Interview: Armistead Maupin on Tales of The City, Ian McKellen and Rock Hudson

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

His ‘Tales of The City’ series has sold more than 6m copies, been translated into ten languages, spawned three television miniseries and most recently a musical, the score for which was composed by Jake Shears and John Garden. He also wrote the critically acclaimed The Night Listener, which was made into a film starring Robin Williams. Laurence Watts travelled to San Francisco to meet Armistead Maupin.

For a man whose writing gave hope to hundreds of thousands struggling with their sexuality, Armistead Maupin was in denial about his own up until about the age of 26. He didn’t come out until he was 30. Before becoming a writer he served in the US Navy.

“It took San Francisco for me to accept and celebrate who I was,” he tells me. “I’m cross with myself that it took so long. I’m grateful that my life’s work has enabled me to address that fear for others in a big way. In the Navy, I was completely hidden. I would pick up guys down on The Battery, in Charleston, and once, I came down with a bad case of crabs and didn’t know what they were. I was so afraid that a doctor might be able to distinguish between gay crabs and straight crabs that I didn’t get anywhere near the infirmary.”

Before writing fiction, Maupin was initially a journalist for a local Charleston newspaper. He later moved to the West Coast to take up a job with the Associated Press’ San Francisco bureau.

“I started to write serially almost by accident,” he explains. “I wrote a single piece about the hetero pick up scene down at the Marina Safeway for the Pacific Sun. I couldn’t make it a true journalistic piece because I couldn’t find anyone that would confess to being at a supermarket to get laid. So I made up a fictitious new-girl-in-town called Mary Ann Singleton. The editor suggested I follow her, so I did and I not only followed her, but also followed the gay man she’d tried to pick up. It grew out of that, over five episodes, until that paper folded. Then the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle invited me in to pitch the story to him. He ended up asking if I write it for them, five days a week. I lied through my teeth and said I could.”

Maupin is often mentioned in the same breath as Charles Dickens for the simple fact that both writers’ works appeared as columns in periodicals before they were published in book form.

“They wanted six weeks of columns before they would commence,” he says, “so I kept the gay character, Michael, very low key at the beginning because I knew they’d say no if they saw what I was up to. It was once I had a readership, and hence a fair amount of control, that I started bringing the gay characters in. I loved the desperation of writing under pressure. The story took turns that I didn’t expect at all. I don’t work that way now because I’m a terrible perfectionist and a terrible procrastinator. I’ll get a page or two out on a good day.”

For many readers in Britain and America, Maupin’s Tales of The City books marked the first time they came across gay characters portrayed as normal people.

“I think they were,” Maupin says. “I hate to sound immodest about it, but there weren’t many examples before that. Even the great gay writers at the time like Capote, Vidal and Baldwin were presenting an image of homosexuality that was ultimately quite bleak. But I was here in San Francisco, filled with the joy of the town and with the acceptance I felt not just from gay people, but also straight San Franciscans. That rubbed off in the work and found its way to other people.”

I pick up on his mention of the phrase ‘gay writers.’ Prior to our interview I’d read that he objected to being called a ‘gay writer.’ He clarifies this for me.

“I don’t write gay books, but I am a gay writer,” he explains. “I practically invented the label. When I started writing, Truman Capote was still equating his homosexuality with his alcoholism and Gore Vidal claimed there were homosexual acts, but not homosexual people. I came out in the course of writing Tales of The City and realised that part of my function was to be very clear and very public as a gay man. I’m prouder of that than anything I’ve else done. But as soon as you let an industry say that you are publishing a ‘gay this’ or a ‘gay that’, they keep you safely segregated from the rest of society. I did not want my work to be stuck at the back of a bookstore on a shelf that could be hidden from children. That’s the only point I was ever trying to make.”

Armistead Maupin is regarded as the first author to write about the eighties’ AIDS pandemic in a fictional context, which he did with 1984’s ‘Babycakes’. ‘Sure of You’, his sixth Tales of The City book was published five years later in 1989. Maupin then took an 18-year hiatus from the series before publishing a follow-up, ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’, in 2007.

“I stopped because I was ready to stop,” he explains. “E.F. Benson wrote six ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels, which had been something of an inspiration. I felt that six was a nice round number. I’d established that Michael was HIV positive and I didn’t want this to be one more story where the gay man dies at the end. In 1989, that was pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s no accident that when I revived the series the next book was called ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’. In the period in between I produced and part-wrote the Tales of The City miniseries and wrote Maybe The Moon and The Night Listener, which I think is probably the best thing I’ve ever written.”

