Monday, March 28, 2011

Will Coviello chats with Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin

San Francisco Treat
Will Coviello chats with Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin, who's coming to this week's Tennessee Williams Literary Festival
by Will Coviello

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival

March 23-27

More than Tennessee Williams, author Armistead Maupin is inextricably associated with a place. Creator of the Tales of the City series, he chronicled bohemian and bustling life in San Francisco from the mid-1970s onward. He also met Williams in San Francisco, though they didn't discuss writing.

Maupin attended an art gallery opening in the South of Market district in the mid-1970s. Williams was inside, attracting attention and being hounded for photos. After escaping the throng of fans, Williams spotted Maupin in the parking lot. Surmising Maupin wasn't smoking a regular cigarette, Williams approached him.

"I can't exactly call it the passing of the torch from one writer to another," Maupin says, laughing. "We just sat on the hood of a car, smoked a joint and had a discussion about the moon."

At the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, Maupin will read from Williams' work and discuss his own writing. The festival celebrates both its 25th anniversary and the centennial of Williams' birth, and the schedule of events includes readings and discussions by authors, actors who starred in famous productions of Williams' work, literary agents, journalists and others. Theatrical productions include The Glass Menagerie and world premieres of recently discovered one-act plays by Williams. There also are parties, walking tours and the popular Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest on Sunday in Jackson Square.

In tribute to Williams' birthday and his career, actors and writers will read from his work. Maupin will leave dramatic scenes to actors and present an essay titled "Too Personal," which Williams used as an introduction to Small Craft Warnings. In it, he addressed the divide between writing fiction and autobiography. Critics and fans often pick apart his plays, trying to match real people to fictional characters, and Williams protested that his plays exhibited his talent, not his diary. Maupin defends the art of writing fiction, but protests less strenuously about the connection.

"Artists draw from their own lives," Maupin says. "Almost all of my characters are autobiographical to one degree or another."

The distinction stirred debate when he released Michael Tolliver Lives!. At first Maupin said it was distinct from Tales of the City, and it was different in that it was a first-person novel and not about a swirling array of characters like previous books in the series. But Maupin later dropped his defense and said the novel is an extension of the series about one of its central characters, and parts of it are similar to his own life, particularly the manner in which Tolliver comes out as a gay man in a letter to his parents.

"I like the disguise of fiction, but I draw on cultural realities," Maupin says.

Maupin was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Raleigh, N.C. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a reporter afterward. In the early 1970s, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked for the Associated Press. The beginning of his Tales series were short stories he published in the San Francisco Chronicle. The latest installment, Mary Ann in Autumn, was released in 2010.

Maupin adopted San Francisco as his new home almost instantly, in part because some elements reminded him of living in the South.

"It was a tolerant and vibrant city with the qualities of a small town," he says. "It had a respect for tradition that was in perfect keeping with my Southern experiences."

Theatrical productions at the festival offer insight into the development of characters and ideas in Williams' work. Southern Rep premieres three one-act plays that were discovered recently: The Pretty Trap, The Magic Tower and Every Twenty Minutes. The Pretty Trap is a precursor to The Glass Menagerie, but it's a comedy and covers the basic story in 20 pages. Director Aimee Hayes points out that the play is very different from Menagerie. It focuses on Amanda Wingfield, Tom isn't depressed and Laura doesn't limp, Hayes says.

"Everyone knows these roles," she adds. But she told the actors, "We have to think about this as a Saturday Night Live sketch and take it from there."

One of the reasons it has not been professionally performed before may have to do with Williams' feelings about it: He hated it.

"Williams wrote in his notes that he didn't like it," Hayes says. "But for our purposes, it's delightful. We see him working toward the full play."

She also sees elements in the other two works that preview more fully realized themes in the plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.

Fans can compare The Pretty Trap with a full production of The Glass Menagerie by the UNO Department of Film, Theatre and Communications Arts at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, starring Janet Shea as Amanda.

Both Maupin and Hayes note that Williams was a dedicated writer who awoke early every morning to work. He wrote many short stories and short plays, and characters in them were plucked for greater roles in his better known works. Hayes says he pushed himself hard to improve his final product.

"He could have written for TV, he could have been a sitcom writer," she says. "If he wasn't ruthless about his own work, he wouldn't have gone on to create characters like Blanche."

With the inclusion of the one-acts, the festival's participants and productions celebrate every facet of Williams' legacy. And, of course, locals can channel their own inner Stellas and Stanleys, comic or dramatic, at the annual Shouting Contest in Jackson Square.

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