"Tales of the City" author Armistead Maupin: "The Google Bus is the emperor's carriage"

Maupin on how San Francisco has changed, and ending the series that made the world fall in love with it

Published February 13, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Armistead Maupin     (AP/Jeff Chiu)
Armistead Maupin (AP/Jeff Chiu)

Few writers have seen their work as wholeheartedly loved as Armistead Maupin. His "Tales of the City" series, the saga of an assortment of unconventional characters searching for love and self-understanding in San Francisco from the late 1970s on, began as a hugely popular local newspaper serial. When the first of nine novels derived from the serial, "Tales of the City," appeared in print, the rest of the world fell for Maupin's vision of the city as the joyous capital of self-expression, too. People (gay and straight) have moved to San Francisco under the influence of the "Tales," and one fan reputedly even asked to be buried with the books.

Maupin has published a couple of novels touted as the final installment of the "Tales," but this time, with "The Days of Anna Madrigal," he really means it. Anna, the wise, pot-smoking one-time landlady of the legendary boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane (an address almost as fabled as 221B Baker Street), is 92. She has a legal prescription now, and a live-in caregiver, a trans man named Jake, but 28 Barbary Lane has fallen into the hands of dot-commers who have "made it look like a five-star B and B," and Anna herself is contemplating the art of "leaving like a lady." Her former tenants -- what Anna calls her "logical family" -- still cluster around her. There are plenty of young folks, too, like a bisexual blogger who's written a novel composed of text messages, but even as the characters make a hedonistic pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, the story retains a mellow, retrospective glow.

Which is not to say it's nostalgic -- nostalgia being a sentiment Maupin has avoided ever since he first arrived in San Francisco in 1971 and read Herb Caen's misty-eyed newspaper columns about the city in the 1930s. As if to prove that he doesn't look back, Maupin and his husband, Christopher Turner, recently moved to Santa Fe, seeking closer contact with nature and a quieter life. I met with him during the international book tour for "The Days of Anna Madrigal" to ask him about moving forward and the recent major changes in the city that has been his muse.

By now, you're probably tired of people telling you how much your work has meant to them.

How could I possibly get tired of that? I just try to appreciate it and take it in while it's going on, at various book signings. To feel it all. That's the best of it. Beyond that, there's the beauty of people sharing some part of their own lives. I was in Albuquerque the other day and a Navajo kid told me that his family had accepted him not on the basis of Michael Tolliver [the series' central gay character], but on the basis of [transgender landlady] Anna Madrigal. Native Americans revere the "two-spirit" person. And because Anna accepted Michael, they accepted him. Chris and I went to a dance not far from where we live last winter, and the whole thing was led by the two-spirit person.

Anna is seriously old in this novel. As long as the sweep of "Tales" has been, and with the original characters now mostly in late middle age, the energy of it has been so youthful. The stories have always found something new and hopeful to explore. Eventually time does run out, though, but Anna approaches it very gracefully. What's it like to write about someone at that point in her life, with so much more behind her than ahead of her?

Well, I had to imagine it because I still have plenty of panic about dying. She's always been my higher self. I tried to crawl inside that and imagine how she'd handle it, how placid she would be. I had a grandmother who had been a suffragist in England all those years ago, in 1913. She was in her 90s when I saw her for the last time. She had on her nice suit and hat with her nice cane, sitting in a chair as if she were waiting for a bus to come take her away. She was ready.

A lot of the fey, spiritual side of Anna came from my grandmother. I always adored her. I grew up in a Southern household rife with prejudice, and she was the free, forgiving spirit.

"Tales of the City" was so prescient in many ways. Anna's history came as huge surprise to many readers. It just didn't occur to people that she might be transgender.

Nope. I told the editors of the Chronicle about it and they said, "You can't reveal that for a year."

So you knew it from the beginning?

