Armistead Maupin: In Conversation
The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth Tales of the City novel, brings a remarkable series to a close. Christopher Bryant talks to Armistead Maupin about his fans, his Republican beginnings and his plans for life after Tales.
Photographs by Daniel Hall (Click image to enlarge)
On the 24th of May, 1976, the first instalment of Tales of the City was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. In eight hundred words a day, for five days a week over the course of six months, the characters of Mary Ann Singleton, Mona Ramsey, Michael Tolliver and Anna Madrigal strode confidently into the world. (Technically the serial began in 1974 when sections were published in the Pacific Sun, but it was only in 1976 that it ran in its entirety.) The author, Armistead Jones Maupin Jr., was a Vietnam vet and a recovering conservative who voted for the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and shook Richard Nixon’s hand in 1972. Maupin moved to San Francisco in ’72 to work as a reporter for the Associated Press and. This magical city, with its extraordinarily diverse population, changed his world. In the nine Tales of the City novels that followed he returned the favour, and his diverse range of characters in turn changed our world forever.
On the day that I met Armistead Maupin in a London hotel he delivered a talk at the British Library. A public author event with Maupin reveals just how deeply the Tales books have affected people’s worlds. The adoration from the audience is something you would ordinarily expect for a pop star, an actor or a celebrity, but not necessarily a writer. It’s not a readership so much as a fan base. This devotion reminded me a scene in the novel The Night Listener in which an air steward approaches the narrator, author Gabriel Noone, and whispers, “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us”. I assume that this happens all the time, and I wondered how it made him feel.
“I am more gratified by that experience than anything that I do. It makes me feel wonderful to know that people who’ve shared my experience have somehow or other moved forward because of my writing. Book signings right now are an extremely emotional experience because people often cry, or confess, or express appreciation, and the trick for me is to keep open enough that I feel it every moment, because I think that’s the least I can give back at this point, to somehow express my gratitude.”
Maupin regularly engages with his readers on social media platforms. This interview, in fact, had been arranged after a conversation on Twitter that began after I had praised the ninth Tales novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. I have friends to whom he has responded personally and they are both touched and thrilled. “Sometimes it makes my afternoon, and if I rattle off a line or two it works for everybody. I don’t answer everything, but it’s a lot easier than the old days when I would try and type out a response to a fan letter.”
With the publication of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the Tales series is officially at an end. And it is a sublime ending. Interspersed with the present day story is the tale of how young Andy Ramsey started on his journey to become Anna Madrigal, the woman who presides over the series like a monarch and mother combined. In 1990, the sixth Tales novel, Sure of You, was billed as end to the series, yet it was more of a leaving-off than an ending. There was a sense that Maupin did not want to face the inevitable death of the HIV+ Michael Tolliver. In 1992 Maupin published Maybe The Moon, a tale of the life of dwarf actor Candice Roth, and he followed this in 2000 with the engaging and exceptional novel The Night Listener. Then in 2007, ten years after the advent of antiretroviral drugs that meant HIV was no longer the death sentence it once had been, he returned to the series with Michael Tolliver Lives.
“I started out thinking I would write a one-off first person novel about a gay man who had survived the AIDS epidemic. That’s when I realised I had such a person in my repertoire, and I might as well be writing about Michael Tolliver. I started out with a first person novel, but gradually the other characters began to audition for me and I found myself writing a continuation of Tales. There was no conscious design at that point. But once I’d written about Michael I thought I really needed to redeem Mary Ann, because people hated her so much after the first six novels. And then I began to see that Anna would complete a trilogy in a good way. I’ve always crept up on it and I can’t say I consciously began forty years ago thinking it would be nine novels. I took it as it occurred to me. I’m happy with the shape, having said that. I like the way its panned out and I’m happy with the way it ended.”
With The Days of Anna Madrigal, Maupin has saved a fascinating story until last. The tale of how Anna Madrigal came to be is, in essence, the story that made the entire series possible. Without Mrs Madrigal and her boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane there would be no Tales of the City. There is a dark side to the narrative, and I wondered if it was difficult to take this character, the sun around whom all the other characters revolve, and explore that darkness.
