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Tales of Two Cities March 26, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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First a confession: I have not read Armistead Maupin. He is someone I know of but don’t know,’whom I thought of as primarily a gay writer and a San Francisco writer. And given the natural affinity of NOLA and The City (as San Francisco likes to think of itself) and my own focus on what I call geo-memoir he seems a natural fit, someone I should have read before now.* That is how I came to finish Saturday at the Tennessee Williams Festival attending Tales of the Master: A Conversation with Armistead Maupin and the master immediately addressed that affinity. “I’m a Southerner who lives in San Francisco, and New Orleans merges the best of both” the South and the City. San Francisco like New Orleans is “physically charming and seems smaller than it is.”

Any New Orleanian, especially any who have spent the slightest time in San Francisco, could not help but immediately be infatuated with Maupin, the feeling this is someone you would want to have dinner with. In fact the moderator doesn’t wait too long to toss off a quote from Salon.com, which describes Maupin’s Tales of the City series this way: “…as with the Beatles, everyone seems to like Maupin’s Tales—and, really, why would you want to find someone who didn’t?” Even grey haired and in his sixties, Maupin gives off the boyish charm of the young Fab Four in their early years.

Tales of the City began as a column for a small Marin County suburban newspaper with a San Francisco edition, the Pacific Sun, attempting to describe young San Franciscans for whom the meat market was a downtown grocery’s produce aisle. Unable to get anyone he spoke with to admit they were there not shopping for groceries but as Mapuin bluntly puts it to “get laid,” he fabricated a young woman freshly arrived in the city: one Mary Ann Singleton who finds a man at the grocery but he turns out to be gay, a man named Micheal Tolliver. This grew into a series of pieces for the Sun that led him to pitch the idea as a feature in the San Francisco Examiner. Could he write five pieces a week, they asked? Of course, he says he naively answered.

And so began the saga of Mary Ann and Tolliver and their eccentric landlady and other residents of 28 Barbary Lane, which ran daily for years in the Examiner and was collected into four books, which continued through several more unserialized collections and later, novels about the central character of Mary Ann and Micheal. He was one of the first popular authors to address the AIDS crisis, and one of his characters he asserts was the first AIDS fatality in fiction.

Maupin spoke at length about his own coming to terms with his gay identify after settling in San Francisco following a Vietnam-era stint in the Navy, getting drunk and blurting out to a straight friend that he was, “using the h-word, ho-mo-sexual,” dragging out every syllable as he tells the story. His friend, who was bathing her children in the tub at this moment, stood up and looked at him and said “who the fuck cares?” In his series, he explored the lives of characters gay and straight, working in topics of the day (because it was a daily column with a very short lead time to publication), including AIDS.

He caught flack from some readers, including gay readers, who resented his insertion of AIDS into the series, spoiling their morning’s entertainment of reading his usually humorous yarns about his assorted characters’ life in The City. “I was made uncomfortable by a lot of people [who said] humor has no place in this debate” but said he wanted to make a point: “I wanted people to feel his death, to use him like Dickens used Little Nell.”

The series was tied up with becoming comfortable with his own identity, he told the crowd. Someone suggested that Micheal Tolliver was the person Maupin wanted to be and Mary Ann was the person he was afraid he was and he suggested that wasn’t entirely wrong but spoke of them as his “characters…I try not to judge my characters. I was having fun with local people, but I was mining parts of myself.” He told the festival audience he felt an overwhelming need to be myself, to be true to who I am.”

He discussed the PBS mini-series based on his book and his own participation in it, describing it as a groundbreaking moment in television which treated gay characters honestly and openly. He spoke of the ugly reaction of the American Family Council, which produced a pirated 12 minute video showing occasional scenes of female nudity taken completely out of context. “These weren’t sex scenes” he said but just people who had appeared nude in the course of life. What really bothered the AFC, Maupin suggested, was its frank and sympathic treatment of gays. The scene that really bothered them (and which appeared in their pirate video) was one toward the end of the series in which two young men are in a convertible kissing. “I was there the night we shot that and I new we were making history, showing gay people as romantic.”

The author was not afraid to mine all parts of his life, describing a later non-Tales novel in which he stole an eccentric habit of a distant member of his family. His sister called to tell him how strange his mother-in-law was and he was being “a typical older brother” and standing up for the mother-in-law. To make her point, his sister told him the woman wore a bag over her head for her cervical exam every time she went to the gynecologist then caught herself and said, “you’re not going to write about this.” “I lied,” Maupin said and included it in a later work it became a favorite excerpt at his readings. When he arrived in North Carolina on the book tour, his sister showed up mother-in-law in tow. He read the excerpt, concerned what the reaction would be, until his sister told him that when he reached that part the mother-in-law said, “See, other people do it, too.”

The Tales series ended on Book Six with what moderator Ted O’ Brien described as “a dark pall over some of the characters, especially Micheal Tolliver, a feeling that Tolliver was going to die. That was the traditional fate of gay characters in 20th century fiction, they had to die or kill themselves, Maupin said, “and that’s why I stopped where I did. I didn’t want Micheal Tolliver to die.” He wrote several intervening novels, but returned to 28 Barbary Lane with a book titled Micheal Tolliver Lives and another Mary Ann in Autumn.

He has written other novels not involving the Tales characters, including the dark The Night Listener about a hoax he became involved in revolving around the tale of a young boy abused by his parents, sold into prostitution and later rescued by a suicide prevention hot line operator. He became involved when someone gave him a copy of a manuscript purporting to be the boy’s story, but he later surmised that the boy never existed and that the when he thought he had conversations with the boy on the telephone, it was actually a woman who had fabricated the entire tale.

He became suspicious when he called the boy back rather than the boy calling him, and got a woman on the phone who sounded a lot like the boy who said she was his mother. People often confuse us, she said, but he doesn’t like it when people say he sounds like his mother. He noticed how alike the boy and mother sounded and grew suspicious, coming to believe that the woman had fabricated the boy and his story but he couldn’t prove it. (Others were duped by the hoax, which as finally exposed by a journalist who hired a private detective to investigate). Before his happened, he took his suspicions and the outline of the story and fictionalized it as the novel The Night Listener.

Asked about returning to the Tales series for the later novels, he said it seemed natural to return to them later in life and he didn’t rule out further Tales. His imaginary citizens will “probably come back because there are some characters I want to come back to. I don’t have children, so I can measure the passage of my life in the people in my stories.”

* Because I haven’t cracked my copy of the first Tales book, some of the material on his works come from Maupin’s own website and his Wikipedia entry.

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