It's July in San Francisco, and the weather, running true to form, is a decidedly mixed bag. The morning fog has given way to an early afternoon sun, but it's still nippy in the shade. And there's both sun and shade on Russian Hill's Taylor Street, where a film crew is shooting Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City, the third installment of this immensely popular series to be adapted for television.
PW waits patiently for a suitable break in the action to talk with the author about his eagerly awaited new novel, The Night Listener (HarperCollins)--his first book since 1992's Maybe the Moon.
Even before introductions are made, it's not difficult to pick Armistead Maupin out of the assembled crowd. He's a bit older than the film crew (though he certainly doesn't look his 56 years), and exhibits an almost tangible proprietary air about the afternoon's work. As he will later put it, "I'm just sort of the Mother Superior. I'm that rare creature, a writer who gets to fully meddle in his own movie. In 90% of the cases, the writer disappears completely when you make the progress from book to film. I was determined not to let that happen because I've closely guarded this story all my life, and I consider it part and parcel of me." Although Maupin wrote and produced the first two ventures, he shares screenwriting duties on this one with James Lecesne.Maupin has sparkling eyes, a ready grin and an even readier laugh. Dressed in casual corduroys and a windbreaker, he has a charming, slightly rumpled air about him. As he speaks, PW learns that he's quick with a clever phrase, but just as apt to be self-deprecating--the man seems in many respects not unlike his writing. It's no coincidence that PW's review of The Night Listener noted that "reading Maupin's prose is like meeting up with a beloved old friend."
Maupin has just returned from filming in Canada, and he's clearly thrilled to be home. Earlier in the day, the crew had been shooting atop Twin Peaks, Maupin tells PW, "and the clouds, the fog, finally cleared. And I felt this surge of pride once again about San Francisco, the fact that I'm lucky enough to live here and to be connected to its lore." The author's love of the City by the Bay is clearly a reciprocal affair: it was in San Francisco, after all, that Maupin's Tales were born. Beginning in 1976, they were serialized as weekly columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, and shortly thereafter came to the attention of editor Harvey Ginsberg at Harper & Row. "He wrote a letter saying, 'Send me some xeroxes; I think there might be a book here.'" In fact, there were six books, published between 1978 and 1989, which now have a combined in-print total of three million copies worldwide.
Despite this impressive record, the first book was, in its author's words, "a very, very slow starter. Harper took about 25,000 returns the first time, as I recall." So what propelled these Tales to their current cult status? "The fact that I took my ass on the road and signed books anywhere I could. And the burgeoning gay and lesbian bookstores across the country were beginning to sell it, and help me reach an audience that grew larger from year to year. If I had known how poorly I was doing, I probably would have given up very early in the game, but I had the illusion of success because I'd never had a book published before."
That illusion gradually became a reality. As Maupin puts it, "It's been a slowly opening flower, my career. And that's been the joy of it."Throughout these universally loved escapades, one of the more endearing--and enduring--characters is the city itself. "I love being able to walk in the local bookstore," Maupin says, "and finding my name in the back of travel guides because the story is so thoroughly connected to this city." In a July 25, 1997, Entertainment Weekly feature entitled "Serial Thrillers," Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Armistead Maupin makes all of San Francisco a vibrant village in his wonderful Tales of the City series--he contains the cosmos within one fictional apartment house."
One of the most visible tenants at the colorful 28 Barbary Lane residence where the Tales are centered is Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, a young gay man newly arrived in the Bay area from his home town of Orlando, Fla. This migration was not unlike that of Maupin himself, who as a young gay man came to San Francisco in 1972 from the not-so-deep South: Raleigh, N.C.
"There are certain aspects of my life that are reflected in Michael Tolliver," Maupin admits, "but I use pieces of myself in all of the characters, so it would be a mistake to assume that I'm only Mouse. Mouse is a little bit of me and a little bit of the guy I was looking for at the time, so the distinction gets blurry." He adds with a chuckle, "I actually made Michael from Orlando because I wanted him to be a Southerner, but to be far enough away so that I wouldn't be unduly embarrassing my family."
Family has always been important to Maupin. The sense of extended family is a strong current in the Tales books, and Gabriel's father (based on Maupin's own) makes a key appearance in The Night Listener. Born in Washington, D.C., Maupin grew up in Raleigh. He's a former naval officer, and served in Vietnam. He throws PW a curve when he adds, "I used to write news copy for Jesse Helms's TV station." Responding to our astonishment, Maupin says, "Yeah, that's always the most shocking part when I mention it. And he was my mentor about 10 years before I met Christopher Isherwood. So you can see what a difference California made in my life."
Part of that difference, of course, was the fact that Maupin broke new literary ground nearly 25 years ago. "I knew I was onto something original when I began to incorporate gay characters into a mainstream serial in 1976." It's quite possible that this step was due in part to Isherwood, who Maupin calls "my biggest inspiration--both as a man and as a writer. I continue to aspire to his standard of excellence. There's a sort of graceful unpretentiousness to the way he writes that to me is the epitome of good writing. And as a man he was completely inspirational because he was cheerfully out of the closet and living in the moment, even in the '70s when I knew him."
