Friday, June 15, 2007

Silvering bard by the bay

Friday, June 15, 2007
By Josh Getlin
June 15, 2007 in print edition A-1

IT started out as a gag, a literary riff on aging gays and lesbians who flock to retirement homes built just for them. Armistead Maupin toyed with the idea when he began writing “Tales of the City” back in the 1970s, and his imagination ran wild: No one would be allowed to wear golf clothes; Broadway sing-alongs were mandatory. With the right accessories, you could be 50 and fabulous.

Thirty years later, those punch lines are giving way to plumb lines. And the dream that Maupin wrote about – a nurturing seniors community in the Bay Area for people of all sexual persuasions – is becoming a reality. This fall, the Barbary Lane Communities for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender seniors will open on Lake Merritt in Oakland. The fully renovated Art Deco building, taking its name from Maupin’s fictional community set in San Francisco’s Russian Hill, will offer 46 units renting for $3,295 to $4,295 per month. It is one of the first urban retirement communities catering to such a middle-income clientele – and the only one known to draw its name from a series of bestselling books.

“I think I’d want to move in,” said Maupin, 63, only half seriously. With nearly 4 million copies of his novels in print – and a new book, “Michael Tolliver Lives,” just out – he can easily afford to grow old in his rustic Parnassus Heights home, high above San Francisco Bay. The handsome man with silver hair and a thick gray mustache is one of America’s most successful, openly gay authors.

But at this stage of his life, Maupin is also haunted by questions of death, aging and community: How will other, less affluent gay and lesbian seniors find safe harbor in a culture that remains hostile to them? When they look for senior housing, will they be forced back into the closet they fled years ago? A growing awareness of these problems persuaded Maupin to give his blessing to backers of Barbary Lane Communities when they asked him two years ago for permission to use the name. And those same concerns color his new novel, which follows six previous installments of “Tales of the City.”

In “Michael Tolliver Lives,” the gay and straight characters who once crowded into the baths South of Market or gathered for “singles nights” at the Marina Safeway are now deep into their 50s. They’ve survived the scourge of AIDS but are frightened by the first rumblings of mortality. Although they talk a good game about sex, food and pop culture, their youth has vanished, like a cloud of fine Colombian.

“I’ve always written about the moment,” said Maupin, whose career took off in 1976, when his pioneering daily serial about sexually liberated men and women began appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle. “And it was clear that, just as I have taken people on a guided tour of my hedonistic youth, I would have to do the same thing now with my contented seniority

If early critical buzz is any indication, Maupin’s new novel may once again reach a large audience. He is a brand name in a gay literary market that is growing but still struggling for mainstream success. Laura Miller, Salon’s fiction editor, wrote that his earlier San Francisco stories are “perhaps the most sublime piece of popular literature America has ever produced.” Although some critics have sniffed that his writing trends more toward breezy pop than literary heft, there is no doubting his nationwide appeal; three versions of his San Francisco stories have been broadcast on PBS and Showtime.

MAUPIN reached this plateau because he was one of the first authors to invent a world where quirky, thoroughly likable characters of all sexual persuasions interact happily with one another. “I was able to be revolutionary by worming my way into people’s hearts, not their pants,” he said. Long before “Will & Grace,” “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and the City,” Maupin was telling yarns about an urban village where everyone gets along and knows the details of each other’s lives.

“He put the gay boy, the straight girl, the lesbian woman and the straight man into one colorful setting,” said Charles Flowers, executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation. “When he began writing, there was a lot of cultural separatism, with gays on one side of the street and straights on the other. But Maupin crossed over and just wrote great popular fiction. That’s how you build an audience.”

As in his earlier books, “Michael Tolliver Lives” echoes themes from Maupin’s own life: Like his main character, he has wrestled with the reluctance of family members to acknowledge – and celebrate – his lifestyle. Like Tolliver, who is frustrated by his family’s lingering bias against gay men and women, Maupin struggled to win respect and unconditional love from the members of his own family.

He married Christopher Turner, a 36-year-old website entrepreneur, in February and called their bond “the greatest thing that’s happened to me.”