I did. They said if I revealed it, that would scare away the readers. And of course, in a way, that's been the journey. Now I have Anna talking to Jake, who asks her if someone is "T," and she gets annoyed by all these new terms for their "once-exotic species."

She liked her mystery.

She liked her mystery.

Do transgender people tell you that she was an important character for them?

They do. Obviously I can't speak for every transgender reader and there may be people who have issues, but I do hear that a lot. I've also been hearing from trans men for the past eight years. I had a trans man come up to me at Burning Man to tell me about an important moment in his life. He said, "I was in a tent full of naked men and I was not ashamed of my body." That was moving.

Writing about Anna's youth is the first time you've included a lengthy flashback and a historical setting, isn't it?

First time ever. It was exhilarating, especially, to write about a time I didn't live in. It was like a complete escape, like crawling into Narnia, if Narnia was a whorehouse in Nevada in 1936! The Internet was tremendously useful. I could Google "1936 whorehouse menu" and up it would pop.

You've been working on this long narrative for years, and sometimes events just come along and hijack it. AIDS is only the most obvious example of that.

Absolutely. People didn't want me to deal with it, but I had to. And sometimes in the telling of the story, the details take control. I wanted Proustian sensory triggers to send Anna back to her past. One was the smell of an old book. Another was rose water, which would be a cheap perfume in a brothel. And the other was Lysol, which you would obviously have to keep around in such a place.

So you didn't already know about it being used as a contraceptive douche?

[Shakes head in amazement] No! I Googled Lysol just to make sure it was around in 1936. I found out not only that was it around, but it was being used as a spermicide!

You learn about that in women's studies classes.

You do?

It's one of the horror stories from the days before contraception was widely available.

Well, it is a horror story! And then they started advertising it as a "freshener." With a picture of a husband scowling and it says, "For the problem even your husband won't tell you about"! Doesn't it seem like the problem would be smelling like the kitchen floor?

I think the real problem would be that husband.

The husband -- yeah, pretty much! So Lysol went from being a little detail to a pivotal plot point.

This really feels like a desert novel.

It is a desert novel. People have tended to connect that with my moving to Santa Fe but I had it in mind before we did that. Because of both Burning Man and Winnemucca. I wanted to go to Anna's past, and then Chris dragged me kicking and screaming to Burning Man.

And you liked it?

I did. We've been twice now. Usually when he gets me off my ass, it turns out right. We have adventures.

How did Chris talk you into Burning Man?

I'm not sure I remember. Everything he said was putting me off. I'd have to wear earplugs. Then there was the dust and the white-outs. He said, "Let's do the naked bicycle pub crawl!" and I said, "My big white ass on a bicycle seat -- drunk?" And I actually didn't end up doing that, but I waited in the bar for it to come around. Our camp was the cosmo camp. We made cocktails out in the desert.

So I had to be persuaded. And we did have to wait in that long line of cars. But you get there and you do sort of cave into it in a nice way. You think, there's no escaping this, so you might as well relax, and oh yeah this sarong does feel kind of good. He also seduced me with his seamster abilities, if that's the male word for it. He touched me by going out and buying a sewing machine and taking a lesson from a lady in the Marina and then he was sewing outfits for both of us. That was pretty irresistible.

Burning Man is just such strange, hallucinatory experience. At some of my Bay Area book signings, fellow burners have shown up and at first we didn't recognize them. It's such a … they refer to this as the default world. Everything else is the default world.

You know the burning question that everyone wants to know when they learn you've moved to Santa Fe?

[Apprehensively] What's that?

Have you met George R.R. Martin yet?

I've not only met him, he's a friend! I'm going to do an appearance at the Cocteau Theater, which is the theater he owns downtown. He'll be interviewing me. A friend from V-Day [an international organization to end violence against women] mentioned to me that they needed a theater to premiere a movie, and all I had to do was ask him. He said it was an issue that matters a lot to him. Great guy.

Have you found a literary scene in Santa Fe?

