Armistead Maupin: The Last Tale
Author: Dan Lopez
January 21, 2014
After 36 years, Armistead Maupin is finally bringing his seminal Tales of the City series to a close this month with the ninth and final (so he claims) installment. The Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins) finds the beloved transgendered landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, now in her early 90s, heading back to her hometown of Winnemucca, Nevada to tidy up some loose ends. Along for the ride is Anna’s old tenant Brian Hawkins and his new wife (a familiar face to fans). Meanwhile, the rest of Anna’s “logical” family—including fan favorites Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton—also find themselves in Nevada, at the alkali flats of Burning Man, to be precise. What awaits them all in the desert is a fitting conclusion to the long-running, often madcap, but always poignant Tales.
Lambda spoke with Maupin about Anna, the future of queer activism, and the enduring legacy of San Francisco.
Why this book now? Why Anna Madrigal?
Well, it was about time I got around to her, don’t you think? I knew it was going to be the last book and it made sense to me to give Anna her proper attention. In a lot of the books she doesn’t even get her own chapters. She’s there as the sounding board for one of the other characters, so I wanted to dig more deeply into her life and to examine her past, and it made sense to me that since is the last book that an exploration of her young boyhood would be an interesting thing to do.
You’re well known for writing in real-time. Was it difficult switching gears and writing historical fiction?
It scared me when I began, but I took to it quite easily. I was very happy living in that world. I spent a lot of time on Google looking up things about the 1930s. I found a whorehouse menu that was enormously useful to me.
What kind of things where on there?
One of the delights they offered was something called a “dry bob,” which I’ve included in the novel without actually telling anyone what a “dry bob” is just to make them go look it up. I also discovered that Lysol was used as a spermicide by women at that time. Hideously dangerous, but there you go. I decided to make the Lysol the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine, the thing that triggers a trip into the past for Anna. It helped that she had a little grass. That particular strain, by the way, was given to me as a present when I arrived in Santa Fe long after I had included “Blue Dream” in the book itself, so it was quite serendipitous.
You live in Santa Fe now. Do you ever miss San Francisco?
Oh, sure! All the time. It’s completely embedded in my life and in my heart and in my work. I don’t think of myself as having divorced myself from the city. Our dream is to find a little place to come to and spend a few weeks and then go back to Santa Fe. Don’t know if that’s a viable dream yet. The tech revolution has changed things considerably. My early days in San Francisco I lived on, alternately, Telegraph and Russian Hills. I wandered around those lanes as if I were living in the most wonderful village in the world. And artists could afford that back then. It didn’t occur to you that there was any neighborhood where you couldn’t live. That’s long gone.
Do you think an artistic life and technology can co-exist in that city?
We’re all using this stuff, which is why a certain number of San Franciscans are stinking rich now. And I must say, I can’t really fault someone who loves the city so much they want to live right smack dab in the middle of it and are willing to pay for that. [Coexisting] still goes on and I’m happy that it still goes on.
Is this really the last book in the series?
Yes, it really is! You’re completely entitled to be dubious. I said that Sure of You was the last book of the series in 1989, but I’ve made up my mind about this one. I’m happy with the shape. The Days of Anna Madrigal completes the third trilogy. First trilogy was pre-AIDS, the second trilogy was post-AIDS, and the third was in the new millennium.
At the end there are still some unanswered questions, particularly with the newer characters. It’s an interesting comment on life. You come in at a certain point and you leave at a certain point, and there’s no wrap-up.
That’s exactly right. An older person like me becomes aware of that. Life will proceed without you, and there is no “ending,” per se, to anything. The only way to wrap-up a story that involves a dozen or more people would be to drop a bomb on them. There’s a moment at the end of the book when Anna turns to Brian and says, “There’ll be no tidying up.” That’s me talking to myself. That’s me talking to the reader. And that’s me commenting on life in general.
I was really touched by one line in particular. Anna, still Andy, is beginning to confront the limitations of Winnemucca. You write: “He felt so old that summer, older than he would ever feel again. His youth had grown decrepit, and there was nothing in sight to replace it.” That’s what Anna Madrigal has been doing her whole life, isn’t it, living the contradiction, inventing her own path?
Thank you! I noticed it too as I wrote it and I was proud of it. I’m glad you saw it. Yes, I remember having that feeling myself when i was 19 and my life was so completely unresolved because I knew of my attraction to boys. I couldn’t imagine a way out of the world I was already programmed for. I think I’m saying that as much as anything.
The tone of the books has changed considerably. Was that intentional?
I think it’s a product of learning to write. Even when I was writing for a newspaper I learned how to write episodes that would fit together as a formal chapter and the book that I knew would result from it. The first book I actually assembled on the floor of Rock Hudson’s living room in Palm Springs. He lent me his little house for a week to get the novel together. I put them on the floor and moved them around until they related to each other.
