by Kilian Melloy
Monday Feb 2, 2015
For nearly four decades readers have thrilled, laughed, gasped, and cried along with a host of beloved characters created by Armistead Maupin, the author of the “Tales of the City” novels.
Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. Mary Ann Singleton. Brian Hawkins. Mona Ramsey. Mother Mucca. DeDe Day and her partner D’Orothea Wilson and their twin children. And, of course, the matriarch who drew them all together, Mrs. Madrigal – Anna Madrigal, that is, whose name rhymes with “magical.” The name also turns out to be an anagram… and, as we find out in “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” the ninth and final book in the series, that name is so much more: It harkens back to the pain of adolescence and first love.
Between the writing of the sixth and seventh books – “Sure of You” and “Michael Tolliver Lives!” – about a decade and a half elapsed during which time Maupin wrote other novels such as “Maybe the Moon” and “The Night Listener,” and saw the first three “Tales of the City” books adapted into a trio of miniseries starring Laura Linney as Mary Ann and Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal. The books also inspired musical interpretations: San Francisco male choir Chanticleer produced a program of period music called “Anna Madrigal Remembers,” and the Seattle Men’s Chorus performed a similar program of period music titled “Tunes from Tales (or, Music for Mouse).” Later on, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears and “Avenue Q” writer Jeff Whittey teamed up to create a musical based on the books.
In a 2010 interview with EDGE, Maupin discussed how “Michael Tolliver Lives!” started out as a non-“Tales” novel. “”I began by wanting to write a novel about a middle aged gay man who was surviving AIDS after many years,” Maupin recalled. “Initially, that was going to be a brand-new invention, but I realized that I had a great advantage in Michael Tolliver, in that people know his history and his life resonated for people in a way that a brand new character might not. I told the story that I wanted to tell, but focus on just one of the ‘Tales’ characters. A number of others, as you know, began to ‘audition’ for me, and eventually found their way into the story.”
Once Maupin picked up the thread, he continued with “Mary Ann in Autumn,” in which Michael’s former best friend makes a return to San Francisco after twenty years of Middle America domesticity (and, not incidentally, ties up a long-dangling… so to speak… loose end).
And now we come to the end. The final installment – or chapter, if you like, given how the corpus of “Tales” titles read like one epic novel, a Great American Novel in both length and significance – finds Anna Madrigal casting her mind back to defining early experiences even as she undertakes one more big adventure. Both the flashbacks and the contemporary action take place in the desert. The sections set in Anna’s youth (as a boy named Andy who’s starting to figure out that, body type notwithstanding, he’s really a girl) are set at the Blue Moon Lodge, a Nevada brothel run by Anna’s mother. In the present day, ninety-two-year-old Anna heads off to Burning Man with Brian and his new wife – the same destination for which Michael and his husband have set out.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal” first hit shelves in a hardcover edition last year. Now the book is reaching the market in paperback form. It’s the perfect moment to catch up with the creator of
EDGE: Armistead Maupin, it’s a pleasure to chat with such a fascinating writer, the author of the hugely entertaining and influential “Tales of the City” novels. I can’t resist starting with a personal query – being from Santa Fe, New Mexico, I took notice when you and your husband lived there.
Armistead Maupin: Yes we did, for about a year and a half.
EDGE: But now, I understand, you are back in San Francisco?
Armistead Maupin: We came back here last May. We still own a little ranch there and like the notion of returning two or three times a year, but we want to spend most of our time in San Francisco. It’s a magical place; our place is up in Tesuque, and there’s nothing grander than standing out under the stars at night, I’m completely in love with the area, bit I needed more city life. It’s a balance that we all need, and I’m lucky enough to be able to pull it off. We actually rent out our Santa Fe home now, and it helps us pay off our little apartment in San Francisco.
EDGE: With its colorful characters and flamboyant plots, social commentary, and serialization, Tales of the City – especially the early books in the series – seem to partake in a Dickensian style. At the same time, TOTC is, taken all together and in its own way, a Great American Novel, both in length and significance. Was the Dickens mold and GAN part of your overall vision?
Armistead Maupin: Very early in my career, Christopher Isherwood compared me to Dickens, and I realized I had better get on the stick and be more like him. Yes, to answer your question, I’ve always loved the way in which Dickens combined great storytelling with a social message. In fact, when Tales of the City was first optioned by Warner Bros as a feature film, they dropped a hint that most of the gay characters would have to be removed. I told them that taking the gay characters out of “Tales of the City” would be like taking the poor people out of Dickens. It simply won’t work. The charm of the piece is that everybody gets to play.
