“Things Just Happen, And Sometimes You Get A Little Lucky:” Interview with Richard Kramer

Thursday, December 11, 2014
from Michael Denison


I was thrilled when Emmy and Peabody award-winning television writer, director and producer, Richard Kramer, recently introduced himself and sat down for an interview about his television career and debut novel, These Things Happen.

I started with:

You and I met on Twitter. When I initially read your profile, I thought we’d connected because we’re both writers. But one of the first things you mentioned to me was your passion for vintage beefcake. That’s obviously a passion I share with you and the fans of my vintage beefcake blog.

Maybe that’s because I am vintage beefcake. I grew up in New York, and I vividly remember the windows of the porn shops on 42nd Street, long before Disney came along. I remember the men in hats, smoking, the silences, sneaking in and getting kicked out because I was too young. You couldn’t show dick at the time, so everything was idealized, classical, pillars, posing straps. And of course this imprinted itself on my erotic consciousness in a way that the million-times more graphic porn of today can never equal. In vintage beefcake, there was mystery involved; you had to call on your imagination, write the story yourself. Just where did those crumbled pillars come from, anyway? On which mountaintop did that healthy male frolicking take place? What vanished civilization was this?

You wrote that the older gay male characters in your first novel, These Things Happen, enjoy vintage beefcake, while it’s of little interest to the gay teenager in the story.

That might be because Theo (the kid you reference) can just go online and see anything he likes, all the time. My old guys (all of them younger than me, by the way) had to connive, be furtive, worry about being caught, sweat a little. The way it should be. Theo’s parents would probably help him write a punchy Grindr profile; God forbid they should seem to be disapproving or intolerant, even if they actually are—which is one of the book’s subjects. I wonder about straight kids and gay kids … if the availability of the most graphic sexual images takes away some of the thrill of discovering sex for yourself. I hope not.

You are an Emmy and Peabody award-winning television writer, director and producer. These Things Happen is your first novel. It is a coming-of-age tale about fifteen-year-old Wesley Bowman in New York City. After living much of his life with his mother and her husband, he moves in with his gay biological father and his life partner. What is it about this story that made you want to tell it as a novel?

I always wanted to write a novel, and was always afraid I couldn’t. I don’t know why. I started out writing fiction, and was in The New Yorker at 21, which might sound glamorous but made me self-conscious and held me back. Then, happily, I did write a novel. The material led me to the form; I wanted to be able to enter the consciousness of an assortment of characters, to be with them on a moment-to-moment basis, where they were experiencing what was happening both externally—which is what you can do in drama—and internally, which is what you can do in fiction. I played with the material in different forms, and in the end it seemed it might work best as a book. Particularly, as I got into the heads of two characters who are, I suppose, at least on the surface, hard to like. I’m talking about the mom and dad. Being with them, sitting with them, listening to them, I came to respect them, even love them. And I hope readers can do that, too. Without spoiling anything, the dad is, for me, the key character; he comes the longest distance. It might seem tiny, at first, but it’s immense for him, and it pays off (that is: I hope it pays off) in the book’s final moments. And I can say, without spoiling anything, that until I wrote those moments, I had no idea what would happen in them. There it was. I thought “So that’s who you are. I would never have guessed. Thank you for letting me see that.”

Each chapter of These Things Happen is told in first person by one of the characters. There’s Wesley, of course. And his best friend, Theo, who comes out of the closet while giving a speech at school. And chapters by Wesley’s mother and her current husband. And by Wesley’s biological father, Kenny, and his life partner, George. As well as chapters by two other characters. Why did you chose to construct your novel this way?

Again, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d finished the first section, which is told from Wesley’s P.O.V., and began the next, which is told from George’s. When I first started to think about These Things Happen, I thought I’d write the whole thing from Wesley’s P.O.V.

I was wrong, but I didn’t know that until I came to the moment that ends the first chapter and I felt a kind of click, telling me it was okay to leave him at that point and to go check in with someone else. And that set the pattern for the rest of the book. I wrote until—the click, until the moment where I could leave one person and visit another.

As for the first person-ing, I think I used that as a safety net, because it’s what I knew. The whole long last section, though, is written in the third person. Again, that wasn’t a choice so much as an event, that I witnessed. Maybe I felt more confident at that point. Whatever the reason—I just followed it.

Which character’s voice was the hardest for you to pinpoint?

