Monday, November 15, 2010

Bee Book Club: Armistead Maupin brings latest 'Tales of the City' to Sacramento

By Allen Pierleoni
Published: Monday, Nov. 15

SAN FRANCISCO – The ancient wooden gate is so impenetrable and intimidating that it could be guarding a fortress. It's at sidewalk level on a hilltop cul-de-sac in Parnassus Heights, and bears a two-digit address.

It's not "28," but it's close. The street name isn't Barbary Lane, either, but it might as well be.

Novelist Armistead Maupin lives in the century-old house behind the gate, and he constructed 28 Barbary Lane. The address is the best-known one in the Bay Area and far beyond, that of a fictitious apartment house he "built" in 1974.

That was the year the residents of 28 Barbary Lane – a mixed crew of emotionally laden gay and straight characters – debuted in the San Francisco edition of the Pacific Sun, under the title "The Serial." It moved to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976 as "Tales of the City," told in installments that ran weekdays.

Now, 36 years later, Maupin's eighth "Tales" title has been published. "Mary Ann in Autumn" is The Bee Book Club's choice for November.

Behind the gate, Maupin's home is crowded with bookcases, framed art, pottery, family photos and mementos. In the back garden, above a hot tub, is a green street sign that reads "Barbary," a prop from the "Tales of the City" TV miniseries starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney.

Maupin shares the three-story house with his husband, Web developer Christopher Turner, and Philo, their Labrador retriever-standard poodle hybrid. The bouncy "Labradoodle" sleeps in "the world's most luxurious dog crate in our bedroom. It comes with its own Tempur–Pedic mattress," Maupin explained. "We couldn't give him any less than what we have."

In retrospect, two things about "Tales" are clear: Maupin had great fun writing the epic, and the books are very much a history.

"One of the thrills of writing installments for a newspaper was I could react in the moment to what was going on," said Maupin, 66. "When Anita Bryant launched her anti-gay campaign in 1977, the next day I had (character) Michael Tolliver's mother writing from Florida, telling her gay son she'd joined Anita Bryant's campaign. I've been telling the same story in real time since 1974. So (the 'Tales' books) serve as time capsules."

"Mary Ann in Autumn" (Harper, $25.99, 287 pages) resumes the story of "drama queen" Mary Ann Singleton and her longtime gay friend, the affable (and HIV-positive) Tolliver, 20 years after Mary Ann left San Francisco to seek a high-profile career in New York. Now she's returned to the city, where, of course, things have changed.

"Certainly when we revisit our pasts we have to confront the consequences of not only our actions, but our inactions," Maupin said. "It's sometimes the things we didn't do that we regret the most. For me, it (involves) people I wish I'd talked with longer, who I now see as a link to a past I'll never be able to connect with again. I'm looking at all that through Mary Ann's character."

'Tales' opened a door

In the day, the "Tales" serializations and the three novels to come out of them were shocking because they opened the door to the gay lifestyle unseen by most straight people.

"There were gay people who complained that I revealed too much about the so-called subculture," Maupin said, "but I'm not writing about gay people – I'm writing about everyone, for everyone.

"Still, I'm very proud (that) I didn't keep gay life in some precious little bubble. I said, 'These are people who live in the same building as you.' "

The "Tales" books are known for their wit and satire, but Maupin presented a more serious agenda, too.

"There's a lot of frivolity, yes, that's how I was able to drive across issues such as AIDS, lesbian mothers, gay-bashing and the gay- marriage movement. The first fictional death from AIDS appeared in 'Babycakes' in 1983 (after a friend died of it). My rule from the beginning has been to follow my own life, and I go wherever it takes me."

That path led him to document the stories of the GLBT community – gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – in San Francisco.

"Sometimes history can be better told through art than by historians," said Paul Boneberg, executive director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. "Gay men read Armistead and say, 'Here's our true story. It's being told by someone who understands it.' "

"Armistead has been a crusader who has supported many (gay) causes both in fiction and reality," added Teddy Witherington, executive director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. "In the stories, Michael Tolliver was a member of the Gay Men's Chorus for a while, so in some of the programs (to our shows) we actually put in his name because he was such a role model for us."

