Armistead Maupin: 'I need a scary new venture'

Armistead Maupin is to quit Barbary Lane. But can it be that easy?

It should hardly shock Armistead Maupin if we ask him if he mourns the characters he first created for a newspaper column 40 years ago, and who came to populate his long-running series of novels beginning with Tales of the City published in 1978. He was irritated until he saw that that was the wrong reaction. Fans do have one other query: is the ninth in the saga, The Days of Anna Madrigal, really the last as he says? Are the RIP notices for Anna and the variously tortured young souls who first entered her warming orbit when she was landlady at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco irrevocable? Please reunite us one last time with Mary Ann Singleton or with Michael Tolliver, whose travails and triumphs as a gay man have often, Maupin admits, mirrored his own.

If you prosper as a writer, as Maupin has with Tales of the City, it’s hard to let go, success that was massively magnified by television. Few of us who fell in love with Tales ... did not gorge also on the Channel 4 mini-series that aired in Britain and America 20 years ago. Maupin himself helped cast Olympia Dukakis, who for ever more will be Anna in our minds and indeed his. The same goes for Laura Linney and Mary Ann.

“I was annoyed at first,” Maupin says of the grieving question which is put to him repeatedly as he promotes the new book. “But then I started becoming aware that maybe I have been in denial to a certain degree about the whole process of ending it. I had a few moments when I wondered if I had killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Taking a fry-up breakfast at an over-easy and soggy toast diner in lower Manhattan earlier this month, Maupin doesn’t answer if this final instalment – and he insists that it is – is his best work, but he does say it’s the most mature, because it deals with death and mortality. I will give nothing away but Michael has what we can call “a turn”, not unlike one Maupin had recently which left his husband, Christopher, thinking for a moment he had died. (He is, by the way, in fine health and turns 70 in May.) Anna is 92 years’ old and thus approaching her own final curtain.

“I had been waiting to give a sort of shape to the overall saga – to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And I think I have all that now.” The book reaches back to when Anna, a transgender woman, was growing up as the troubled 16-year-old son of a brothel madam in Winnemucca, a town that actually exists, and to her being improbably introduced in her twilight to the mad whirl of Burning Man, the annual camp-out of hippie hedonism and self-expression in the Nevada desert. (Yes, Maupin was not long ago dragged “kicking and screaming” to Burning Man by Christopher.)

I remark how successfully Maupin manages to stay up to date in the pages whether with colloquialisms in dialogue or references to newly popular drug concoctions or social media fads. But worrying about that is one of the reasons why he is stopping, he says. “I have grown increasingly wary of my ability to keep up with younger readers.” With a glint in his eye, he admits it has helped that his husband, a photographer, is almost three decades his junior.

The New York stop on his book tour has been unusually agreeable. He’s been squatting with an old friend, Sir Ian McKellen, in town for his Broadway stint in Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land. The evening before we meet, he squeezed in a visit to Ms Linney and her husband in Brooklyn, to meet their new baby boy, whose middle name is Armistead. Maupin is also still close to Ms Dukakis who, he reveals, rang him in tears upon finishing the new book. He has also taken the chance to visit his agent.

And here is the good news for Maupin fans. While he says he can’t imagine spending two years “tapping out” another novel, he means to develop a one-man stage performance exploring not Anna’s but his own life as a journalist, novelist and lover. It “has been pretty interesting”, he offers by way of a teaser. “It is going to be a scary new venture, but that’s probably what I need.” If there is to be a new book it would be a companion for the show.

Inescapably, part of his narrative will be Tales ... and not just its commercial or literary success but the saga’s political and social impact. Maupin had been writing his fictional column about Barbary Lane first for a Marin County daily and soon after the San Francisco Chronicle for a couple of years when, he recalls, Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen turned spokesperson for Florida orange juice, “raised her ugly head” speaking out against homosexuality and gays generally. That changed everything. “Anyone exposed to her anti-gay campaign got pissed off and wanted to respond in some way.” With the cast of characters he had already created in the column he had the perfect vehicle.

That things have moved so quickly just in the past few years, particularly on gay marriage, in America may also explain why he feels his job with Tales is done. “I am flabbergasted that marriage equality has moved as fast as it has,” he admits. “Part of me says ‘about fucking time’ and another part of me is genuinely amazed and delighted. When I started out, my nature was both a crime and a mental disease, officially.”

Yet he never forgets the role the books have played in giving gay and transgender men and women something to identify with and draw strength from. The earlier of them came out from years, decades even, before Will & Grace or Queer as Folk joined the conversation. “I was all they had,” he explains. Still today, he is stopped almost daily by fans offering thanks. “These are people who felt trapped in their sexuality and have taken comfort from the books. Almost everyone says that.” Some are young, apparently in need of the solace the books offer even today. “About every third person starts crying and I have to stand up and hug them and tell them to stop. Serious weeping.” Recently, a woman came to him to say that her brother had been buried with a copy of Tales of the City.

Maupin says he hopes his fans have enjoyed the “journey” of Anna and her flock that is now finally over. But it’s been his bringing so many of them out of the sexual margins that has still mattered more.  “It is the single thing I am most proud of,” he says, his watery eyes misting a little more. “Any yearnings for literary awards are utterly eliminated by the sense that I have made that kind of difference in the lives of the readers. It’s very personal.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions