By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Armistead Maupin’s long amazing career as a writer started in a way that is almost inconceivable in today’s mass media environment.
Maupin is the author of “Tales of the City,” a San Francisco-based saga that has stretched over nine novels in close to 40 years. But it began as a column in the morning newspaper. And ends with his latest work, the last “Tales of the City” installment, the new novel “The Days of Anna Madrigal.”
Maupin’s humorous and heartfelt tale of the fictional residents of Barbary Lane in San Francisco was a regional sensation in the late 1970s, appearing as a daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle in a nod to the serialized romances of the 1920s.
“I was so lucky,” said Maupin, who appears at Bookshop Santa Cruz tonight to discuss his new novel and his long relationship with the characters of Barbary Lane. “I was able to do this during a time when the morning newspaper was still the most important reading experience of your life, in many cases, the only words you would read during the day.”
Almost from the beginning, the serial was a sensation. “I knew I was going to be discussed at the water cooler every morning, and there was a tremendous power in that.”
He had composed a backlog of columns before starting on the serial, but soon that backlog was drained and he found himself “writing Wednesday’s column on a Monday, and I had no idea where I was going. So, I would just sit down two characters at Mrs. Madrigal’s breakfast table and get them to start talking to each other. I was in a state of perpetual panic.”
Now, “Tales of the City” is a literary institution, but the new installment of the story – the final chapter, Maupin has announced – is less a San Francisco story, or even a California one. It’s more like Maupin’s Nevada novel.
The book is largely the backstory of Anna Madrigal, the life force at the center of the Barbary Lane community. Anna, it is revealed, is a transsexual who grew up as a boy in a brothel in Winnemucca, Nevada.
The reference of Anna’s childhood in Winnemucca dates back to the very first “Tales of the City” novel in 1978. In “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” the Winnemucca of the past and Burning Man, which takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, form the two primary locales for the story.
This is the first time, in fact, that Maupin has employed flashback in the “Tales of the City” series. He goes back to 1936 and puts readers into the wild environment of Depression-era Winnemucca.
“I had to do some serious research,” he said. “But it proved to be a great deal of fun. I loved learning what was offered on a whorehouse menu in 1936.”
Burning Man figures largely in the book as well, just as it has in Maupin’s recent life. He was convinced to go for the first time in 2012 by his husband. “I was highly, highly resistant to the idea,” he said. “The notion of the heat and the dust and the deprivation, it was hard to conceive of. But once I got there, I loved it, swanning about in my sarong and taking in the whole phantasmagora.”
Maupin said he is ready to put the “Tales of the City” saga behind him. He’s now turned his attention to a memoir which includes his fascinating youth in North Carolina. As shocking as it might seem to some of his long-time fans, Maupin grew up a serious conservative in Raleigh, where he had a kind of mentor relationship with the infamous former Senator Jesse Helms, who began his career as a segregationist TV commentator in the 1960s.
“It always makes people wither a little bit when they hear that,” said Maupin.
Since “Tales of the City,” Maupin has emerged as an icon of gay San Francisco, which is about as far as imaginable from his beginnings as a conservative true believer in North Carolina, a stance that he looks back to in wonder himself.
“I just didn’t know any better,” he said. “I think I was just trying to please my family and the conservative tradition around me.” Helms remained friendly with Maupin’s family for many years after Maupin decamped for California.
“He really thought I was the hope of the future,” he said of Helms. “Turns out he was right.”