Final Tales: Q&A with Armistead Maupin on Concluding his Iconic San Francisco Series
Juan De Anda/SF Weekly Armistead Maupin: Chronicling San Francisco one Tale at a time
Armistead Maupin refuses to be the old fart who bickers about San Francisco not being what it used to be, even after chronicling it for nearly 40 years.
What started off as a set of weekly installments in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, Maupin's Tales of the City series turned into an eight-novel series, three PBS television miniseries (based off the first three novels starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney), and a stage musical at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 2011.
However, Maupin's work is more than just a popular fad of literature. It's a big-hearted portrait of a time, place, and people that were misunderstood, oversimplified, or simply ignored. Maupin was able to take a 1970s San Francisco that was the national mecca of sexual liberation/acceptance and depict in an endearing and humane manner.
Tales of the City chart the unexpected adventures of esteemed characters like Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton, and Michael "Mouse" Tolliver while simultaneously commenting and chronicling the changing times of San Francisco and the world at large.
Now Maupin has chosen to end the series after 40 years with last week's release of The Days of Anna Madrigal, a work that is less about departure than coming home. The book is an 270-page love note and elegy for the characters, their way of life, and to that place we and they call home: San Francisco.
SF Weekly had the opportunity to speak with Armistead Maupin on his literary trajectory, the changing nature of gay identity, writing plot lines and sagas over the span of decades, HBO's Looking, and saying good-bye to the residents of 28 Barbary Lane. Below is the full interview with some slight editing for brevity.
To start off, I want this interview to not only focus on your new release of the final installment of the Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal, but to reflect on the trajectory arc of the main character of Anna and of these books and your career. So this begs the question: Why conclude a series almost 40 years later? Was it for the development and evolution of characters? Or was it simply time to say goodbye to Barbary Lane?
It just felt right to me. Anna has always been the heart and soul of Tales of the City and as she reaches the point where she wants to "leave like a lady", as she puts it, I felt that the series should conclude at the same time. To be truthful with you, I have a bit of trepidation trying to drum up new youthful characters and make them realistic. My work has always been about what I know to be true and I can write about these older characters because they are in their 60s as well as the much older character, Anna, But I didn't want to have that inauthenticity come into my work. I'm ready to try something different.
The TV series version has become a cult classic and has inspired fan art as well.
I will be 70 years old in May and I have a few ideas that I want to try out, which I wouldn't be able to do if I had to sit down and plow ahead with Tales of the City. There is a story arc here and it is finally completed on the last page of The Days of Anna Madrigal with the final sentence: "There was a city waiting for her." It's an echo of Mary Ann first arriving into town and it's the essence for all of us who move to San Francisco with some dream in our hearts.
I was reading your biography and you were born in Washington D.C.; studied college at Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and then you moved to San Francisco. I feel that there is an autobiographical nature in these characters, certain elements from your life, but beyond this you make the point to highlight that San Francisco is that beacon of welcome and acceptance for not only your characters but real life people. I was wondering if you could elaborate more on this point?
San Francisco has had that magic going for it from the very beginning. A lot of people are feeling traumatized by all the techies moving to town but it's hard to blame young people who want to be in this place because, you know, it is place of great enchantment and possibility. The economic ramifications of all that are painful because so many artists have to leave the city because they cannot afford to live here anymore. To a certain extent, I'm the same way, having moved to Santa Fe to make my money go further. Having said that I still have enough longing in my heart to find some cheap spots in San Francisco to hang out from time to time.
Your love for the city is very strong and emanates brightly in all your texts and I wonder: What was your inspiration for creating Tales of the City? How did it come about? I know it was a column series in The Chronicle but what made you pitch this world that has all of our local spots and personalities incorporated?
The short answer is that I needed material for this story is I was telling and I was thinking of the places in the city that I loved: the experiences that I loved and giving them to my characters. It was a constant source of rich material and remains that way to this day. It just came naturally. The idea of writing a serial grew out of an experience I had at The Pacific Sun, a small newspaper in Marin County. I was writing a column that featured cute stories from around the town and I was trying to do a nonfiction piece on the heterosexual cruising scene at the Marina Safeway.
You mean Dateway?