A news background

Maupin grew up in Raleigh, N.C., and still has traces of a Southern accent. His father was a trial lawyer; his mother, an actress.

"I come from a very verbal background," he said. "Telling stories was natural to me and extremely comforting, because it was the one thing I knew how to do better than the other kids."

After getting a bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Maupin served as a naval officer in Vietnam. Later, he settled for a while in South Carolina and worked at the Charleston News & Courier (the Post & Courier since 1991), and then applied to the Associated Press.

"They offered me San Francisco, which I thought was wondrous," he recalled. "I was 26. I packed everything into a white Opel GT and drove across the country."

The newcomer felt "instant acceptance from the straight friends I was making. That made me lighten up on the spot. My heart opened up, my creativity opened up, and I started imagining the stories I could tell about such a place. I was smart enough as a writer to know that the (gay lifestyle) hadn't been covered in a popular milieu, such as a newspaper."

Maupin quit the AP after five months "and promptly found myself jobless for several years. I took odd jobs and was happy to do anything that would allow me to live here."

Those jobs included temporary office work through Kelly Services, handing out fliers on street corners, selling Thai silk at a shop on Union Street, and unloading mannequins from a warehouse "with a guy who closely resembled Lenny from (John Steinbeck's) 'Of Mice and Men.' "

Chronicle picked up 'Tales'

Were thoughts of "Tales" percolating? Was he taking notes at cocktail parties and in Castro Street Laundromats?

"I had the vague notion that I wanted to write about an address that I could make famous," he said. "I've always been intrigued by the connection between literature and our sense of geography. As I child visiting Atlanta, I wanted to look for Tara (the mansion in 'Gone With the Wind'). I knew it was a fictional locale, but I sort of wanted to know where it would be anyway. Instead, I saw Peachtree Street."

Maupin's breakthrough came in 1976, when editors at the Chronicle approved the "Tales" project.

"They said, 'We want six weeks' worth in advance,' which meant 30 episodes. I flew into panic mode," he recalled.

Later, when Maupin prepared to write the first "Tales" book, "I put all the (newspaper installments) on the floor and rearranged them. Some story lines were lost, others were improved. They were basically the first draft of my book."

Things are going well for Armistead Maupin. His upcoming book tour will take him to cities along the West Coast of the United States and, later, to England, Scotland, Australia, France and Germany.

The debut of a musical version of "Tales of the City" is planned for a June opening at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

"I'm doing so little of the work on it," he said. "I get to watch."

And what about "Tales," the ongoing saga? Will the former residents of 28 Barbary Lane continue their dramas in the city so loved by and identified with their creator?

"Yes. No. I don't know yet, but I think so," he said, punctuating the comment with his signature loud laugh. "That's the honest answer."

Armistead Maupin's eight-book "Tales of the City" series has been called "a glittering and addictive comedy of manners (showing) the follies of urban life." They have been translated into

15 languages and have sold more than 6 million copies


Maupin's bibliography is composed of the "Tales" books – "Tales of the City" (1979), "More Tales of the City" (1982), "Further Tales of the City" (1982), "Babycakes" (1984), "Significant Others" (1987), "Sure of You" (1989), "Michael Tolliver Lives" (2007), "Mary Ann in Autumn" (2010) – and two stand-alone novels, "Maybe the Moon" (1992) and "The Night Listener" (2000), made into a movie starring Robin Williams.



What: The author will give a presentation, answer questions and sign copies of "Mary Ann in Autumn" and his other books.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento

Information: (916) 321-1128

Cost: The event is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-seated basis. "Mary Ann in Autumn" is $25.99. Get 30 percent off the title through Thursday at these bookstores: Borders, Barnes & Noble, Book Lovers, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Carol's Books, Hornet Bookstore at CSUS, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

In retrospect, two things about "Tales" are clear: Maupin had great fun writing the epic, and the books are very much a history.

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