Armistead Maupin on Saying Goodbye to San Francisco and Tales of the City

| January 29, 2014
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There’s something melancholy yet appropriate about Armistead Maupin choosing to end his famed Tales of the City series at this particular point in the city’s history; the San Francisco of the nearly 40 years of the series (Tales first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 24, 1976) is changing rapidly and radically. In The Days of Anna Madrigal, characters we’ve known from the beginning (the titular Mrs. Madrigal and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver) and contemporary additions from more recent books (the very Michelle Tea spirited Shawna Hawkins and the second major trans character of the series Jake Greenleaf) all contemplate the changing character of the city, but these fleeting moments are the subtext rather than the focus of the ninth and final book. In a recent conversation at The Chapel with Andrew Sean Greer, Maupin said that it was important to him that he see the fates of his characters through, but he didn’t want a tidy conclusion that tied everything in a narrative bow. There would be no return to 28 Barbary Lane for a last goodbye.

The final book in the series is a prequel of sorts: a flashback structure takes readers back to Depression-era Winnemucca, home of the Blue Moon Lodge (a Nevada brothel that figured in More Tales of the City), its proprietress, Mother Mucca, and a teenage boy named Andy Ramsey. It’s no secret that Andy Ramsey grows up to become Anna Madrigal and it feels correct that, after focusing previous books in the final trilogy on pioneering every-gay Michael and grown-up girl next door Mary Ann Singleton, the series should end reflecting on the origins of the woman who made the characters a family back on Barbary Lane. At 92 years old, Mrs. Madrigal takes a Proustian and literal journey back to Nevada and her teenage years before she made the transition to Anna. As with Mrs. Madrigal, the focus of the final Tale is family, both biological and “logical” as Maupin and his characters like to say. KQED Pop spoke to the author about the journeys of his beloved characters, his reflections on 40 years of gay culture and whether or not San Francisco still feels like home after he and his partner Christopher Turner famously relocated to Santa Fe in 2012.

KQED Pop: Was there a real Mrs. Madrigal that made you want to tell the story of a transgender person in 1976?

Armistead-Maupin

Photo: Christopher Turner

Armistead Maupin: Most of her spirit was inspired by my English grandmother who was a suffragette and a reader of palms; a very fey, lovely, forgiving, passionate person. I knew of transgender people early in my career. I’d met one or two, and was fascinated by that journey and decided to use it. It was such an exotic idea in 1976 that the editors of the Chronicle told me I couldn’t reveal her secret in the first year or else we’d scare off the readers. It was considered far more scandalous than my gay characters. I suppose even today, especially today, the transgender community is starting to get the flack from the Christian right that gay people used to get.

Even within the gay community, there are issues of recognition for trans people.

AM: I don’t get that. I don’t understand how anyone who goes through the gay and lesbian experience can possibly not understand that other people have other issues and respect them. If we can accept ourselves, we must be able to accept everyone, and the transgender people are there at the edge of things being far braver than most gay people in the way they live their lives. They get it from everywhere and they challenge our entire assumptions about gender in a way that’s very useful to our society.

There was an emphasis in the story on Mrs. Madrigal’s philosophies on gender and integration of the masculine and the feminine. It’s very counter to the absolute gender roles still being pushed in other parts of the culture. 

AM: I’m glad to know it. I’m also very proud of Jake Greenleaf as well and the degree to which his experience reflects that new acceptance, and my desire for further acceptance. I’ve had a number of writers tell me almost jokingly, “Oh, I can’t keep track of who is what” and I tell them, “All you have to remember is that they’re human beings and you’ll be just fine.”

The relationship between Jake and Mrs. Madrigal is tremendously moving: Jake’s interest in her not only as a friend but as a pioneering member of his community is one of the major threads of the novel.

AM: She’s a hero to him.

Absolutely. Now that you’re in a role as an elder leader of our community, do you find there’s a curiosity from younger generations wanting to know our cultural history? 

AM: I do find that and I find people who aren’t afraid to ask. It’s very satisfying to have those kinds of cross-generational discussions. For one thing, the old folks feel we have something useful to impart and it’s comforting to have that connection with youth. That occurs in biological families in generations, but our job is to simulate that within the “logical communities,” as I call it, of queers.

Gay culture has shifted so much since 1976; we have a degree of acceptance now that might have seemed impossible at the start of Tales. Are there any major shifts in the gay experience itself that you think change the nature of the community?

AM: The degree to which young LGBT people have been freed of the “coming out” ritual is a wonderful thing to behold. Mostly, I’m just confused about technology these days. I think we’re using it in much the same way we used classifieds and cruising bars years ago. The aim is the same; the devices we use to get there are different. I don’t find anything to quibble with with the younger generation. Most of you seem to have much of the knowledge that we have with an additional layer of sophistication about how the world works.

Because this book is almost a prequel of sorts with the flashbacks to Anna’s childhood, did you find yourself going back to the original series for some of those little “Easter Egg” winks at past characters?

AM: That’s exactly what I did. I remembered a lot of them, but I went back to the first meeting on the park bench with Edgar and Anna [in the original Tales] and began to build from there. This is the first time I ever had done such a journey into the past. I’ve always worked in real time so it was enormously satisfying to write about a time I don’t remember. I relied rather heavily on the internet for what I didn’t know. I found out a lot by Googling “1930s whore house menu” to find out what services would be offered at the Blue Moon Lodge.

