To gay men of a certain age, Armistead Maupin, author of the Tales of the City series of novels, is more than just an iconic literary figure. He is a hero! I was just out of college when the first book came out, and the humor–and the outrageousness–helped hasten my becoming the old queen I am now. And in the second book, when landlady Mrs. Madrigal was revealed to be the transsexual son of a whorehouse madam, I thought, “This is the world I want to live in!”
For me, what helped to make Tales of the City so radical wasn’t the dizzying array of sexualities on display. It was that Maupin had basically redefined the nature of family. Frankly, that is hardly less radical a notion today. Let’s talk about real family values. He dared to say that all these diverse and unique (some might say freaky) individuals could be a family simply by defining themselves as such–and then live up to the highest ideals of that term, albeit in unique and individual ways. I’ve always found that an ideal to aspire to.
So I approached meeting Maupin and hearing him speak at the State Theatre for Hennepin Theatre Trust/Loft Literary Legends series with a great deal of trepidation. I wondered how he could possibly live up to all my high expectations. But he exceeded them. Both onstage and in person, he has all the wit and humor of the books–and all the warmth and humanity as well.
He started out reading an extended section of Michael Tolliver Lives, a 2007 novel that picks up the lives of the Tales in the City gang eighteen years later. It wasn’t really a reading; it was a performance by a master entertainer. He displayed the same deadpan style when telling personal stories, only more self-deprecating.
(Michael Tolliver Lives is a worthy successor to the Tales in the City series. In fact, it is significantly better than the last couple. It is a compelling read in its own right, while honoring the history and the characters. However, Maupin doesn’t seem to know quite how to end it; it runs out of steam towards the end. But the whole earlier series had that problem. The last novels were running on empty compared with their predecessors.)
Claude Peck, senior arts editor at the Star Tribune, proved an excellent moderator. He approached his subject with real eager interest and insight, while avoiding any trace of being a sycophant. Often, though, he ended up being little more that Maupin’s straight man. (No pun intended…) Maupin seemed to look at every question as an opening, and there were very few he didn’t rise to.
For instance, reflecting on his returning to Tales in the City after a decades-long hiatus, Peck asked, “What got into you?” “There’s a very rude answer to that,” Maupin replied without missing a beat. He never seems to have met anyone that he couldn’t poke fun at, but there was never any sense of being mean-spirited or nasty.
Indeed, I found him disarming in his honesty. “The more I confess the worst about myself in print, the less alone I felt,” he said. That attitude of gentle compassion extended to everyone that he talked about–except perhaps the religious right.
But before I crown him with too shiny a halo, I am pleased to report that he was also a wonderfully gossipy old queen. He told some delicious Hollywood stories, like the fact that both Ashley Judd and Cynthia Nixon were up for the role of Mary Ann Singleton in the Tales of the City miniseries, a role that went to Laura Linney. And he talked about how the main character in his novel Maybe the Moon, the dwarf, was modeled on a friend of his who had actually played E. T. in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
The question of why he returned to the Tales of the City characters prompted a telling explanation of why he dropped the series in the first place: “Those were the days when HIV was still a death sentence. And I didn’t want the queer to die at the end.”
But HIV-positive Michael Tolliver does not die. In fact, Michael Tolliver Lives–and very passionately. (Maupin admitted that this book is more sexually explicit that the earlier ones.) Michael has survived to the ripe old age of fifty-five and is perfectly happy in his life. Maupin accomplished the difficult feat of making contentment dramatic and interesting and sexy.
Casting the story in a broader social and cultural context, Maupin said that what he wanted to do in this book was to celebrate this generation. They had grown up in invisibility, had started a revolution and then survived AIDS. “We’re still here!” he said triumphantly. Hearing that, it was nice to realize that I do indeed live in that world I always aspired to.