Books

02.02.14

Armistead Maupin Bids Farewell to 'Tales'

As he writes his final ‘Tales of the City’ novel, Armistead Maupin talks sex, drugs, marriage, mortality – and lapping up Burning Man’s craziness - with Tim Teeman.

When I ask how his book tour is going, for what Armistead Maupin swears his last novel in the phenomenally successful Tales of the City series, the 69-year-old author laughs. Instead of giving a cursory “Fine thanks,” he tells me in his delicious, rich Southern drawl that he’s just had a discussion event with Don Bachardy, the artist and surviving partner of the novelist Christopher Isherwood. “We talked about the time Angelina Jolie sat for Don during one of her pregnancies,” Maupin says by phone from Los Angeles. “They flew Don to Paris. He drew her, naked, for every one of her trimesters. One day she said, ‘Why don’t we get Brad (Pitt, Jolie’s partner) to sit with me?’ ‘That’s a wonderful idea,’ said Don. And so they both posed nude, and, he said, neither of them could sit still, so frisky did they get with each other.”

As any Tales fan will know, Maupin is quite the storyteller. For just shy of fifty years we have followed the wild adventures, secrets, and tangled lives and loves of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, even long after they left that address of wafting pot smoke and a familial comfort not – immediately at least - defined by biological ties. The books have sold over six million copies, and birthed a TV mini-series in the early 1990s starring Olympia Dukakis. Presiding over the fragmented brood in The Days of Anna Madrigal, this final novel, is the graceful and ever-mysterious landlady Anna Madrigal, who confronts her own past growing up a boy in a dusty Nevada whore-house.

Discussing Tales, it is hard but necessary to avoid spoilers because if you haven’t read them you should and fresh. You will, like so many before you, disappear for a few days or weeks as you turn page after page. Of this final book it is safe - and I hope temptingly vague enough - to say Mrs. Madrigal is the focus, ageing, thinking of her mortality, and much else. Michael/Mouse is settled with his younger husband Ben. The gang pitch up at the radical, hippyish Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where Shawna, Brian’s daughter, wants to conceive a child and Ben wants his partner to embrace his inner freak. Of course, we all know Michael embraced his inner freak pretty heartily back in the day.

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Christopher Turner

Since the main body of the books (Tales of the City through to Sure of You, 1978 to 1989) ended, Maupin has returned to Michael (Michael Tolliver Lives, 2007) and Mary Ann (Mary Ann in Autumn, 2010), before alighting upon Mrs. Madrigal, “the beating heart of the story,” as he puts it. “I really enjoyed the chance of surveying the full 75-year scope of her story. She’s my better angel. She’s the person I aspire to be. It was fun spending time in her presence and imagining her as a 16-year-old boy.”

It was “amazing to be able to Google ‘1930s whore-house menu’ and find out what a dry-job was,” laughs Maupin. “Penetration without ejaculation. It was the cheapest thing on the menu because it meant less mess for the girls.” Lysol, he discovered, was used as a spermicide, before later being considered as a feminine hygiene product, before it became the household product of today. “Imagine husbands coming home telling their wives they smelled as fresh as the kitchen floor,” he says.

Just like the characters in the new book, Maupin has been to Burning Man, in 2012 and 2013, with Christopher Turner, his husband, who (like Ben in the book to Michael) is younger than Maupin by almost thirty years. The men met on the street in San Francisco’s Castro, just like Michael and Ben do in Michael Tolliver Lives: Turner ran a website, Daddyhunt, for younger guys into older. Like Michael in the current book, “The first time I had to be dragged kicking and screaming, the notion of all that dust, heat and all-night raves,” Maupin admits of Burning Man.

However, he was a fast convert. Maupin found it “the most extraordinary visual experience, like a ‘Fellini carnival on Mars,’” he says, quoting what one character calls it in the book. “It’s completely otherworldly. It’s perfect for Tales, because it’s a week of nothing but serendipity and coincidence. They’ve perfected the hippie ideal. You can’t have a cell-phone. You let the world happen to you. It’s two miles across, you can see it from space, yet you feel completely alone. The people there genuinely seem to be making an effort to be sweet to one another.” Earplugs and he and Turner’s RV’s generator kept the all-night-rave sounds at bay.

Maupin’s camp, “Celestial Bodies”, “the gay-bourhood” as he calls it, gave away free Cosmopolitans, which as a mixture of vodka and Gatorade, “hydrated you and got you a bit fuzzy too.” In the “Comfort and Joy” tent were gay men enjoying “cuddling to out-and-out sex,” while at the “Astropups” camp men shower together outside.

“I liked wandering round the backstreets of the playa, stumbling across various adventures,” says Maupin, amazed that 60,000 people attended the event. “It’s a challenge to convey the phantasmagorical nature and size of it.” He was particularly taken by a giant octopus breathing fire and rolling its eyes and Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut: “I didn’t actually visit it. As an uncut person of English extraction, I found it off-putting.”

