Thirty-one years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published the first fizzy chapter of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a serial set in sexually free-wheeling 1970s San Francisco. The characters were gay men, ladies who lunch, ladies who had once been gentlemen, and bewildered straight-arrows from the Midwest. The original Tales spawned five popular sequels, and a hit miniseries; Maupin is about to release Michael Tolliver Lives, the first update on his much-loved characters since 1989. EW talked to Maupin, 63, in the shingled San Francisco bungalow he shares with 35-year-old web producer Christopher Turner, whom he married in Vancouver five months ago.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you prefer ”queer” or ”gay?”
ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: Either is fine. And I don’t have a problem with ”faggot.” Words are all about the tone in which they’re spoken.
So, is it really true that your family only learned you were gay by reading Tales?
Pretty much. My mother knew before I knew that she knew because a girlfriend of mine — who apparently was expecting to receive a proposal from me — found out when she came to visit. So my mother knew and was creeping off to the stacks of the library in Raleigh, N.C., to study the subject without telling my father. Then, in 1977, I had Michael Tolliver write a letter to his parents, and that’s when I date my personal statement to my parents.
It’s all about how you define coming out.
There are celebrities who say, ”Well, I’ve never been in the closet!” because they have a circle of friends who have made them feel safe. But they’ve never declared themselves to reporters and go to great lengths to avoid those questions. There are whole P.R. phalanxes organized to take care of those questions. Does that mean we cater to it? If a movie star were to conceal his Jewish origins because they felt bigots might not go to their movies, we wouldn’t tolerate that. The message that’s being sent by these stars who remain silent is that there’s a dark secret that must be protected at all costs, and that perpetuates the stigma of homosexuality. It’s that simple, as far as I’m concerned, and I have no respect for it.
But there’s nothing new in that, right?
The situation in Hollywood is far more contemptible today than it was in the days of Rock Hudson. Rock was a friend of mine, and he didn’t bother to get married again after that first beard marriage. He took young men to restaurants in Beverly Hills and he was relatively protected by the industry. Now the industry can’t protect anyone from the press, so stars get married, have kids, and create a completely fake life for themselves, often with the help of the Church of Scientology. But we’ve got Rosie [O’Donnell], we’ve got Ellen [DeGeneres], we’ve got a lot of great smart folks. By the way, have you been catching Rosie lately? Whoo! She’s good.
Do you watch a lot of TV?
I can tell you this: I’m going to be watching American Idol tonight. I’m torn tremendously about American Idol because I hate the moments when they mock the bad singers and weird people. On the other hand, I’m very touched by the process of watching these kids work their way toward their dreams and fall in love with each other in the process. Their tears seem to be genuine. And it’s one of the few places on television where you can see a variety of young people. They’re fat, they’re skinny, they’re of every race. And there seem to be a few gay people in there, though it’s never talked about. They don’t look like the kids on The O.C.
Now for books: Have you read anything lately that you liked?
I really loved a memoir called I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. And I love the books of Stephen McCauley. He writes from the heart with great intelligence and restraint and sweetness.
You were one of the first fiction writers to address AIDS — in Babycakes, which was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1983. What kind of a response did you get?
A lot of people criticized me for interrupting their morning entertainment. A lot of gay people! They said I was pursuing a political agenda and Tales was supposed to be about entertainment. Of course it was really supposed to be about life, and that’s what life had thrown us and I saw no way I could NOT write about it.
Unlike the other Tales novels, this one is written from one character’s point of view: Michael’s. Why the change?
I was interested in pursuing the life of an aging gay man, and I knew he would be the perfect vehicle. However, as soon as I started writing about Michael I found that one by one all the other characters stepped forward and asked to be present. And it felt natural, so I went with it.
NEXT PAGE: ”I Google myself all the time. I hate to admit it but I do. I’m a flagrant self-Googler.”
How much do you care about what people write and say about your work?
[New York Times book critic] Janet Maslin eviscerated me on the last book and I didn’t get over it for days, until I reminded myself that it was on the bottom of a bird cage somewhere. I think Janet was trying to show she could be Michiko [Kakutani, the New York Times‘ Pulitzer-winning lead book critic]. But when you reach a certain age, and a certain level of success, you can tell yourself you must be doing something right because people are still interested in what you have to say. And of course it feels good when you get praise. It feels like heaven. Especially if it’s thoughtful, analytical praise.
There must be infinite possibilities to read about yourself on the Internet.
I Google myself all the time. I hate to admit it but I do. I’m a flagrant self-Googler. I think that’s unhealthy after a point, especially if you’re a people-pleaser like me because you obsess about the one person in the blogosphere who doesn’t like you.
To what extent do you draw from your personal experience for your fiction?
I have a lot in common with all of my characters because I channel their personalities through my own emotional experience. Every writer I know works that way. But I do tend to lean heavily on my own experience to give my writing the ring of truth. If I can say it about myself, I can almost always say it about someone else, and the more shocking the revelation the more universal the experience. A remarkable number of people come up to me and say, I didn’t know anyone else who did that!
When I was reading Anne Lamott’s book Operating Instructions, she revealed the shocking fact that in the rigors of childbirth she delivered not only a baby but a small turd on the delivery table. I thought that was the boldest thing I’d ever heard anyone say and it made me love her more than I already did. It’s also very clever in the end: You think this woman would not lie to me! I adore Annie. She’s the only Christian I’ll listen to.
A centerpiece of Michael Tolliver Lives is Michael’s trip with his much younger partner to visit his conservative family in the South. Did you base the interlude on personal experience?
A few years ago, I got the news that my father was very close to death and it would probably be good if I came home. So I went with Christopher to North Carolina and my father was marvelously sweet and took a real shine to Christopher, which took some doing, I’m sure, given the fact that there’s a 28-year age gap between us. But it was all in all a pretty lovely time and I was very glad my father had a chance to meet my new love. It’s odd that that it should matter to you when you’re over 60, that you’re looking for approval from your 90-year-old father for your 30-something boyfriend. But amazingly he gave it to me. And even more amazingly we missed Jesse Helms by about half an hour. If that doesn’t show you the convergence of the old and new South, I don’t know what does.
You are very identified with San Francisco’s gay Castro district, but you no longer live there. Do you miss it?
Well, it’s five minutes away and I go almost every day. I like the Gayberry experience, as I call it. It really is a small town. I know the folks at the post office, the movie theater, the ice cream parlor, and it gives me a real sense of community. It gives me, in essence, the small-town family values that Red State America is so fond of talking about but doesn’t really enjoy anymore.
Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?
I don’t write continually. I’m the anti-Joyce Carol Oates, if you know what I mean. I’ve heard she actually writes novels in the backs of cars when she’s on book tours. I find that completely reprehensible!
Could you imagine moving away from San Francisco?
No. Everything is better in San Francisco. Even our rich people.
Another book about the Tales characters. I’ve lived in that world for 30 years, even when I was writing non-Tales books. Whatever I have to offer seems to come through those characters, and I see no reason to abandon them.