Written by Andrew Shaw | 07 February 2011
Author Armistead Maupin is coming to Australia to read from his latest book in the 'Tales of the City' series and meet his fans. He spoke with Andrew Shaw about his new, darker take on life in the city.
Armistead Maupin's career is the stuff of legend. Starting out as a newspaper serial in the Seventies, his Tales of the City books about the residents of a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco became international bestsellers.
Maupin wrote through the eyes of several characters – eternally optimistic gay man Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver, strait-laced, 20-something Mary Ann Singleton, the eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal, who welcomed new tenants by taping joints to their doors. Although not all his characters are gay, over the years Maupin kept up with changes in the queer community – the impact of HIV/AIDS, the rise of American conservatism – and his characters aged with him.
Maupin, now 66, still lives in the city that made him famous – and vice-versa – with his husband, Christopher Turner. Recently, when San Francisco became home to America's first gay museum, he was called on to donate an exhibit. He chose a dress that actress Laura Linney, playing Mary Ann, wore in the 1993 Tales TV series. Coincidentally, Maupin's latest book, Mary Ann in Autumn, begins with Mary Ann, now 57, returning to San Francisco to stay with 'Mouse' and catch up on old friends after a long absence. It's the eighth in the Tales series.
In 1989's Sure of You, Mary Ann left San Francisco to marry a wealthy, conservative New York CEO. The accusation from some was that she had 'gone Republican', and it's been suggested Maupin is trying to redeem her character with the new book.
Maupin laughs. "She didn't exactly 'go Republican', but she moved to New York, which is almost as bad in the eyes of San Franciscans. I don't think anyone can be 'redeemed'... In the end, we are who we are. But I wanted people to understand her a little bit more in this novel."
Maupin's style is often compared to Charles Dickens', who also had his early stories serialised. In Mary Ann in Autumn, one of the characters is warned about getting too close to a mentally disturbed street person, telling her that life isn't "quaint and Dickensian".
"I'm sort of making a joke on myself there, to tell you the truth," Maupin laughs. "Dickens never shied away from the grim details of life himself. In this book I've probably embraced that a little bit more than I have in the past with the homeless storyline."
In fact, this Tales book is much darker and more disturbing than any previous novel, edging closer to Maupin's non-Tales thriller, The Night Listener. There is one extremely disturbing turn of events in Mary Ann that will leave many readers of the series gasping.
"It's about as dark as you can get," Maupin admits. "I was thinking last night that the line I hear most often from people and that you can see time and time again on Amazon is: 'It was like visiting with old friends!' And I thought, 'Well, I've written a book that involves cancer, pederasty, child abuse and homelessness and people still think it's like visiting old friends.'"
Maupin shocked his readers in the early Tales story when it was revealed Anna Madrigal was a transwoman. Now in her 80s, Anna is one of the most loved characters in gay literature. But she cannot live forever, and Maupin is not relishing writing her death scene. In fact, it clearly upsets him.
"Yes, I am a writer and yes, I probably have a certain understanding... God... I'm stammering here... I really don't know how to answer you here. It kind of disturbs me, to tell you the truth. I have had people moan and groan at public gatherings when the possibility even arises. But I can't keep her around forever unless I move into the vampire genre."
In the latest book, Michael Tolliver and his 21 years younger partner, Ben, have a loving, open relationship, guided by trust and communication. "I hope it comes across that way," Maupin says of their bond. "It reflects some of the neurosis that occurs when an older man is with a younger man, but it also reflects the solidity of the relationship. But I don't adhere to any strict definition of what 'marriage' means. That's what freedom's about.
"I know gay people who are strictly monogamous and I know gay people with relationships so open you could fly a 747 through them. I think Chris and I have something somewhere in between. But all of it relies on staying open and loving with each other.
"Even in a loving relationship it's easy to get wrapped up in your own concerns and fears that you lose track of the other person: 'What was your day like?' is an extremely important question."
Maupin and hubby Turner are married in the eyes of the State of California – they got in before Prop 8 closed the window of opportunity. Maupin disagrees that Seventies activists would be horrified at the way some gay men are embracing marriage. "I am an old school activist from that time, and I see it as the final fulfilment of our civil rights – or one of them," he argues.
"Marriage is defined by whatever two people are married – we make our own rules. I want to be recognised in the eyes of my government in the same way that anyone else is. In part because it has financial benefits but mostly because I don't want to be told that my love is any less than other, straight couples. Supporting marriage is part of my continuing defiance."
Maupin is looking forward to his appearances in Melbourne and Sydney, where he will be reading from his book, and answering questions from the audience. He finds the public appearances enjoyable, despite the expectations people may have when meeting 'Armistead Maupin'.
"I'm generally able to live up to people's expectations of me," he laughs. "I don't mean that immodestly, I just mean that there's nothing particularly complicated about me. It's not like I'm some porn star they want to fantasise about. I'm just a storyteller and that's what they get when they meet me."
An Evening with Armistead Maupin, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Thursday, March 3, 2011. Bookings: (02) 9250 7777, sydneyoperahouse.com
Frances McDormand & Cynthia Nixon read Tales Of The City!
"Tours of the Tales" Walking Tour
Aimee Mann - Charmer
My Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin Store