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Armistead Maupin in Autumn

2011 January 13

Now that the year has ended and the dozen adaptations of A Christmas Carol are no longer all over television, I’d like to draw your attention to a contemporary author working in Dickens’ tradition: the ever-lovable Armistead Maupin.

Maupin is best known for the Tales of the City series, which was first published in 1974 as a San Francisco newspaper serial and was later collected into several volumes. Because of their origins, the books are composed of short, funny, attention-grabbing chapters, and cliffhangers abound to keep the reader coming back. I stumbled upon the series as an outsider-identified middle schooler, trolling the “Gay and Lesbian” section of Barnes and Noble. The Tales books are a polyphonic spree of 70’s and 80’s California culture, a panorama of characters taking care of each other, seeking love, and hashing out the particulars of progressive politics. Many of them are fleeing stultifying circumstances in less liberated corners of the country. They form an improvised family in a fictional Russian Hill apartment building. There’s Michael, a sweet, shy gay man and the author’s most obvious stand-in; Anna, the apartment’s landlady, den mother, and transgender pioneer; and Dede, a wild-at-heart socialite. Mary Ann is the new girl in town, an ingenue from Cleveland, well-meaning but a little conservative in spite of herself. We are introduced to the series through Mary Ann’s point of view, and throughout, she serves as a conduit to the story for squarer readers (like, say, fourteen-year-olds who live in suburbs with chain bookstores).

The novels in the series don’t have a ‘point’ beyond depicting character and setting. They don’t take a moral stance, with the sometimes-exception of encouraging people to agitate for LGBT equality. Soap-opera devices like murder mysteries, child molesters, and cults (twice) tend to provide the only ‘plot’ beyond the growth and development of the characters and the relationships between them. The good news is that those characters form an alternate world, one that’s recognizable but funnier and snappier than the one we live in — and for once, nobody can call it “chick lit.” Always, Maupin’s warmth comes through on the page. He is one of perhaps three living writers who can get me out of my house and to the cash register on release day. When one of his books hits the shelves, I can no more wait six months for the paperback than a five-year-old can wait for his Chipwich. (Ordinarily, I hate hardcovers. They’re the aesthetic equivalent of shoulder pads.)

Mary Ann in Autumn is not a great book, but if you love his series, you’ll enjoy it anyway. He has too much integrity to allow anything emotionally false to sneak by, and so we, his readership, are given what we want: another loving look at characters who have become our old friends.

On December 9, I had the pleasure of seeing Armistead Maupin read from his work for a second time. He appeared at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble (now closed, soon to be reborn as a Century 21, in a transpiration that says a lot about Lincoln Center’s culture-shift in its current “revitalized” stage) to promote the latest book in the Tales series, Mary Ann in Autumn.

Maupin’s long literary career, with its attendant stretches of reading tours, has taught him ease in front of a crowd; he’s learned to say what he means without couching, to pause, be confident, let the jokes land, just as he does on the page. He read Mary Ann‘s short first chapter before indulging his audience in a lengthy question and answer session. For the record, said audience included many balding male couples who I guessed had been with him since the beginning, as well as a smattering of lone ladies who’ve come to appreciate Maupin’s musings on gender and his faceted female characters — myself included. The crowd’s adoration was palpable; I’ve never seen anything like it, at least not for an author who never really hit celebrity status.

The evening was littered with moments that embodied the humor and generosity of spirit that allow Maupin’s fans to feel such a personal connection to him. For those who share my affection, here are a few:

