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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 26, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 48
Armistead Maupin brings more Tales to our city
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Armistead Maupin brings more Tales to our city

by Ron Anders - SGN Contributing Writer

Fans of Armistead Maupin's iconic Tales of the City series are happy campers these days. The latest book in the series, Mary-Ann in Autumn, has just started flying off bookstore shelves. Begun as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, the stories of the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane captured the San Francisco zeitgeist of the 1970s. They have become an international phenomenon, spawning eight books, three award-winning miniseries and an upcoming musical. I caught up with Armistead on the Seattle stop of his recent whirlwind reading tour. Here are highlights from my interview with him.

Ron Anders: How is Seattle treating you?

Armistead Maupin: Well, I have my own goldfish in my hotel room! I walked into the room, and there's a little sign that says 'Hello, my name is Andrea.' And they explain it's supposed to keep you from getting lonely. It made me terribly depressed for Andrea - and they move her from room to room like a tart!

Anders: Is your husband with you on this trip?

Maupin: No. He told me not too long ago that, as much as he loves being with me, tours are a drag because he feels like Dr. Phil's wife - the person who's in the audience who waves periodically. That made me laugh and see the light.

Anders: What does he think about the portrayal of Michael and his partner in your books?

Maupin: We laugh about it because people have a hard time deciding what's real and what isn't. But he's cool with it. He knows that I'm spinning fiction out of things that I know that sometimes happened to us, not necessarily always. He's not somebody who seeks the spotlight. He is who he is and that's why I love him so much.

Anders: I hear that there is an upcoming musical version of Tales of the City.

Maupin: The previews are in May and it opens on June 1st at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Betty Buckley sang Anna Madrigal in the workshop and it's my fervent dream that she will be back for it. I know she wants to do it.

Anders: Some years ago, the Seattle Men's Chorus did a choral piece based on Michael's coming-out letter to his parents.

Maupin: That's right. They developed it and David Maddux wrote that beautiful version. That was my actual letter to my parents. That piece alone has traveled all over the place with choruses and now Jake Shears of The Scissor Sisters has adapted it into a beautiful little song for the musical. He's from Seattle, by the way.

Anders: The books have become an international phenomenon!

Maupin: They're most popular in France. I always hesitate to say that because people will say: 'Oh, like Jerry Lewis!' But, per capita, I think there are more French readers than any other kind. It's very popular in Britain. It's started to catch on in Italy now

Anders: What did you think of the 'It Gets Better' campaign?

Maupin: It is a brilliant concept - quite revolutionary in its own way because it's calling upon Gay adults to lead the way for Gay kids. I think a lot of people were reluctant for far too long to be vocal about it for fear of being accused of recruiting youth or any of that nonsense. So it struck a chord, not just for troubled kids, but with adults, who came to ask what their responsibility is as grown-ups.

Anders: You went to the Academy Awards with Laura Linney when she was nominated for Best Actress in 2000. What was the Oscar experience like for you?

Maupin: Talk about a queen's dream come true! Laura said the red carpet would be really freaky, but not to let it get to me, because once you're inside the building, it would be lovely. It would be like the best high school prom in the world. And it was! We sat in the front row and John Leguizamo and his Gay brother were sitting behind us making the most hilarious wisecracks in the world because you could see all the rigging of the production numbers. I remember when Bob Dylan appeared on the big screen to sing, Leguizamo said, 'My God, it's Salvador Dali!'

Anders: So you and Laura Linney are close friends&.

Maupin: I asked Laura to read a poem at my wedding when Christopher and I were married. And she came and read it and said she loved it so much. A few months later she called me and asked me to read it at her wedding. That friendship is one of the great, great side effects of Tales of the City from my standpoint.

Anders: That reminds me of the first shot of the miniseries, with Mary-Ann and the Vertigo opening. I thought I'd died and went to heaven.

Maupin: Well, I thought I'd died and went to heaven when Alastair Reid, our director, said he was a huge fan of Vertigo. He asked me if I thought it would be too much if we did Vertigo references! Because Hitchcock is my biggest literary influence, it's no accident that people keep falling from high places in Tales of the City.

Anders: Do you feel optimistic about the current sociopolitical climate?

Maupin: Yes. I'm very excited about the way the world is changing. I didn't see Glee the other night, but I hear it's a dream come true for a lot of people. It's online, but I'm afraid to watch it because I have a little pact with my husband not to get ahead of what we've seen so far. The world is changing now and it's changing because all of those people knew how good it felt to be out back in the early '70s. If I have any nostalgia, it's towards the people that I lost that didn't get to take the ride with me. And I never complain about being old because of it.

Anders: I remember visiting San Francisco in the early 1990s and the city seemed totally bereft from the AIDS epidemic.

Maupin: There was a period there when the whole town was in shock and panic. Not only were you losing your friends to the most horrible thing imaginable, but there was a strong chance that you yourself would be the next to go. And that's how the death of Jon Fielding came about - the first AIDS fatality in fiction anywhere. A lot of Gay people were pissed off. They said, 'You spoiled our light morning entertainment.' Because people were still uttering complete nonsense in a sort of panic denial. When I was public about Rock Hudson's sexuality - I was the first person to be, actually - I felt that if I didn't talk about it in a responsible way, he'd be a victim of the tabloids. There'd be no dignity around it at all

Anders: I know that it's considered like a chronic disease for a lot of younger people now.

Maupin: It's a whole different thing. It shouldn't be. People are still dying from it and as any person who's HIV-positive will tell you, it's hellish. The meds alone can do terrible things to you.

Anders: Do you have groupies?

Maupin: Not nearly enough! The fans that I meet are really sweet, and they're not just Gay, either. A lot of people identify with the general message of the books: be yourself and get on with it.

Anders: A few years ago, I belatedly discovered that you interviewed Mary Badham, who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at a tribute to the film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

Maupin: She was the loveliest person, with a great sense of humor. You know Rock Hudson was cast as Atticus, or read for it or something. But Gregory Peck got to do it. And so Rock and Mary became friends. She told me about going to the Oscars that year and she said that she had the amazing thrill of riding on Rock Hudson's shoulders. And I said 'What a coincidence, so did I!' And she threw her head back and laughed and I loved little Scout more than ever!

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