Then he took Turner home to meet the folks.

“I was struck by the really gallant effort on the part of our relatives to be kind and accepting,” he said, recalling recent visits he and Turner made to their respective families, including a trip to North Carolina, just before his father died.

“But there was this enormous gulf that we couldn’t span, because we were thinking in entirely different ways. And this gulf is happening on a national scale right now.”

Maupin shifts uncomfortably on a living room sofa, watching a blanket of fog peel off the bay. He suddenly sounds exasperated.

“I mean, here I am. I’m Armistead Maupin, for God’s sakes,” he said. “I’ve been preaching this message to the world for 30 years, and my own family still hasn’t quite gotten it. It occurred to me, as I began writing the new book, that Michael Tolliver would almost certainly be in the same boat. He’d be angry too. I’ve run out of patience with this.”

Maupin rattles off a litany of personal complaints: He’s been out of the closet since 1974, and his relatives should have fully accepted this by now. They should embrace him, not simply tolerate him. It’s hard enough to fight these battles in one’s youth. But as age approaches, he’d much rather spend his time enjoying those he loves: “I’m still in my prime,” he said with a mildly protesting laugh. “I’m not done yet.”

A poster hanging on a wall in his home shows a different Armistead Maupin, some 30 years ago. The face is leaner, the hair shaggier. In a framed newspaper ad, the Chronicle boasts that “Tales of the City” would be returning with more installments. In those days, the author was quite the hot young celebrity – and San Francisco was in its social and political heyday, a beckoning Ellis Island for gays and lesbians.

Like many before him, Maupin came to the city looking for a chance to simply be himself. He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1944, and raised in North Carolina in a conservative Republican household. After serving in Vietnam, he worked briefly for a Charleston, S.C., newspaper (and Sen. Jesse Helms’ TV station) before landing a job in 1971 with the San Francisco office of the Associated Press. He came out publicly soon afterward and in 1976 hit on the idea of writing a serial about singles life in the Bay Area for the Pacific Sun. When the paper’s city edition folded, he continued the project at the Chronicle. It was an instant hit. Readers were drawn by the novelty of contemporary fiction in the pages of a daily newspaper; they reveled in a series that featured a nurturing landlord, Anna Madrigal, who later revealed that she’d had a sex change operation. The work was rewarding, but also hectic.

“I had to write individual 800-word segments, fictional stories, every day for five days a week,” he said. “In two years I had maybe two weeks off. It was abject hell.”

The pace slowed when HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) persuaded Maupin to turn the installments into individual novels. He rewrote some segments, became much freer with language and launched his career as an author. Today he can’t imagine writing 800 words all at once, let alone five times a week.

He also couldn’t imagine launching a similar set of stories based in another city, as some publishers have asked him to do over the years. (“Could I do this in Los Angeles, turning it into a little village where everybody keeps running into everybody? I don’t think so.”) San Francisco – bizarre, progressive, forgiving – was the logical setting for Barbary Lane, and Maupin believes the city has much to be proud of.

“We have been right on so many things,” he said, sounding like a Chamber of Commerce advocate. “We were right on the Iraq war. We were right on George Bush. We were right about global warming.”

BUT there’s still work to be done, he added: The AIDS crisis is far from resolved, and battles over gay marriage continue. In Hollywood, gay and lesbian actors are still trapped in a “celluloid closet” that prevents them from announcing their sexual preference to the world. And in the literary community, gay and lesbian books are still “ghettoized” in many chain and independent bookstores.

“The best thing for me to do is keep writing, to be as honest as I can,” said Maupin, who has begun work on yet another book about the Barbary Lane crowd. And he promises that at least one of them, heartthrob Mary Ann Singleton, will undergo a transforming experience. When last seen, she was a reserved Connecticut matron with a silvery Judi Dench hairdo, yearning to return to her old San Francisco roots.

“Can you say ‘younger woman’?” Maupin asked with a delighted grin. “Uh-oh, I probably shouldn’t have told you that.

No comments:

Post a Comment