Interview: Telling Tales
As he brings his Evening With tour to Cambridge, Tales of the City creator Armistead Maupin tells Velvet’s Alex Spencer about moving away, making a family and finding himself
Best-selling author Armistead Maupin is coping with a disaster as I call him in his new London home to chat about his upcoming UK tour, which is visiting Cambridge next month.
There has been a flood at his new home in Clapham, south London, and the house is beset with plumbers trying to sort out the problem.
But weighing much heavier on his mind than the state of the house is the safety of his computer on which he has just begun writing a new Tales of the City novel - something fans thought they might never see.
“The move into our new house was going fine but a water tank sprang a leak and ran down on my computer. That's not a good sign when you are beginning to write.
“There's some menacing looking stains on the ceiling so it may all come and crush me before I finish, or maybe that’s an excuse to not write. I use those as much as I can,” says Armistead.
“I am starting on a new novel, which is actually a Tales of the City novel, that goes back in time to a period that I didn’t cover before when Mona Ramsey, Mrs Madrigal’s daughter, inherits a manor house in the Cotswolds from her husband whom she married to get him a Green Card so he could go to the States and be gay.
“I left her there and I never told what happened and I thought ‘Oh, I would love to write about that’. I have never told the story of Mona and her aboriginal teenage son and how she fits in that village and what it is alike to live in the era of Margaret Thatcher when you are a proud American lesbian. So there’s some stuff that I can chew on there.”
Armistead Maupin's groundbreaking story of San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane and its residents has been charming fans for more than 40 years. The Tales of the City began as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s. It started out describing the lives and loves of characters in the apartment block, with gay man Michael Tolliver at its heart and the magnificent landlady, trans woman Anna Madrigal.
The series went on to encompasses nine hugely popular novels: Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others, Sure of You, Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn and The Days of Anna Madrigal. This year it was adapted by Netflix as a series starring Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis and Ellen Page.
“I started it as a daily serial 43 years ago, so I didn't imagine these characters would continue to live and flourish in print or on screen as long as they have,” says Armistead. “There’s no getting away from those kids!
“I think people love the show and the books because I gave them a safe place to imagine their own lives. I think that is the only way to account for the success of them over the years.”
Coming from a deeply conservative family, Armistead used the stories to come out to his own parents as he couldn’t face doing it in person.
“I was in my early 30s,” he says. “I pretty much came out to the world before I came out to them. I was writing Tales of the City and everyone knew that the author of that work was gay but my parents were kind of conveniently looking the other way. I got them a subscription to the newspaper so they could read it. My father at one point said to my mother ‘How does an Eagle Scout know these things?’ because I was writing about bath houses and gay bars
“Michael’s coming out letter in More Tales, which is the most commonly reprinted thing I have ever written, is my own personal letter to my parents. I was trying to explain to them I was happy in my skin, that I didn't do anything wrong, that being gay had given me everything; I still think that.
“I didn't send it before it was published: they read it in the paper and they read between the lines that I was talking about myself. I wanted a response from them, I wanted to open up the discussion, but none came.
“People are still going through it now. All you have to do is look at the internet to see there are teenagers suffering because their church or their parents or, in some cases, their schools do not approve of who they are and tell them.”
Since that time Armistead has been accepted by his sister, with whom he remains in close contact. But he no longer speaks to his Trump-supporter brother.
“We don't communicate anymore. It’s not just about Trump really, it’s his homophobia. I would think he would get some understanding of the subject as I’m someone who has written and spoken about the subject all of these years but I don't think he gets me. He’s not the smartest guy in the world.”
In his work Armistead repeatedly says that you choose your family, whom he calls ‘logical family’ and don’t have to continue ties with those who don’t accept you.
“(My brother) cited it five years ago when we last talked and he tried to get me to donate my grave site to the family. That's all they care about in North Carolina.
“I never go back there now. I really don't. My sister, whom I love, lives in Portland and she is coming to visit me in Clapham. You get to be a certain age, you whittle your life down to the people who are worth spending time on.”
Now aged 75 and married to photographer Christopher Turner, he has left San Francisco - where Tales of the City was set - and moved to the UK. He explains: “My husband and I just wanted to experience London with a greater intensity and England as well. Both of us had spent time here before. I have some relatives and old friends here. It wasn't a rejection of San Francisco, it was just embracing a new adventure.”
In fact his grandmother, to whom he was particularly close as a child, was English. He says: “My English grandmother was a pretty well-known suffragist who made speeches all over England. I feel an echo of that right now as I launch this British speaking tour. She was a huge influence on me because she was the only person to tell me I was fine just the way I was.
“She would read poems and when she read mine she knew where I was headed. I drew on her spirit for writing Anna; that character is infused with love and tolerance of that woman. She lived in Washington DC while I was growing up. I would visit her during long summers there and she had an influence on me.
“It is a relief to have someone like her in the family. At the time I didn't realise her suffragist experience was such a revolutionary thing, but it was.”
Now after a few months in the UK he has been inspired by the English countryside and has decided to set a new Tales of the City novel in the Cotswolds, by going back in time to tell the story of one of his characters, Mona, who has bought a stately home.
“I actually visited the manor house that it was inspired by 30 years ago. I think I will go back, as I want to show it to Chris, my husband. It is called Stanway House and it has the highest fountain in England - a giant ejaculation that erupts in the backyard and draws tourists from miles around.
“I just heard wonderful things about the house and that it was this classic English crumbling manor house that James Barry used to rent and it had quite a history. It is 600 hundred years old and is a beautiful place.
“I don't have to deliver it for a year and a half but it is called Mona of the Manor. I like Agatha Christie books but it’s not based on those. The biggest inspiration is I Capture the Castle, a Dodie Smith novel from the late 40s. A lot of teenage girls read it and swoon over it - and I’m a teenage girl at heart.”
An Evening with Armistead Maupin comes to Cambridge Corn Exchange on October 12. Tickets, priced from £18, are on sale now at cambridgelive.org.uk