  • When he first emerged onstage, he asked, “How many of you are my Facebook friends?” Perhaps one in four hands went up. Then he asked, “How many of you follow me on Twitter?” One fellow, sitting directly in front of me, raised his hand. “See, that shit doesn’t work,” Maupin said.
  • Mary Ann is dedicated to Laura Linney, who played that character in a 1993 television adaptation of the first Tales books. Maupin claimed not only that he hears her voice now when he writes Mary Ann — “it’s a great aid” — but also that “she, as far as I’m concerned, created the character.”
  • He revealed that, in the original six Tales books, the recurring character referred to as “____  ____”, a closeted movie star, was a fictionalized version of Rock Hudson. Maupin explained that there used to be an “agreement” in Hollywood, between the press and closeted actors, that a star would not be outed unless he was “really caught.” “Now they have to get married and join the Church of Scientology,” he said, drawing the biggest laugh of the night.
  • Christopher Isherwood, author of Berlin Stories and A Single Man, was “a friend and mentor.” Maupin described Isherwood, another favorite of mine, as “just a sterling example of how to get on with your life” after the messy business of coming out — messy when Maupin did it in 1974, and nearly unheard of when Isherwood did it back in the 1930s. Maupin once told Isherwood he admired his pride, and the older man replied, “That’s not pride, dear boy, that’s arrogance!”
  • I asked about his experience writing in the first person, as he has in three of his ten books. He replied that all of his characters “are me in some way or another,” and added that he especially liked writing as Cadence Roth, the heroine of Maybe the Moon, because she was “a female heterosexual dwarf — what better place to hide?…. I’ve always hidden in fiction.”
  • In response to a question about his coming out, Maupin revealed that he chose to do it through the medium of his work. Michael, his most directly autobiographical Tales character, dictates a poignant letter to his parents in the second book. The letter, which I’d pinpoint as the emotional center and summit of the whole series, apparently served as Maupin’s public coming-out letter as well, although he joked that he was already out “to the entire city” of San Francisco by then. Asked how his own, conservative parents found out about his sexuality, he replied, “they probably read it in Newsweek.”
  • To my amusement, he claims to have been sued twice by the real-life gossip columnist on whom the oblivious character Prue Giroux is based — “and yet somehow we have this loving relationship.” She remains a character in both senses of the word.  Apparently she invited herself onstage at a different stop on the Mary Ann book tour to promote her own book, “which is called, I kid you not, Whispers from God.”

Maupin fielded several questions regarding the various television and stage adaptations of his novels, and did not seem bothered in the slightest. A surprising number of people were still hoping for television adaptations of the final three books, but Maupin let them down diplomatically, saying he “wouldn’t want to recast…. Time has passed.” It has been a decade since the last installment of the TV miniseries.

Nor will there be a written prequel to the series, he said, because “I’ve always worked in real time. I’d feel like I’d lost something.” In part, he was referring to the books’ reputation as pop-culture time capsules; they are as much about a time and a place as they are about a set of characters. “I think there’s a mood ring in the first paragraph of Tales of the City,” he recalled. The audience genially reminded him that the first page features a pet rock, as well.

Devotees of musical theater, however, are in luck. “Do you mind talking about the Broadway show?” asked a lady in the back. “What a thing to ask an old queen,” he said, clarifying that Tales the musical is not on Broadway “yet,” but is slated to premier in San Francisco this spring. Even for those who are not already Maupin cultists, the ingredients are intriguing. The songs, composed by two members of Scissor Sisters, include an adaptation of Michael’s coming-out letter and an “obligatory whorehouse number” that takes place on Mucca ranch (a New Mexico setting from the second book). The book was written by Jeff Whitty, the wit behind Avenue Q. In previews Betty Buckley sang Anna Madrigal (“I’ve got my fingers crossed”).

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Publishers and journalists have tried to push Armistead Maupin into a “gay writer” box, but ultimately, his success is derived from his humanism. His pride in his queer identity has been a boon to many people, but his novels resonate with queer and straight alike. Perhaps the most impressive manifestation of his scope is his decision to center this latest book, Mary Ann in Autumn, around one of the most polarizing, least sympathetic characters in the series.  (For those not acquainted with Mary Ann, picture the sort of high-strung woman that Laura Linney is typically asked to play, and then subtract her maternal qualities.) Mary Ann is notorious for her decision, late in the series, to prioritize her career over her husband and daughter. She’s the kind of character who inspires casual questions like, “Was she a bitch from the beginning, or was it something that developed?” When that question was asked at the reading, another audience member spontaneously came to Mary Ann’s defense: “I don’t think she’s a bitch.” “A lot of women say that,” said Maupin, looking pleased. One unfortunate guy guffawed in response, but Maupin pressed on. “I like that. Some women also say, ‘Brian [the husband Mary Ann left] was a sweet guy, but I can see how it’d be impossible to live with him.” The lady who’d asked the original question nodded and chuckled.

Maupin’s explanation for his characters’ humanity is not simplistic, but it is simple: “Every character is based on me… I wouldn’t be able to create a character that was emotionally true otherwise.” He half-joked that he has “started taking [criticisms of Mary Ann] very personally.” Not all writers share Maupin’s view on identifying with their characters, but for him, this strategy of character development has yielded richness, tenderness, and empathy. The end result seems to be his decision to end a seminal series of “gay literature” with a portrait of a semi-conventional straight woman whose heart is, ultimately, in the right place. Oscar Wilde, another great queer writer, said that “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Or, as Armistead Maupin puts it, “Fiction led me to the truth: the truth in disguise.”

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