None of them. They’re all me. I used to say on thirtysomething [for which he wrote, directed and produced] I was all the characters, including the house. I’m everyone in These Things Happen, and I only saw that when I was done. I reconnected with an old tenth-grade friend not long ago. I sent him the book, and he told me Wesley was exactly who I was at fifteen. That stunned me. How had I not seen that? Maybe it’s what made him fun to write, though.

Was there a character you most related to? One whose point of you most enjoyed inhabiting?

I loved writing all of them! By which I mean I loved being all of them. They all surprised me, they all knew themselves better than I did. Sometimes when I was writing this book, I felt more like a secretary to the characters than the novelist who was bringing them to life. A writer friend said to me that you don’t write the book; the book writes you. I felt that all the time with These Things Happen.

Two characters are gay bashed in your novel. This terrible event is of course a major turning point in the story. Without revealing spoilers to anyone who’s not yet read your novel, what do you believe is the message of These Things Happen?

That’s changed, as I have. At this point in my life, I’d say—none of us can know ourselves, or others, completely. And every now and then, if we’re lucky, these things happen in our lives that show us something about ourselves we didn’t know, something with which we’re not comfortable, and would harshly judge in others. What do you do when one of those moments comes into your life? Do you hide from it? Do you fall apart? Do you acknowledge whatever it is you’ve seen as an integral part of who you are? Can you let yourself be loved for everything you are? I’ve written about that a lot over the years. I never know I’m doing it. But it seems to be a magnet for me.

I mentioned earlier you are a television writer, director and producer. In fact, you’ve worked on some of the most iconic, generation-defining shows of the last 30 or so years: thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, the American version of Queer As Folk, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (the 1993 PBS television adaption of Maupin’s first book in the Tales of the City chronicles)—just to name a few.

And those are the ones I talk about! There were lots of duds and clinkers in there, as well. Lots of movies that didn’t get made, pilots that didn’t go to series. But that’s anyone’s career. I feel lucky to have worked on a couple of projects that impacted people’s lives. When the book was published, I worried that people would say, “Oh, he’s just some slick hack from TV,” but that didn’t happen. Wherever I went, people told me their favorite thirtysomething episode, or how sad they were when My So-Called Life got cancelled after its first season, or how important Tales of the City was to them. I don’t think a week has gone by in the twenty years since it was first on that someone hasn’t told me that it changed their life. I had an operation ten years ago, and when I was (briefly) in the ICU, I saw my male nurse had one of the Tales books in his bag. When I told him I’d worked on the show, he said to me: “Those books saved my life. Now let’s save yours.”

The first television show you wrote for was Family in 1978. How did you become a television writer and producer?

I started out, right out of college, writing for The New Yorker. I thought that was going to be my life, but it seems my life had ideas of its own, and laughed at the ones I had. I wrote a spec script for Family while I was working on a cruise ship as a singles host. I sent it in cold, didn’t hear anything, and forgot about it. A year later, I got a letter, because they had letters, then, telling me they wanted to buy it and bring me to California. So I went and, it seems from the available evidence, I stayed. One thing leads to another, some things don’t lead to anything. But enough things lead to other things so that, finally, you’re in your story, and you realize that nothing happens for a reason. Things just happen. Which is maybe what I should have called my book. Or, maybe, Things Just Happen, And Sometimes You Get A Little Lucky. I feel that way.

Have you always been out as a writer, director and producer in Hollywood?

I love this question. It’s caused me to look back and remember that it was the producers and executives who were twenty years older than me who made it comfortable for me to be out, and my peers who made it uncomfortable. Of course, you always collaborate a little with the discomfort of others, without realizing you’re doing it. That’s true to this day. How could I be more out? And yet it’s still not easy for me to jump in and say, “I’m gay, by the way.” I do it, of course, but I always feel a little worried, even a little ashamed, and then I’m ashamed of being ashamed. Some of which is woven into the book, most notably, in the character of the dad. Will I ever fully get over that? I doubt it. I don’t think that’s the goal. The goal is to see it; that’s how you start to get free. Note that I say start.

In the 1990’s, I was blown away by My So-Called Life, which stars Claire Danes as a 15-year-old dealing with her life at home and at school. Why do you think the show has retained its popularity?

Well, she’s got a lot to do with it, of course. I remember the day she walked in for the audition. None of us even knew what to say. We were almost afraid to say yes to her; she was so far outside the range of the typical television teen girl. She hardly even seemed human. But she was magic, and she caused us to rethink the whole show, to respond to what we saw in her, to mirror her rawness, her authenticity, her elegance. She came with a ladder which we all had to climb. And Winnie Holzman’s script, of course, was perfect. If it hadn’t been so good, I don’t think we’d have drawn Claire. And the show would have been just another teen show. I have a theory that if you write it, they will come. Write it right, that is. I believe the right actor finds you. That was certainly the case with the thirtysomething cast. And the Tales of the City cast. I don’t think it was the case with the Once and Again cast, although there were wonderful people in that, of course. As for the show itself, and why people love it—again, I have to nod to Winnie Holzman, who, of course, went off to write Wicked, which was no accident; Stephen Schwartz was a huge My So-Called Life fan, and could tell that Winnie had a rare understanding of the inner lives of teenage girls, witches and otherwise. And she led the way for us. She set a very high bar. Also, we did nothing to make it seem of-the-moment. We didn’t have a Teen Advisor; we wrote ourselves. My So-Called Life as a Middle-Aged Jew; that’s what should have been the title of the show.

In addition to both these projects being centered around teenagers, what do My So-Called Life and your novel These Things Happen have in common?

They’re both about authenticity, I think. Angela Chase and Wesley Bowman both fiercely insist on it. They’d make a nice couple. I hope they meet at Brown.

I am a massive fan of female leads in television and film. I happily binge-watched the entire first season of Bitten the day I found it on Netflix. I love watching Claire Danes now in Homeland. I miss Buffy and Veronica Mars. There’s a dearth of female-lead dramas and comedies on television and at the movies.

But that’s changing, right? I love Scandal. I don’t love Orange Is The New Black, but I think I get why people do.

I enjoyed the British and American versions of Queer As Folk, which centers around gay characters living in small towns next to major cities, where many gay characters typically appear in fiction.

What drew you to this television project?

The British version drew me. Period. There was something so muscular about Russell Davies’s story-telling. I’m not a fan of the American version. Maybe because I got fired from it!

As you know, I live in San Francisco. I was born here. I am deeply in love with almost all the characters in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City chronicles.

How did you end up working with Maupin on the television adaption?

It goes back to ten years, at least, before the show went on the air. When I first met Armistead, I think that only the first two books had been published, maybe the third. When we first worked on it, it was going to be a half-hour comedy. We called it Mary Tyler Moore For The 80’s. I wrote a script. And now, neither Armistead nor I have any memory of that stage of the experience! I ran into someone recently who told me she had been the producer of that early version. You could have fooled me!

What message would you like your audience to take away from These Things Happen and the TV shows you’ve worked on?

None. On the TV shows, we ran in the other direction if we saw a message heading our way. It’s the same with These Things Happen. You throw some characters together, you watch what they do, you see what they want, and how they do or don’t get it. [Film and television writer, director and producer] Ed Zwick used to say the only message he wanted the shows to impart was to keep your hands inside the bus. The message is made by the audience.

These Things Happen has been picked up by HBO and HARPO Films for development into a half-hour comedy TV series. Richard Kramer is currently writing the pilot.

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Armistead Maupin in Conversation: The Days of Anna Madrigal

Armistead Maupin is celebrated as the creator of the Tales of the City series, which follow the exploits of the residents of a San Francisco apartment in the late 70s and early 80s. He joins writer Damian Barr to talk about his eagerly anticipated novel The Days of Anna Madrigal. The suspenseful, comic, and touching ninth book in the bestselling series, charts one of modern literature’s most unforgettable and enduring characters – Anna Madrigal, the legendary transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane – as she embarks on a road trip that takes her deep into her past.

In partnership with Gay’s the Word bookshop

To listen to the interview, visit the British Library’s webpage.

MP3 file, 1 hr 39 mins 57 secs, 40.04 MB

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Meet This Year’s ‘Prime Time 25′

These 25 LGBT achievers over 65 are proving that a person can change the world at any age.

NOVEMBER 26 2014

“Wisdom comes with winters,” Oscar Wilde once stated. And the Prime Time 25, The Advocate’s annual list of outstanding LGBT activists and influencers over the age of 65, is proving this adage correct.

In a seminal year for the LGBT community, our elders continue to be at the vanguard of this progress, distinguishing themselves in the spheres of politics, art, activism, business, and entertainment, while serving as role models for younger generations.

Take a look at the 25 extraordinary writers, athletes, artists, military veterans, and even a magician who are disproving stereotypes of their age demographic by actively contributing to the betterment of the world.