EDGE: It’s also a bit like reading Zola – you know, the way the entire “Tales of the City” series feels like one big novel in nine parts.
Armistead Maupin: I felt that it had that shape [it needed] to be in, and I was very happy about that. The challenge all along was to make each novel self-contained, but also make it part of a greater whole and make sure that an arc was maintained through all those novels.
EDGE: Things have changed since 1976, when the first “Tales of the City” novel was being serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle. The Supreme Court is set to rule this summer, potentially, on the nationwide status of marriage equality, but state pols still pushing gay bashing laws. What would “victory” for our community actually mean? And how close are we to it?
Armistead Maupin: I think we’re getting closer every day, and I think those politicians are basically placating the lowest elements of their base. Eventually, they’ll be in the same boast as segregationist politicians found themselves in – that is to say, having to keep their mouths shut, because the country at large regards that as bigoted behavior.
EDGE: Rightly so… in my humble opinion, anyway.
Armistead Maupin: I would think so, if you’re writing for EDGE!
EDGE: Did you sit down to write “The Days of Anna Madrigal” thinking this would be the grand finale for the “Tales of the City” books?
Armistead Maupin: Yes, I knew when I sat down to write it that I wanted it to be the ninth and final volume. I saw a way in which I could make the whole thing have a shape – that is to say, that all nine novels could connect with each other and come full circle in a way that would be very satisfying to the reader. Halfway through it I wasn’t completely convinced I had found the appropriate ending, but once I found the ending I let out a little yelp of joy because I realized it was exactly what I should have done. Sometimes you have that kind of confidence about your writing and sometimes you don’t; this time, I felt that I had really landed it. Most of the critics seem to have said the same thing. I would be less confident about it if that hadn’t happened.
EDGE: Listen, ignore the critics. I say that, and I am a critic!
I have to say, though, I did think the series came to a perfect close. But I also have to tell you that one cold, icy day as I was riding home on the bus, the book in hand, I reached a part where it seemed that a beloved character had died – I was a wreck! I just about burst into tears of grief right there!
Armistead Maupin: Thank you… I justify that particular incident as something that happened to me, and my husband urged me to write about it so I worked it into the story. I don’t want to say too much about it for those who haven’t read the book, but it’s safe to say that scare was very much autobiographical.
EDGE: The whole episode had that touch of realism about it – a magical realism, actually, because you set a good deal of the novel at Burning Man. How did you end up writing about Anna Madrigal’s defining early experiences while also taking her to Burning Man for this last adventure?
Armistead Maupin: Again, I have my husband to thank. He dragged me there kicking and screaming several years ago, and I had a marvelous time and ended up realizing that it had enormous potential for my storytelling purposes. That playa is the land of serendipity. Almost anything can happen, and very few things can be planned because call phones don’t work out there. People throw themselves into adventures that they don’t see coming, and bump into people that they don’t expect to see. All of that describes the general flavor of “Tales of the City.”
EDGE: As a reader, I very much agree! I thought the Burning Man experience as you describe it here feels like coming back to San Francisco in the 1970s, when it was still a place for the gay element, or the queer element… a place of alternatives, so to speak.
Armistead Maupin: That was how it felt to me, too, in terms of being able to do all those things in a phantasmagorical environment, and make it relatively believable. It is a singular experience. I describe Burning Man in the novel as a “Fellini carnival on Mars,” and that applies to a lot of early episodes of “Tales of the City.” When I was writing it I was struck by the similarity to the camps I was writing about in “Significant Others,” when I was writing about the old Republican farts in the woods up the Russian River [at a camp called Bohemian Grove], and the adjacent camp of feminists called Wimminwood. I found that the dynamics of all three of those festivals were very similar in that there are certain rules that have to be enforced, and there’s great comedy to be found in that.
EDGE: Anna is hailed as a hero in the book, and she is a literary hero in real life also, especially for the trans community – all the more so since she came onto the scene so early. Well before “Orange is the New Black” or anything else we’re seeing now that celebrates the trans community.
Armistead Maupin: About forty years before!
