A darker tale from the city of night

The much-loved chronicler of San Francisco life has written his most confessional novel yet. Armistead Maupin talks to Marianne Brace
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The Independent Culture

Armistead Maupin turns to the photographer, smiling. "Why are you on the floor?" he asks. "Oh, you're going for that unflattering angle. All chins. I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't be down there. I just know what those photographs look like. I know you want trees out the window. Chins and trees."

Armistead Maupin turns to the photographer, smiling. "Why are you on the floor?" he asks. "Oh, you're going for that unflattering angle. All chins. I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't be down there. I just know what those photographs look like. I know you want trees out the window. Chins and trees."

Some might see it as vanity, but Maupin's simply being honest. And this honesty lays him wide open in The Night Listener (Bantam Press, £16.99), his first book in eight years. His most mature, mellow and moving novel yet, it's partly a mystery story, partly an account of the break-up of a long-term relationship.

"I won't be coy," says Maupin. "It's fairly autobiographical." Four years ago he split up with Terry Anderson, who is also his business partner. Anderson is HIV positive and had been expecting to die for years. When his health improved, he needed to embrace his future, alone. There was only one way Maupin could deal with his feelings. "I've spent most of my life writing my way out of difficult situations. I use writing to define myself, explain myself."

With his hearty laugh, Maupin looks every inch the Southern gentleman. The trim white hair and moustache make it easy to picture him as antebellum aristocracy. But San Francisco is his adopted and spiritual turf. Tales of the City tracked the West Coast zeitgeist from the heady Seventies to the dark days of Aids. "At the age of 56 I felt as if I might be 86," he says. "So many of my friends have died."

Maupin rounded off the sequence with Mary Ann leaving San Francisco. With the wonderfully funny Maybe The Moon, "readers were determined I was going to write Episode Seven of Tales of the City". Instead, they got the diary of fast-talking Cadence Roth. If the characters in earlier books represented aspects of their creator ("I've admitted some pretty dreadful things about myself over the years through one character or another"), here was the author "successfully disguised as a heterosexual female Jewish dwarf," Maupin laughs. "She's me through and through."

Selling in millions, Maupin has had a hard time being taken seriously. Cult, gay and Californian are words normally associated with his work. He argues "I'm not generally thought of as a Southern writer, but I really am. I just brought all my Southern baggage with me to California."

Oral storytelling is "a natural part of life in a Southern family". Maupin's father is a great raconteur, while his grandmother was a fund of anecdotes about Sherman's army. "I was well into Tales of the City before I realised every word had been written to be read aloud."

Dialogue features heavily in Maupin's work. Maupin says "There's no question that films have been a greater literary influence than books." His idol, Alfred Hitchcock, maintained that art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. "That's exactly what I'm going for. Vertigo is the single work of art that has influenced me greatly. The Night Listener is my best effort at approximating that, a story that revolves around human obsession and longing and loss."

There are certainly plenty of twists in The Night Listener. Maupin's narrator is Gabriel Noone, an author who broadcasts his successful "grabby little armchair yarns" on late-night radio. Noone befriends one of his listeners - 13-year-old Pete, who is dying of Aids. Sexually abused by his parents, who also prostituted him, Pete has been adopted by the saintly Donna. He has also written his memoir, which is soon to be published.

Noone and the boy chat on the telephone, Gabriel listening to Pete's problems and Pete to his. But no one has ever set eyes on the boy and it begins to dawn on Gabriel that, maybe, the wise, perceptive Pete and the wise, perceptive Donna are the same person.

Maupin has received his share of letters and calls from fans who feel they know him, and feel he should resolve something in their lives. At college he even had his own bizarre Hitchcockian experience. Someone calling himself Old Friendly would phone nightly to furnish Maupin with details about student activities with which he could astonish his peers. Maupin never discovered his identity, although one day when he was standing in a crowd he heard his voice. "I turned around slowly and it was this blind man with a cane."

Mystery can be seductive. Noone can't quite let his go, even if it means he's manipulated. "Does it really matter if the person is real? Everything else has failed him and he needs to be needed."

The novel is flush with sadness, from the recollection of friends lost to Aids to the death of a pet dog. For Maupin, it has been the toughest book. "There were many days when I had to command myself to write a page because I was digging into that part which hurt too much to examine."

Some of the conversations between Gabriel and his partner Jess are intensely intimate. "They were very hard to write and are even harder to read. I did try to be faithful to both our positions. When Terry read it, he I came with tears in his eyes, saying he thought it was the most beautiful book I'd ever written." Although they no longer live together, "the bond is stronger than ever".

The Night Listener is dedicated to Anderson and to Maupin's 85-year-old father. In the book, the latter features as Noone's larger-than-life patriarch, who has taken years to get used to his son's sexual orientation. The relationship is both strained and awkwardly tender: "My dad said, 'People are going to think I'm such a bastard'. I said, 'Well, maybe a bastard, but a very charming bastard'.

"And that's what he is," Maupin says. "He does have a big heart; like the character in the book, he has a hard time communicating serious emotions. It's generational and male. I think of myself as this big, sensitive, expressive homo but in fact I can be just as shut down as he is under certain circumstances."

For Tales of the City fans, there's an unexpected surprise. Gabriel's accountant is Anna, daughter of society lesbian DeDe. "I was intrigued by the idea that I could actually interact with a character who'd been born in one of the early volumes. I deliberately made her irreverent of the author she works for." Maupin laughs. "You could say, my body of work has been one long cliff-hanger."