On the 24th of May, 1976, the first instalment of Tales of the City was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. In eight hundred words a day, for five days a week over the course of six months, the characters of Mary Ann Singleton, Mona Ramsey, Michael Tolliver and Anna Madrigal strode confidently into the world. (Technically the serial began in 1974 when sections were published in the Pacific Sun, but it was only in 1976 that it ran in its entirety.) The author, Armistead Jones Maupin Jr., was a Vietnam vet and a recovering conservative who voted for the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 and shook Richard Nixon’s hand in 1972. Maupin moved to San Francisco in ’72 to work as a reporter for the Associated Press and the magical city, with its extraordinarily diverse population, changed his world. In the nine Tales of the City novels that followed he returned the favour, and his diverse range of characters in turn changed our world forever.
On the day that I met Armistead Maupin in a London hotel he delivered a talk at the British Library. A public author event with Maupin reveals just how deeply the Tales books have affected people’s worlds. The adoration from the audience is something you would ordinarily expect for a pop star, an actor or a celebrity, but not necessarily a writer. It’s not a readership so much as a fan base. This devotion reminded me a scene in the novel The Night Listener in which an air steward approaches the narrator, author Gabriel Noone, and whispers, “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us”. I assume that this happens all the time, and I wondered how it made him feel.
“I am more gratified by that experience than anything that I do. It makes me feel wonderful to know that people who’ve shared my experience have somehow or other moved forward because of my writing. Book signings right now are an extremely emotional experience because people often cry, or confess, or express appreciation, and the trick for me is to keep open enough that I feel it every moment, because I think that’s the least I can give back at this point, to somehow express my gratitude.”
Maupin regularly engages with his readers on social media platforms. This interview, in fact, had been arranged after a conversation on Twitter that began after I had praised the ninth Tales novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. I have friends to whom he has responded personally and they are both touched and thrilled. “Sometimes it makes my afternoon, and if I rattle off a line or two it works for everybody. I don’t answer everything, but it’s a lot easier than the old days when I would try and type out a response to a fan letter.”
With the publication of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the Tales series is officially at an end. And it is a sublime ending. Interspersed with the present day story is the tale of how young Andy Ramsey started on his journey to become Anna Madrigal, the woman who presides over the series like a monarch and mother combined. In 1990, the sixth Tales novel, Sure of You, was billed as end to the series, yet it was more of a leaving-off than an ending. There was a sense that Maupin did not want to face the inevitable death of the HIV+ Michael Tolliver. In 1992 Maupin published Maybe The Moon, a tale of the life of dwarf actor Candice Roth, and he followed this in 2000 with the engaging and exceptional novel The Night Listener. Then in 2007, ten years after the advent of antiretroviral drugs that meant HIV was no longer the death sentence it once had been, he returned to the series with Michael Tolliver Lives.
“I started out thinking I would write a one-off first person novel about a gay man who had survived the AIDS epidemic. That’s when I realised I had such a person in my repertoire, and I might as well be writing about Michael Tolliver. I started out with a first person novel, but gradually the other characters began to audition for me and I found myself writing a continuation of Tales. There was no conscious design at that point. But once I’d written about Michael I thought I really needed to redeem Mary Ann, because people hated her so much after the first six novels. And then I began to see that Anna would complete a trilogy in a good way. I’ve always crept up on it and I can’t say I consciously began forty years ago thinking it would be nine novels. I took it as it occurred to me. I’m happy with the shape, having said that. I like the way its panned out and I’m happy with the way it ended.”
The interview continues at Polari Magazine
The full interview is available here: http://www.polarimagazine.com/interviews/armistead-maupin-conversation/