After Almost 40 Years, Armistead Maupin Is Closing The Book On "Tales Of The City"
With The Days of Anna Madrigal, now in stores, Armistead Maupin concludes the nine-novel Tales of the City series he began in 1976. I spoke to Maupin about plotting a story over decades, the changing nature of gay identity, and saying good-bye to the characters he loves.
When Armistead Maupin began writing Tales of the City in 1976, it was a series of installments for the San Francisco Chronicle. The stories became the novel Tales of the City in 1978, followed in similar fashion with More Tales of the City (1980) and Further Tales of the City (1982). The series continued with Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), and Sure of You (1989). It wasn't until 2007 that Maupin embarked on a final trilogy to conclude Tales of the City: Michael Tolliver Lives was intended as a standalone novel, but it was followed by 2010's Mary Ann in Autumn and finally The Days of Anna Madrigal, which Maupin has said is the final book in the series.
The novels chart the unexpected trajectories of beloved characters like Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Anna Madrigal, as well as reflect the changing times of San Francisco and the world at large. Now nearly 70, Maupin is ready to try something new, even if that means saying good-bye to the former residents of 28 Barbary Lane.
Why did you decide to end the Tales of the City series with The Days of Anna Madrigal?
Armistead Maupin: It's based on the fact that I don't want to betray the characters by writing them in an automatic fashion. I've taken a great deal of care with all nine of these novels, and I want to leave on a high point. I'm also going to be 70 in May, so I'd like to leave a little space for myself to explore some new ideas.
The last two novels incorporate many of your characters, but they really focus on, first, Michael, and then, Mary Ann. Was Anna Madrigal just the next logical choice?
AM: Yeah, I didn't think I could take off without focusing on her. And the notion of returning to her boyhood in Winnemucca fascinated me. All of Tales of the City has been in real time, and I was intrigued by the notion of giving her a backstory that no one knew about.
The flashbacks are new for you. Why did you want to go back in time?
AM: Partially I liked the idea of moving myself from the present day and wandering around in the desert in 1930. The internet was enormously helpful in that regard. (laughs) All I had to do was Google "1930s whorehouse menu." And I came up with a wonderful list of items.
You have so many characters to work with. In this novel, you bring back Wren, a fairly minor character, but we don't see DeDe at all. How do you decide which characters to include?
AM: It's basically how you decide what attention you pay to your children. It was an emotional thing. I didn't look at Wren as that minor a character, and certainly her personality was very big. And I loved the idea of returning to her. The notion of hooking her up with Brian was hard to resist.
Well, it feels very natural once you get there, for these two characters to be together.
AM: Thank you. That's the answer to your question. I operate on instinct when it comes to all these people.
Without giving too much away, the novel closes on a bit of an open-ended note. There's definitely a finality to it, but there's also a sense that there's more story that we're not getting. Why did you want to end things that way?
AM: I wanted to make the point that life itself does not wrap up. People die and hearts are broken and life goes on. … As you may have noticed in the last couple of books, there have been scenes where everyone's gathered around Mrs. Madrigal's bed, and I didn't want to indulge in that one more time. There are a lot of things that are left hanging in this novel, including the fact that some characters that you expect to reunite do not.
I mean, you build up to this conclusion, and some things play out as expected and some don't. We know that there's more story to be told.
AM: You can't wrap up the lives of 12 people without having a bomb drop on them. (laughs) And that's the way life works. I think what people get — what a lot of people get from Tales of the City — is the notion that the moment must be appreciated, and the moment is never going to be all nicely tied up with a ribbon. Anna herself says it toward the end to Brian, "There will be no tidying up, dear." And that's very liberating to realize that about your own life. As I get closer and closer to the end of mine, I'm aware that the happiness of the moment, and the love expressed at any given moment, is ultimately the value of things.
Obviously these characters live in you. You have to end the story somewhere, but do you have any idea of where they'll end up down the line?
AM: No. (laughs) I wish I could tell you that I was that obsessed, but I'm not.
No, I appreciate the honesty! I mean, you could have done a Six Feet Under ending where you show how every character dies, but that doesn't seem like the point you're trying to get across.
