Toward the family of man: Armistead Maupin

Wayne Lee
January 24, 2014

With The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin closes the nearly 40-year saga of “family”life revolving around the title character’s boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco. The ninth novel in his Tales of the City series has just been published by HarperCollins.

Since it started as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, Tales of the City has been adapted into three television series and several staged musical shows. There are audio editions of the books and Tales of the City walking tours. Olympia Dukakis, who portrayed Anna in all three of the TV series, is interested in a film version of the new book.
In the latest novel, Anna, the transgender landlady, sets out at age 92 on a road trip to “unburden herself” and “leave like a lady.” Meanwhile, other members of her “logical family” are having their own adventures at Burning Man, the temporary desert art community that the author calls “a Fellini carnival on Mars.”

Maupin, who relocated from San Francisco to New Mexico in 2012 with his husband, photographer Christopher Turner, gives a reading on Friday, Jan. 24, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of a two-month book tour that will take him across the country and overseas to England, Ireland, and Scotland. He spoke with Pasatiempo at their home in Tesuque.

Pasatiempo: How does it feel to have completed what you have said is the last book in the Tales of the City series?

Armistead Maupin: I’m very happy with what I’ve done. I think I’ve created something that has a shape to it, that I’ve somehow kept all those characters going for almost 40 years. And I think it’s the right moment. I want to enjoy my funeral before I die. It is the end of something, and I couldn’t be more grateful for my career. I’m rewarded with incredible remarks from people who tell me what it’s meant to them over the years.
It partly has to do with people who were finally able to find themselves, in terms of being gay. They found strength in the stories. But it’s broader than that. It let everyone come out about one thing or another. And it broadened the notion of exactly what a family is. I’ve always made a little joke over the “biological family” versus the “logical family.”

Pasa: It’s about going beyond, into the wider family of man, isn’t it?

Maupin: Exactly. The very structure of the stories, with gay and straight and stray characters, demands that everyone’s story be paid attention to. I took great glee in tangling all those storylines up inextricably. Which is like life — you need to know what is going on in someone else’s mind before you can defend your own existence.

Pasa: Was there ever a point where all of this felt like Frankenstein’s monster?

Maupin: No. I’ve been grateful for it every inch of the way. I haven’t felt restricted by the characters, because they pretty much cover the waterfront.

Pasa: It seems like you would feel expanded by the characters.

Maupin: Yes, I was. It kept me from digging down into my little gay niche, not knowing anything about lesbians or transpeople. And it made me honor the emotional growth of my straight friends, who after all, were having to go through all this at exactly the same time. It’s been a way of showing my appreciation for those who strove for a larger humanity, no matter who they are.

Pasa: In creating characters, there are external models and internal models. Can you talk about that?

Maupin: I try to create an emotional resonance for all of my characters. That often means tapping into my own feelings. What my characters do is not necessarily what I have done. I borrow from myself and from my friends, but all of this is fiction. I like the shelter of fiction. I’ve considered writing a memoir next time around, and I’ve thought about doing a one-man show, but I’m making that decision very slowly, because I don’t want to betray my private life, which is the most precious thing to me.

It’s what you have to do. People always say, how do you write about women or a trans character? Well, the answer to that is, your whole job as a writer is empathy. You climb into everyone’s skin.

Pasa: An article in the UK Observer noted that “however outlandish his characters and their adventures, Maupin’s world always feels curiously wholesome.”

Maupin: I’ve always thought of it as a sweet village comedy. Those of us who live in places like San Francisco and Santa Fe regard this as quite normal, this conglomeration of people. Some people have called them “lovable misfits,” but they’re not misfits. They’re working out just fine.

Pasa: When did you know there would be only one more book?

Maupin: I needed to honor all the characters, and I certainly couldn’t leave without paying attention to Anna. So it just felt right to make it end here. It makes the third trilogy. The first trilogy is pre-AIDS, the second trilogy is post-, and the third is modern times.
Pasa: Toward the end of Days, Anna says, “You mustn’t try to tidy things up.” That sounds like you giving yourself permission to end things on your terms.

Maupin: Anna’s voice just came out and said, “Everything that you neatly need to say has been said.” It totally came out of the blue. I wasn’t planning it. I was still fretting about getting the characters into place for the ending. When you’ve got a cast of more than a dozen characters, there’s no way to “end” a story short of having a bomb drop on them. Life goes on. That’s always been my thesis with all of the books — that tidying up doesn’t happen.

Therefore we have to live in the moment, have to be sure we’re saying what we think, how we feel, to the people we love at every moment. That’s precisely what matters to me. That’s why my marriage is number one in life, and, if I have a religion, it’s the knowledge that sometimes miraculous things happen.

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