set out to write a feature about the Wednesday night pickup scene at the local supermarket, but persuading shoppers to go on record about their true intentions proved impossible. “I was just forced into fiction because I couldn’t find anybody at the Marina Safeway who would admit that they were there to get laid,” says Maupin, a tall 63-year-old, whose impeccable posture and attentive manner hint at his former life as a naval officer in Vietnam. “So I went home and made up this fictional new girl in town and created a situation where she picks up a guy only to discover he’s gay.”

Maupin ended up handing his editors a story about Mary Ann Singleton’s mistake, and went on to write five more pieces chronicling Mary Ann’s escapades before the paper folded. He showed his clips to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, who hired him two years later to continue the experiment as a daily serial.

Though the stories were jammed with all manner of promiscuity and naughtiness, they inevitably circled back to the cozy message that family can be found anywhere. When Mouse’s parents come in from Orlando only to hector him about all the roller-skating nuns and “fruits” to be found in the city, our hero caps off the day with a visit to his landlady, who has also had a trying day. The instalment ends with the couple sitting closely on the couch, their eyes tearing up over a shared doobie.

Maupin’s writing appealed to trannies and grannies alike, and le tout San Francisco was instantly hooked on the series. “It was a kind of mini-stardom,” he recalls of the days when everyone was atwitter about the latest Tales column. “Everywhere I went people wanted to audition for the story. They would tell me tales of their lives in hopes that they would show up in print. Usually the ones that showed up in print were the ones they didn’t want in there.”

What had started out as an in-joke for San Francisco swiftly blossomed into a cultural juggernaut. Ultimately the columns were collected into six bestselling books that were translated into 10 languages. Legions of fans found a family in the Barbary Lane gang, and for the next 12 years, Maupin churned out fresh instalments. “During those first two years it was especially gruelling,” he says. “I would show up for work and have no idea what I was going to write for the next day’s paper.” And yet, he managed to produce 850 words a day. After the columns were reworked as books, the first three of them were adapted into a hit television series for PBS and, later, Showtime, that starred Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney and featured a smattering of Canadian actors including Paul Gross and Sandra Oh.

Like Sheherazade spinning out the 1001 Arabian Nights, Maupin wouldn’t quit. The skein of relationships and coincidences grew increasingly twisted. And then, in 1989, it all came to a crashing halt. “I suppose I was feeling the hot breath of AIDS,” he says. “And because I had established Michael as HIV positive. I was pretty sure he was going to die and I really didn’t want to go over that territory.” The final book in the series, Sure of You, ended with the characters drawing together to make the necessary preparations for Michael’s death.

But the sun didn’t set on Barbary Lane for good. After a nearly two-decade hiatus — in which Maupin put out two unrelated novels, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener — Maupin has decided to check in on his old friends. In his new book, Michael Tolliver Lives, we learn that, thanks to protease inhibitors, Michael, now 55, has survived. No worse for wear other than deeper crow’s feet and a slight paunch, he is now living in the Castro district and is impossibly happy — he runs his own gardening company and has married Ben, a gorgeous 33-year-old furniture designer he first espied on a “daddy hunter” website.

“I think falling in love had a lot to do with my decision to write this book,” Maupin explains. Three years ago he met Christopher Turner, 35, after viewing his profile on a website, and the two were married in Vancouver earlier this year. “It brought new light into my life and I felt like Michael again. I thought I owed him the same joy that I felt.”

Like its slightly arthritic protagonist, Michael Tolliver Lives moves along at a slower pace than Maupin’s fans have come to expect. The latest instalment shares the humour and brisk unshowiness that has come to distinguish Maupin’s voice, but light and funny as it is, it is less reliant on dialogue, and more reflective. There is also more sex. “Michael has changed much in the ways that I have,” Maupin admits. “He’s more contemplative, he’s more domestic, he’s more mellowed.”

Told in first person, there is none of the juggling of 10 wild storylines (secret love children, sex changes) that came to be the trademark of the Tales series. Instead, we are presented with an eminently likeable 55-year-old who had once thought he’d beat everybody else to the grave. “After 30 years in the city,” our narrator considers in one of the book’s first pages, “it’s nice to be reminded that I’m still glad to be here, still glad to belong to this sweet confederacy of survivors, where men meet in front of the hardware store and talk of love and death and circle jerks as if they’re discussing the weather.”

Michael’s world is shaken when his born-again brother Irwin calls him from Orlando to tell him that their mother is dying. Michael and Ben pack up and head down to the red state to visit “the biologicals,” as Michael calls his Bible-thumping relatives. The term “family” is reserved for another set. The tug of war between “biologicals” (the family we are born into) and “logicals” (the family we make of our friends and lovers) has been a long-standing theme in Maupin’s stories, but never more than in this book. Maupin concedes this, too, stems from real life. “My father died a couple years ago. I took Christopher back [to North Carolina] to meet him. He was very polite, but there still wasn’t the intimacy that I had hoped for. I became aware that all these years my hope was futile that my father would understand who I was.”

The Tales series was deeply intoxicated with its own time; hardly a page went by without mention of a pet rock or Zen retreat. Maupin’s love of yoking his stories to a specific period lives on, though the timely references in Michael Tolliver Lives — Bible puppets, Terri Schiavo, more mentions of George W. Bush than I’d care to count — seem less like funny embellishments than a way to criticize the direction America has been taking. “Michael,” Maupin says, “like me, has become more political. The times call for it. As far as I’m concerned, we’re living in a divided nation. I saw a perfect way to represent that by sending Michael home to his family in Florida.”

Once he wraps up his six-week-long book tour, Maupin plans to get started with his next Tales novel, for which he just signed a contract. He still doesn’t know what the plot will be or whose perspective he will tell it from, but he trusts his fans will welcome it in whatever form it ends up. “They come away [from the Tales series] with a sense that they can form their own family out of friends and lovers,” he says. “It offers you freedom and security in the same package. And having an all-forgiving transgendered landlady doesn’t hurt, either.”

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