Armistead Maupin: telling tales

As Tales Of The City author, Armistead Maupin, concludes his groundbreaking series with The Days of Anna Madrigal, Alex Hopkins meets him to talk transgender, Aids and emotional book signings.

Armistead Maupin is used to people crying when they meet him. “On an average night, at a book signing, there are between four and five people who break down when they come up to me” he says. “I end up feeling like some kind of therapist.”

Maupin’s Tales Of The City series, which chronicles the lives of gay and straight characters living at the fictional 28 Barbary Lane, in San Francisco, has had a profound impact on millions of readers. What began as a serial in The Pacific Sun and San Francisco Chronicle newspapers has gone on to spawn a further eight books, a mini-series and a musical. Maupin, now 69, has transformed the representation of LGBT people in mainstream culture and created some of literature’s most loved characters.

As I met him in London he was commencing a UK book tour to promote the latest, and what he says is the final installment, in the series – The Days of Anna Madrigal, which focuses on the backstory of Andy Ramsay, the boy who became the now 90-something year old transgender Anna, former landlady and matriarch of Barbary Lane. The novel – which alternates between real time and flash backs – is a beautifully tender exploration of Anna’s origins and secrets. The book’s pace feels calmer than Maupin’s previous work and is imbued with an often heart breaking nostalgia.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever written outside of real time and it felt wonderful and luxurious to be able to move into a past I’d never known and imagine a totally different landscape” Maupin says.

“I’m sure there are also intimations of mortality throughout this – naturally those thoughts arise from time to time. The flashback experience was enormously fulfilling. I had the satisfaction of thinking I wasn’t just writing about the last four years, but about a story that started 75 years ago and bringing it up to the present day. I enjoyed being young again in the person of Andy Ramsay. It really was fun to write from the viewpoint of a 16 year old.”

Anna has become an inconic figure in literature – a woman who, with her endless capacity for giving and non-judgemental wisdom, seems to encapsulte the best of humanity. How did Maupin go about creating her?

“I had an English grandmother who had been a suffragist, back in 1914, and who in her old age was a great inspiration to me,” Maupin explains. “She was a lovely free spirit who read palms and discussed philosophy and brought the spiritual side of things to my life, outside of any kind of organised religion.

“She was an Anglican officially, but tied it up with all kinds of things. Basically,  she was a very kind, compassionate, interesting person. She would come to live with us in North Carolina for several months at a time, from her home in Virginia, and her own history stretched back to being the first woman ever allowed to speak at York cathedral. Her spirit was used to colour Anna.”

Maupin was a pioneer in transgender visibility. No other novelist had centred a book around a transgender woman. Anna Madrigal’s impact was hugely powerful. Maupin was also influenced by transgendered people he knew in the early 1970s.

“I was fascinated by their journeys and the courage it required and it all came together from here. It’s interesting to think that back in 1976 the possibility that Anna had been born male didn’t even occur to thousands of people who were reading the newspaper column.

“I allowed her to be humanised and not just be about surgery and clothes, which is what trans people are often reduced to. It helped that the newspaper I was writing for did not want me to reveal her secret for the first year. They felt it would be too traumatising for the public. And that, in its own way, helped humanise her because they couldn’t bring any prejudices to bear right away – they came to love her before they knew her fully.”

The Tales series was also groundbreaking in its depiction of relationships between LGBT and straight people. For so many, the strengths of the books come from examining the different types of unorthodox families we can foster and find enfranchisement in.

“I was accused of utopism when I described those friendships” Maupin laughs. “Even then there were gay people who didn’t live comfortably in the straight world. They had basically confined themselves to a safe ghetto and assumed the worst about their straight friends.”

“I had one or two really sterling examples of straight men in my own life – men who were completely comfortable about my sexuality because they were completely comfortable about their own. The threatened ones are those who are worried they might have a tiny tendency towards cock sucking.”

The books were initially kept alive by support from gay publications and book stores, but in time, crossed over to a much larger audience.

“I had to be patient and wait for the world at large to figure it out” admits Maupin. “But, eventually I knew the stories would find their way to a bigger audience and that this would give them even greater power in terms of the their ability to reinforce the sheer ordinariness of the gay life. Just as gay people needed to be validated in a certain way, straight people who had friendships with gay people needed to be validated. In some ways homophobia was just as tough on them as it was on us.”

Maupin has always been reluctant to be consigned to the niche of  ‘gay writer’. “I don’t have any definitions of it. I’m very proud of having been a pioneer in this realm and I’ve made a point of making everyone know I’m gay, but how much further do you have to go? I write about everybody for everybody and I don’t believe any writer should consign him or herself to a niche – words can be universally accepted if you write well enough.”

Maupin’s words have traced the tumultuous lives of his San Francisco protagonists with wit and poignancy. He’s subtly documented the social and politcial shifts in LGBT life and become the voice of a city which has offered unprecedented opportunities for freedom and self-expression. In the late 1980s, however, he faced one of his greatest challenges yet – responding, as a writer, to the Aids epidemic which was decimating the place he so loved.

“There was lots of doctrine being handed out from on high on how to tackle the crisis” Maupin remembers. “We all have to deal with things in our own way and what I had in hand was Tales Of The City, so somehow or another I had to incorporate this monstrous new reality into what was basically a comedic work.”

“It wasn’t hard in the end because I had so many friends who had dealt with Aids through their own dark sense of humour. No one specifically criticised me, but I was feeling it. Edmund White said humour had no place in the epidemic. He has since withdrawn that remark. But I was sensitive to it at the time because, like everybody else, I wanted to be doing the best thing I could. For me it was a case of just taking the most beloved character and having him die of Aids. Automatically, the population of San Francisco took the epidemic personally, in a way that they hadn’t up until that point.”

Maupin is adamant that The Days of Anna Madrigal is the last book in the Tales series (“It’s the right time to conclude it”), and is now toying with the idea of a one man show, but he hasn’t ruled out the idea of further fiction.

“Earlier this year I thought that I might go into another psychological thriller [The Night Listener was made into a film with Robin Williams]. I enjoy that form so much.  That’s still a possibility, but right now the thought of the steady daily discipline required for a novel is some what abhorrent to me.”

“I feel like it’s been quite a journey and a rather dramatic one. I’ve felt so privileged to feel the progress that gay rights has undergone and to have been a part of it. It gives me a tremendous sense of purpose and it’s hard to even measure the satisfaction I feel when people wait in line to tell me their stories at signings.”

And as for those people who come up to him in tears? “All I have to do is hold them and let them cry” Maupin says softly. “I know it’s essentially tears of happiness that I’m witnessing. That’s pretty damn great.”

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