Citizen of the world

Armistead Maupin talks about getting divorced, the self-ghettoization of gay lit and the strange, true story behind his new novel of suspense.

By Laura Miller

Published September 6, 2000 8:53AM (EDT)

For a writer whose first book is so well-loved that people actually ask to be buried with it, follow-up can be tough. Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" series (which originally began as a newspaper serial) has preoccupied most of the author's professional life -- he's worked on two miniseries based on the books -- for the past decade or so. There was 1992's "Maybe the Moon," a Hollywood novel narrated by a dwarf actress, but it's only now that Maupin has returned to mining his own life for fiction.

With "The Night Listener," Maupin presents readers with Gabriel Noone, a successful, middle-aged, gay writer famous for his radio serial about the adventures of an outlandishly diverse passel of San Franciscans. Gabriel confronts two challenges in the course of the novel: getting over the breakup of a long relationship -- a "marriage" in all but the legal sense of the word -- and making sense of his new friendship with a 13-year-old boy, an AIDS patient and a survivor of horrific abuse who has written a moving memoir. Although Gabriel feels tremendously close to Pete and even goes so far as to refer to him as his "son," the two have never met; their relationship builds entirely over the phone. When Gabriel begins to wonder whether he knows the real truth about Pete, a remarkable mystery (the more so for being based in reality) unfolds. Salon telephoned Maupin at his home in San Francisco to learn more about his life and fiction after the "Tales."

This is your first novel in how long?

Eight years.

What took so long?

I've been working on three miniseries in the interim both as a producer and a writer, as well as adapting my last novel into a screenplay, which has yet to be produced. And there was a divorce in there somewhere, which ended up being partially recorded in "The Night Listener."

I'm also not one of those driven writers who has to produce every day or I'll fall apart. I look at my life as feeding my work, and sometimes I have to let things happen to me before I'm ready to write again.

With this book, you do almost everything but stamp "Warning: Contents May Contain Autobiography" on the cover. Most fiction writers go out of their way to stress that while there's always some autobiographical material to their work, this is fiction.

Well, we do want to have it both ways. I wanted to do that with this novel, too, because I play fast and loose with the facts, or at least with the order of things. I invented conversations that never occurred. I tried to be as emotionally true as I possibly could be, to tap my own insecurities and pain to make something that felt real to the readers. That's the single axiom I'm faithful to: Try to remain as honest and candid as possible. And don't hide behind a 32-inch dwarf actress, which is what I did in my last book.

There are two stories running through "The Night Listener," one of which is the breakup that you mentioned -- which really is a divorce because your life was so intertwined with your partner's. You began writing about that relationship in the "Tales," and part of what you wanted to do there was demonstrate an exemplary gay relationship. Did you worry about the "gay P.R." aspect of writing about your breakup in "The Night Listener," in other words, about undoing the social point you tried to make in the "Tales"?

No. I really didn't. If anything, it was my sincere belief that to chronicle the breakup of a gay relationship would record its depth and reality far more effectively than something that was all sweetness and light. I play with the idea in the novel. Gabriel dotes on this perfect gay relationship and both partners relished displaying their love to the world. Most openly gay people in the public eye have that experience. It must have been extremely exhilarating for Ellen and Anne to be lovey-dovey in public because it was both a political act and a sign of their personal happiness. And I identified with them all the more when they split because of that. But my responsibility first and foremost is to record my life and the conclusions I draw from it as honestly as possible. That process had always served me very well in the past and I knew I had to do it one more time.

One thing people love about "Tales of the City" is the community of people it depicts, people who are mixed in terms of their sexual orientations and outlooks on life. But Gabriel seems strikingly alone in this novel, which makes him all the more open to this odd phone relationship after Jess leaves him. It's not as though he, like Mary Ann from "Tales of the City," can just go downstairs in the house on Barbary and find someone to talk to.

I deliberately made Gabriel somewhat more isolated a person than I am, but I must admit that celebrity has narrowed my frame of reference to a certain degree. I tend to be more cautious about hooking up with strangers. And as I get older I find myself content in my small circle of friends. But I do have a very tight circle of friends who do cover just about every racial and sexual stripe, and I treasure them.

Certainly, though, Gabriel's agony and pain during the initial separation from Jess is drawn directly from my own experience. It was how I pulled myself through that time, by writing that first chapter, which existed for a long time before the rest of the book. I didn't have the stamina to imagine a second chapter. Gabriel at some point says, "How can I go on with this story when I don't know what the end is?" and that's how everybody feels when the rug gets pulled out from under you in such a dramatic way. All of your placid assumptions are challenged. But if you're asking me about the state of my happiness now, it's better than it's been in a long, long time!