What she was, was considered so controversial by the newspaper back in 1976 that they wouldn’t let me reveal her transgender nature for an entire year. In some ways, that ended up working to me advantage, as people came to love her and could not place her into the category of “freak” and thereby discredit her or judge her unduly. Once they knew her, they were willing to understand and love her. And this was at a time when transgender people were much less open about who they were because of the danger of being ostracized.”
EDGE: That’s still a very real danger, with real consequences. There’s a lot of anti-trans violence out there, unfortunately.
Armistead Maupin: Absolutely, It’s in some ways worse than ever because there are so-called Christian groups, fundamentalist groups of every stripe, and also Islamic fundamentalists, who are prepared to do violence against LGBT people. When there was less discussion of the issue, there was a greater chance to remain out of sight.
EDGE: Being a GLBT celebrity yourself, what’s your feeling about fame, and about being held up for admiration, or as a spokesman for this community?
Armistead Maupin: I don’t see myself as a spokesman for anyone but myself, but I’m delighted if my work has been of help to others. The things I hear most often is my books saved someone’s life or helped them decide who they wanted to be, or where they wanted to be, and that’s enormously gratifying. I can’t think of anything else that would thrill me more as a writer or as a person that to have made a difference in the lives of others. I think “Tales” has succeeded precisely because I have made it so personal, and I’ve allowed it to reflect the changes that have happened in my own life. When AIDS came along, when I lost one of my closest friends to AIDS in 1982, I removed a character [Jon], who [was depicted as already having] died when the novel [“Further Tales of the City,” the third book in the series] began. Any time I’ve had a breakup, or any major life event, I’ve tried to use it. And I don’t just use it with Michael; I use it with all the characters. I think the writer’s job is basically a transgender task: We have to inhabit everybody, male and female, gay and straight, young and old, and we have to do that with empathy.
EDGE: Readers have embraced these characters in a way that’s rare and special. As a writer, having inhabited those characters as you’ve just described, and having drawn on yourself for those characters, were you surprised at how that happened?
Armistead Maupin: It’s been a gradual process, but I began to hear it early on – that people related to the characters. At that point I realized that the best thing I could do was to remain true to my own instincts – to report on the less attractive aspects of my life as well as the ones that might be charming. Everyone feels a sense of relief when they realize their own foibles are reflected in fiction.
EDGE: These characters are not perfect; they’re not given to us as perfect, nor supposed to be perfect. We wouldn’t love them if they were perfect.
Armistead Maupin: No, I don’t think so. And they wouldn’t have become as real as they seem to have become if they were perfect. I’m not sugar coating the experience of LGBT life; at the same time, I’m not approaching it with the notion that everything is dire and dark. A lot of fiction about gay men when I started writing “Tales” took on a very somber, grim, fatalistic, “Oh, Woe is Me” tone, and that wasn’t what I was seeing in San Francisco. I was seeing a lot of people who had led very shut down lives in some other place suddenly blossoming, becoming joyful, celebrating sex, finding friends, and becoming themselves for the first time in their lives, sometimes at a relatively advanced age. My adolescence happened in my early thirties…
All those straight boys get to stand on the corner and watch the girls go by when they are fifteen. Gay boys, at least in those days, didn’t get to do that, if you know what I mean with the metaphor…
EDGE: What will you do if Michael Mouse or Mary Ann Singleton start whispering in your ear about new stories? Might they make cameos in new, non-“Tales of the City” work? You have a tradition of such cameos already, for example in your novel “The Night Listener,” and that’s a bit of fun for “Tales of the City” fans.
Armistead Maupin: I doubt it, but I never say never. I have been wrong about [such predictions] in the past. But I really think any story I have to tell at this point I can do through new characters.
EDGE: What new projects might you be working on?
Armistead Maupin: At the moment, I’m working on a memoir that takes me from my early days as a young conservative in North Carolina right up to finding liberation in San Francisco. There are many stories I’ve been telling people for years, and invariably I’m told I should put them in a memoir – so I think that’s what’s about to happen. I’m sticking my toe in the water, anyway, reading bits and pieces of it to audiences when I tour. It’s tentatively titled “Logical Family,” and I suppose you could say that’s a big borrow from “Tales of the City.” Mrs. Madrigal would always say that we all have our biological family and our logical family, the one that actually makes sense for us.
EDGE: That’s that backbone for the entire series.
Armistead Maupin: Yes. I guess it pretty much is.
“The Days of Anna Madrigal is available in paperback from HarperCollins