Friday, March 18, 2011

Tales of Armistead Maupin

Monday, 14 March 2011, 2:21 pm
by Evelyn Tsitas

For American author and gay activist Armistead Maupin, there is only one place to call home - San Francisco, the city that inspired his enormously popular social comedy series Tales of the City.
"I cruise other countries, but I come home to San Francisco in my head," he said.

Maupin generously praised Australia's "Victorian buildings and wide open spaces" during his March visit. However, for him, the city that invented the words hippie, beatnik and hoodlum reflect an attitude and a way people live that breathed life into him when he arrived in the 1970s as a conservative, "in the closet" Vietnam veteran.

Maupin is currently on tour promoting his new book, Mary Ann in Autumn, which is the 8th in the Tales of the City Series. The woman in the title is Maupin's much loved character Mary Ann Singleton, whom he has chronicled from her move to San Francisco and her developing relationship with the people she meets, including life in a bohemian boarding house run by the transgender matriarch Mrs Madrigal.

The rest of the world may be a long way from Mrs Madrigal's "comfy old apartment house" on 28 Barbary Lane, but Maupin stressed his Tales series runs concurrent to gay culture. As soon as a country amasses a gay middle class, Maupin said, "my books take off when that rainbow flag starts flying".

Maupin, who started the series as a weekly column in the local newspaper in the 1970s, said he struggled with telling his parents he was gay.

"At that time, homosexuality was a mental illness and a crime, but I was in San Francisco discovering the bath houses and finding myself as a gay man."
But this conflict and duplicity was also helpful in his career. Maupin cheerfully admits that as a writer "it is your job to be a fake."

"I have always been writing about everyone and for everyone, even though I am proud of my activism," Maupin told the largely gay audience at Melbourne's Athenaeum Theatre during his recent Australian tour. His public lecture – hosted by actor Noni Hazlehurst, - was part of the Wheeler Centre's Big Gay Week.

"When it comes to my writing, I am trying to tap into something that is going on in society," he said.

"For me, in the emerging gay culture of San Francisco in the 1970s, I was on a rampage."

It is fitting that a new musical version of Tales of the City, starring Betty Buckley, will workshop at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in June, with music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters.

"I realised I'd written a love story 30 years ago that made sense to me now," Maupin said.

He said that he looks for "some sort of validation" in his life as a writer. "I tell my worst secrets in fiction. Then I feel less alone because of the response I get from people," he said.

Maupin recalled how he had a "gay quota" of characters he was allowed to insert into his newspaper column.

"At one point I had a character wake up and discover a dog humping her leg, and I argued the dog should be placed in the heterosexual quota," Maupin said.

There was, however, a serious undertone for the gay activist as he spoke of the angst he felt when deciding to come out to his friends and family. He first uttered the words "I think I am homosexual" to a good female friend - on whom he based the character Mary Ann Singleton. Her response? " Big fucking deal."

He said his friend's support, and the burgeoning gay culture of San Francisco in the mid-70s, emboldened him to discover his identity as a gay man. Maupin said he came out at the same time he as he was writing the column, and so wove in his experiences into that of his characters. Like many fiction writers, he said he "hid behind" the people he created.

"I disguise myself in my characters. I point out people's similarities while describing their differences," he said.

"As a writer, your job is empathy. You have to inhabit everyone."

This is exactly what Maupin has done with feisty Mary Ann Singleton. The last time Maupin wrote about her, Mary Ann had left the city, husband, daughter and her best friend, Michael, whom readers had come to love.

Mary Ann in Autumn tracks the now 57 year old Mary Ann down as she returns to San Francisco. She finds that everything has changed – including 28 Barbary Lane. Those she left behind have moved on. It has been called "a tale of long-lost friends and unrealized dreams, of fear and regret, of penance and redemption — and of the unshakable sense that this world we love, this life we live, this drama in which we all play a part, does indeed go by much too fast."(The New York Times, Nov 12, 2010)

"You are not always going to be young," Maupin reminded his Melbourne audience.
Evelyn Tsitas is a PhD student at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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