The Tales of the City author talks to Melissa Whitworth about starting out, coming out and a note from Gandalf.
By Melissa Whitworth 4:32PM BST 30 Mar 2012
Armistead Maupin, 67, is the author of eight novels in the Tales of the City series, of which there are six million copies in print. The series began as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976 and has gone on to become a television mini–series, a film and a musical. The novels are all now available as ebooks. A ninth instalment, The Days of Anna Madrigal, will be published next year. Maupin lives in San Francisco with his husband, Christopher Turner, their labradoodle, Philo, and their cat, Maxine.
Mornings I get up at about nine o'clock; usually my husband and I spend a few minutes in bed with the animals before we open the curtains. The dog and the cat both like to crawl on and snuggle. We have a similar ritual just before bed, so that gives you a pretty good idea of how much we care about our creatures. The dog is named after the Greek root for love; he looks like a Muppet.
Writing My office is an eyrie at the top of the house. There's a lovely view of the eucalyptus forests out of one window, and we can look out across the bay towards Sausalito from the other. I work when my energy is high, in the morning. But the sunshine pours into this room and it makes me want to curl up like a cat.
Childhood I made every effort to become a lawyer because that's what my father wanted. But it was clear from the beginning that my instincts didn't lie in that direction. I was by nature a storyteller. When I was eight years old I would make my friends sit around the campfire and listen to ghost stories. It was how I found self–worth because I was so rotten at sports.
Starting out Tales of the City began as a failed effort to write a news story for a little newspaper about the heterosexual cruising scene at a local supermarket. I couldn't find anyone who would actually tell the truth about why she was there, so I made up a character called Mary Ann Singleton. Then the newspaper folded so I took the idea to the San Francisco Chronicle. The serial, now fiction, appeared five days a week and I had to come up with 800 words of a continuing story every day, no matter what, for two years. It was a pretty harrowing but exhilarating experience. Now Tales of the City is like a ball of sourdough starter I keep in the back room of my mind. I can use it to bake new bread whenever I want. Its DNA is always there, ready to generate new stories.
On the wall There's a painting of Christopher (pictured) by Don Bachardy, who was Christopher Isherwood's partner for many years. Don is still a very close friend. He was 30 years younger than Chris [Isherwood]. My Chris and I have a similar age gap, so their relationship has always been an inspiration. In my office loo I have a framed newspaper rack card from 30 years ago (pictured), announcing the return of Tales of the City. I think most self–promotional items should be in the loo – a certain amount of modesty is required.
Coming out I came out of the closet while writing the series. And what a revelation to realise that the thing that I had feared the most had become the source of my greatest inspiration and the cause of my success. My mother said to me, 'I don't mind you being honest, darling, I just don't want it to hurt your career.' I said, 'You don't understand, this is my career.' I knew very early in the game that my responsibility was to be publicly, openly, happily gay. That wasn't hard to do. I don't suffer closeted folks gladly. I let them know, especially if they're famous, that I think they have a responsibility. Years ago my friend Ian McKellen asked me how I felt about it and he told me that the evening he spent talking to me was what pushed him over the edge. I'm really proud of that.
Gandalf When Ian stayed here on one occasion, he left this note (pictured) on his bed. It says 'Gandalf slept here' – and, in parentheses, 'with Magneto! [McKellen's character in X–Men]' It's a little drawing of Gandalf lying on his back in the bed, smoking a pipe.
Lucky charm I have a brass Chinese dragon that I bought in the Chinese section of Saigon when I was stationed in the military there during the Vietnam War. I kept it by my radio in my bunker on the Cambodian border as a good luck charm.
In demand Readers see my characters as members of their own family. It makes me very happy to know that they matter to people so much, and have provided guidance for people I'll never even meet. Some fans can get quite proprietorial. I recently went into Facebook silence because I needed to write a novel. When I showed up on Facebook a week later people would post messages saying, 'Shouldn't you be writing?' To know that you are in demand is a lovely thing.
Award A crystal obelisk was given to me by the Trevor Project, the heroic organisation that helps suicidal LBGT [lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender] kids. There are a lot of them in the States at the moment with the homophobia being spewed by preachers and politicians. Children need to be told their life is worth something. I was given this award about 10 years ago. It just says 'for his efforts in saving young lives'. I think they meant that my work contributed to the spirit of LBGT self–acceptance and that makes me happy.
Coats of arms Chris and I have our coats of arms (pictured) framed side by side, in the wedding manner. We got them on a lark in Drumnadrochit, the village on Loch Ness where the monster is the chief tourist attraction. The poor lady who took our heraldic information didn't quite grasp the idea that it was our marriage that we were celebrating. Looking at the coats of arms she said, 'Which one is the bride?' We said, 'Neither of us, actually.'
Sexuality I have been conscious of being part of a cultural revolution for the past 35 years. There's no question that it's easier in some ways because gay folks aren't invisible any more. When I was young, many of us thought we were the only gay in the village. Now, because of that visibility, there's a much more concerted campaign against gay people, especially from the fundamentalist segments of America, and that means the pressure is much worse. Still, the polls now indicate that most Americans support the right for people to marry the person that they love. The battle hasn't been won yet, but we're close.
Relaxing I do enjoy a joint at night. I use something called a vaporiser, which removes the smoke from the cannabis. It's much better on your lungs. Lately I've been smoking something called Blue Dream. There are so many varieties these days, it's like wines, with similarly pretentious descriptions.
Viewing I spend the evening watching television with Christopher. Probably half of Britain will cringe to hear this but we love Downton Abbey. We giggle at the absurdity of all those people standing around dressed to the nines. But there's something oddly comforting about it. I'd rather wait for Maggie Smith's gowns than J–Lo's.
Love My life is full of love; I designed it that way. I try to make my own experience about love and I look for kindness and tenderness in others. That's what I've found in Christopher. That's the thing I value the most: it will get you through everything.