Armistead Maupin talks with David L. Ulin
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In Tuesday’s Calendar section, book critic David L. Ulin visits Armistead Maupin to talk about ‘Mary Ann in Autumn,’ the first full-scale ‘Tales of the City’ novel in more than 20 years. Maupin’s longstanding serial is among the most iconic fictional portrayals of San Francisco, and a saga beloved by readers around the world. Here’s more from their conversaion.
Jacket Copy: Now that you’ve returned to ‘Tales of the City,’ is it safe to assume that you’ll continue to write additional installments?
Armistead Maupin: I don’t know. Having written it as a daily serial in a newspaper, which I felt tremendously strapped by, I never wanted to put myself in that position again. But I can’t seem to stop.
JC: You’ve said all the characters in ‘Tales of the City’ are you, to some extent.
AM: They are.
JC: But Mary Ann especially so?
AM: Well, Laura Linney took a huge burden off me by inhabiting her so well in the miniseries that I now think of Laura when I write Mary Ann. I don’t hear my own voice, and I like having that distance.
JC: What do you and Mary Ann have in common?
AM: We’re pleasant on the outside, but inside, the wheels are turning and judgments are being made. I suppose I’m as picky as she is about the people she hangs out with. I don’t know how to put it exactly, but her internal monologue is often mine.
JC: How did the serial come about?
AM: A woman named Virginia Westover, who was the society columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been at a party where [Chronicle columnist] Charles McCabe was present. And Charles was kind of drunk and holding forth and saying that what I was doing in the Pacific Sun was exactly what they needed for the Chronicle. So I wrote Charles a letter, and he went to [Chronicle publisher] Charlie Thieriot and said, ‘This young man is just vulgar enough to make it work.’ He got me in to meet the Thieriots, and to my horror, they asked, ‘What if we ask you to do this five days a week?’ I lied and said that would be no problem. They wanted six weeks’ worth before they’d even start. And then, when it began, I very quickly ate up my backlog. To their horror, I’d be turning in Wednesday’s column on a Monday.
JC: But that gave you a lot of freedom to respond to current events.
AM: Absolutely. The day after the Chronicle ran the story about Anita Bryant organizing her anti-gay campaign, I had Michael Tolliver’s mother write him a letter saying that she had joined the Save Our Children campaign without knowing that her own son was gay. And as fate would have it, I had already established Michael as the son of Florida orange growers.
JC: How did the Chronicle deal with your more controversial material?
AM: When the anti-gay measure passed in Florida, I heard a lot of gay people making noises about how we’d have to go back into the closet. I thought: This is not a referendum on whether you’re a worthwhile human being. So I had Michael say, ‘When I came out of the closet, I nailed the door shut.’ I heard through the grapevine at the Chronicle that the guys upstairs were going to pull it because it was too offensively firebrand. I got on the phone to Dick Thieriot, the younger of the Thieriots, and I told him that if he pulled it, I would quit. I hung up and thought, ‘You just murdered the goose that laid the golden egg.’ I paced around the house for three hours, and then he called back and said, ‘All right.’
JC: You wrote the first five books as daily serials for the newspaper.
AM: ‘Sure of You’ was the first one I wrote on its own. ‘Significant Others’ was in the Examiner. The first two books were basically the first two years’ worth of columns.
JC: What’s the difference between a daily deadline and a longer deadline?
AM: The latter is definitely more leisurely. I work very slowly. I write about a page a day on a really good day. The computer has turned me into someone who insists on perfecting every paragraph before I move on. I think of it as like mosaic work. It’s tremendously tedious, and I don’t even get to have the fun of it until it’s done.
-- David L. Ulin