Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Armistead Maupin's 'Tales' have changed lives

Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2011

The story began 35 years ago when wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton arrived in San Francisco on vacation and called her parents in Cleveland to say she wouldn't be coming home.

"I just want to start making my own life," the 25-year-old Mary Ann explained, as her mother fretted that her daughter would end up living with "a bunch of hippies and mass murderers!"

The first chapter of "Tales of the City," titled "Taking the Plunge," began a newspaper series that captivated readers in 1976 with its gay, straight, transgender, old, young, sex starved and ultimately lovable cast of characters who had found their way to San Francisco to establish their own true identities.

The series took off from there, and became the backbone for eight books translated into 15 languages, a television miniseries and now a world premiere musical - set to open in previews at the American Conservatory Theater on May 18.

"Tales," which came to define an era and ethos in San Francisco, titillating and repelling readers with its unabashed portrayal of queer lives, made its author, Armistead Maupin, a literary star and gay spokesman.

"I've been living with these characters for 35 years," Maupin chuckled, sitting in the living room of the home he shares with his husband, Christopher Turner, a cat named Maxine and a Labradoodle named Philo T. Farnsworth. "They don't wander into the room. I don't have altars to them. When I created them, they were completely and utterly radical. All of these characters are pieces of my own personality."

Reluctant celebrity

Maupin, who turns 67 this week, is both a reluctant celebrity and an impassioned voice for gays. He can be a charming Southern gentleman one moment and impatient the next. He grows weary of rehashing his story and the story of "Tales" - the two are inextricable - answering some questions with a sigh and, "It's all on my website."

He has written other novels, including "The Night Listener," which was adapted for a Robin Williams film, but none outshines "Tales." It is "Tales of the City" that paid for his stunning home in Parnassus Heights, that took the boy from the conservative family in Raleigh, N.C., and made him a San Francisco icon, and that compels strangers to approach him on the street and say his writing changed their lives.

"What I'm proudest of is that all sorts of people read 'Tales' and feel like the book gives them permission to be who they are," Maupin said. "If I hear that I in some way affected the course of someone's life, that is the biggest compliment I can be paid."

Carey Perloff, artistic director at ACT, arrived in the Bay Area in 1976, just as Maupin's series was launched in The Chronicle.

"I was a student at Stanford when I started reading it," Perloff said. "Being in California was my rebellion from the East Coast. I wasn't Mary Ann from Cleveland, but I was Carey from Philadelphia.

"What I love about Armistead is how he writes about these totally unpretentious, three-dimensional characters," she continued. "He lets you know what it's like to be young in San Francisco and trying to search for what you truly want in life. I think everybody has their 'Tales of the City' story."

Michelle Tea, who has won awards for her lesbian fiction, says Maupin's success sends a message to other writers that "writing about the real, queer world is possible."

K.M. Soehnlein, whose most recent novel is "Robin and Ruby," has taken inspiration from Maupin as a craftsman.

"There is a hard-earned simplicity of his prose, and of course he's hilarious," said Soehnlein, who teaches writing at the University of San Francisco. "He's kind of a pop entertainer, in that he uses popular culture, and he's a literary artist. The work never feels dated because readers can relate to these archetypal characters: the new visitor to San Francisco, the person looking for love, the rebel who finds herself up against high society. This is the timelessness of human experience."

Maupin, who graduated from the University of North Carolina and served as a naval officer in Vietnam, arrived in San Francisco in 1971. He had worked at a radio station in Raleigh, managed by the future U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, and - then a conservative himself - thought highly of Helms. He also had worked as a reporter with a newspaper in Charleston before being offered a position in San Francisco with the Associated Press.

"I only stayed at the AP for six months," Maupin said. "I was aching for something more creative."

Variety of jobs

In the years that followed, Maupin, like the characters who would populate "Tales," held a variety of short-term jobs, from selling Thai imports on Union Street and working as a "Kelly Girl" to writing letters for an Episcopal minister. Of his time as a Kelly Girl, he quipped: "They used to send me notices advising me to wear a conservative skirt when I reported for work. I was tempted to obey them."