Although Maupin was proudly out, he makes it clear that "Tales of the City was basically a mainstream property. It was being written for a daily newspaper, and it was my job to hold everyone's attention. I think that's why the books are as successful as they are; they validate the experience of gay people who want to feel part of the world at large, and they make the rest of the population a little bit more comfortable about their gay friends. The democracy of the cast has contributed to its success, I believe, and that's why I have, from the very beginning, avoided ghettoizing myself literarily."
Maupin has hardly ghettoized himself personally, either. "I am very proud of the fact that I've been out of the closet for all these years, and that I've been popularizing subject matter that has heretofore been considered taboo. I would say that that's the single great joy of my writing life."Given Maupin's assorted roles on the three Tales miniseries, it's no wonder that writing life has been on hold for eight years. By his own admission, "I've also taken my time. I'm not a workaholic by any stretch of the imagination. Being a successful writer buys me leisure as much as anything, and the chance to experience life so that I can constantly replenish my imagination."
That imagination is given full play in The Night Listener. Readers of the Tales books are familiar with Maupin's "serialized" form of suspense--the original columns' readers had to be lured back to the next installment, after all--but in his newest work, he has ratcheted up the meaning of the word. "Half of the fun for the reader is entering this story blind," says Maupin. The tantalizing opening page of www.thenightlistener.com puts it another way: "All you have to do is believe and let go, and you'll have all the proof you need." The nocturnal auditor of the title is Gabriel Noone, a radio personality/author who reads a memoir about sexual abuse written by a 13-year-old boy. Moved by the youngster's plight, Noone attempts to contact him and becomes entangled in an unusual and surprising scenario. "I've written this book," says Maupin, "in such a way that I hope people will read it a second time, and see and catch a whole new level of meaning. It's a meditation about the power of voices."
One of the especially intriguing elements of The Night Listener is its many ways in which art imitates life. For all of the Tales' similarities between Maupin and Mouse, this latest work draws even more parallels between creator and protagonist. Gabriel Noone, who is openly gay, has turned his serialized weekly broadcasts into megaselling books--more autobiography, we ask? "I'd be a coy creature indeed if I denied that," says Maupin. "I wanted to work much closer to the bone than ever before. And there were things in my own life that I felt I might never explain to myself if I didn't try to contain them in fiction. I've done this my whole writing career."
Another parallel--a particularly moving one--between Noone's life and Maupin's is that the longtime companions of both men have just left them. "A lot of the details are very close to life," Maupin admits, "but you must keep in mind that it's my version of it. I like to tell the truth as much as I possibly can without completely invading my own privacy and the privacy of others. But it was a very difficult period for Terry and me [Maupin's former companion, who remains his good friend--and manager], and it became increasingly clear to me that the only way I would dig my way out of this morass was just to write about it."
Given these true-to-life angles, does that mean that The Night Listener has as many gay elements as the Tales books? Well, yes and no. "The most enthusiastic response I've had to this book," says Maupin, "has been from heterosexual women, middle-aged heterosexual women. I'm not entirely surprised, but because this book is more explicitly gay than anything I've ever written, it's delightful to realize that it leaps across those boundaries so gracefully. I think because what I'm really writing about here is the longing for connection, the emotional pain surrounding a breakup, the whole complicated, messy business of being middle-aged and knowing too much about the world to be naÃ¯ve, but still wanting the exhilaration of being in love."
Readers of The Night Listener as well as Maupin's earlier work will easily understand this remark: "My literary influences are largely cinematic. I think I learned my storytelling techniques from Alfred Hitchcock. I want my books to be a sort of waking dream for the reader. A seamless experience that propels them ever onwards. And the reason I take so long to create a novel is--I don't know how to put it, but there's a certain fluidity I want to achieve, a certain music that's even more important than the words. There are times when I know that I need a two-syllable word to complete the rhythm of a particular paragraph. I won't even know what that word is, but I'll know that I need that rhythm there. I'm very, very conscious of that.
"All I can say about it is that it doesn't come easy. It doesn't just bubble forth from me. I'm very aware of the process required to get to that level of fluidity and ease. And I'm never content with it till I've achieved it. I often write no more than a page a day, and I feel blessed when I'm able to achieve that." He achieves that goal frequently, according to his editor on The Night Listener, Robert Jones, who says, "He needs practically no editing." (This book marks Jones's first association with Maupin, as Maybe the Moon was edited by Susan Moldow.)
Despite any occasional frustrations, Maupin obviously loves his work, his life and--of course--his city. "I'm doing what I want to do, basically. I can only write the stories that I want to tell, and these are the stories that I wanted to tell for the last decade. It may be true that when I die, I may be most remembered for Tales of the City, and that'll be just fine. I love having invented that lore."