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Exclusive interview with Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City author visits Rakestraw Books November 4; event benefits Not In Our Town non-profit


Photo by Christopher Turner

Back in August Diablo and Danville’s Rakestraw Books teamed up to host a live event with bestselling author Carl Hiaasen. The evening was a huge success, selling out of tickets and raising money for the East Bay teen environmental program, EarthTeam. The event was so much fun, that Diablo and Rakestraw made a goal of doing a similar program each quarter—bring in an A-list author for a live interview with Diablo's senior editor Pete Crooks, take audience questions, and have the evening benefit an important, local non-profit.

Our next event is a beauty—legendary San Francisco author Armistead Maupin has agreed to make a rare East Bay appearance to discuss his beloved Tales of the City series on November 4. The program will begin at 7 p.m., and tickets are $40 per person and $45 per couple—each ticket includes a copy of Maupin's newest Tales of the City novel, Mary Ann in Autumn. Sales benefit Not In Our Town, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to promoting tolerance and inclusiveness in communities. Tickets are available at Rakestraw Books, 522 Hartz Ave., Danville, or by calling (925) 837-7337, rakestrawbooks.com.

Crooks and Maupin had a chance to meet recently by phone, and talk about Maupin's wonderful body of work.

Armistead, great to speak with you. You’ll be out here in Danville on November 4. You’re so well known as a San Francisco resident, do you ever come out here to the East Bay?
Oh, yes, I was just out there. My last visit was very pleasant—a dear friend’s mother turned 60 and we went to her birthday party in Danville. It was deliciously warm and sunny, it felt like a different country. That’s not to say I don’t love the fog here in San Francisco—I’m one of those odd people who loves fog. It inspires my work.

How does fog inspire your writing?
There’s an element of mystery and comfort to fog. I like the way it comes in and erases the skyline.

Tales of the City began as a serial in a Marin newspaper. If you could put yourself back in the perspective you had when you were just starting to develop these characters, did you have any idea that they would still be as accessible and popular, 40 years down the road?
I saw myself as one lucky bastard who was going to get to tell a story, but I had no idea that it would be the vehicle that it has been.

But, I was certain that I had some fresh subject matter. In terms of the gay material, those stories were not being told at all. When I started writing Tales, I had just come out of the closet, and fresh full of oats. And at that time everybody—even in San Francisco and New York—was still taking a beard to big public events. Younger generations are amazed when I tell them how much has changed in the past few decades.

I have read that you aren’t a fan of bookstores that have a special Gay and Lesbian section.
To be clear, a Gay and Lesbian section serves an important informational purpose, but it is absurd for writers to be aggregated into the back corner of a book store because they are writing about gay characters.

My whole point was to move the discussion of gay life into the mainstream. Tales of the City was about pretty much everybody, and that’s what made it radical.

There was a big gap between 1989 and 2007—the fifth Tales book Sure of You and the sixth, Michael Tolliver Lives. What was happening during that period?
Well, my mind had been forced to back up a little bit. I was very much focused on the Tales television adaptations on PBS and Showtime.

I definitely meant to ask about the TV series. Over the past few years, we have gotten used to some really outstanding series television—shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, Dexter, Six Feet Under, True Blood are all over cable. Certainly, England has always produced high quality television, but it seems like Tales of the City set the bar for today’s slate of well-written, adult-oriented television series here in the United States.

Well, first of all, I agree with you. I think the quality of writing and production on television is higher than it’s ever been, and that’s wonderful.
And, even in our case, the credit goes almost entirely to the British, who developed that first miniseries. We had a Scottish director. Our casting director, John Lyons, went on to produce for the Coen Brothers.

That first Tales of the City miniseries was just one of those miracles—a landmark and the beginning of honest television for adults. But, it also that provoked a bomb threat at a PBS station in the south and it was condemned by three different conservative groups, including the American Family Association.

Tales of the City won a Peabody award. It did a lot of things that had not been done before. The gay male, straight woman relationship in Will and Grace, we did that first. The domestic lesbians on Ellen, same thing.

How does it feel to be the one who knocked those walls down? This year, we had a popular film called The Kids Are All Right, featuring a lesbian couple. What was unique about that movie was the fact it didn’t make a big deal about the novelty of having gay lead characters.
It gives me a huge amount of satisfaction to have been a part of Tales of the City, but the success of The Kids Are All Right speaks for itself—I loved that movie. And, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit of all these wonderful films that have happened.

Speaking of great movies, one of the most under-rated modern noir movies of recent memory is The Night Listener, based on your novel. The performances by Robin Williams and Toni Collette are possibly career bests for both—and those are powerhouse actors.

I agree, Robin and Toni did some of their finest work in The Night Listener. I’m disappointed that that movie did not find a bigger audience, so I am glad that you saw it. We made a very simple, dark little thriller, that raises more questions than it answers. I like movies like that.

People who read the novel complained that the movie lacked the book’s complexity, but I was very pleased with the film. The frustration for me was that the real story was so much more complex and dark than anything that could have been shown in a movie.

Your newest book, Mary Ann in Autumn, brings back Mary Ann Singleton, one of the original Tales characters. Has she been in your mind, evolving, growing, and aging for all these years?

Well, all my characters are really just me. There isn’t anything I want to say that I can’t say through the vehicle of these characters. All I really did to write this was do what I’ve always done—just dig into the mechanics of my own life, having a happy late in life marriage.

And of course, one of the great aides I had in writing Mary Ann was my long and deep friendship is my long friendship with Laura Linney (the actress who played Mary Ann on the Tales tv series). When I hear Mary Ann’s voice now, I hear Laura’s voice.

So, I am excited to bring Mary Ann back. Readers tell me that these recent books feel like a reunion with old friends. They feel as if they know these people. They know the frailties of these people.

Another exciting revelation is the news that American Conservatory Theatre is producing a musical version of Tales of the City, debut in May 2011. What can you tell us about that project?

I got casting details this morning, which I am not allowed to share, but they have me dancing. The muical is incorporating the first novel, and the whorehouse plotline of the second novel. Its been so cleverly done that I wish I had thought of this structure myself.

The musical has a score and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of the rock band Scissor Sisters. Jake gave me shout out at the stage the other night when the Scissor Sisters played the Fox Theatre in Oakland. It is beyond exciting to have these talented and out of the closet young people taking on this material.

Finally, I want to ask about something that Mark Twain’s new autobiography made me think of. This November, UC Berkeley Press is publishing Twain’s autobiography, which he insisted not come out until a full 100 years after his death. It makes me wonder what you think people will think of your body of work 100 years from now. Or, if aliens landed and wanted to know what San Francisco was like in from 1973-2010, what do you think they would get from reading Tales of the City?

Well, lets hope the aliens have Kindles (laughs). You know, Twain and Dickens and all these great writers we love so much—mostly the reason we love them, is that they wrote stories about people. We cared about the people they wrote about, it really did not matter what year the story was taking place.

That’s all I have ever tried to do. To tap into my own joys and weaknesses, and to write about it. And I always ask myself and important question, “How have I embarrassed myself lately?” The great thing about that is that when you confess what you’ve done to embarrass yourself, people line up and say, “Me too.”

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