This venerable lady, an early suffragist and a 'deeply theatrical person', clearly made a lasting impression on her grandson. 'She was a great inspiration. She was the first person who told me that my true self was the most attractive presentation I could make to the world, and that was not a theory which enjoyed widespread popularity in the Deep South of the 1950s.'
Widespread popularity is exactly what Armistead Maupin enjoys these days. His Tales of the City saga, which began life in 1976 as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, transported the author from the margins of cultdom to the main-feature of celebrity. The sixth book in the sequence, Sure of You, came out in 1990 to rapturous acclaim - and then it was over. Maupin decided that his superior soap opera should end while the lather was still rich. 'I think the real mistake would have been for it to peter out - it made sense for the series to begin with Mary Ann arriving in San Francisco and end with her departure.'
Heartbroken fans may be solaced by the news that Working Title begins shooting a six-part adaptation of Tales in April for Channel 4's autumn schedule. For Maupin, who acts as executive producer, it constitutes a triumph against the odds: 'Tales had been optioned off and on since 1979, so I got to know about the way Hollywood tries to 'modify' real life for its own purposes. I was told on repeated occasions that I'd have to cut back on the number of gay characters in order to make it acceptable for the American public. On the other hand I adore movies, so my response to the industry is divided.'
That ambivalence gets an extensive airing in Maupin's new book Maybe the Moon (Bantam pounds 14.99), which tells the short history of actress singer Cadence Roth, and takes some well-aimed swipes at Tinseltown along the way. Cady, like everybody else in Hollywood, wants to make big, doubly difficult in her case - she's 31 inches tall. Ten years ago she played the elf-hero in the second-top grosser of all time, Mr Woods, but shrouded in a rubber suit she herself remained invisible. Since then ambition has been cut right down to size: overlooked by her agent, she scrapes a living as a performer at children's parties and barmitzvahs. Well, it's a living. Via Cady's journal, we are acquainted not only with her feisty and funny determination to reach for the moon but also her heroic patience with the condescension and embarrassment she encounters among 'normal' people. Not surprisingly it's a struggle that can often induce a bad case of the blues, or Cady prefers, 'the mauves'.
The book is dedicated to the late Tamara De Treaux, a 31-inch actress and friend of the author. 'I used her situation as a launching point for the novel. I didn't know at first that she'd been cast as ET, because she'd been sworn to secrecy by Spielberg - or Steven, as she was calling him then. It's not intended as a roman-a-clef - it's more a parable about mythmaking in Hollywood.' One of the more fondly cherished myths - that to be gay is to be a freak - gets a savage comeuppance here. Cady's 'difference' is a physical representation of a condition well-known to gays: 'Yeah, but I always cringe at the suggestion,' says Maupin. 'Obviously I draw parallels between her and other outsiders in Hollywood, but all she's 'representing' is herself. I was just looking to tell a story about a little person which didn't treat that person as a grotesque or an object of fun.' Or, as Cady tells her agent, 'little people can turn up anywhere, just like redheads and queers'.
As in Sure of You there is a specific instance of sexual duplicity smuggled in from real life. Cady's writer friend Jeff finds romance with pin-up boy Callum Duff, currently starring in the thriller Gut Reaction as a cop on the trail of a psychopathic killer who is, almost inevitably, homosexual. As Jeff fulminates, 'It's the meanest script I've ever read . . . it cost two and a half million dollars, and it's just one more lousy cheap shot at fags'. So Maupin didn't much like Basic Instinct, then? 'Actually, when I finally saw the movie, I was more struck by its misogyny than its homophobia. I don't have any politically correct agenda. As an artist I don't want people telling me what I can or can't write, but it is terribly frustrating for gay people to see themselves in movies only as objects of fun or sinister, menacing figures. It's that middle range they won't let us occupy, because that's reserved for white-bread Americana.'
This might make the book sound more forbiddingly combative than it really is. Maupin sets about Hollywood and hypocrisy with pointed rigour, but he never allows the tone to go preachy. As in Tales, his great strength resides in a louche, light-footed wit, particularly effective in the potential bathos of the bedroom: 'The sex scenes were fun to write,' he recalls, 'but they took a long time because I had to work out the mechanics every inch of the way, so to speak. I knew there was a danger of toppling into pornography or absurdity, and I didn't want either. I wanted the scenes to be fun, and erotic, and believable.'
If Maupin's inclination, as his characters negotiate the tender trap of romance, is to overdose on schmaltz, chances are a tart bon mot will be on hand to offset the sweetness - 'love wouldn't be blind if the braille weren't so much damned fun'.
How does he do it? The fluency and fleetness of his storytelling derives, it's heartening to discover, from hard work. 'I always compare writing to laying mosaic - the moment-by-moment process is extremely tedious, and you have to keep some overall view of where you're going. I work very slowly, about three pages a day, and I polish as I go along.' I remark on how his dialogue seems to be happening before our ears. 'That's why] You know, it's funny - it seems obvious to me that sleek prose takes longer than turgid prose, but people appear to believe that a big, cumbersome, obstructive paragraph takes longer to write than one which flies off the page.' This prose is airborne all right, and with Maupin at the controls you can be pretty sure that the in-flight entertainment will keep you enthralled till touchdown.