“With ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’ I wanted to write a novel about my generation; about gay men who had survived this holocaust and were still here and who were, as I put it in the book, facing mortality the ordinary way. I wanted to celebrate that generation because we went through a certain kind of hell that’s not fully appreciated today. Young people nowadays just aren’t aware. It’s not their fault. Every generation, suffers from this kind of amnesia. That’s why we keep having wars.”

Tales of The City was introduced to a whole new generation when the first three books were made into three television miniseries starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. They were broadcast respectively in 1994, 1998 and 2001.

“One of the happiest days of my life,” says Maupin, “was when I walked on to the set at Occidental Studios and saw the three-storey house that had been built to accommodate the residents of 28 Barbary Lane. I could wander though my own creation and look at everybody’s rooms and realise whose room each was simply by what was in it.”

A further interpretation of Maupin’s work debuted in 2011 when a Tales of The City musical had its world-premiere. The Scissor Sister’s Jake Shears co-wrote the music for the show.

“I’d heard Filthy/Gorgeous before and thought it was catchy,” says Maupin, “but I didn’t know much about the band beyond that. The person who sold me on them was our librettist, Jeff Whitty who wrote Avenue Q. He knew Jake well. The musical premiered here in San Francisco at the American Conservatory and broke all records for the theater. It was the most successful show they’d had in 40 years. I’m hoping it’ll open at some point in London’s West End. I think it would do well there.”

Interestingly, Maupin and Shears share a fondness for Britain. While the Scissor Sisters play and fill venues like London’s Wembley Stadium there, many in America still haven’t heard of them. Similarly, Maupin’s early success occurred in Britain and he admits that New York took a long time to acknowledge what he was doing. Since it’s on subject, I ask Armistead about his friendship with one of Britain’s most famous knights, Sir Ian McKellen.

“I think Wikipedia still says that we were once lovers!” Armistead laughs. “I must get that changed. We’ve always been the dearest friends. I first met him when he was passing through San Francisco, having just made a movie in New Mexico with Ava Gardner about DH Lawrence. We had a mutual friend who’d said he thought we’d get-on. Back then I could walk around the Castro with Ian and introduce him as my friend and there was no element of recognition at all. Now when he comes to town 14-year old African American girls chase him screaming down the street!”

“Ian once said that a night he spent with me and my ex here in 1988 was the thing that persuaded him to come out. He asked us if we thought he should be out of the closet and we said yes and told him why: we thought he’d be a happier man and a stronger artist if he was.”

Maupin was famously friends with another Hollywood actor, the late Rock Hudson, whom he subtly referenced in his third Tales of The City book. Though Hudson’s homosexuality was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, he never discussed it publicly. Maupin was introduced to Hudson through a mutual circle of friends.

“In 1976, just before my columns started, Rock invited about ten guys up to his suite at the Fairmont Hotel, just to hang out. I told him that this story I was writing was going to be in the paper the next day and he went down to the desk clerk at midnight and got what they called the bulldog edition. When he came back he stood up, drunkenly, in front of all of my friends and said, “I have a little reading I’d like to do,” and read out loud the first chapter of Tales of The City. It was one of the more bizarre and glorious moments of my life. Afterwards he put the moves on me. We became buddies and occasional playmates, but it was never an affair or a romance.”

When, in July 1985, Hudson shocked the world by announcing that he was dying of AIDS, he became the first high profile casualty of what was then a greatly misunderstood disease.

“He was the first person with AIDS to get any attention in the national press and unfortunately he was surrounded by these very old-fashioned closet-cases whose instinct was either to lie or not answer questions. I spoke to the press when his diagnosis was announced and presented him as a good man that was well known to be gay in Hollywood. I did so in an un-hysterical and loving way, basically challenging people not to try to make a scandal out of it.”

As a final question, I ask Armistead what he makes of the ongoing fight for equality in America. The LGBT community has come a long way in his lifetime, but there still remain important battles to be won. Now 67, he tells me he has tired of the argument, though he remains passionate about his viewpoint.

“I’m outraged that there are currently major candidates for President of the United States who are using homophobia to rally their base,” he says. “I’m pissed off at my Republican family back in North Carolina, several of whom came to my wedding, but who went right back and are voting for homophobes and acting like it doesn’t matter. It does matter and it’s time for the queers in this country to start saying so to their families. I think we’ve all cut them too much slack for far too long.”

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City novels are being serially re-released as eBooks, with the full eight books available from March 13 2012.