February 26, 2011
FOR almost four decades, the much-loved characters from the Tales of the City novels have aged in real-time along with their creator, American author Armistead Maupin, and his fans.
In the latest, eighth, instalment, Mary Ann in Autumn, published late last year, Maupin takes a nostalgic tone, but fans of the seminal gay author should not read this as an indication that the end is nigh.
Maupin, who appears at the Athenaeum Theatre tomorrow as part of the Wheeler Centre’s Big Gay Week, says the nostalgia in the latest book is ”a function of my age, not the fact I’m trying to wrap up anything”.
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Maupin, 66, also rejects criticism that has been levelled at him that the new book is a treatise on the ”taboo topic of gay ageing”.
”I’ve been talking about ageing forever, and I don’t consider it a taboo,” he says. ”I consider it a privilege to be an ageing gay man because so many of my friends weren’t able to come along on the journey with me.
”It’s not fashionable to be old and gay but I don’t give a f—! It rankles me to hear that there are gay men who moan about being old. It’s OK to groan about aches and pains but to devalue the privilege of being here after all these years is quite obscene.
”I lost my best friend two weeks after his 40th birthday and I still miss him terribly. I feel those people – the people we lost – are being dishonoured when that talk comes up.”
Maupin has famously chronicled gay life (he was the first author to broach AIDS) and the notion of non-biological ”families” since his Tales series began as a newspaper serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-1970s. And while Maupin has written novels that aren’t part of the series, it’s for the Tales that he is most feted, with ardent fans who tend not to merely like his work but fervently adore it.
During our phone conversation, several have tweeted the author to tell him he is now a specialist subject on the British quiz show Mastermind.
”I’ve made it now,” he says, laughing, ”although someone just sent me the questions and I flunked a couple of them! That fan clearly knew more than I did.”
Given his global fan base, which increased after the 1996 TV mini-series based on his novels, it’s hardly surprising.
”The books went viral before there was an internet – people passed them around and it spread on its own,” Maupin says. ”That’s why I have a certain amount of confidence in the story after all these years. People share it with each other and make it a part of their own family structure.”
Ask any fan what they think of Mary Ann, one of the Tales core characters, and arguments are bound to ensue.
”Part of why I wrote the new book is because I got tired of people asking why Mary Ann became such a bitch,” Maupin says. ”And because I put a certain amount of my own emotional life into that character, I take it personally!”
He admits there’s something of himself in all of the main characters. ”I have been DeDe, I relate to that character a lot; she’s a reformed debutant and so am I. I grew up in a very conservative, socially aristocratic family in North Carolina where they thought it was the most important thing the world,” he says.
”Then Brian’s a failed lawyer, and I dropped out of law school. Also, Brian’s womanising was roughly the equivalent of my man-chasing back in the ’70s.”
His fans, too, see themselves in various characters.
”People tell me they read the books over the years, in real-time, and connect it with incidents in their own lives. That’s the rare privilege I’ve had – to be able to tell a story in real-time over 34 years.”
He has also, albeit reluctantly, become something of a spokesperson for gay rights, partly as himself and partly as the character he identifies with most, Michael Tolliver.
(That character’s coming-out letter to his mother, in More Tales of the City, has been used as a real-life template by countless others to reveal their sexuality to family and friends.)
”I squirm a little when people say I’m a spokesperson – I’m only speaking for myself,” he says. ”Although 35 years ago it was rare for anybody to speak about it all.”
Maupin married Christopher Turner just before California’s Proposition 8 was voted in. Maupin met Turner, who is 27 years his junior, after seeing him on a ”specialist” dating website.
The story goes that Maupin saw his photo on the site, then saw him in the street, and chased him down the block, calling out ”Didn’t I see you on Daddyhunt.com?”
”Yes, that is absolutely true,” Maupin says. ”It might have been the uncoolest thing to say but as he actually owned the website he was very happy.”
The pair were married earlier in Canada in 2007 (a marriage recognised only in British Columbia), and refuse to refer to each other as ”civil partners”.
”Elton John has a ‘civil partner’; I have a husband. We have so many serious problems in the world and that people spend even 10 minutes fretting about this is preposterous to me,” Maupin says.
”It says to me they don’t understand the first thing about love if they don’t understand how it can happen to a variety of people in a variety of configurations.”
There are still a few tickets left to see Armistead Maupin in conversation with Noni Hazelhurst tomorrow at 7.30pm at the Athenaeum Theatre. wheelercentre.com