It was impossible to find anyone confirm that they had come the Marina Safeway to get laid ,so I made up Mary Ann Singleton. The editors of The Pacific Sun said, "Why don't you follow her next week? Give us some adventures." And I said, "Great! I'll follow the gay man she met at the Marina Safeway. Then I had to have a place for them to live and I had always fantasized about creating an address, a fictional address that would become so real to people that they would go looking for it.
Barbary Lane, right?
it just kind of grew from there.
Your characters are very well cherished and I think that it has a lot to do with the mini series that aired on PBS in the early 1990s. People grew to love Mary Ann Singleton, Michael "Mouse", Mona, Brian, and especially with Olympia Dukakis's portrayal of Anna Madrigal. Why do you think people grew an affinity and attachment with them?
Well, we very lucky with that mini-series with a fine crew of actors to interpret those characters. An excellent director with Alistair Reed. People feel in love with Anna, first and foremost, because she's the parent everyone wishes they had. She loves without the judgement and without a game plan.
I'm very lucky that I had that cast because they became so indelibly attached that it made it even easier for me the story as it continued. I hear Laura Linney's voice when I write for Mary Ann. I hear Olympia's voice for Anna. Much of their inner workings come from my own hopes and fears. I just disguise myself as other people.
I think that is natural as as author. You grow these characters from a part of your imagination and inadvertently leave a part of yourself in them. Right?
I think you must, at least I think you must. There might be writers who invent characters that are completely separate from their own experience but I find that I have to have at least a small bit of my own emotional workings in each of the characters in order to make them emotionally true--They're little Frankenstein monsters that I have pieced together from things that have happened to me and sometime subconscious attitudes about life.
I read the books now; and, I look at the old books and see the early things about Michael; for instance, and find it tremendously revealing about my own insecurities and fantasies.
About the character of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, in later books he becomes an older gay man with AIDS and this is also present in The Days of Anna Madrigal. I think readers found it important that you incorporated this devastating disease in literature. Talking about personal experiences, you lived through the AIDS crisis, the emergence of mainstream LGBT culture, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act in San Francisco and you portray these very real events in the fictional realm of Tales of the City. So in the same vein of having characters be emotionally true, can you talk about the mutual importance of the setting being realistically true because it depicts and mirrors what people were feeling at the time you were writing the books?
Coming out was a transformational experience for me and made me into a political character, or person I should say. Once my own oppression was behind me, I wanted make certain everybody else felt the same feelings of joy, release and possibility. And I made up my mind of using Tales as a way of conveying that. That dreaded gay agenda that the religious right is always talking about was very much on mind. I had a gay agenda and it was to tell everyone -- gay and straight alike-- that this is not only perfectly fine, it's a hell of a lot of fun and it's an experience that can enhance your understanding of life itself.
I've always been a political creature. When people act that it was completely accidental that Tales helped change public attitudes, I cringe a little because I want them to know that has been my intention all along. And I knew that I could make that happen if I was completely truthful about my gay experience. It's not a whitewash in any way. It's a messy, sometimes painful journey, but I wanted it to ring true while allowing gay people into the fabric of the human experience.
It's very hard to explain to someone young that in the mid 1970s, the notion of even mentioning gay people in a family newspaper was incredibly radical. I felt I had achieved a certain triumph from the very beginning of being there and mentioning these things every morning in a newspaper.
Just like you're looking back at Anna's life and accomplishments in the plot of your new book, let's look at some of your achievements in the literary world. You were the first author to depict someone dying of AIDS. This in turn addressed taboos about the AIDS epidemic and gay people at the time. Through the residents of Barbary Lane, readers understood those suffering from the illness are still people and that these problems not only affect a certain population but everyone on a human level. Would I be right in assuming this statement?
The power that I had at that point is that I could make them feel the loss of a gay man because my readers had already developed a great affection for John Fielding and by taking him away, I could make the epidemic personal to them.
I've seen this addressed in other interviews on you being a gay writer. Yes, you happen to be gay but that shouldn't be a main descriptor or pigeonhole your work. Your books shouldn't just be in LGBT section at Barnes and Noble. I was wondering if you could discuss about; yes, being gay does influence your writing, but it doesn't confine it or simplify it.
PBS William Campbell (left) as Dr. Jon Philip Fielding, the first literary character to die of AIDS.