Armistead Maupin, 70, Author

Earlier this year, writer Armistead Maupin released The Days of Anna Madrigal, the final novel in his celebrated Tales of the City series. The stories, which were first printed in a San Francisco area newspaper in 1974, chronicle the West Coast LGBT community through Mary Ann Singleton, a newcomer whose Heartland-born eyes are opened by the diverse, colorful characters in her new city, including her mysterious landlord Anna Madrigal. The series was first novelized in 1978, and has grown into nine books, several of which were adapted into television programs for PBS and Showtime. As a result, generations of media consumers from all walks of life have gotten to know the beautiful, queer characters of Maupin’s world.

Maupin’s influence on culture was recently recognized by the LGBT film organization Outfest, which honored the writer at its 2014 Legacy Awards. Speaking to The Advocate about his impact on a younger generation of readers, Maupin acknowledged that in terms of audience size, there are “not as many as I’d like, but a growing number, and they recognize the basic emotional content of the story. And the rest of it, the colorful period details, are interesting to them in another way.”

He spoke about the perennial themes of the story — the search for love, acceptance, and individuality — that have given Tales life throughout the decades. And while the LGBT community has made great strides in making the world a better place for youth, there is still much work to be done, he says, and still a great need for voices that provide hope and support.

“Sadly, there’s still young people who need to know that they have a place in the world where they can live their lives as freely as they want. And that’s the simple message of Tales. Find your own family. Find your logical family if your biological family is not accepting you,” he said, in a nod to a saying from Anna Madrigal, one of the most prominent transgender characters in LGBT literature.

Maupin is married to a younger man — Christopher Turner, a photographer and the owner of DaddyHunt.com. Their relationship, as well as his past friendships and mentorships by older gay men, has given him an acute understanding of the importance of encouraging dialogue between gay men of different age groups.

“I live with a man who has celebrated older gay men in his own work, so perhaps I have a rosier vision of things than others do,” he says. “But we gay elders have a place in the world, and sometimes, it’s even sexual! And people need to know how to step forward and claim that.”

“We’ve learned things in the struggle that are useful,” he adds about the role of older men in a youth-obsessed culture. “When I was a young gay man, Christopher Isherwood was my mentor. And he and his partner, Don Bachardy, who was 30 years his junior, held dinner parties at their house in L.A. Almost every week, I find some instance where, OK, now you’re in the position of the 70-year-old gay man with a younger partner, and how do you behave toward these younger people who are here with you today? How do you represent for them?”

Maupin, who is famous for telling stories of ’70s San Francisco, revealed he has continued this tradition of mentorship with a group of men who are bringing tales to a new generation.

“We got together for a movie night with the cast of Looking the other night,” he confided.

“Oh, wow,” this reporter exclaimed. “That’s what I said!” he said with a laugh.
—Daniel Reynolds

Read the rest of the list here


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Matt Alber Interview

November 10, 2014

This past weekend Matt Alber caught up with Samuel. The ever-busy and ever-dreamy singer-songwriter discusses his recent move back into San Francisco, plans to work on a visual project with a well-known author and, following his visit to the Local Lounge in Portland, getting ready for a tour in the Midwest. Alber will visit Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Iowa City, and Milwaukee from November 12th until the 22nd. For more info & tickets go here.

Here is Matt’s latest “Handsome Man”


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Hilary Swank, Armistead Maupin Honored at Raucous Outfest Legacy Awards

NOVEMBER 13, 2014
Allegra Tepper

Tinseltown’s LGBT community faced a not unfamiliar predicament on Wednesday night, when not one but two star-studded soirées celebrated the legacy of LGBT characters on screen: which to attend? While Portia de Rossi, Eric Stonestreet and Jason Collins hiked up to Skirball for the Paley Center’s fête, a familial feeling crowd gathered at Vibiana downtown to honor Hilary Swank, Armistead Maupin and Levi Strauss & Co. at the Outfest Legacy Awards.

Dan Bucatinsky, Aubrey Plaza and Alan Poul were just a few of the guests that filled the cathedral-cum-culinary hot spot, where Chef Neal Fraser served up an intricate menu by both gala standards and by any standards – goodbye rubber chicken, hello grilled salmon and leek fondue.

Lee Daniels, Lily Tomlin and Bruce Cohen were among those on the host committee for the dinner, which raised funds for the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, which promotes the preservation and restoration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender moving image media.

While half the conspicuously male dominated crowd arrived wearing the perennial sport coat (more Dolce & Gabbana than Brooks Brothers, to be sure), a sizable segment gleefully heeded the call to ditch the suit and don “cocktail chic with a denim twist” in celebration of Levi Strauss & Co., the recipient of the Guardian Award.

