June 16, 2007
Thirty pages from the end of Michael Tolliver Lives, a stray tear bubbles up. I am not alone. Sir Ian McKellen told Armistead Maupin that he “giggled and blubbed all the way through it”. One friend took a picture of himself crying and sent it to Maupin. “I try to balance comedy and pathos,” Maupin says in his beguiling Southern drawl. “Like Wilkie Collins said, ‘Make ‘em laugh. Make em cry. Make ‘em wait’.”
Maupin has certainly made us wait for the seventh in his successful Tales of the City series. It’s been 18 years since Sure of You, the sixth and, it was assumed, final chapter in the deliciously soapy lives of Michael, Mona, Mrs Madrigal, Brian and Mary Ann. Maupin’s tale of San Francisco life started as a newspaper column in 1976 and followed the residents of that bewitching oasis 28 Barbary Lane through Aids, romance, bodyswapping, betrayal, and so many outrageous, convoluted plots that it made Dynasty look like Postman Pat.
They were utterly radical in their portrayal of gay rights and relationships, transsexualism, Aids — but Maupin’s skill is to never write about issues, but people; warmth, humour and melodrama always come before, but never obscure, overt politicking. Michael Tolliver Lives is a departure of sorts: it’s written exclusively from the point of view of Michael, or Mouse as he is known. The outrageousness is down a notch. It isn’t particularly soapy, but Michael is settled with a younger partner, Ben; he’s still a gardener, the other characters return, including that most regal of landladies Mrs Madrigal. In this book, more so than before, Maupin interrogates gay coupledom and gay men’s relationships with their families.
“I whitewashed my family’s supposed so-called acceptance of me,” Maupin says. “That notion they ‘forgave’ me but never accepted me.”
Family, he makes clear, can be about a lot more than biological relations. Michael is now in his mid-fifties and, thanks to the drug combinations available these days, living with Aids.
“Instinctively I wanted to write a gay male Mrs Miniver, the minutiae of gay life with Michael Tolliver as the observer,” Maupin says. “The longer the writing went on, the more insistent the other characters became. They auditioned one by one, demanding to be let back into the fold.”
It is a responsibility, given people’s attachment to the books, to return to Tales, I say. Maupin responds sharply: “My only responsibility is to the characters. If readers come along for the ride, then fine.” He clearly feels protective and propietorial towards his cast; Tales characters have popped up in his two non-Tales novels, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener (filmed starring Robin Williams).
The last was gruelling to write and watch, as it focused on the break-up between Maupin and his long-term partner Terry Anderson. He intimates that today the men — after maintaining contact after the break-up — are no longer friends.
Maupin became a writer after reading English at university and serving briefly in the military. “My father wanted me to be a lawyer,” he told me once. But Maupin preferred Fellini double bills to lectures and moved to San Francisco in 1971. The Tales characters are not based on real people but “inner drives and aspects of myself”, he once said — “Mary-Ann my ambition, Mona my worldweariness. Michael was a romantic, Brian the sexual predator. Mrs Madrigal was the wiser me.”
Mrs Madrigal has a real life forebear, Maupin’s maternal grandmother, Marguerite Smith Barton. “She was a suffragette in 1913 and a theosophist palm reader and vegetarian.” At 14, Maupin remembers he and his grandmother seeing a woman “looking like a giant pink powder puff tottering along in high heels. My grandmother said, ‘Any woman who is all woman, or any man who is all man, is a complete monster — unfit for human company’. That was radical back then.”
Maupin is an autobiographical writer; even if not all the events in Tales actually happened, the emotional journey of Michael is one that he has undergone: the churchy, Southern upbringing, coming out, living as part of a generation devastated by Aids. “I plunder what I have going on in my life and put it into fiction,” he says. “I can’t think of any major confessions I’ve left out.”
Readers tell him how “real” his fiction seems, although he needs to take long breaks between books, to “fill up the tank” of experience again. Michael speaks with Maupin’s voice, although Maupin is not HIV positive. For three years, he has been happily settled with Christopher Turner who, at 35, is almost 30 years Maupin’s junior and is HIV positive.
“I met Chris on the street as Michael meets Ben. Chris runs a website called daddyhunt.com which is geared to gay men over 40 and their admirers and contains mostly younger men looking for old. I’d seen his picture on daddyhunt. Then I saw him on 18th Street in the Castro (San Francisco’s gay area) and said, ‘Didn’t I see you on a website?’ and he said, ‘I am the website’ — he owned it.”
In the book, Michael and Ben are smug-marrieds, although Maupin hopes the reader “doesn’t drown in treacle. But Michael’s suffered enough, I was ready for him to be joyful. He is essentially who I am and I think I am relatively optimistic.”
Like Michael and Ben, he and Turner are very happy, although, as in the book, that happiness is predicated on absolute honesty — they are not sexually monogamous and when Turner occasionally has sex with another guy, Maupin (like Michael) does find himself at home, drumming his fingers, wondering who he’s met. “Chris is very sweet. He’ll come in and sweetly deny the sex was that good. Our love is deeper than sexual fidelity. What we have is far beyond an individual orgasm. I feel extraordinarily blessed to wake up every morning in love with the person next to me.”
Maupin grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Turner is a Southern boy from Nutbush, Tennessee — probably, notes Maupin, the only place in the South to have a highway named after a black woman (Tina Turner). “He took me home for Christmas last year,” Maupin says. “It was OK. Southerners are quite sweet” — a slightly rueful pause — “to your face.” It might have been odd for Turner, Maupin laughs, to reflect on his partner being a year older than his father. “I’m on a number of old-age meds,” he laughs, “Lipitor to cut down my cholesterol and Viagra to keep my pecker up.”
Ageing is such a thorny issue for gay men, he laughs: “Forty is considered over the hill. In the book, Michael’s mother is seriously ill. Maupin lost his father the summer before last. “He connected with Christopher and told him, ‘Take care of that boy’ — which is an odd thing for a 92-year-old to say to a 34-year-old about his 62-year-old son,” Maupin says. “I don’t think he was ready to leave and it was terribly sad. One night, we were sitting on the sofa and I went over and kissed him on his cheek. ‘Remember that?’ I asked him. I did that every Saturday after an episode of Gunsmoke, which we both loved, before I went to bed.”
Maupin says that there will be more Tales of the City. He has decided to write an eighth book: Michael again will be the narrator and it may include at least a partial return to the multi-stranded form of the earlier Tales. So expect more confessions “from the front line”, as he puts it, “even as I stare into the abyss”.
Maupin laughs as he says this, although he admits to hating “the notion of my own non-existence but not afraid of the act itself, unless it happens on a windy mountain road”.
This is pertinent: the day after we speak it is Maupin’s 64th birthday and he and Turner are off to their new place in the mountains outside Markleeville, in California’s least-populated area, Alpine County. “In the 1970s the Gay Liberation Front had a plan to populate Alpine County,” he says. “We’re the second wave.” “Mr Marklee invented the toll bridge 150 years ago you know,” he tells me, “and he got shot for it.” A great one for stories, Armistead Maupin.