So much of the book is also set away from San Francisco. What inspired the journey outside the city, specifically the use of Winnemucca as Anna’s place of origin earlier in the series?

AM: I met a transgender woman who was actually from Winnemucca in the early 1970s. When I first arrived in San Francisco, I went to a party at California Hall that was a fundraiser for this person’s sex change. She had hired Sally Rand, the old fan dancer who was the sensation of Treasure Island, Sally was 70 that week, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra was there (or what was left of it) and Kate, the hostess of the party, described it as the “ball to end all balls.”

Nice pun.

AM: I thought it was tremendously witty. She had grown up in a whorehouse in Winnemucca, Nevada, so I lifted that information in those early days when I was scrambling to get profiles on all those characters. Years later, I found a self-published memoir by Kate Marlow in which Winnemucca figured but didn’t feature as her birthplace. She may have been something of a fabulist, but the notion and the detail of a young transgender boy growing up in a brothel was fascinating to me. I hint early on when Wren is talking to Brian about it — “That’s probably not the worst place for a transgender boy to grow up” — and I think the story reflects that.

TalesoftheCity5

The Tales of the City cast with Armistead. Photo: PBS

Are there any further plans to adapt the books for screen or television?

AM: Olympia called me after she read this book and was very sweet. She asked if there were any plans to adapt it and I told her there were no plans at the moment. But wouldn’t it be wonderful? There are no definite plans, but the idea is very appealing to me. And certainly, I’d like to see Olympia return to that role. One of these days, if the series is ever revived and the whole thing has to be recast, I think it would be altogether appropriate for a transgender actress to play Anna. But as of now, that part belongs to her. She certainly did her homework. She hired a transgender consultant to talk to her for hours about her own experience to inhabit that character. That’s the job of an actor: plugging into a character’s heart.

Has your friend Laura Linney expressed a desire to return to the role of Mary Ann?

AM: It depends what book they’d be filming. There’s a twenty year gap between book six and seven. She would certainly be age appropriate. It all depends on if they pick it up or if they start the series over. Laura has always been utterly willing to return to the character.

Congratulations on being the namesake for Laura’s new son, Bennet Armistead.

AM: It’s certainly a great honor. I was just thrilled to death to hear about it. I knew Laura was pregnant for about four months because she Skyped me her tummy. We were all sitting around our computers and I said “I’m sorry you couldn’t come visit us in Santa Fe this fall” and she stood up and said, “Here’s the reason.” We all stood up and squealed as she did a happy dance with her belly. Her friends formed a very protective circle around her that allowed her to keep the secret from the tabloid press. When she called from the hospital to tell me she named the baby after me, I was getting my teeth cleaned and I made such a cry of joy the hygienists came running in to congratulate me. It’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been given. I told Laura I don’t think she could ever top asking me to be her date to the Academy Awards, but by God, she did it.

What has the fan reaction been to the book and the series ending? 

AM: Judging by my Facebook page and places I’m looking online, it seems to be very good. People are saying, “I didn’t want it to end, but if you had to end it, this was perfect.”

It’s not a neat, perfect conclusion either. It’s “untidy,” as Anna says in the novel about life. 

AM: Anna makes the point that we have to live every day as if “it” is going to happen, that way we can always rest assured that our love is fully expressed and that nothing has been left unsaid.

Can you talk about Burning Man’s role in this book?

AM: My husband talked me into going a few years ago and I realized it was a very fertile ground for fiction, especially my kind of fiction where coincidence plays such an important role. Anything can happen at Burning Man. You don’t have a cell phone so you immerse yourself in serendipity. I also knew my own resistance to going would be useful to sharing Michael’s attitude about attending. It’s mostly the rigors of the experience I was resisting — the dust and heat — but of course the reason you submit to all these things is you find yourself in this singular environment that never ceases to enchant you.

It’s been about two years since you and Christopher moved to Santa Fe. How do you find San Francisco on your return visits?

AM: I’m feeling the same things San Franciscans are feeling: the astonishment and mild horror over the high-rises going up along Market Street. For a number of years now, I felt it getting more crowded and oppressive in terms of the general hubbub of the city. My most treasured moments in the city are when I was young and lived on Russian and Telegraph Hill and walked everywhere and virtually lived in those garden byways without a car. Because both this novel and my life have suggested a move away from San Francisco, I have to be clear about the fact that I think a certain amount of acceptance about these things is necessary. Cities change, people change, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the urge of young people to move to San Francisco. What’s different now is some of them have a lot of money and can displace people who don’t. It’s very hard for artists to live in San Francisco anymore. Chris and I have had serious considerations about other places in the Bay Area, but Chris and I figured, if we were going to lose the San Francisco experience, we should try something else. Santa Fe always held an allure for us and we wanted to see how it felt. Having said that, this last visit to town made us really homesick. We’d like to find something affordable, a rental that would let us come back for some time.

We’d love to have you here more often.

AM: Simply, it’s my town and always will be. With so much of my life and my work being about San Francisco, I couldn’t escape it if I tried.

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About the Author ()

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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