The Days of Anna Madrigal really is the last Tales novel, Maupin insists. “I’ve been accused of ‘Cher’s last tour’ syndrome, and there’ll be another. But there really won’t.” However, it won’t be the full end, he reveals to me. After nine books, the TV mini-series (which saw the first three books made), a musical (with songs by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters) and a BBC Radio 4 play, Maupin reveals he has just met with a TV executive in Los Angeles keen – finally – to make the remaining Tales novels into a television drama. “In (the non-Tales) Maybe The Moon, I wrote that in Hollywood you can die of expectation,” says Maupin, seeking to quell the fever of fans. “Nothing has been finalized yet.” Too late: we are excited.

“I autograph books for people who are blubbing so seriously I have to hold them in my arms.”

Maupin grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and became a writer after reading English at university and serving briefly in the military. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer,” he told me once. But the author preferred Fellini double bills and moved to San Francisco in 1971. “I whitewashed my family’s supposed so-called acceptance of me,” Maupin has said. “That notion they ‘forgave’ me but never accepted me.”

The Tales characters are not based on real people but “inner drives and aspects of myself”, he once said: “Mary-Ann my ambition, Mona my world-weariness. Michael was a romantic, Brian the sexual predator. Mrs. Madrigal was the wiser me.” Where Michael is HIV-positive, Maupin is not. “It was hard losing so many friends, it’s been heartbreaking, but I don’t think I have any survivor’s guilt,” he says of AIDS. “I strongly support anything that supports and honors our tribe, because so many of us aren’t here any more.”

Maupin is a proud radical, and goodness knows how many gay people he helped come out and feel comfortable about themselves. But his characters have always spoken as humans, not pamphlets, and on top of that experienced the kind of soapy tribulations – long-lost children, cults, a clip-on tie that spelled certain death - to make Dynasty look tame. He was way ahead of the pack writing about homosexuality, transgender issues, AIDS, feminism, race, celebrity culture, drugs, ageing, and the closet – but if that sounds a dry do-gooding list, the issues emerged from his characters first. They were also horny, flawed, and relentlessly imperiled. In 2012, Maupin was the deserved recipient of the Lamda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award.

The books began as columns in 1976, first in the alternative weekly newspaper Pacific Sun, then the San Francisco Examiner. “They were intimate from the very beginning, readers bought their imaginations to them every day,” Maupin says, who was motivated by the Wilkie Collins maxim: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He had no idea “where I was going every day, I was flying by the seat of my pants. I came out in the character of Michael Tolliver.” Maupin’s mother noticed the characters kept reaching across tables to pat another character’s hand: “Me looking for reassurance that I was OK.”

With Tales such a radical salvo in itself, documenting the homophobia and gay milieus of another time, Maupin feels “exhilarated” where the fight for equality is now. “I wept at the Grammys wedding sequence. I was born when homosexuality was midway being a crime and mental illness. I’m pretty sure marriage equality will be a nationwide reality very soon. The radical Right can’t claim support any more for the idea that gay love isn’t equal to straight. Now is the time to help others elsewhere in the world like Nigeria and Russia, persecuted and driven to suicide by the nature of their love.”

Transgendered people are the next target of the Right, Maupin believes, “and they need our support. Mrs. Madrigal was me putting a transsexual in charge of Barbary Lane, challenging everyone’s notions of gender, to make people realize it is our hearts that make us, not the make-up of our bodies.”

The new book majors on mortality, and not just with Mrs. Madrigal. “It’s present,” Maupin says evenly of his own. “It just happens as you get older. I’ve always written about what I see happening around me. That’s pretty unavoidable. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how, as Anna puts it, to “leave like a lady.” He is happy to be turning 70, as “69 was always a number that made everyone chuckle in my high school class.” Maupin told me once a moving story of kissing his dying father on the forehead, reminding him he used to do the same as a boy after they watched Gunsmoke together, before he would go to bed. His father connected with Turner, Maupin told me, and said, “Take care of that boy,” which, Maupin said, was “an odd thing for a 92-year-old to say to a 34-year-old about his 62-year-old son.”

There’s a major health-related incident in the book, which echoes Maupin’s own life, but he reveals he is in good health now. “I hope to be here for many more years. I have the usual aches and pains. I remain deliriously in love with my husband, who celebrates being with an older man. I like my life very much. I feel blessed. I’ve made it this far and so many of my friends did not. I cannot complain about anything when so many others didn’t have the opportunity to live the rest of their lives.”

He still enjoys marijuana and sex. “It helps that I live with an expert,” says Maupin of the latter. “The intensity of sex is wonderful when you’re with someone you love and you become expert with each other.” He and Turner, whose devoted relationship is “very deep and loving,” are not monogamous. He laughs that he heartily concurs with Aunt Augusta, from Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt: “I have always preferred an occasional orgy to a nightly routine.”

