By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News
More than six million copies sold. A phenomenon in countries around the world. A cherished PBS miniseries.
Few book series have been so ardently embraced by so many readers. But all good things must come to an end.
Author Armistead Maupin has apparently told the last tale in his beloved, groundbreaking “Tales of the City” series. The ninth and final installment of the captivating journey, “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” released in hardcover in January of 2014, has just been published in a paperback edition by Harper Perennial. Maupin will discuss the book at Kepler’s in Menlo Park tonight.
Mrs. Anna Madrigal, the 92-year-old transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco, inspires her colorful, multi-generational, “logical” (as opposed to biological) family. They comfort her, and vice-versa, in the closing chapters of her life. Some are on their way to pay tribute to her at Burning Man. Others are escorting her back to Winnemucca, Nev., where, as a boy, he grew up in a cathouse. There are ghosts to be faced. As with the rest of the “Tales,” this one brims with surprises, humor, poignancy and insights.
The New York Times review by Charles Isherwood said, “The satisfactions and the frustrations of love, sex and friendship are the meat of Mr. Maupin’s books, and there’s plenty of each here, with a happy-ending emphasis on the satisfactions.”
Maupin says he found gratification in saying goodbye to Anna and her friends. “I wanted to pay homage to all of the characters, in the right way,” he tells The Daily News. “And I think I succeeded. So by the time I’d arrived at the end, I was happy I’d gotten there.”
Maupin says he felt a sense of responsibility for readers who have been with him from the beginning, wanting to give them a satisfying sense of closure.
“It would have been a terrible tragedy if I hadn’t landed the plane on the aircraft carrier. I was very aware of the readers and their affection for the characters. And I wanted to make sure that I ended with a bang and not a whimper.”
“Tales of the City” began in 1974 as a newspaper serial. The fictional series has drawn from Maupin’s real-life experiences.
“I tried to use what I know. In the old days, that meant a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. A little less of that these days. But it’s all life, all important to record. Writing is a way of making some sense out of chaos in life.”
In his writing, Maupin wanted to place the gay experience in the context of the larger world.
“It became very clear to me early on that that was going to be one of my functions, that I could show them the ways in which gay lives ran parallel to those of straight people. And then the way in which it was different, as well. But mostly I was attempting to lift the whole taboo of any discussion of homosexuality.
“It’s hard for people to realize today, but it was virtually banned from popular culture. You simply did not see gay lives reflected, certainly not in the daily newspaper.”
The stories’ marvelous matriarch, Anna Madrigal, portrayed by Olympia Dukakis in the enormously popular PBS productions based on the books, has become an icon.
“She’s the only character in the ‘Tales’ series with a little bit more elevated consciousness than I have,” Maupin says. “I think she’s what I aspire to be, and that is patient and kind, someone who keeps a rueful eye on life and doesn’t let it get to her.”
There’s a bit of the author in all of the characters, young and old, male and female. “I don’t think there’s a single one that I haven’t drawn from some aspect of my own personality, even the unattractive ones … especially the unattractive ones,” Maupin says, laughing.
Maupin was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in North Carolina. After university and a stint in the Navy, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, he moved to the Bay Area to pursue a career in journalism.
“Geography has always been the driving force behind my fiction. My brand new love affair with San Francisco, back in the ’70s, prompted me to invent stories.”
Prior to writing the new novel, he visited Winnemucca and, reluctantly, Burning Man. His husband, Christopher Turner, had prodded him to experience the latter.
Maupin says, “I was quite grumpy about the whole thing, highly resistant to the notion of heat and dust and deprivation. But as soon as I started running free in my sarong and letting go of the notion of staying clean, I found myself having a good time. It’s an amazing atmosphere. I described it in the novel as ‘a Fellini carnival on Mars.’ I had never seen anything like it. And I’m sure I never will again.”
Maupin doesn’t want to be defined simply as a gay writer, but has played an important role in reshaping the world’s perception of the LGBT community.
“I’m very proud of that. And I’ve always been proud of my openness about being gay. I just think that, to qualify a writer with an adjective is non-productive, because writers are writers and their job is to write about everybody’s experience for everybody. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. But I’ve certainly never had any shame around being identified as gay. I’ve made a point of it actually, from the very beginning, sometimes with resistance. The culture itself was self-censoring for such a long time. Both well-meaning straight folks and frightened gay folks made sure that it didn’t get talked about.”
What Maupin has talked about — and written about — has made a difference. “The most enriching aspect of my life is the number of people who come to me and tell me that I’ve either saved their life or changed their life … or caused them to move to San Francisco,” Maupin says with a laugh.
“Words have great power. They arrive at the right time and the right place. And a lot of people weren’t hearing what I had to say — until they read my books. And they were in small towns somewhere, where they had no vision, no possible idea that someone who was gay could live happily, with straight friends, and find love, and be carefree.”
Now 70, he’s working on a one-man show and memoir called “Logical Family.” Even in the 1970s, Maupin noticed a lot of extended families in San Francisco.
“If someone disapproved of them elsewhere, they realized they could build families for themselves. It was a waste of time sitting around waiting for parental approval. Find your own grandparents, find your own siblings and get on with life. That’s the only way you can be fully loved. If you’re trying to love someone and the conditions aren’t there, it’s not very fulfilling.
“Sometimes your biological family can be part of your logical family. But not always. I don’t rule them out, but they don’t get points for just being blood kin.”
As Maupin writes, he continues to learn more about the world … and himself. “It’s not all figured out. I’ll probably never fully understand myself. But it’s a useful process.”