[024] Armistead Maupin

They say you should never meet your heroes.

Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin

Well, I don’t know who “they” are, or who they choose as their heroes… but I can tell you that they are wrong. I met one of mine tonight, and he did not disappoint.

I wonder how many people who will see this even recognize the name: Armistead Maupin. In 1976, The San Francisco Chronicle started running a daily serial by Maupin – and so began an extraordinary adventure called Tales of the City.

TalesoftheCity.coverThe City is San Francisco, and the Tales center on three main characters: Mary Ann Singleton is a naive young woman from Ohio who takes a vacation in San Francisco and decides to stay. She finds a room in a boarding house at 28 Barbary Lane (Macondray Lane steps, in our world) on Russian Hill, presided over by a mysterious woman called Mrs Madrigal. Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is the gay neighbor who becomes Mary Ann’s first – and best – friend there. Tales is a love letter to San Francisco – which is the fourth main character. And along the way, we are introduced to a close-knit extended family and dozens of other characters. Friends are the family we choose; Anna Madrigal calls this her “logical” (not biological) family.

Maupin with Dukakis

Maupin with Dukakis

In 1993, the first of three miniseries (covering the first three books) was produced in the UK and shown in the US on PBS; the next two installments were shown here on cable on Showtime. These films were extremely satisfying to fans of the books, as they were faithful to the letter and the spirit of Maupin’s text. Laura Linney played Mary Ann Singleton, and Olympia Dukakis inhabited the role of Anna Madrigal. (We’re all hoping for the remainder of the Tales books to be filmed. Pleeeeeeeeeeeease!)

Linney as MaryAnn

Linney as MaryAnn

Armistead Maupin started spinning his Tales nearly 40 years ago, culminating in the new (ninth and he says final) novel in the series: The Days of Anna Madrigal. The stories and the characters ring true as they are based on the real people and situations – the Zeitgeist – of Armistead’s world, every step along the Days of AM.covertimeline. In fact, he is likely the first writer of fiction to incorporate the story of AIDS, as that disaster unfolded – from the beginning.

So, what started out as a bit of a lark in a SF newspaper column became a hugely entertaining and poignant series of novels – plus the films and even a theatrical musical production. But Tales of the City also functions as an important historical document covering the trajectory of AIDS, of the gay civil rights movement, and how life in the City by the Bay has changed over four decades. Armistead Maupin’s characters live in the same world we do, and his novelist’s voice is pitch perfect.

My friend Jenn and I discovered Tales of the City one summer in the early 80s in Connecticut. Little did I know then that just a few years hence I’d be moving to San Francisco for my own grand adventure. Having read the first few books, SF felt like home to me before I even got there. Armistead Maupin is a great tour guide, having introduced me to new places in the world, and in the heart. I sent Armistead a note on Facebook a few years ago, just to say thank you for Tales, what a touchstone his work was for me as a gay man without too many role models. He rewarded me by ‘friending’ me on FB, which was wonderful. Now that I’ve pulled the plug on FB, that lovely connection has been cut. I shall have to find a new way to stalk him keep in touch.

AM Lib2

I don’t know if tonight counted as “meeting” my hero; this is as close as I got in the cozy Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library in downtown LA. When they opened it up to questions from the audience, there weren’t many takers, so I raised my hand, grabbled the mic, and asked him if he was aware of anyone writing a 21st century version of Tales. He started talking about a woman married to a vicar in Lynchsomethingorothershire in England… But I wasn’t really following. I was a little lost in the moment of having this brief chitchat with Armistead bloody Maupin!

I had purchased the book in advance, and planned to have him inscribe it… but by the time I got out to the lobby, the book-signing line looked like a literary Black Friday. I decided to give it a miss. So I walked out into the cool, drizzly night (yes, it almost rained in LA today) and snapped some downtowny pics for a future post.

Now comes the bittersweet choice that faces every fan of Armistead Maupin every time he publishes a new Tales book: Do I devour it in one sitting? or savor each chapter like a course in a 3-Michelin-starred meal? or do I put it away to draw out the anticipation… just a little… while… longer? Ugh. (I’m pretty sure this dilemma won’t persist beyond this weekend.)

And then, it may be time to revisit the series from book the first. My favorite stretch of Memory Lane is where it intersects with Barbary Lane in Maupin’s Tales of the City.

BarbaryLane

Armistead Maupin and his Tales of the City make me happy.
Day 024 #100happydays

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26 comments

  1. I am going to have to add this to the stack on my bedside table (it can be next after M-R’s book). Fell in love with SF when I visited in 2009. May never make it back there (three kids to get through school and university) so I’ll just have to virtually visit through Messr Maupin. Thanks, Steve!

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    1. There’s no better way to virtually visit SF than through these Tales. Just be sure to start with the first book and read them in order. (There’s an anthology volume, ’28 Barbary Lane’, containing the first four books.)

