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Armistead Maupin is one of the most celebrated authors of his time. A pioneer in many ways, his books and writing have influenced generations of LGBT and straight readers and writers alike. His latest novel, Mary Ann In Autumn, is published by Harper this month. He was kind enough to spend a few minutes with us on the phone from his home in San Francisco.
As charming and thoughtful as he was when he first appeared on the literary scene over 40 years ago, Maupin’s principles seem to drive his success. Among other things, we chatted about his many memorable characters, the new Tales of the City Musical, and Logo’s “contemptible” reality TV show “The A-List.”
AG. This is the eighth book in the series and Mary Ann is 57 years old. Why so much time between the sixth novel and then Michael Tolliver Lives and now Mary Ann in Autumn?
Well, largely because I had other things I wanted to do. I wrote a novel called Maybe the Moon that I really had in me and wanted to get out. And another novel called The Night Listener that was inspired by a very strange episode in my life that allowed me to get a little more autobiographical than I’ve done in the past.
And there were a few television miniseries that happened in between there that took up my time. I did think that I had ended it in 1989, but I returned to the character of Michael Tolliver because I realized I had a wonderful opportunity to show that a lot of people who thought they were going to be dead in the late 80s were actually still around.
I thought their story was a valiant one and worth telling.
AG. When you’re writing the stories and working on the characters is there ever a discrepancy between who’s the main character?
Is Michael Tolliver more of a main character than Mary Ann Singleton? Or do you seem them as equals?
The focus shifts over the novels. Some of my many characters bow out for a novel in the early series and come back later on. The focus was certainly on Michael Tolliver last time around because I departed from my usual multi-character, third person format and told it all straight out of Michael’s voice. So it was strictly from his viewpoint.
Mary Ann in Autumn I returned to more of that intricate tapestry, with four different characters telling their own story from their own view points. But all of them are spinning around Mary Ann, so it is fundamentally her story.
AG. Your writing is very of-the-moment; the things that you write about had so much to do with things that were happening in San Francisco at the time. There’s so much exciting news and drama. Is that spirit still alive?
It depends on who you ask of course, always, but it is for me. It’s a very small place so people have a chance to bump into each other. There’s a constant air of surprise.
I’m glad you mention that business about being in the moment, because I’m very proud of that.
Basically what I’ve done for the past 40 years is tell the history of a group of people in real time. So I rely on anything that’s happening in the moment as fair game. I don’t worry about whether it might be out of style in a year.
That came up actually in Mary Ann in Autumn. I have a brilliant editor, who is a brilliant writer himself, Rakesh Satyal—who is forgiven for the fact that he’s 30, because he was reading my manuscript and said, “You made a reference to Amy Winehouse and that’s so last year. You might want to change that.”
Well, I said, “No, no Rakesh, I want that in there for precisely that reason.”
The new novel starts right after Obama is elected and I was just grabbing at things that could nail it to the time so that 20 years from now you could sit and laugh and say, “Remember Amy Winehouse?” It’s a device I’ve had for a long time.
AG: I was listening to a Radio interview you did in 1982 called “The Gay Life with Randy Alfred” and it’s part of the GLBT History Project, which has found a home in San Francisco in the Gay History Museum.
What really stood out for me is that you use the term, “A Gay Socialite.” You basically coined the term, A Gay.
You said, “A Gays are not a part of mainstream life—they are pariahs. Often they are in the field of decorating. They affix themselves to the A Regular society. An extra man. A Walker. Socio-Sexuals. Social climbers who read W and they all want to get into Interview Magazine.”
There’s a TV show devoted to them right now! They haven’t gone away.
AG: That’s what I want to ask you! Have you seen Logo’s “The A List” and do you have an opinion on it?
I won’t watch it. [Laughter] I know already. I’ve seen the previews. I’ve never seen such contemptible people in my life.
First of all, people who stand around bragging that they are on the A List, aren’t. Let me put it that way. Their whole life revolves around being around the right people and going to the right clubs, but as far as their own personal accomplishments are concerned, they are nowhere close to that.