Armistead Maupin, who was bestowed with the Visionary Award on the 20th anniversary of his “Tales of the City” miniseries, gave a rousing tribute to the brand after accepting his award.
“When I put on a pair of Levi’s, they’re that second skin,” he said. “And the weird thing is, I’m deeply sincere. I can’t imagine another corporate entity that I could get up here and say these things about.”

“Levi’s has an amazing tradition, not just in terms of the treatment of their LGBT employees,” he said, referring to the brand being the first Fortune 500 company to offer domestic partner benefits, “ but what they stood for in the world.”

And from rousing to arousing, Maupin went on to share a titillating story of Basic Plumbing, one of Hollywood’s storied gay bathhouses (or as he put it for the younger attendees, “Grindr in a plywood box”). He recalled “enjoying himself thoroughly in one of those cubicles with someone else in another cubicle,” then emerging to discover it was a Warner Bros. producer he’d met with for a potential “Tales of the City” deal.

“When we realized who each other were, he said, ‘We’ve got to have lunch,’” Maupin explained. “And I said, ‘I thought we just did.’”

Several of the presenters seized on the opportunity to make an especially salacious joke or two to the congregation, delighting in the sacrilege of doing so in a converted cathedral. In a crowd that worships St. Madonna over St. Vibiana, no stone went unturned.

“I worried I wasn’t gay enough to host,” said Natasha Lyonne, the evening’s chief priestess. “But then I looked at my IMDb page. My IMDb page is so gay, it should be sponsored by Olivia Cruises. My IMDb page is so gay, it has its own Grindr profile. It’s gotten to the point where they won’t even finance an indie film without Natasha Lyonne playing a lesbian in it. I want to take this opportunity to say to all of you, I’m sorry and thank you for my career.”

But for all the naughty nonsense, much of the night was also devoted to the sincere memory and celebration of some of the most challenging and enduring moments in LGBT screen history. “Tales of the City” cast members Mary Kay Place, Billy Campbell and Laura Linney all paid emotional tribute (the latter two verging on tears) to Maupin for his enduring books and miniseries.

And in accepting Outfest’s inaugural Trailblazer Award, Swank gave deeply earnest thanks and tribute to Brandon Teena, the real trans man she portrayed in the career-making “Boys Don’t Cry” 15 years ago.

“My closing message remains the same as that of my Academy Award speech,” she said. “Let Brandon Teena’s legacy remind us to always be ourselves, to follow our hearts, to not conform. And let us continue telling stories like this so that one day we’ll not only accept our differences, but actually celebrate our diversity.”


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OUT100: Armistead Maupin



Photography by JUCO | Retouching by Anna Glen at Wet Noodle

The Moment: 1978: The first Tales of the City book is published.

For nearly four decades, the Tales of the City series has influenced popular culture, and in 2014, creator Armistead Maupin officially said goodbye to his beloved characters — Mouse, Mary Ann, Mrs. Madrigal — with its final book, The Days of Anna Madrigal. This fall, the author’s hometown of San Francisco, where the books are set, celebrated the landmark by honoring the first Tales novel as its 10th annual One City One Book selection, emblazoning buses with ads that urged citizens to read it. Maupin’s favorite Tales moment? “Michael’s coming-out letter to his mom was my coming-out letter to my parents,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine now, but when the letter appeared [in 1977], it was shocking for someone to say they were gay, and that it was the best thing that ever happened to them.”

Photographed at the Macondray Lane apartments, the inspiration for Tales of the City’s 28 Barbary Lane, in San Francisco on September 10, 2014

Styling by Kiersten Stevens. Groomer: Ivan Mendoza. Shirt by Levi’s. Jacket by Union Made


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Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Public Library

KM Soehnlein interviews Armistead Maupin about “Tales of the City,” Jackie O, Burning Man, and Jesse Helms rolling in his grave. For almost four decades, “Tales of the City” has blazed its own trail through popular culture—from a groundbreaking San Francisco Chronicle newspaper serial to a classic novel, to a television event that entranced millions around the world. The first of nine novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, “Tales” is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of an era that changed forever the way we live. San Francisco Public Library is thrilled to celebrate Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City during our 10th Annual One City One Book. Library bookshelves were stocked with fresh copies of this beloved book that celebrates San Francisco in the 1970s! Citywide programming took place during September and October. Check out a copy of “Tales of the City” from our online catalog: http://sflib1.sfpl.org/search/?search…

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