Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin, now 62, has made a career out of challenging the definition of “family” in America. His new book, Michael Tolliver Lives, advances that project very much in keeping with Maupin’s own life of late: he married a man nearly 30 years his junior, a theme that is explored in Tolliver.
From his top-floor home office commanding a panoramic view of San Francisco Maupin clicks through computer photos of his wedding in Vancouver, Canada, to Chris Turner—the two men dressed in matching natty dark suits for the small ceremony at a bed and breakfast. “Iwanted legal acknowledgment of that union, even if I had to go to another country to receive it,” Maupin says as he moves through the pictures. “It’s a natural human instinct to want to express your love to someone else in a formal way. We had been calling ourselves husbands for almost two years.”
Intergenerational love figures prominently in Michael Tolliver Lives (HarperCollins). “I knew it would be a rich source of material,” he says, “and I wanted to celebrate my happiness.”
Followers of Tales will know the character of Tolliver, the gay man nicknamed Mouse, who many believe Maupin modeled after himself. “I’ve always been all of the characters in one way or another,” Maupin admits. But Maupin and Mouse are a pretty good match: both are Southern transplants from rigid families who have found familial love beyond their own flesh and blood.
Decades before TV shows like Friends made the idea of a “chosen” family part of mainstream culture, Maupin created the fictional residents of Barbary Lane, who shared lives in a quirky San Francisco apartment building. This notion of “logical” versus “biological” families was born during an age when Maupin saw gay people routinely shunned by their relatives, forcing them to reinvent their lives. “In recording that experience, it turned out that I was recording the experience of thousands of people. Not just the ones that moved to San Francisco, but also the ones who left home to find themselves.”
The Tales series included six books, but Michael Tolliver Lives isn’t quite number seven. The original novels, mostly drawn from a serial first published in San Francisco newspapers, were written in third person and consisted of linked vignettes. This latest book is told in the voice of Mouse, allowing for a type of introspection not possible before.
“The whole effort was to make it a completely freestanding novel for newcomers and also give little shivers of recognition to people who knew the stories well.”
Even through the first-person filter, the book brings fans up-to-date on many of the characters they’ve followed since 1974. The last Tales book, Sure of You, was set in 1988, when San Francisco was seized by the AIDS epidemic. Maupin broke new ground then by making Michael HIV-positive at a time when there was little hope for those infected.
Michael survived, but other popular characters were not so lucky. “I think it was Ian McKellen who said, 'I’m not sure I can ever forgive you for that,’ ” Maupin said when recalling the fate of one of the series’ other denizens. “There are as many tears in the book as there are laughs. And more sex than ever before.”
Maupin says several colleagues and friends expressed concern about those sex scenes. “They felt it would be shocking, you know, frighten the horses.”
That’s something Maupin has certainly done in the past. He remembers how the original Tales novels were “banned by legislatures” and he was often a target of homophobia. In the Internet age, it’s tougher to get that outraged reaction.
For Maupin, it’s still about new definitions of family. After all, he now shares a union that remains against the law in most of America. “My effort all along has been to shine light on the gay experience. If I’ve helped humanize that for people, I’m absolutely delighted. That’s the challenge of our humanity, I think—to feel empathy toward people who are not like ourselves.”
|Kemble Scott (www.kemblescott.com) is the author of the novel SoMa (Kensington) and editor of the San Francisco e-zine SoMa Literary Review (www.somalit.com).|