Tony Kushner is on the A list, as far as I’m concerned. Not these empty boys bragging about their buff bodies and whose hair they did last week. That is nothing against hairdressers or any other of the professions that often get associated with being gay.
I judge people individually on the basis of their hearts and their instincts. That show seems to deliberately dig up the worst. This is us kind of taking the bait for the “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
And by the way, when I invited the term A Gay, I meant it with utter contempt and ridicule. It’s kind of ironic some of the people I was spoofing back then, eventually came to claim it as their badge of honor that they were in Tales of the City as one of the A Gays.
AG: I was sitting with a friend having dinner the other night and we said we should come up with our list of the real A List Gays. You mentioned Tony Kushner, but my friend actually mentioned you. He said you were very A List.
I’m happy that somebody tells me that they like my work, or they like what I have to say politically, but I have really no interest in being on a list. Once you agree to join the list, you’ve shown yourself to be corrupt.
AG: David Blaustein, the gentleman who is writing the review of your book, wrote me to ask you this: “Do you see your own writing as a performance, and if so, whether that feeling has been much stronger at any time in regards to any specific book or section of a book.”
Yes. I do. Really. I think I have a strong a relationship with my readers, as any writer I know, in terms of the pleasure I get of knowing what trick I’ve played on them. And they see that I’ve played it or they realized what I’ve done.
Or they are having that little aha moment. And that’s the same feeling that a performer on a stage gets from an audience. I’m aware of my audience. I know they are there. I’m not writing this just to satisfy myself. In fact that’s pretty far down the line. I’m really, for better or worse, trying to make the reader happy and to have that connection with them. That’s why I like reading aloud during the book tour.
It’s really satisfying to actually do what I used to do when I was eight years old. Just make my friends sit down around the campfire. I get to do that after I’ve finished a novel.
The purest moment of that probably came in terms of Michael [Tolliver’s] coming out letter to his mother, which in fact was my coming out letter to my parents.
It served as that when it appeared in ‘the Chronicle’ back in 1977. That piece has had a life of its own. It was made into a beautiful choral piece by David Maddux’s with Gay Men’s choruses across the country and now. Now John Garden and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters has made it into a very small piquant song for the new Tales of the City Musical. That’s pretty thrilling because it was something that came straight from my heart in about 45 minutes and it’s still around all these years later.
AG: Can you talk about the musical? I think that’s so exciting. And I’m so happy that Jake Shears is involved. I love his music. I’m a fan.
So do I. And so am I.
Chris and I had sex the other night to “Skin Tight” and I highly recommend it.
But beyond that…
AG: Uh huh.
On a more artistic level… I couldn’t be happier with what they are doing. They’ve actually created character songs that reflect the inner workings of the characters who sing them.
That doesn’t always happen in musicals. Often songs are just…they share a common flavor, but they don’t add something new to the delineation of the characters. And that’s what they’ve managed to accomplish through some really beautiful music.
And of course it’s hard to describe sitting there in the workshop and listen to Betty Buckley sing her Anna Madrigal song for the first time.
She has several numbers. The composers really rose to the occasion when they realized Betty was coming on board.
As we end our time together, I want to finish with another question from David Blaustein. You’ve accomplished so much in your life. You’re a bestselling author, you have tons of famous friends, you’re happily married…. Of all those things, what do you think has been perhaps the proudest or happiest moment so far?
Would I sound terribly bourgeois if I said my wedding two years ago?
AG: Not at all.
AM: Finding Chris represented something big for me. I’ve always felt like Love was the only true sacrament and it was wonderful to realize that I had finally gotten it right.
I am an atheist, and I don’t take the trouble to say I’m a spiritual person, although I suppose that I am; so all of what matters to me most is to connect with another person and other people.
But to connect with one other person in a way that is pure and beautiful and lasting is a great thing. I was thrilled to be able to make that official.
AG: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! We’re big fans here at LLF and I hope we get the opportunity to chat again soon.
Thank you a lot Tony I’ve enjoyed talking to you.
Photo © Christopher Turner