“I felt I had to go there. She’s a good person by the time we meet her at the beginning of Tales, and I had to go back and find out what it was that created this person, that created the possibility of this person. And darkness was required. I’ve had a few people say it’s such a dark story they didn’t think Anna was capable of it. I think we’re all capable of something at 16, when we’re confused and scared. And I liked being 16 again, I have to say. It was curiously liberating to wander around in that landscape.”
And, I comment, to bring back the original Mona Ramsey, Mother Mucca. “To bring back early Mother Mucca,” Maupin nodded before adding, “She’s pre-Mucca.”
In the Tales series, Maupin has created not only one genuine, believable trans character, but two. The T is all too often missing from LGBT, as is the B, but this is not the case in Maupin’s work, which explores the entire rainbow of possibilities. I was curious as to how deliberate this was, particularly with the character of the extremely loveable trans man Jake Greenleaf, who carries the torch from Anna the trail blazer in The Days of Anna Madrigal.
“Anna was an exotic plot device at the beginning. I had known a few trans people but I wanted her to have a mystery, and that’s what it was. And the more I became aware of her as a person, the more I wrote the character, the more I wanted to flesh out her experience. It didn’t take long before trans people were telling me that she was inspirational to them and so I felt a special responsibility to the truth of her life. Jake came about because a friend of mine picked up a bear cub at the Lone Star Saloon in San Francisco, and discovered half way through the evening that the guy was trans. The story he told me made we want to tell Jake’s story. I like characters that challenge my own assumptions.”
The plot of The Days of Anna Madrigal leads toward the festival Burning Man, at which Jake plans to debut his “art car” for the Mutant Vehicles Parade. It is crowned with a pod designed for Mrs Madrigal to sit in which is in the shape of a Monarch butterfly. I was struck that the plot, as it does in Significant Others, hinges on a festival, and I wanted to know what personal and political meanings such alternative lifestyle festivals held for Maupin as a writer looking at a politically conflicted contemporary America.
“It’s interesting that you took note of my use of festivals, because half way through Burning Man I thought, ‘this is Wimminwood, this is the Bohemian Grove’. I have been fascinated with the mechanics of these social gatherings for a long time. Part of me is cynical about any group of people who think they are solving the problems of the world by their particular rituals – certainly when it comes to organised religion and to a lesser degree by something like Burning Man. Mostly it was a rich possibility for the use of coincidence. There are no cell phones on the playa so people have to bump into each other, and everyone’s experience of Burning Man reads like an episode of Tales of the City because it’s so random, crazy, and often very fulfilling. I didn’t know what to expect. I was fully prepared to be grumpy about the hardships. And I was. The random nature of it is really quite beautiful and addictive. I have friends, some of them relatively young, who’ve been every year for the past ten years. They can’t wait to gear up for the next one.”
It is hard to imagine what the conservative Armistead Maupin was like, and even harder to imagine him shaking the hand of Richard Nixon, the man that Gore Vidal dubbed the ‘First Criminal’. “Me too,” he laughed. “I was there and I have trouble imagining it. That’s a whole story in itself. I sensed his insecurity when I was with him, which is very revealing about the most powerful man in the world. The sweat on the upper lip, the desperate need to tell good stories to a group of young men, his failure to do so – all of it was revealing about who he was.”
It was San Francisco that changed Maupin, but at what point did he realise that he had been changed, that his old Republican ideals had been left behind? “Not too far in to my arrival. I think around 1974 when I came out in San Francisco Magazine. Part of that was in its own way self serving, because I realised I could really have an identity by being honest about who I was. That openness served my writing in a big way because I didn’t have to limit myself to any subject matter, I didn’t have to worry about being revealed by my own writing. In fact, the challenge was to retain the ability to hang on to all the characters. A good writer has to be transgendered in a way because we have to be all things.”