Actually, I was wondering whether you think that San Francisco has changed in that way as well, or whether it's mostly your own circumstances that have changed.

It's a different moment for me. I'm 56 years old. I'm a writer who's had some success in the world. I live an odd, rarefied life. I've built a family out of my ex-lover and my closest friends. That's what I can write about now. I'm not 25 years old and looking for an apartment on Russian Hill, and I can't even comment about people who are. I'm often asked what the state of gay life is today, and I can't answer that. There was a point in my life where I might have been described as a gay Everyman, but I don't think I fall into that category anymore. Maybe nobody does.

It's a hard one to call. I can't disentangle my own aging process from the way the city itself has changed. I'm making every effort, though, not to piss and moan about a Golden Age that has passed because it makes me sound too much like my parents. The people I have valued the most over the years have been the people who have found something to love about the present moment. Christopher Isherwood was my mentor, and he remained charming and delightful company well into his 80s because he lived in the moment and celebrated the moment with whoever he met.

As a San Franciscan traveling in England, I was struck by how many people knew the "Tales" and kept asking me if it was really like that in the city. And I'm not even the author of the book ...

The answer is that it is like that. I was accused of being a fantasist, a Pollyanna, when I first started writing "Tales of the City." Most gay people in other parts of the country couldn't imagine that gay and straight people could sit down together, cast aside their differences and be human beings with one another. That was true for me 20 years ago and it's still true for me. That's one of the reasons I've resisted the whole ghettoizing of gay lit. I've always felt myself to be writing about all of humanity, and that my redemption would come by regarding myself as a citizen of the world. It wasn't my intention with "Tales of the City" to invent a subculture we could all safely hide in.

It's always hard to talk about this because there's this assumption that I'm running away from my homosexuality. I was open about my homosexuality before most of the writers currently working.

How could anyone possible think you were running away from your homosexuality?

Because an industry has evolved around gay writing, and many of the people in that industry are interested in keeping it apart from the rest of literature. I'm not. "Tales of the City" began as a thoroughly mainstream property. It began in a daily newspaper, and what was radical about it was that I placed gay subject matter in the context of the world at large. In the marketing of "The Night Listener," I've spent a great deal of time trying to persuade the powers that be that this is not a "gay novel," but a novel that could interest anyone. At the same time I've tried to be as flagrantly queer as I can possibly be. It delights me to think that some grandmother who's reading this gripping little mystery story is going to find herself in the back of a truck with a hunky trucker before the novel is over.

Those readers are often more open to that than they're given credit for.

I think the American public is far more sophisticated about gay subject matter than it's given credit for.

The other thread in the novel is this strikingly odd, mysterious relationship with the boy, Pete. And yet this is also based in reality.

I'll go so far as to say that some of that storyline is drawn from personal experience, but to assume that it's the whole truth would be a grave mistake.

It's interesting that in the same way that some of the events in "Tales of the City" just seem too preposterous to believe, so does the idea of developing such a close relationship with someone you've never met, someone you know solely over the telephone and whose identity you might come to doubt. It seems like some cooked-up premise for a thriller!

It does, doesn't it? [Laughs] You can say I cackled demonically. However, I really feel a responsibility to not confuse the public or people I know with my fictional storytelling. All I can really say with any degree of conscience is that some of it is based in reality and it was a reality that was so strange that I felt as if I were living in a novel myself. It was really the oddest thing that ever happened to me. I've never felt more compelled to write something. And because that story remains a mystery to me to this day, it would be irresponsible to speculate publicly.

OK. Gabriel gets into this phone relationship when he's very vulnerable because of the breakup, but there's another aspect to his vulnerability, which is an unsatisfied fatherly impulse. Is that an important yearning for you?

It's not for me. Gabriel says that he didn't have any latent father instincts and I mean that to be true. It was really this particular person and the way in which they had something to provide for each other. For years, the inability to experience parenthood was offered as the big drawback to homosexuality. There are too many gay people these days who have broken that rule completely, either by choosing to have children or adopting. Those options are open to everyone. I've never really yearned for a child, I can honestly say that. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy the company of children and see them as other human beings who might enlighten me and make my life more interesting.

But choosing to have a child is not the same thing as having fathering impulses.

You're right, it's not. Part of maturity is the need to pass on what you know to younger people. I've found myself doing that a lot in recent years. I have friends who are 22 or 23 towards whom I feel extremely fatherly, and it's lovely because they're also gay, or some of them are, and I'm able to be a gay father in some sense. I'm able to pass on my life experience to a younger person and let them bounce their heartaches and dreams off of me. It makes me feel that much more useful because I didn't have anyone to do that for me when I was a young man, and I wished that I had it.

