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Armistead Maupin charms in Seattle

The one thing about hosting author interviews in public spaces is that you’ve got to “yes, and...” the hell out of them. No matter what the author throws at you, you have to make it an additive experience. If they tell an anecdote about fox hunting, you’ve got to find the connective tissue to tie that anecdote to the next question somehow, even if the next question is related to the stock market. Dead air in an onstage interview is...well, death.

I bring this up because onstage recently in Seattle, Armistead Maupin knocked me on my butt at least three times. I mean, he literally left me speechless. Maupin is a sweet and generous public speaker. He’s kind in his recollections, he’s full of explosive anecdotes and hilarious observations. And every few minutes, he’ll say something so fantastically filthy that it’ll make you laugh until the wind’s knocked out of you.

Maupin fired off quips about sign language interpreters miming acts of masturbation, about oral sex, about orgies. A few times, those jokes were so quick and so funny that I had nothing to say in response. Maupin seemed to relish catching me flat-footed. The last time it happened, he said, “I saw the color was coming back into your face, so I decided to do something about that.”

Of course, it wasn’t all dirty jokes. We talked about why he decided to write his memoir, “Logical Family,” now (“I’m 73,” he noted wryly, asking when else he was supposed to publish his memoirs.) We discussed how he feels about his legacy (he seems rightfully proud of what he did to represent gay and trans populations in mass media.) He shared whether he’s comfortable with his role in the outing of actor Rock Hudson (yes, although Maupin admitted that he does have dreams where Hudson, a former flame, appears to him and says he’s happy with how things worked out.) He talked at length about Barry Manilow and what it means to be a closeted artist.

Maupin also revealed that he’s working with Netflix to create a television series based on his popular “Tales of the City” books. The series, he says, will be set in the present day and will track the lives of his most popular characters more than four decades after the first publication of the first “Tales of the City” in the San Francisco Chronicle.

If you’ve read all of the series, you’ll likely want to read “Logical Family.” If you’ve never read a single word of “Tales of the City,” you’ll find “Logical Family” to be a concise and fascinating introduction to Maupin’s world. It’s such a personal and specific book that it has universal appeal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become one of his very best-loved titles.

The book tracks his early career as a writer — from the first thing he wrote as a toddler to his time as a writer of serial fiction in newspapers to his long path to bestselling novelist. And it also follows his transformation as a human, from his youthful conservatism to his stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War to his rebirth as a gay celebrity at a time when San Francisco was the most exciting city in the world.

Maupin writes freely about the drugs he took, the orgies he attended, the enemies he made. It’s the kind of book that only a man satisfied with the course of his life could write. He knows who his friends are, and he knows his enemies, and he knows what his accomplishments are, and he’s at peace with that. And if he can drop a few jaw-dropping sex jokes along the way? Well, that’s just a bonus.

Constant is the co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books, where this essay was original published.

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