When you refer to Rock Hudson in Further Tales you use dashes rather than his name.
The only reason that I invoked that Victorian convention was to underscore the fact that there were people that lived public lives that were utterly separate from the life that gave them sustenance. It was my way of commenting on the closet. I wanted to underscore the fact this bullshit system was in place and that a lot of people suffered under it. It’s still in place, by the way. It’s just much more sophisticated.
How does the closet operate today? Who’s in it?
Professional athletes. There are virtually no openly gay athletes. There are a few more every year, but there’s still the perception that it will destroy your career. The same with major movie stars. There are still agents and producers in Hollywood who advise actors to stay in the closet. Underlying it all is the notion that there’s still something shameful about being gay.
Do you foresee a time in the near future when we will be without the closet?
I think it will come possibly in my lifetime, but I’m not going to wait around for it to change. I’ve been speaking openly about people that I know to be gay since the term “outing” was coined. Mike Signorile and I were very much on the same page way back then and still are today, for that matter. To say that homosexuality requires you to be on tiptoes is to continue the stigma. When I came out of the closet it became clear to me that not only was there nothing wrong with being gay, there were certain distinct advantages! Some of my biggest heroes were gay people. And, no, it is not a right for one person to tell the rest of the world to be quiet about it. Acknowledging your homosexuality is not the same thing as destroying your private life. The whole world knows that Ian McKellen is gay, but very few people could probably tell you who he’s seeing right now or if he’s seeing someone, or what he does in bed. He’s planned it that way. He’s created a life where he can be honest about his nature because that’s the important part, not the sexual act. The more we fight against “outing,” the more we suggest we’re nothing more than sexual creatures.
Do you consider your work “queer lit”?
I have always regarded the books as my activism. They were queer lit in the beginning because nobody else in the popular realm was writing gay characters. I think it’s the most radical statement I make. We aren’t off in some separate, precious little world; we’re out there functioning in the world. Some of us have the support of straight friends, and that struck me as the greatest thing I could offer. I think people have been drawn to the books for that reason, because it makes them feel part of a world. I think it seems less radical these days because the world has caught up with the vision of Barbary Lane. Barbary Lane was LGBT made into a house. I had all those things from the very beginning. I showed how they were connected. The liberation of one should always mean the liberation of the others. I’m reading that the right wing’s next attack is going to be on the trans community and I think that’s where our attention should be drawn now.
If you envision 28 Barbary Lane as the house that represents LGBT people…
And straight people, by the way. There’s a little bit of everybody.
So what does it mean that the characters no longer live at Barbary Lane?
We have spread out. I think San Francisco’s dream has become the world’s dream. We were a little bit ahead of most places. There are very few places that I go where I don’t run into people that say, “This is my Mrs. Madrigal” or “This is my Mary Ann; this is my Mona.” The “logical family” I talk about is thriving everywhere. The books tend to spread as that fact is realized. They’re catching on in Italy now as that country begins to loosen up.
Maybe you can get on the Olympic delegation to Russia.
I would probably be told that I couldn’t go. The State Department told Ian McKellen that he should not go to Russia precisely because of anti-gay laws and because he, like I, have been propagandizing for the fair treatment of gay people. There’s no doubt whatsoever about whether or not we’re promoting homosexuality. Presumably Brian Boitano is okay because he’s kept his mouth shut for so long. My friend Billie Jean King is going over, and I can’t wait to see the results of that.
Coming back to Anna, is it fair to say that she is the most consistent character in the series, the one who seems to know herself thoroughly from day one?
Yes. She represents higher consciousness. When I sat down to write this book I thought, well nobody is that perfect! She must have something that still bugs her. That’s why I chose to send her to Winnemucca to tidy things up.
Can you talk a little about Anna’s childhood friend Lazco?
Without being too specific we all know by now that there’s quite a difference between being a gay man and being a trans person. I wanted to represent the way that people send the wrong signals to each other because they’re living in such a world of silence that nobody can really say what’s going on.
Was it difficult to write this book while living in Santa Fe?
I lived [in San Francisco] for forty years. I could walk around it in my sleep. A lot of the places I wrote about in the earlier Tales weren’t places I necessarily frequented. I was just reporting on them. I’m not talking about the baths, by the way. I definitely frequented them.
What’s next now that you’ve put Tales behind you?
I’m allowing myself a little breathing room here. I’m seriously considering a one-man show, a sort of staged thing about my own life, and the companion memoir that goes with that. I have a few good stories to tell, as you might guess.
Photo Credit: Christopher Turner