AM: Yeah, that was a very clever ending on Six Feet Under, I thought. But it wasn't for me. The revelation for me came when I realized I could loop back to the beginning. That was very exciting to me. I didn't actually know what that last page was going to be like until it happened, and it was very satisfying. It just felt like sailing off into the ether. And I hope it has that effect on readers.
Earlier you referred to your characters as your children. As a reader, I feel so invested in these people, and I can only imagine how much stronger that bond is for the writer. How hard is it to say good-bye to these characters who have been with you for so long?
AM: I had made the decision to do it, so it wasn't — it's harder now, to tell you the truth, to answer the questions about it. I feel like, am I ending my own life by ending the series? (laughs) Is this the only thing I'm ever going to be loved for? All of those questions arrive. But I think I would be cowardly if I didn't follow my instinct to create something new. I've written two other novels that I'm very proud of that fell in the middle of the Tales of the City series, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener.
It would be bad form of me to gripe about being held responsible for the lives of these characters. And I never accuse my fans of being Annie Wilkes from Misery. I think people understand what I've been doing all along, and they understand the spirit of the story, and they're happy to live in that, and aren't so much obsessed with what happens but that I'm respectful to the souls of these people. That sounds very grand, but they're all pieces of me, so I never want it to ring false. And I don't want to drop dead writing the story. Let's put it that way, bluntly.
Also numerically it worked for me. This is the third trilogy. Nine books. The first trilogy was pre-AIDS, the second trilogy was post-AIDS, and of course, the last three have been millennial, as it were.
These characters have had such incredible journeys over the years. If you go back to Tales of the City, it's hard to imagine where these people would end up. How much did you plot this all out in advance, and how much of it was you letting the characters guide you?
AM: I have a general road map in my mind, a very general one, and then I allow myself to take side trips. Sometimes the characters themselves simply revolt and tell me what's going to happen. The resolution of Shawna's maternity urges completely surprised me. Things just pop up along the way, and I let them do it, because it's more fun for me, and generally it means there's more of a surprise for the readers, because they think they're on to me, and I'm not even on to me. (laughs)
When you look back at past novels in the series, do you ever have any regrets about the direction of the plot, or do you just have to let them stand as is?
AM: No, I just let the sourdough rise. I didn't know where I was going when I sat down to write this thing. I had 800 words a day to do for the newspaper in San Francisco, and I really was flying by the seat of my pants. I didn't know when I announced that Edgar Halcyon had an incurable disease that he would receive solace from a woman in the park who turned out to be Anna Madrigal. I didn't plan that. I was very excited when it happened, but it wasn't in the general scheme of things. And I've learned to trust that, the serendipitous nature of the story.
"Serendipitous" is a great word for it. These characters always end up coming together in ways that feel very planned in advance, so it's interesting when you say that isn't always the case.
AM: Well, I had a little bit — I can't give myself total credit for getting it exactly right in the order that you see it now. The first 120 daily episodes were reassembled as a novel [Tales of the City]. Actually, I was friends with Rock Hudson back then, and he said, "Take my house in Palm Springs, and shut out all distractions, and do what you need to do." So I took all 120 chapters and arranged them on the living room floor at Rock's house, and moved them around to see what had the greatest effect, what built suspense best. The newspaper was basically my first draft, and it gave me a chance to make the novel a better version. A lot of people say they want to go back and get photocopies of those early newspapers, and I always cringe when I hear it. (laughs) They're not nearly as good as the book.
I'm very curious about that transition from writing the stories as a serial to writing them as standalone novels. What was that change like, when you had more freedom with these characters?
AM: It slowed me down! I'm a terrible perfectionist, and I write very slowly. When I was working on Days, I would get two pages done on a really good day. I'm extremely slow. What was interesting was, once I realized that these newspaper columns were going to be novels, I learned to write them as units that would fit together in a larger unit. I would be aware on a given day that this section would be one-fifth of a larger chapter, so it was basically the unconscious construction of a computer in my head that allowed me to do it.
