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.”