That a tricky one to because if it's not described properly it sounds like I'm somehow avoiding the topic of being gay, which is anything but. Yet the truth remains is that in our culture, most writers who aren't white, straight, and male do get pigeonholed. I've talked to Amy Tan about this and how she hates being referred to as a Chinese American writer. She's a writer describing the Chinese-American experience. I think you got it in the question and that quote has been following me around and I sort of wish I could put to bed because most people don't understand the difference of being perfectly openly gay and not wanting that to limit who you are as a creative person.
So I've kind of given up that battle because it doesn't really matter. I know that the most important thing I've done is bring the gay experience to the world at large, I know that and I'm proud of it, It's the thing I'm most proud of so at this point call me what you want to call me and get on with it.
I don't know if you're familiar with the new HBO show called Looking but I find it interesting that many critics write that this is one of those shows that depicts gay life in a natural, non stereotypical, realistic manner. However, I believe that the mini series based off Tales of the City airing on PBS in 1993 was actually one of the first precursors to that new show. For example, it featured the character Michael kissing another gay man at a skating rink and cuddling with him the morning after their rendezvous, depicted as something normal in that revolutionary series that you can't dare dream of occurring today on that particular network. Not to mention the full-frontal nudity present.
I haven't had a chance to watch it because I've been on a book tour but thank you.
To be fair, the creators of Looking have said as much. That they, I wish I could pay him the honor of telling you his name, But I read pieces where they say they were influenced by Tales of the City and that the cast sat down and watched the miniseries the first night they arrived in town.
Yes, it's nice to be remembered that you were part of a process that lead to this greater honesty on screen. I was more upset with the people who created Queer as Folk and acted as if it had been the first time that was done. But down the line, I'm just happy that storytelling continues and at least hope of seeing our lives depicted on the screen.
I find it fascinating that you incorporate pop culture, just as much as gay livelihood and San Francisco scenery. There's references to Burning Man,cable television, and even that one Jason Mraz song, "I'm Yours."
I just got to keep my ears open. It helps that I have a younger husband who gives me a few musical references that I can use! I like Jason Mraz and I'm trying to not make myself sound too old. I've bounced along to that song just like everybody else!
I think the very act of including those details ends up nailing it to a particular time and that's what I've always tried to do. If you go back to the early Tales, it's full of pop references, product names, that sort of thing. I think it creates a time capsule quality about the work that has power later on. I'm just now getting reviews that are appreciating the full scope of this 40 year novel and that's very satisfying, people who see exactly what the arc of it has been and giving it importance.
Talking about the arc, I'm sure we have already addressed this, but in your opinion what has been the importance of this series? Why did this series need to develop over this long period of time? I find it very interesting to note that the books do have a chronological order, but you could technically jump around. It probably not the best but it is possible. What do you think?
Well, I did work very hard to make sure each novel was self-contained so that someone could pick up any one of them at any point and follow the story. That's been the challenge: to write for the overall saga as well as to contain self contained units within that saga. And I think that the continuity that that provides offers a certain assurance to readers that rubs on their own lives. They associate the books with certain landmarks and their own experience and because they're seeing their own experience reflected in Tales. Quite simply it makes them feel them better.
Yes, I want to enlighten but I also want to entertain and I've never been apologetic about entertaining. I want these books to be a romp of joy, something that makes people keep coming back for more.
For many people, this new book release may be their first encounter with Tales of the City. I did notice that there are elements and tidbits of the previous eight novels fused with the story in your final chapter to this important chronicle and tribute to San Francisco. I know this novel is meant to close a saga or odyssey but out of curiosity: Is The Days of Anna Madrigal the best place to start?
PBS Laura Linney as Mary Ann in the 1993 Tales of the City miniseries.
No, it's not the best place to start. I know I'm on a book tour for that book right now and should be telling everybody to buy it but I sincerely recommend they start at the beginning. I'm torn on it because I think my writing is improved over the years. I'm prouder of the actual writing in the more recent books than I am the earlier ones but there are people who say to me 'I still prefer your early work.'
It's a journey and I think you should start at the beginning if you're going to read them. You will know things that you don't want to know if you read Anna Madrigal, On the other hand it might be interesting to go back to see how certain people start. Either way, there's always something to take away from Mrs. Madrigal and the residents of 28 Barbary Lane.