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  2. I “stalked” Anne Lamott from book signing to book signing for a while and understand the feelings associated with finding a kinship of sorts with a favorite author. When we find we speak the same language and draw direct inspiration it’s quite a delight. I feel the same way about Joan Didion. As she is getting much older I can’t imagine the time there won’t be just one more book. I read “More Tales of the City” years ago and think I still have my copy, and you’ve encouraged me to go back and read the whole series. I love a good reading frenzy! I do hope you find another way to follow Maupin. Under the circumstances of him following you, you were quite bold to step away from FB! 🙂

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    1. Debra, it is spooky that you mention Anne Lamott & Joan Didion here… I’ve just finished “Year of Magical Thinking”. And Anne Lamott is a longtime favorite writer… I’ve been reveling in the essays she posts on her FB page. (I haven’t succeeded in leaving FB entirely.) (In fact I have failed quite miserably…) We seem to be birds of a literary feather. 🙂 I’m thrilled to know that my posts are (re)connecting you and others to Tales. It’s part romp, part documentary of our times… but mostly like being invited into a warm and wonderful group of friends. Cheers!

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  3. After reading your post, I tried to borrow an electronic copy of Tales of the City from the NY Public Library. Bad news: I’m waitlisted. Good news: enough people are still reading this book that I am waitlisted.

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  4. I have read somewhere that his characters furnished those of “Mulholland Drive” … Certainly I knew about him and his being a writer of things relating to the City of Angels …

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    1. You’re just off by about 400 miles. Tales of the City is set in San Francisco, not LA. I think you might really enjoy Tales, M-R. There is such a kinship between SF and Sydney. And the characters are wonderful.

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        1. Mebbe. But they are in different States. LA and San Fran are almost next to each other. No excuse: they’re so … DIFFERENT !

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        2. Soooo different. And as someone who has loved living in both cities, I can say they are both wonderful in their own ways. When I first moved to SF in 1990, I was certain I would NEVER leave. I was wrong. I moved there twice… and left twice. Eleven years in the warm sunshine of Southern California has ruined me for more northerly climes… but SF is a gem I will always love to visit.

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  5. Reblogged this on The End and commented:

    I made this post at the end of January as Armistead Maupin’s ninth and final Tales of the City book was published. The Days of Anna Madrigal sat on my nightstand for the past six months; I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Michael, Mary Ann, Brian – and certainly not to Anna. I finally opened it last week. And I can report that this is a very fond farewell to the ‘logical family’ of Tales. Wickedly funny. Poignant. Wistful. Triumphant. If you are reluctant, as I was, to dive in, do: the waters are as warm and inviting as ever. If you are unfamiliar with Armistead Maupin and his series of novels spanning the last 40 years, check your library or bookstore for the first book, Tales of the City. Most anyone who will see this post is likely to fall in love with these tales. And in that happy event, you’ve got eight more books ahead of you!

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  6. Sounds like a wonderful evening. After the release of the last book in the series, I picked up the first book again to begin my Maupin, San Francisco journey again. My 51 year old brain did not hold on to all the wonderful details of the characters, so I felt the need to take the journey over again. Although it would not be the same without the read-aloud-sessions with you. Hopefully, by the time I read The Days of Anna Madrigal, I will also reach San Francisco to spend some time with you. Love the memories.

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    1. Jenn! I want you to know: You’re the only woman with whom I ever loved a book aloud! Did we invent something back then? Instead of audiobooks and book groups to discuss — there should be book groups where someone reads a chapter to the group, and then discussion. Who’s with me? Let’s make that SF rendezvous happen one day. You come from PA, I’ll come from LA and we’ll meet where it all began: at the Marina Safeway! xo

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  7. Ahh – Armistead Maupin. I read everything he had written by 1993 and then, somehow, life intervened and I neglected to check back in on Tales. Will get caught up, thanks to this great post! Love that you got to “meet” him – very cool.

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    1. For those of us who are contemporaries of Maupin’s characters, there’s a certain ‘fellow traveler’ experience with these novels. If I recall correctly, you were meeting Carl right around the time Mary Ann was meeting Mouse. Sympatico! I envy you the Tales books you haven’t yet read, Leah. Enjoy!

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  8. Wow, this is actually quite awesome! I’m glad your hero didn’t disappoint 🙂 It’s great when that happens isn’t it?

    I am also curious to read and find out how these books are now. Thanks for adding something new to my reading list. I was in need of some gay hahaha

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    1. Liam, if my little post tonight has introduced you to the wonderful world of Tales of the City… that is very gratifying for me! And can I just tell you? You’re going to love it! Amazingly, it is one long story unfolding over the nine books and 40 years. So you *must* read them in order. That’s an order! I’ll be so interested to hear how you like these. Have you ever had the chance to visit San Francisco? If not, beware: Tales will have you saving up for a ticket. And I think you’ll find that SFO and CPT share some sensibilities, even if they are a world apart. Cheers!

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      1. I was actually just telling another blogger that I am thinking about adding a “Books” section to my blog. So this will definitely be something I will write about once I have read them.

        I am quite good at taking orders so I will read them in order.

        I have never been to the States no, I would really love to visit there some day. You guys are so strict with your visa requirements though. I would definitely love to visit though.

        I am going to look out for those books now when I get to the book store again. Thank you 🙂

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