Armistead Maupin: My tallest tale of them all

The 'Tales of the City' author's new movie is based on his own experience of being duped. He tells Gill Pringle the truth
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As a novice film-maker, one of the hardest tasks facing the author Armistead Maupin was pleasing his readers in the movie adaptation of his bestseller The Night Listener. Juggling an estimated $10m budget, paltry by most Hollywood standards, his executive-producer role forced him to make compromises he knew might disappoint his loyal following.

Having lived in San Francisco for 35 years, Maupin has long been identified with America's gay capital, where most of his stories are set - so it was no easy decision to relocate The Night Listener's film version to New York, where production costs proved cheaper. Considered as his most autobiographical book to date, The Night Listener has as its protagonist Gabriel Noone, a popular writer who nightly recites his stories on radio. Noone is clearly based on Maupin, while the character's former partner Jess is unmistakably his own ex-boyfriend Terry Anderson.

Many expected Maupin, as one of the gay literary world's most beloved figures, to select an openly gay actor in the lead role, although Maupin offers no apologies for casting his longtime friend and fellow San Franciscan Robin Williams.

"Robin is a very sensitive actor and I knew he'd know how to play this character. And I don't think of him as playing it squeaky straight in the sense that he's not playing it like a straight man. I mean, how about the way Robin looked at the ass of the flight attendant?! I think that the man who's telling stories on the radio could very easily be Robin Williams - someone who's seducing people with his warmth. That's also true of Toni Collette, who was my number one fantasy for the role and I still can't believe we got her," says Maupin, revealing how his star cast - also featuring Sandra Oh and Rory Culkin - reduced their usual salaries in order to work on his film.

Maupin, the son of an arch-conservative North Carolina lawyer, came out in 1974, inspired by the climate of tolerance in his adopted city. Two years year, he would receive huge literary acclaim for his Tales of the City columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, which were later adapted into a TV mini-series. Maupin effectively paved the way for newspaper columnists like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City. "I could have been very envious of Helen Fielding's success if it wasn't that she was so very gracious in saying that Tales of the City had been an inspiration," he says.

However, unlike Maupin's earlier whimsical social commentaries, The Night Listener plunges him into darker realms. "It all began in 1992," says the 62-year-old author. "I received a manuscript from a 14-year-old boy who'd been abused by his parents and was now dying of Aids. He had written his memoirs, which were sent to me complete with endorsements from two people whom I really respected. I liked the book very much and was hugely moved by it. Terry, my partner at the time, was also battling Aids, as well as my best friend.

"So I started talking to the boy on the phone. I figured if he was going to be dead in a few months, he might as well hear from me. I was told he was a big fan of Tales of the City. So I called him and talked to this bright, feisty, self-effacing kid who was anything but a depressive figure, considering that he had lost a leg and a lung to various opportunistic illnesses. And it was about six months into the phone friendship when Terry picked up the phone and talked to the 'mother' and said to me, 'I can't believe you've never noticed that it's the same voice,'" he recalls.

The boy was one Anthony Godby Johnson and his memoirs, A Rock and a Hard Place, received much initial acclaim until journalists began asking questions, discovering that nobody had even met him.

"The thing that's most galling is that The Night Listener resulted in him selling even more copies of his book and now, through the film, I'm probably going to sell a whole lot more copies of that imaginary boy's imaginary book," he continues. "This was one of the bigger events in my life, and certainly the creepiest. But the fact that I was a storyteller rescued me, because I immediately saw the story and didn't take it personally, although a lot of people did.

"A number of people were put through this wringer and some took it harder than others. I guess I was easy to dupe because, in all honesty, there's something very flattering about someone who's about to die that wants to talk to you, casting you in the role of saviour. The set-up in The Night Listener is identical but I really can't say it's totally the real story because Terry didn't leave me until 1996 and that was four years before this happened, but I took those two big events in my life and merged them to make fiction.

"At the time I did my British book tour, I was in my London hotel doing frantic conference calls with a slew of lawyers from HarperCollins in New York, asking them, 'What do I do? They're starting to ask me if this is based on something real?'" he says. "So I went through the entire book tours of both the States and Britain, emphasising the fact that it was fiction, which it is, but avoiding the explanation that it was inspired by something real."

Maupin is keen to draw parallels with other writers who have passed off fiction as non-fiction. "There was a writer named Binjamin Wilkomirski who wrote a book called Fragments about eight years ago that was embraced by Jews as the logical successor to The Diary of Anne Frank. He was remembering his life in the death camps, and he won all sorts of awards from Jewish organisations. Eventually they figured out that... he [was] not a Jew... and he [had] never left Switzerland. But anyone who doubted the truth of the memoir was made to look like a Holocaust denier," he recalls.

"Part of the reason I never had a full confrontation was that I wasn't sure I wanted to challenge whatever mindset had created this imaginary boy. [For] six years, half of me was prepared for the notion that he was real and half was prepared for the notion that he was not. And it's a very clever construct when you think about it, because children who report abuse are often not believed. So if there was even a five per cent chance that there was a kid, I'd be put in the position of doubting the child and, by association, doubting the concept of child abuse." Maupin says both Collette and Williams received letters written in the same handwriting while filming The Night Listener. "The letters looked like the handwriting of the boy or mother, depending on how you look at it," he says.

"Rosie O'Donnell called after my book was published and told me the same thing [had] happened to her. She'd been talking to a 14-year-old girl who'd supposedly been raped and was putting her child up for adoption through Rosie's agency. And Rosie took an interest in the kid, wanted her to feel better about life. At the same time Rosie also developed a phone friendship with the kid's adopted mother. And Rosie was totally taken in until Kelly, her partner, pointed out that there was a very strong similarity between the two voices. Rosie and Kelly couldn't believe it when they read my book because it so closely echoed their own experience," he says.

One happy footnote to Maupin's bizarre personal story is that the end of his relationship with long-time partner Terry - as chronicled in both film and book - enabled him to go on to meet the man whom he today hails as the "love of my life". "His name is Christopher Turner and we met two years ago. He runs a personal website for gay men," he says.

"Not that I [had] ever corresponded with him on the site, but I'd seen his picture there, so it was the weirdest coincidence when I actually spotted him on the street. Correction. When I chased him down the street. It just felt so divinely inspired and by that I mean Bette Midler - not God. Honestly, if I'd known I'd be this happy at 62, I'd have been a lot more cheerful along the way! He's the great love of my life."

'The Night Listener' opens today