Maupin’s story reads like that of Mary Ann, the young and very green woman from Cleveland who is immersed into the wonderland that is San Francisco, and whose journey takes the reader up those famous steps to 28 Barbary Lane and Mrs Anna Madrigal.
“I’m closer to Mary Ann than any of the others. They are all me at different points, but certainly my arrival was one of great naiveté. I was still hanging the Nixon picture on my wall when I was dragging guys home not realising I was going to horrify them.”
As a writer, Maupin has much in common with that great activist, Harvey Milk. There are two subjects on which they are in agreement: the importance of coming in order to make homosexuality visible and everyday, and the belief that in telling your story you also have to give people hope.
“Harvey and I were very much on the same page, and he came from the same background. He’d been a conservative Naval officer who’d voted for Goldwater, as had I. We both found our liberation in the theatre. Well, not in it but near it. He was hanging out with the cast of Hair in New York, and I met an actor who picked me up on the way to a Chekov play in Atlanta. I think in both instances we felt the glorious freedom of not being judged. Actors are their own little world. Harvey and I did fund raisers together in San Francisco, so we knew each other. His last boyfriend, Steve Beery, who was seeing him when he was killed, became my best friend for many years. He was in some ways my significant other. We took trips together and had a lot of great adventures before he died in 1993.”
When the serialised Tales of the City was published as a novel in 1978 – the year that Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the year he was murdered – it was not a success. “I thought it was going to be great because thousands of people had read this story in the San Francisco Chronicle, so it was going to be an instant bestseller. In fact the people who read it in the newspaper didn’t feel the need to buy it because they already knew the story. And the rest of the country was not up on it yet – or was repelled by it. It was published in an over-sized format that looked like a comic book. It didn’t even tell you it was a novel on the cover. There was a map, which was a key to some of the locales in the novel. It took something like 25,000 returns the first time around. I had to keep plugging away. I did it largely through gay bookstores and the gay press.”
Maupin went on a mission to let gay bookstores throughout the country know there was a book available that their customers would be interested in. The potential of current social media as a tool to get the word out is immense, and no doubt far greater than the word of mouth generated by the 1970s bookstores, but I wondered what he thought had been lost with the closing down of so many independent gay bookstores.
“The additional feature was that if you went to a bookstore you might meet an actual human being who could relate to your experience and make you feel comfortable. That’s what happened in those bookstores. It was a place to go that wasn’t the bars or the baths and was a cultural connection.”
In London, I noted, we are fortunate to still have the long running independent bookstore Gay’s the Word, as you can go in and gain insights, as well as talk to a range of different people you might not normally meet, in a way that would be impossible with social media.
“It’s the living room of the community. I’m really happy they’re the official booksellers for my talk at the British Library, and that this outfit that was with me from the beginning is still with me and I can show my appreciation. I was one of the authors whose books were seized by the British Customs authorities in 1984. I was very proud to have felt Maggie Thatcher’s boot on the back of my neck. May it go on forever.”
When Tales of the City was serialised in 1976 there was a serial killer subplot, yet when the novel was published this had been removed. I asked Maupin if he’d ever considered restoring it, and publishing a new Writer’s Cut version of Tales.
“No, never once. That was some terrible shit. That was a desperate act of a writer afraid that people wouldn’t read him from morning to morning. The best advice my editor gave me was to cut that out. He said I’d be reviewed as a bad murder-mystery as opposed to a comedy of manners.”
The history of Tales of the City is one of constant renewal. The serialised fiction in 1976 became the novel in 1978, and then in 1993, three years after the publication of Sure of You, Channel 4 produced a television mini-series of Tales. HBO had acquired the rights in 1982, but the ’80s conservative backlash that ushered in the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher meant that it never got beyond the pre-production stage. The 1993 version was a considerable hit in the UK. When it screened in the US on PBS it scored the channel its highest ever ratings for a drama. The casting was near perfect, with Olympia Dukakis playing Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton. I asked Maupin what hand he had in the casting process.
