Author Armistead Maupin cleans out the closets.
by Leilani Labong
posted on June 01, 2007
Looking back on Armistead Maupin’s work, you may recognize a theme of slippery identities—Anna Madrigal, the matriarchal landlady from Tales of the City, was once an Andrew, and the 2000 book (and subsequent 2006 film) The Night Listener was based on Maupin’s real-life telephone friendship with a woman who posed as Anthony Godby Johnson, an imaginary 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS. His fascination with the topic could be attributed to the fact that the 63-year-old Parnassus Heights resident values integrity and candor in his own life—he’s not shy about craving praise, or admitting that he’s an American Idol fan. And, as you will see, one breath is all it takes for Maupin, who was raised in North Carolina, to make a dig at our country for not recognizing same-sex marriages and to condemn two celebs—by name, no less—for hindering the gay movement. The author will receive the Barbary Coast Award at the Litquake festival in October; his new book, Michael Tolliver Lives (HarperCollins)—a present-day tale about the beloved Tales of the City character—hits stores this month. Here, SF’s most-beloved wordsmith speaks his mind.
Your name is interesting.
The BBC did a documentary on me they called Armistead Maupin is a Man I Dreamt Up. “Is a Man I Dreamt Up” is an anagram of Armistead Maupin, so that promulgated the notion that I was a work of fiction. I am technically Armistead Maupin Jr.—it’s two family names stuck together. Southerners have a way of doing that.
Was Tales of the City meant for San Franciscans, or for outsiders?
When I was writing it, I thought it was a total in-joke. I had no idea it would have such global appeal. Many people around the world see San Francisco as their last great hope, full of possibilities and experimentation and earthly pleasures.
Tell us about Michael Tolliver Lives.
I’ve been reluctant to call it a continuation of Tales of the City because it’s in first person and it focuses on one character. The people who’ve read it say, “Stop being coy—it is a continuation.” It’s Michael at 55; he’s an HIV-positive gardener living in San Francisco with his husband of three years—they got married at City Hall—still friends with 85-year-old Anna Madrigal and a number of other characters from the old series who pop up. I told myself I was going to limit the cameos to only one or two, but they all came back and haunted me.
Your partner, Christopher, is 28 years younger than you are. What are the benefits and drawbacks of the age difference?
Believe me, it’s mostly benefits as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never been this happy in a relationship, and that has more to do with Christopher’s character and kindness than it does his age. But it is tough sometimes when I make ’60s cultural references—I end up becoming a sort of a boring tutor. We just got married in Vancouver, BC, in February. We had to become expatriates to have our union recognized.
Are there any negative gay stereotypes in pop culture today?
The negative influences on the gay culture are being promulgated by people who are widely known to be gay and who continue to act as if it’s a topic of non-discussion. I’m thinking specifically about people like Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper. They’re gay, but never talk about it. Go ahead and print that in 7×7!
They are perpetuating the notion that being gay is a secret shame. We still respect closets far too much in this society.
Have you ever been interviewed by Anderson Cooper? Would you turn the tables on him?
No, I haven’t been interviewed by him. And now I probably never will. I’d turn the tables on him. I’ve had a fair amount of success there, you know. I’m very proud of the fact that Ian McKellen once asked me if I thought he should come out, and I said yes—and he’s credited me with that. I tend to be a little cheeky about this topic because I think it’s important—there are teenagers still committing suicide over their sexuality.
Had you ever met or corresponded with JT LeRoy?
No. But I had a similar experience with Anthony Godby Johnson, essentially JT’s predecessor. Even when I was suspecting Anthony Godby Johnson, I never doubted the stories I heard about JT LeRoy. JT showed up in public places, and of course the people who saw him said without a doubt that they thought it was a woman, but were too embarrassed to ask because they thought there was some politically correct transgender thing going on.
Litquake is honoring you in October …
That’s what I understand.
… do you like the limelight?
When people praise me, they often begin by saying, “I know you’ve heard this a thousand times.… ” I tell them, “It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it again!” Writers are very insecure creatures, and praise is always welcome.
What’s your most cherished possession?
Ian McKellen gave me a 16th-century clay pipe that he dug out of the mud at the Rose Theatre in London. Apparently, traces of cannabis have been found on a number of those pipes. There may have been a lot of high people watching those early Shakespearean productions [laughs].
Do you smoke dope every day?
Yes, ma’am, I do.