These last three novels are different — initially you said that Michael Tolliver Lives was not a sequel, but you changed your mind about that. What was the process like of deciding to continue the series, and realizing you were writing sequels?
AM: I started out with the idea that I wanted to write a standalone novel about a middle-aged gay man who had survived AIDS. It became very clear to me early on that I had such a middle-aged gay man in the person of Michael Tolliver, and that people knew his history very well, and that would add a resonance to whatever I wrote. I didn't want to disappoint readers who thought they were going to get the old format, the multi-character tapestry of lives that had been in the previous six novels.
And I did that. I wanted Michael Tolliver to be a tribute to my generation of gay men, to address directly the people who had survived and what they'd gone through if they were still around when they thought they were going to be dead. I thought Michael was going to be dead when I announced the end of Tales with Sure of You. But I was bound and determined not to end a work with another gay man dying. So I brought him back for that one, and then I realized the formula that I created early on was extremely effective, and I knew how to work it. I could still tell everyone's story by using it. So as a consequence, the Mary Ann novel and the Anna one are both structured like the earlier tales.
I have to ask about Mary Ann, because the final three novels really do a lot of work to bring her back, or redeem her, as it were. Did you feel like she needed that redemption? For many readers, myself included, it became difficult to sympathize with her toward the end of the second trilogy. Was it a conscious choice to have her repair a lot of that damage in the final trilogy?
AM: It was a conscious choice to trace the reparation of a life. I've always thought that Mary Ann was a good person, but she was affected by a lot of things that came my way, you know? Fame and recognition and a chance to build an even bigger career. She was sort of a caveat to myself when she went off the tracks in Sure of You. But there's a lot of me in her, so I'm not entirely unsympathetic with her. For years, the question I got most often was, "Why did Mary Ann become such a bitch?" (laughs) I was once years ago in a three-way with a couple of Frenchmen, and as soon as the play had ended, the two of them got into a fight over who was going to ask this important question. When it was finally asked, it was, "Why did Mary Ann become such a bitch?"
I also have a special affection for her because she was played by Laura Linney in the movie, and Laura has been for the last 20 years one of my dearest friends. [Ed. note: Shortly after this interview, Linney gave birth to her first child, Bennett Armistead Schauer, named after Maupin.] I think the reason we're so connected with each other is that she understood Mary Ann, and, consequently, understood a lot about me and related to it.
I wonder if a lot of it is generational. The hardest thing for readers to forgive is Mary Ann leaving Michael when he's ostensibly dying of AIDS. Do you think that's something a younger generation might not be able to understand?
AM: That was the part of it that was so hard to take. I don't know. I don't know. It's hard for me to know what anyone's thinking. I'm so glad we're seeing things like We Were Here and this new book by Sean Strub [Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival] that the subject is rising again in popular culture, so that the younger generation can understand exactly the level of horror and panic that existed when this was happening.
I'm fascinated by the way you bring back certain story lines after so many years. The Norman Neal Williams plot, for example, didn't get resolved until Mary Ann in Autumn. Why then?
AM: That penny had been waiting to drop for 20 years. If you go back to Sure of You, you can actually find — I think on page 11 — the moment when Norman visits the TV station, and Mary Ann turns him away. She ends up autographing, as is described in Mary Ann in Autumn, she ends up inscribing a publicity photo, "For Cliff, thanks for the memories." So I knew that. It's funny, Stanley DeSantis, who played Norman [in Tales of the City] took great hope in that, that he'd get to come back.
How do you find the patience to wait so long to bring something like that back? As you were saying, the books occur in real time, but as a writer, how can you let it sit for so long?
AM: I have a lot of air in my own life. (laughs) I'm a very leisurely kind of guy. These novels span almost 40 years. But I don't know what the answer to this. I realized over the years that I had something really valuable here in a story that people had followed for so long and felt so invested in. It seemed to me the thing I should be doing, so I just had to be patient. I can't stress enough that I didn't have this thing mapped out from the beginning, but I worked very hard to make it look like that.
And obviously, the context changed, because San Francisco has changed so much since you started writing.
