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Sat January 18, 2014
Author Interviews

One Last Tale Of The City In 'Anna Madrigal'

Originally published on Sat January 18, 2014 11:35 am

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City began as a newspaper serial in the 1970s, and grew into a beloved series of books that stand as a chronicle of life in the city of San Francisco. And it began in the decade after the Summer of Love, before anyone had ever heard of AIDS — now, it will end in the era of marriage equality.

Tales of the City is coming to a close this year with the publication of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the last story about the transgender landlady who presided over a cast of characters both gay and straight, all living in her apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane.

Many of the members of the family Anna created for herself show up in this last chapter of the series, and it ends not in the streets of San Francisco, but in the Nevada desert. Maupin tells NPR's Lynn Neary that it all grew out of an attempt to write a nonfiction story about the heterosexual cruising scene at his local Safeway. "There was actually a ritual on Wednesday nights, where people went down there in an effort to pick people up, and it struck a nerve."


Interview Highlights

On writing about gay life when no one else was

It was practically taboo — I had to constantly wrangle with my editors when they realized what I was doing. They actually kept a chart in the office that said "heterosexual" and "homosexual" to make sure that the homosexual characters didn't outnumber the straight folks and thereby upset the natural order of civilization!

On continuing the series in the age of AIDS

I lost a very dear friend to Pneumocystis pneumonia in 1982; he was one of the first people diagnosed with it. And I decided at that point that I could not continue to write what was essentially a comedic work, without working this terrible new reality into it. So that's what I did, I killed of one of the major and most beloved gay characters. When the story began, there was something amiss at 28 Barbary Lane, but I didn't quite reveal what it was for a long time. And the impact, when it ran in the newspaper, the Chronicle, was a lot of complaints from gay people who said I was spoiling their light morning entertainment by, you know, injecting my own political agenda here. But pretty soon it was everyone's agenda.

I remember being kind of crushed in the early days because the great writer Edmund White issued a decree in which he said humor has no place in this epidemic. Well, man, that was the wrong way to go, because everybody needs that to save their lives in the worst moments. You don't ban humor, ever. It's one of our greatest defenses.

On not wanting to be known as a gay writer

Well, I've stopped that battle! I'm proud of having been part of this revolution; it's the thing I'm most proud of, really. What I objected to about "gay writer" was the pigeonholing in it. And I've always felt that my success, and indeed my contribution, has been to speak to the world at large, to write for everybody and tell my stories.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It started as newspaper serial in the 1970s and grew into a beloved series of books that stand as a chronicle of life in the city of San Francisco, beginning in the decade after the summer of love. The series began before anyone had ever heard of AIDS and will end in the era of marriage equality. Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" is coming to a close with the publication of the last book in the series. "The Days of Anna Madrigal" is the story of the transgender landlady who presided over a cast of characters, both gay and straight, living in her apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane. Many of the members of the family Anna created for herself show up in this last chapter of the series. It ends not in the streets of San Francisco but in the Nevada desert. Armistead Maupin joins us to talk about this book and his remarkable series. Welcome to the program.

ARMISTEAD MAUPIN: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: So, take us back when this all began. What were you setting out to do when you started this newspaper serial?

MAUPIN: I did one for the Pacific Sun, a little weekly in Marin County that really grew out of the fact that I was trying to write a nonfiction story about the heterosexual cruising scene at the local Safeway. There was actually a ritual on Wednesday nights where people went down in an effort to pick people up. And it struck a nerve with a lot of people in the city, especially single women. And editors of the Pacific Sun asked me if I would continue writing a serial, and I did. And then we went from there.

NEARY: This was a series of stories about what life was like in the city of San Francisco, both heterosexual and gay, which at that time people weren't writing so much about gay life, right?

MAUPIN: Not at all. In fact, it was practically taboo. I had to constantly wrangle with my editors when they realized what I was doing. They actually kept a chart in the front office that said heterosexual and homosexual to make sure that the homosexual characters didn't outnumber the straight folks and thereby upset the natural order of civilization.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Did you think of yourself as being sort of subversive at that time?

MAUPIN: Oh yes, very much so. I'd just come out. I was part of this wonderful wave of liberation that was happening in the city that was both, you know, joyful and political at the same time. Your private life was part of the politics.

NEARY: You were still writing, of course, in the '80s, and that was the time when the gay community was grappling with AIDS. And, of course, that became part of the whole story.

MAUPIN: Yes. I lost a very dear friend to Pneumocystis pneumonia in 1982; he was one of the first people diagnosed with it. And I decided at that point that I could not continue to write what was essentially a comedic work without working this terrible new reality into it. And so that's what I did. I killed of one of the major and most beloved gay characters. When the story began, there was something amiss at 28 Barbary Lane, but I didn't quite reveal what it was for a long time. And the impact, when it ran in the newspaper, in the Chronicle, was a lot of complaints from gay people who said I was spoiling their light morning entertainment by, you know, injecting my own political agenda here. But pretty soon it was everybody's agenda.

NEARY: But there continued to be a lot of humor in your stories.

MAUPIN: Yes. I mean, the people I know who had to deal with AIDS found it very, very useful. I remember being kind of crushed in the early days because the great writer Edmund White issued a decree in which he said humor has no place in this epidemic. Well, man, that was the wrong way to go, because everybody needs that to save their lives in the worst moments. We don't ban humor, ever. It's one of our greatest defenses.

NEARY: There's a lot of love and a lot of love for life in your characters. Why all the way through this was it so important to show that, and in particular to show that as being part of what it means to be gay?

MAUPIN: Those characters and the way they react to things are just me. And almost everybody at 28 Barbary Lane is in one way or another drawn from my own soul. I lean on the cynical side for Mona; and Michael is the wounded romantic; and Maryann the little - seems to be naive but she comes from somewhere else and she's very much on the ball and knows what's going on. And I just tried to, you know, use my own experience. I'm glad that it let people lighten up about everything, including gay people about their own blessing, which is the way I look at my homosexuality.

NEARY: That's interesting. How did you get to the point where you looked at your homosexuality as a blessing? And did you always see it that way or did you have to sort of come to that in some way?

MAUPIN: Oh, no, I didn't always see it that way. Like a lot of gay kids, I grew up terrified of what I knew myself to be, because I saw this homophobic world around me. If the word homosexual was on a page in print somewhere, it would leap out at me. I felt haunted by it, because I couldn't talk to anybody about it, and because it was both a crime and a mental illness when I was a child. Really, San Francisco was the enormous help; to come to a place where even the straight people were more matter-of-fact about my sexuality than I was. I came out to this woman friend of mine who was about 30 and had a couple of small kids and made this big speech to her. And she sort of said - well, she did say in another form: big deal. And I realized that sexuality in general was a beautiful thing. I understood my straight friends. I understood the men I knew in Vietnam who pined for their wives late at night. You know, I understood what love was for the first time and it transformed me.

NEARY: You know, as identified as you are with the gay world, with being gay, you don't like to be identified, I've heard, as a gay writer though.

MAUPIN: Well, I've stopped that battle.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: OK.

MAUPIN: I'm proud of having been part of this revolution. It's the thing I'm most proud of, really. What I objected to about gay writer was the pigeonholing in it. And I've always felt that my success, and indeed my contribution, has been to speak to the world at large, to write for everybody and tell my stories.

NEARY: Armistead Maupin. His new book, "The Days of Anna Madrigal," is the last book in the "Tales of the City" series. Well, thanks very much. It was fun talking with you.

MAUPIN: I liked it too, Lynn. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.