I've been involved with a group called LYRIC that provides support for gay teens. A lot of gay people have been leery about that for fear of looking like pederasts, but to think that way is to rob gay kids of the chance to experience a mentor relationship.

Gabriel does bump up against that anxiety in other people. However, Pete is straight, and one of the great points in "The Night Listener" is when Gabriel sends Pete a Playboy.

That's more like being an uncle or grandparent. They get to commit that kind of sacrilege and thereby become closer to the children.

Nevertheless, a lot of straight people who are comfortable with gays in most other ways are still not quite comfortable with this. It must be very painful for gay people of either gender, who want to have that elder relationship with a young person, that it has to be so fraught.

For many people it's fraught with those fears, but it's just another aspect of homophobia that gay people must cast off. Most children today, most teenagers today, are perfectly comfortable with the concept of homosexuality. At least, they know what it is and they're often more blunt about the subject matter than a middle-aged gay man in San Francisco might be. I have some very civilized friends here who chose to make me and my lover Terry the godparents of their two boys, one of whom is 18 now and the other of whom is 6. The 18-year-old has known since he was about 5. He won the Ernest Hemingway award, which is a high school journalism competition, for writing about his relationship with me and Terry. He's the coolest dude on the planet, and he's as straight as they come. His parents never communicated any uncomfortable feelings about me and Terry, and so consequently, he never had them. It was a wonderful, rich opening-up for me because I was able to let go of that feeling that I better be careful or it'll look like I'm proselytizing, whatever that means.

As if you could!

Yes, as if you could.

One of the things that Gabriel is still trying to come to terms with, even in his 50s, is his relationship with his own father. I wonder if you think that it's taken him so long because he's gay or if, conversely, the process is happening at all because Gabriel's gay. Does the fact that they have this big issue to deal with force them to really talk to each other in ways they wouldn't have otherwise?

Well, I can say that, on a personal level, my homosexuality helped differentiate me dramatically from my father, so that we could finally arrive at a loving friendship between two different people, not just Armistead Maupin and Armistead Maupin Jr. As far as confrontation goes, I don't know how being gay figures into it, because both my brother and my sister are -- in their 50s -- finally reaching a sort of ditente with my father, and they're both rampantly straight.

Something really lovely arose as a result of this novel, which is a far closer relationship with my father. He called me up to tell how much he liked the novel, how proud he was of me, how he thought it was my best work yet, and how he was sure it would be a bestseller. I was stunned! I had imagined every possible response -- from him never speaking to me again to him being heartbroken -- except for the one he came up with, which was to behave in a completely generous and loving manner. It was pretty damn amazing.

Perhaps one thing he liked, which is something dads often seem to like, is that you've crafted a plot that's a bit like that of a thriller, though I wouldn't exactly use that term for "The Night Listener."

I always flinch a little when I pick up the TV guide and see "Vertigo" described as a thriller, because that was the single work of art that most influenced me in my writing.

Really? The sensibility seems so different from yours.

If you look at the bone structure of "The Night Listener," you'll see that, like "Vertigo," there's a major turnaround in the middle of it. It involves obsession and longing and switched identities and a middle-aged man on a quest. It's very interesting for me to watch "Vertigo" today and see so much in Jimmy Stewart's performance that reveals so much to me about the state of being single in your middle years. It's a very complicated and interesting performance. Most of my friends look at the relationship between him and Barbara Bel Geddes and say "That's just like a gay man and his best friend." It was very radical at the time to show two grown-ups of the opposite sex who were actually friends who did things together, who went to the movies together.

Though their relationship is hardly that simple.

Yes, that's true. It's very complex. The movie deals with every possible human longing and the nature of loneliness, and also with that experience of arriving at the place where you began. "Tales of the City" was a sort of train that I got on and its form dictated what I had to do. There were moments when you could glimpse my fascination with mystery stories and those darker themes, but for the most part it was a sunnier, more optimistic climate. I love mystery novels and movies that test you mentally, that are about human themes and that don't resort to violence and mayhem as part of the excitement.

Yet most of those books and movies aren't autobiographical. We don't think of them as being true to life. It must have been strange to take the elements of your life and put them into the kind of plot that's usually thought of as being escapist because it's contrived and not at all like real life.

No one marries memoir to mystery! I think you can do both. I tried to arrive at some kind of heart truth in the course of telling a gripping suspense story. I used the autobiographical stuff to serve the story and not the other way around. I've always wanted to keep people interested more than anything else.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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