The men married twice, once in Vancouver, and then in the garden of their friend Amy Tan’s home in Sausalito in 2008, before Proposition 8 passed and bought the shutters down on gay marriage in California. Maupin was glad he and Turner would be one of those couples who remained a legislative thorn in the side of those seeking to ban gay marriage, until Proposition 8 was finally struck down in 2013 and gay marriages resumed.

“God was not involved,” Maupin laughs of the men’s vows. “We tried to learn a lesson from every bad wedding we’ve been to. Everything was finger food and ice cream sandwiches.” He is proud that he and Turner have “created our own rules,” while also happy that – with the striking down of Prop 8 - Turner is “properly” protected under the law.

Both he and Turner have Republican family members, who love the men, while “feeling conflicted” because of the homophobia spouted by the party itself. “Many Republicans wish the issue would just quietly go away, our families among them.” Maupin will soon accept an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina, his home state rife with Tea Partiers. “I’m not sure they’ll let me give a speech, but it’s pretty symbolic in itself.”

Maupin and Turner left San Francisco in 2012, and moved to a village, five miles north of the “sort of funky and atmospheric” Santa Fe. Maupin misses the city, but still visits. He’s enjoying “living in this adobe house in the middle of the desert.” There’s no street life, he says, noting on his first visit to the main shopping area, he exclaimed, “Look, they have drag queens,” of the people in “buckskin, cowboy hats and lots of turquoise.” A friend corrected him: “Those aren’t drag queens, they’re Texans.” Shirley MacLaine lives on a nearby ridge, Ali MacGraw pops into their post office, “and we occasionally see Sam Shepard at the dog washing place.”

As for San Francisco, the city he loves and whose spirit he enshrined, Maupin says, “I feel, as most San Franciscans feel, that the tech industry has changed the city. There are high-rises and luxury condos on Market Street towards Castro. It’s becoming a city for rich people. Artists are being driven out at an alarming rate. Filmmakers and visual artists have long since left for cheaper climes. I feel a certain melancholy about the fact, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, and I don’t want to become that old fart complaining about change.” He and Turner may buy a pied-a-terre there, he says.

Most of all Maupin feels “blessed to be have been able to tell the same story for forty years. When people come to my signings, I autograph books for people who are blubbing so seriously I have to hold them in my arms. One woman told me that her dead brother had been buried with my books. It’s very hard to process that. Somehow my work has intersected with people’s lives at certain points and it’s deeply personal for them. It’s extremely gratifying and humbling. There’s nothing one can say about it that doesn’t sound pompous.” There was a time when he felt bitter, “like other writers that I hadn’t won a Pulitzer. But what I’ve been given is much stronger, forming a personal connection with people I don’t know. I try so hard to feel every moment of it.”

Next, Maupin is keen to “escape the discipline of writing. The notion of another two years, tapping two pages at a time, is abhorrent to me. I’m not driven that way. I like having written a book, I don’t like writing books.” That might surprise people, I say, his books are written with such warm fluency. “That fluency takes a long time,” Maupin says. “I spend a lot of time working on it. I can’t spill it out. I hone as I go. It’s an arduous process. I compare it to laying a mosaic on my hands and knees, putting in each color very slowly. I’m not complaining: there are a lot worse jobs to have.”

Away from the page, Maupin wants to perform a one-man show. “I’m remembering Quentin Crisp [the exotically besuited and coiffed writer, most famous for his book The Naked Civil Servant] in his old age and how much fun he had doing that. I like the idea of a dog-and-pony show. Chris and I are amused by the idea of buying an Airstream trailer and trying out material. There’s a long tradition of this with ageing writers. Dickens and Twain did it.”

They were desperate for money, says Maupin, but his journeying sounds more congenial: he and Turner will take Philo, their six-year-old charcoal-grey Labradoodle with them: “a devoted traveller,” says Maupin.

Before that, Maupin’s tour brings him to New York where he will finally meet the baby son named after him by Laura Linney, his good friend, who played Mary Ann in the 1990s TV series. “How about that? You invent a character. An actress plays her and becomes famous, has a baby with her wonderful husband, and then that baby is named after you. I don’t think I deserve that.” Linney revealed her pregnancy to him and Turner via Skype, and then Maupin was at the dentist having his teeth cleaned when she called to tell him she had given birth and named the child after him. “I told her it would be hard to top her taking me to the Oscars as her date, but she had managed it.”

More stories tumble, like the time he met Bette Midler at a gallery in Santa Fe, expressing shock about Full Service, Scotty Bowers’s dishy book about being a Hollywood pimp. “I don’t believe it,” said Midler. “Well, I do,” Maupin shot back. “Thank God I’ve got a Kindle so no-one can see what I’m reading on a plane,” said Midler. “You’re such a prude,” Maupin told her. ‘I AM,” said Midler. “She IS,” her husband interjected. “I KNOW,” said Maupin.

Other stories unfurl with giggles and exclamation, but really, read Maupin, or see him on tour. He tells his stories so much better. He always has.

 

The Days of Anna Madrigal is published by Harper