guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 March 2012 18.55 EDT
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels began life as a newspaper serial, run, Mrs Miniver-fashion, in the then deeply conservative San Francisco Chronicle and promptly disseminated across the country by post, photocopier and fax machine. I can't say, as many can, that they made me come out or move to California, but I can say that they were as strong an influence on my early novels as more "respectable" books by Iris Murdoch, and that they gave a rather timid ex-public schoolboy the resolve always to be himself. Like many English readers, I came across them in well-thumbed Black Swan paperbacks, borrowed from friends. The late 1980s is now a mercifully patchy memory, but I'm fairly sure I was cat-sitting for some lesbian friends, which, as Maupin fans will recognise, was an entirely apt introduction.
The premise of Maupin's stories was simple enough. Mary-Ann Singleton, an out-of-town ingénue with a core of steel, escapes from Cleveland to San Francisco and lands herself lodgings on the (cruelly fictitious) Barbary Lane with a wiser-than-wise landlady called Mrs Madrigal. Fallen under her protective charm, Mary-Ann befriends Michael Tolliver, a young gay man up for pretty much anything but nurturing secret dreams of a quiet life with a rugged Labrador owner. As Maupin's novel sequence progresses, Mary-Ann's Nancy Drew-style adventures lead her to a less than glorious career in daytime television, while Michael's lead him, via heartbreak and HIV, to (serial) true love and a suitably hunky career in gardening. But what matters is less the plots, amusing and outrageous though those are, than the aching sense that these people have become the reader's friends, an attractive, forgiving, alternative family one can only dream of joining.
By the time I was lucky enough to meet Armistead and become his long-distance friend, biographer and lousy correspondent, his creation had already exerted a powerful influence on my own writing. He taught me that fiction need not thump tubs to change opinions and that a gently comic tone can work wonders.
• A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale is published this month by Fourth Estate.