In 1976, Maupin pitched a fictional daily column about life in the city to the editors at The Chronicle, and, to his "horror," the editors said yes ("I had to look a lot more confident than I was," he said). The premiere of "Tales of the City" was on May 24, and came with a front-page headline, "She's 25, Single and Mad for S.F."

"The Chronicle editors gave me a list (of titles) to choose from," Maupin said, "including 'The San Francisco Story,' 'San Francisco Stories,' 'Tales of San Francisco' and 'Tales of the City.' I thought 'Tales of the City' had a nice Dickensian ring."

Because of the racy subject matter, writer and editors engaged in endless battles. "The editors had a conservative attitude about what Chron readers were like," he said. "It was funny what I could and couldn't say. I had these lesbian characters raising kids in the city and they were in the car on the way to the Russian River and a kid in the back says, 'What is blue and creamy?' 'Smurf's sperm!' I had to change it to 'What is blue and makes babies?"

Maupin, who was closeted until he came to San Francisco, grounded the serial - published off and on in The Chronicle until 1983 and serialized in The Examiner in 1986 - in current events. When singer Anita Bryant launched her anti-gay crusade in Florida, Maupin had his character, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, whose family was from Florida, send his coming-out, "letter to mama," referencing the "cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant."

'"I know this may be hard for you to believe," Mouse wrote in the letter, "but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don't consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being."

Confronting AIDS

In "Babycakes," the last of the "Tales" series to be serialized in The Chronicle, Maupin writes about the AIDS crisis, prompting complaints from readers who said he had spoiled their "light morning entertainment." And, later, Mouse tests positive for HIV.

"These characters were invented as they were needed," Maupin explained. "But I was very aware that as a gay person, I was participating in a social revolution. I had finally arrived at a point where my politics and my personal life were in sync with each other and that was an exhilarating experience. That was the thing I had to share with the public."

Coming out had other benefits, too, he said.

"I didn't start to be a good writer until then," Maupin said. "When you are in the closet, you are making a valiant effort to keep certain parts of your personality locked down. Then when you come out, everything in your heart and mind is fair game."

As the characters found themselves, so did Maupin. "If I look back on it, I was trying to give myself permission," he said.

Today, Maupin's life is more about fine-tuning than finding. He married Turner, a 39-year-old Web developer, twice - first in Vancouver and then in the Marin County garden of writer Amy Tan.

"Christopher Isherwood said to me, 'Life is so much simpler when you have narrowed down to one the person you're going to be with,' " said Maupin, who had his fill of bachelorhood after his 12-year relationship with gay activist Terry Anderson ended. "Our job as human beings is to love. It means practicing it on a daily basis."

Street meeting

Maupin and Turner met on 18th Street near Castro. Maupin had seen Turner's picture on a website connecting younger and older men, and had even printed out Turner's picture, joking to friends that the young hunk was his new love. When Maupin spotted him on the street one afternoon, he struck up a conversation.

"I'd always been attracted to him," Turner said of Maupin. "I'd seen him out and about. I was drawn to his presence."

Turner is now Maupin's first reader of new material. "I will come home, and he will have finished a chapter and will read it to me," Turner said. "It always amazes me how many people will come up and say 'Tales of the City' really changed things for them."

Maupin, who is taking some time off from writing, says he has ideas for the next novel in the series. His recent works in the series include "Michael Tolliver Lives," about Mouse at 55, and "Mary Ann in Autumn," with Mary Ann at 57.

"I wait until the spirit moves me," he said. "Writing is not a lot of fun - I like having written."

He says he has been involved off and on with the making of the ACT musical.

"I'm kind of the eminence grise of the production," he said.

While he and Turner own land in the Sierra, "between Yosemite and Tahoe," the author doesn't envision a final chapter outside of San Francisco.

"Book tours take me everywhere," Maupin said. "I'm always considering the possibility of being somewhere else. But nothing quite adds up to San Francisco. You can still find the life you want here."


"Tales of the City," world premiere. Previews start May 18. Opens May 31. Continues through July 10. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St. (415) 749-2228. www.act-sf.org.

Public event

"Thoroughly Modern Maupin: The Legacy of Armistead," an evening of readings and music celebrating Maupin's work. Hosted by Litquake and ACT. 8 p.m. Thursday. Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. www.litquake.org.

E-mail Julian Guthrie at jguthrie@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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