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

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