Monday, November 8, 2010

Age cannot weary Armistead Maupin and his Tales Of The City

Mark Smith
8 Nov 2010

The San Francisco saga continues with Mary Ann In Autumn.

A funny thing happened to Armistead Maupin the other night. He was sitting in a theatre in San Francisco watching the musical version of his Tales of the City novels (“the whorehouse number is extra- ordinarily dirty!”) when, quite suddenly, he realised what had changed for him since the first novel in the series was published.

Back when he was writing that first book in the 1970s, Maupin was totally obsessed with the stories of Mary Ann and Michael, the twentysomethings who come to San Francisco looking for boyfriends and fun and a new kind of family. Thirty years on, as he sat in that theatre, however, Maupin realised his allegiances had shifted and he was now wrapped up in the lives of his older characters, Edgar and Mrs Madrigal. It’s what happens, he says, when you write a series of novels over 30 years and you get old yourself.

The morning after that little moment of revelation, I call Maupin at his home in San Francisco to talk about the latest Tales book, Mary Ann in Autumn, and it’s obvious these thoughts of ageing and change were very much on his mind as he wrote it. Both Mary Ann in Autumn and the first novel begin in much the same way: Mary Ann arrives at a house on Barbary Lane in search of change. But as she stands outside the house at the beginning of the latest book, she sees how the place has changed, how she has too and realises this old house, and this old city, aren’t going to work their magic a second time. She’s a girl, says Maupin, who can no longer be saved by geography.

Talking about that moment, Maupin says it was inevitable that the themes of ageing and change would burrow themselves into the novel because of where he is in his own life. “It’s what emerges from a 66-year-old writer,” he says. “Things speed up as you circle the drain and older people become more aware of it. I was thinking the other day: when one is young, one thinks that one’s grandparents are old forever but when you reach their age you realise how fast time is passing. It makes me wish I could go back to the elders of my family and talk to them again.” And then, just when things are beginning to sound a bit melancholy, Maupin does what he does best and adds in some humour. “I have a handy reference point on ageing,” he says. “My husband Christopher is 21 years younger than I am.”

Maupin famously met Christopher Turner after seeing a picture of him on the internet (a story he fictionalised in Michael Tolliver Lives) and in the new book, Mary Ann launches into her own exploration of the web. This leads to a brilliant plot twist that you only realise at the end of the book has been hurtling towards you like an out-of-control San Francisco tram, but what it also does is allow Maupin to put Mary Ann back at the centre of the books and retune the image many Tales readers have of her as a bit of a B.

“I wanted to humanise Mary Ann a bit more and show something of her own process,” he says. “I make no apologies for any of the characters. They are who they are and nobody’s supposed to be perfect and that’s one of the reasons the stories appeal to people. They are all just one big mass of foibles.”

In Mary Ann’s case, all the foibles are still there, but the big baddie she has to face in this novel is fear: she’s coming out of a marriage, she’s been diagnosed with cancer, and she’s going back to face some of the people she let down, and the fear of it all is in danger of consuming her. “How did I get like this, afraid of everything and everyone, even myself?”, she asks at one point.

Maupin says this fear Mary Ann experiences is woven into what he’s saying in the book about ageing: just because you get older doesn’t mean you get less afraid. “I remember one of the eerier nights of my childhood,” says Maupin. “I was walking past my grandmother’s room and I heard her crying in her sleep. She was 80 at the time and it came as a great shock to me that she had anything to cry about at that point. We carry these childhood demons with us all our lives.

“Mary Ann also has some sense that she’s committed wrong by some of the things she did not do. They were acts of omission, not commission, and I think we all have that.”

In case you’re worried that all this contemplation of ageing and fear makes Mary Ann in Autumn a melancholic book, don’t be. It’s sad in places but there is also plenty of Maupin’s humour too, including a stupendously rude joke about The Sound of Music. There is also, of course, another ingredient that has made the Tales books so successful: the portrayal of how gay life is, and can be.

“I hear from people today who read Tales when they were 13 and struggling with their own sexuality and it was the first time they had ever seen anything that told them they were as good as anybody else,” says Maupin. “That’s been going on now for 34 years so I’m proud I’ve been able to say that.”

Maupin is delighted too that there has been so much progress on gay rights since the first novel, but says more is needed and is disappointed that Obama has still not repealed the US policy on gays in the military which requires them to hide their sexuality (“We know Obama’s a decent guy but he’s curtailing it at every turn for political purposes”). He also says that, despite the progress, there are still gay kids who need to come to San Francisco to change themselves, just like Mary Ann and Michael did, and just like Maupin himself once did. Mary Ann may say in the latest novel that geography can’t change her, but it took a while for Maupin to realise that.

“All my life I’ve had this sensation that if I just took a trip somewhere, there would be this wondrous new life waiting for me, but in fact we carry our lives with us. Gay men get in the habit early on of fixing our lives by moving – sometimes you need new people around you to be yourself and pick your friends one at a time. We’re all born into this big biological mould that we think we have to love until we realise we should be auditioning them just as we audition the rest of our friends.”

It’s partly by writing the Tales novels that Maupin has realised all this – and it’s not the only time he has used the books to work out issues he himself is facing. He’s often, he says, used his writing to cope with, and explore, his life, and he’s still doing it with the latest novel, and with the musical version. In fact, the musical has driven home one of the themes that’s present in every one of the novels: the joy and surprise of coincidence and connection in our lives. “I look for patterns in my life through my social connections and when I find them that’s beautiful to me,” he says. “Coincidence is my only religion.”

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