Well, I didn't have one in San Francisco. I knew a few writers there, but not a scene per se. For us, living in Santa Fe is more about having a house in the country with uninterrupted views and privacy.

I'm sure I was far from the only person who was crushed to learn that you'd left San Francisco.

[Laughs] I'm required to live there for life!

Perhaps you'll write a "Tales of the Desert"?

We'll see. The first few months of living there, I was thinking in gothic terms. There's something about it -- the black skies, white stars and coyotes. One thing Chris talked me into was performing at the Crown and Anchor, a nightclub that's largely full of drag queens and singers in Provincetown. I had 300 bears in a room listening to me telling stories. That got me thinking I should put together a one-man show. I've admired a number of people who have done this, from Quentin Crisp to Elaine Stritch and Spalding Gray. I like the life that would come with it, the ability to connect with people after 40 years of sitting in front of a word processor. I've also thought about writing a memoir that would dovetail with the one-man show.

What is it like not to live in San Francisco anymore?

We do miss it. We miss our longtime friends, and the chance for street life. So we're making a serious effort to find what I call a "pied-à-merde" there. It's going to have to be pretty humble.

Real estate has gotten so expensive there.

A realtor was on my Facebook page telling me he'd love to help us find a little place in the city. I told him what we could pay, and that it needed to be dog-friendly and have a parking place. He wrote back one line: "You may have to put out for that."

It's brutal, but we're working towards it. We've learned how to swap apartments with friends. I couldn't sever myself from that city if I tried. It's inside of me. And I love being identified with such a beautiful place.

What was the attraction of Santa Fe?

Santa Fe is full of interesting people and it has its own singular beauty and peculiarity. I like the peace and quiet of it. I hate traffic, let's start with that.

I'd like to have both, if we could afford it. My Social Security pays the mortgage in Santa Fe, such is the cheapness of real estate there. That's another thing. It's a very affordable place.

One touch I especially like in this novel is the passage where Michael reflects on how the economic changes of the past 40 years have affected his friendships, slowly sifting them into two different categories.

Yes, he says they've become separated from their wealthier friends "by embarrassment."

It's one of those phenomena where you're aware of experiencing it, but you haven't put it into words yet, and then someone spells it out for you. That's something "Tales" has always been good at. I haven't lived in San Francisco for a while, but from everything I've heard, it's gotten pretty extreme there.

It's in many ways a different place. There are high-rise condos marching up Market Street towards the Castro.

And then there are the Google Bus wars, which from outside make it sound like the city is tearing itself apart.

The Google Bus is the emperor's carriage.

With the disgruntled rabble throwing muck at it!

It's become symbolic of that. If you look at it logically, it's a courteous thing for Google to do, to not have all those people driving in and parking in the city, but it represents the intrusion of enormous wealth. On one level I can't blame a 35-year-old millionaire for wanting to have a cute little place in San Francisco. It's just that there's no room for the rest of us.

When I moved there 40 years ago, I don't remember anyone ever telling me that any neighborhood would be off-limits to me as a fledgling reporter for the AP. Maybe if you wanted Pacific Heights you had to settle for a cute garage in a garden, but every other part of the city was completely possible. My little pentshack on Russian Hill was $175 a month, with a sweeping view of the bay and all the charm you could possibly want. But times change, cities change and people change.

The characters in "Tales of the City" were able to be, essentially, bohemians.

Yeah, they are. I never really put that label on them, but they are.

Mona and Anna most of all, though of course Mary Ann goes in and out of it.

She does. Michael is without a job for some years, but he can go win the jockey shorts dance contest and still pay the rent!

He couldn't pay the rent with that now! How can it go on being such a wonderfully eccentric city if people like that can't afford to live in it?

Well, it can't. That's the answer.

That's sad.

Yes, it's very sad. It can't be that city anymore. Of course, it's more beautiful than it's ever been. They've torn down the freeway so they have the waterfront again, but it's not that city anymore.

By Laura Miller

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

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