AM: Yeah. Well, that had to be factored in as well, the rise of the dot-coms, and now the techie revolution that's driving everyone somewhere else. All of that had to be accommodated when I was establishing the atmosphere. A lot of it is not conscious either, because if I'm keeping a diary — when you look back on the diary and think, Oh my god, I can't believe I ever did that or wore that and said that. If you're true to the moment, you'll have something very valuable, right or wrong, in terms of a period piece.
And there's the visual component too, because we have the Tales of the City miniseries, which gives a real sense of what San Francisco looked like in the '70s. You can now watch a show like Looking and see how the city has changed.
AM: I actually read on Twitter — I wasn't there, but somebody tweeted — that those guys [from Looking] when they had their premiere at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, said that they all sat down their first night in town and watched the Tales miniseries together.
It's utterly a different time, and this piece should be completely different in the way it's done. It seems to be. I haven't seen it yet — I'm very excited about it. I keep hearing about the tone of it, this sort of leisurely tone of it. The impression I got was that they're not bombarding you with music and they're taking their time with the scenes.
Well, it's very much a show about gay men just existing, not about the issues so much, which we couldn't do for a long time.
AM: Yes, we've moved beyond the coming-out story. I have less and less patience for coming-out stories, because I want to say to people, especially young people, "For god's sake, don't listen to these idiots out there, get out and live your life. You're making way too big a thing out of something that's a glorious gift." I remember years ago I said something to Christopher Isherwood about having such respect for his pride, his very early pride, because he came out — he wrote about being gay for many years, and then he came out back in the '70s as an old man. And I said, "Your pride is really commendable." And he said, "It isn't pride, dear boy, it's arrogance." (laughs)
A lot of gay people know and believe that. We have a lot going for us because we've had to put up with a lot of shit. We're able to see the way the world works. We're able to walk into a room and realize how the men and the women are feeling. We've been spies for years, and coming out of the closet frees you to be your full wonderful self.
It's a dual argument, because we have to keep stressing because some people … in many, many places in the world suffer terribly and the closet has to be firmly intact if they want to live their lives. But in the rest of the world, we don't have to keep stressing that it's this terrible thing. We can start celebrating the glory of it. I'm really very much a gay chauvinist and probably will be till I die. I feel like even my straight friends have learned lessons from me over the years, and I'm proud of that.
We've talked a lot about change — how the books have changed and how the city has changed. Looking back at Tales of the City and where you were then, what would you be most surprised of in terms of how things have changed?
AM: Well, Michael says in the very first Tales of the City, "Do you ever think about getting married?" to Mary Ann. He talks about how he thought about it three times a day on the 41 Union bus. Even the term is used there because we weren't waiting for the piece of paper — we were aware that people could become married in an emotional, romantic, and sexual way, and many of us were striving for it. I was trying to get married at the baths every week, and that was not the best plan in the world. (laughs) But I don't regret a moment of it. Like a lot of men of my generation, I didn't come out till I was 30, so I had that whole teenager-y thing of standing on the corner, watching all the boys go by. It was a form of adolescence.
What's different is, the revolution we have fought for is coming about. I see it every day. Tales of the City, the miniseries, was condemned by an Oklahoma legislator on the steps of the state house almost exactly 20 years ago, and now we've seen a federal judge in Oklahoma say it's unconstitutional to deny gay folks the right to marry. I personally have gone from being both a crime and a mental illness to someone whose homosexuality is now my strongest value. I'm flabbergasted to think that the thing that so terrified me as a teenager has been the greatest source of inspiration and success. I used to see the word on a page of print, "homosexuality," and it would leap out at me in some terrible way, accusing me.
How old are you, by the way?
AM: Well, there you go. I don't know how to tell you what it felt like to be so afraid of what you were and so alone in terms of the people you could talk to about it, and so fucked-up about what the movies were telling you about what it meant to gay, the way that the gay guy turned out to be the evil one who was killed at the end.
I'm overjoyed that my life has been a journey that has seen improvement every step of the way. I feel very lucky to be 70 years old in this particular time.