“I suggested Olympia. And I’m very proud of that suggestion. I hear her voice when I write the character of Anna. Laura came in to read for another role, and the producers sent over a tape of her and asked if I thought she’d work for Mary Ann. It was blazingly obvious not only that she would work but that she would be the very embodiment of Mary Ann.” And then he told a touching story about Linney.
“By the way, she had a child last month, a little boy, and his middle name is Armistead. She named him after me. Bennett Armistead Schauer. That was a bonus I could never have guessed – that I could invent a character and someone would come along and play her, then name her baby after me.”
The original cast of the series is older now, and almost the right age for the newer books. Would he like to see Tales return to television, and for the recent trilogy to be filmed?
“It’s crossed my mind, but it has to be something more than just me wanting to do it. Olympia read The Days of Anna Madrigal and she called up crying, telling me it was the best thing I’ve done. Then she said, ‘So when’s the movie happening?’ Then she said, ‘How old is she?’ I said, ‘Ninety-Two’. And she said, ‘I can play that’. She’s eighty-two.”
In the televised Further Tales of the City, incidentally, there is a magnificent subplot featuring Mrs Madrigal’s mother, Mother Mucca, that is not in the book. I had taken it for granted that it was Maupin and not another writer who authored that.
“Yes. I wanted to bring Jackie Burroughs back. I thought, we cannot let her go. I was one of the writers on that one, and that largely had to do with bringing Jackie back.”
Over the course of the Tales books, Maupin has made tough choices as to what to do with characters, and none more so than Mary Ann. Her ambition takes over her life in Significant Others and Sure of You, and she leaves the playground of San Francisco to return to her Republican roots.
“I just thought, ‘what would happen if the old selfishness returned?’ She was becoming famous in her own way as the local talk show host and I was becoming famous in my own way as the writer of Tales of the City. I played with the idea of what would happen if that should go awry, if I let it go to my head. Good stories need conflict, and that seemed the obvious one – that the sweet young thing who set the ball rolling would make everyone’s life hell at the end.”
Michael Tolliver Lives rescued Michael from the uncertain future at the end of Sure Of You. Was the sequel, Mary Ann in the Autumn, the rescue of Mary Ann?
“Yes, it was. I have a good friend who was struggling with uterine cancer and so I brought that into the story.”
In Mary Ann in the Autumn, Mary Ann faces the threat of cancer and return to what Mrs Madrigal calls her “logical family” in San Francisco. Maupin again reworks the history of the series with the mysterious character of Cliff, and he brings back the man Mary Ann thought she had seen plummet to his death at the end of Tales of the City, Norman Neal Williams. At what point did he decide to round off her story by bringing Williams back, and returning Mary Ann to where she was in the first book?
“It’s in Sure Of You. In the second chapter you will see the moment when he comes to the TV station and wants an autograph. Mary Ann turns him away and simply autographs a glossy for him. She asks what his name is, and the producer tells her it is Cliff, and she writes, ‘Cliff – Thanks for the Memories’. It’s all there. I was waiting to drop that penny for 20 years. At least I knew I could.”
Michael, Mary Ann, Anna Madrigal: their lives, and their redemption, determine the shape of the last three books. It’s an organic development, and so at what point in a series as longstanding as this does the writer become more of the biographer?
“I don’t know. It’s funny, that was the sweet compliment that Ian McKellen gave me three nights ago when I was staying in New York. He was reading the new book and he said, ‘It’s like their history has been here all along and you’re just writing it down’. That’s wonderful.”
Now the Tales novels are at an end. “And on that note,” I concluded in a review of The Days of Anna Madrigal, “there is a collective gay tear because it is the most significant series in the literature of the post-liberation era, a lionhearted, optimistic ray of light that sees the world not only for its struggles but for its possibilities.” And so what’s next for Armistead Maupin?
“I have a one man show in mind, believe it or not. On the stage – but I don’t know exactly what form it’s going to take. I’d like to shift gears for a bit. I may come back to a novel, especially if I don’t make any money on the one man show.”