Wednesday at Kepler's: Armistead Maupin concludes 'Tales of the City'


For 40 years, his novels have defined San Francisco: the home of counterculture, a haven for hippies, artists and writers, the capital of free speech and free love. With "The Days of Anna Madrigal," the ninth book in his "Tales of the City" series, Maupin has written his last novel starring the motley cast of characters from 28 Barbary Lane. Tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 28, the internationally beloved author will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park to discuss the cult series and talk about what comes next for him as a writer.

The culmination of Maupin's "Tales" marks the end of an era that began in 1976 with the enchanting, racy and for some, eye-opening first book, "Tales of the City," in which a prudish young Midwestern woman moves to San Francisco and soon finds her life intertwined with bohemians and homosexuals -- only to discover that they're the best family she's ever had.

In a telephone interview last week, Maupin talked about the ways in which "Tales" has drawn on his own life experience and his pride in the way his books have touched so many.

You started this series in 1976; you've lived with these characters for nearly 40 years. Have you had to grieve the end of the series as you would the death of a friend?

I was more concerned about honoring the characters than staying with them forever. I wanted to create an entity that had its own dignity and logic. I've never written addictively; I've only written when I felt I had something to say.

At what point did you make the decision that this would be your last "Tales of the City" book?

I can't tell you exactly when I decided it was going to be the last book, but I became increasingly aware that I wanted the whole thing to have a good shape. I've tried for 40 years now to make each novel self-contained and yet to have them all connect to each other with an overall arc.

I think Anna (Madrigal)'s longevity had a lot to do with it. I couldn't see having the series without her. I think she's always been the sort of spiritual center of the piece.

There's a lot of aging, illness and death in "The Days of Anna Madrigal." If you don't mind my asking, how much of that has to do with where your attention is in a larger sense?

Well, I'm 70 years old now, so obviously issues of mortality come into play. I've always trusted my own experience as the best source for my material. So when I was young and randy, I wrote about being young and randy, and when I was middle-aged and feeling domestic urges, I wrote about that. So now, many of my characters are wondering how long they're going to be around and how they want to spend their time.

Can you talk a little bit about which aspects of your personality show up in which of your characters from "Tales?"

That would be a long talk. I'm pretty sure most writers are this way -- we don't like to admit it, but we're our own best source material. Michael reflects my more romantic side. Mary Ann is a bit more practical and self-serving than some of the other characters, and I'm sure that's part of me.

Mrs. Madrigal is the person I've always aspired to be. Somehow, she's removed enough to be a source of wisdom for my own life. But I relate to them all. Brian, the straight character who ends up moving to a little town in New Mexico with an old love, is very close to my heart. His lack of ambition mirrors my own.

I'm not sure your readers would characterize you as unambitious.

Well, thank you. I saw someone describe me as prolific the other day, but I have to ask myself whether 11 books in 40 years is, in fact, prolific. I've moved at my own pace and at the pace I've enjoyed. I'm not driven. I've generally found that success has come by following my instinct in that sense.

Burning Man features prominently in this most recent book, and I gather you attended the festival. Tell me about your experiences there.

Burning Man was a treasure trove of the phantasmagorical. My husband dragged me along kicking and screaming the first time, and then I found myself getting into it. The trick is to abandon yourself to the heat and the dirt and the occasional noise and just let the world happen around you. The unexpected benefit is that there are an awful lot of people trying to be nice, and that's a wonderful sensation in this modern world.

For the young men in your latest book growing up gay and transgender in 1936 Nevada, San Francisco is a dream world of liberation and freedom. Is that how it seemed to you when you first moved west?

I think it's always been a place that incited wonderment and hope in people who live in less tolerant environments. I didn't come out here thinking I was going to be liberated; I got a job with Associated Press, and liberation was a lovely by-product of that transplantation. I had heard about San Francisco from people in Charleston, South Carolina, where I lived, but I was still too afraid of my instincts to actively pursue it. It didn't take long, I should say. As soon as I hit town, I realized that the straight people were far more comfortable with my homosexuality than I was. That made an enormous difference. That, and an abundance of gorgeous young men who seemed to want to spend time with me.

You were raised mostly in the South. What has it been like to end up so far away from that part of American culture and furthermore to have your work vilified by the Religious Right? Has it spurred you onward, hurt you or felt like more of a joke?

I wear the contempt of the American Family Association as a badge of honor. I'm very proud that I've been part of the social revolution that's been underway for the past 40 years. I consider that to be the greatest accomplishment of my life. I am not at all distressed by the fact that there are people in my family who don't understand why I would fight so hard for marriage equality because that tells me they don't understand the nature of love itself.

Mrs. Madrigal talks about "biological" and "logical" families, meaning the ones that will truly nurture and support us. I feel I have found that through my life and my work in California, and I would be kind of disturbed if I wasn't upsetting someone out there in our Calvinist country. The same people that have been so horrified by the notion of gay rights are the ones who have belittled women and minorities. Their repressive natures are universal the world over. We see it in ISIS, and we see it in certain Republican members of Congress. Fundamentalism in my mind is the greatest evil in the world today, regardless of the religion attached to it. I consider myself a raving humanist, and I think that you can construct a moral and compassionate life without the assistance of an imaginary god. I think it's up to us as individuals to find that ourselves and carry through with it.

I was going to ask you what's been most gratifying about writing this series over the years, but I think you've already answered me.

That's it. I have so many people come up to me and say that my books -- my simple, uncomplicated, funny little books -- have changed their lives. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing that.

What: Armistead Maupin in conversation with writer Kemble Scott

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino, Menlo Park

When: Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m. (seating area opens at 6:30 p.m.)

Cost: $15 general admission, $25 with a book

Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321

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4 people like this
Posted by Exasperated reader
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2015 at 12:27 pm

I wish this article had (as Peter Canavese's film reviews do) gone beyond fan-club questions into real examination of Maupin's WORK. For it's a regrettable reflection on Maupin's SF fan base that they take as somehow representative a writer also widely received here in the Bay Area, from the start, as self-indulgent and glib.

I followed "Tales of the City" when first serialized in the Chronicle in the 1970s, enjoying it initially. But its limitations had nothing to do with anything the "Religious Right" vilifies. The problem was, its pop-culture sensibilities and shallow melodrama had many local readers cringing. Starting with an off-the-rack storyline, Maupin sets up a villain who, after extravagantly showing how sleazy he is, is "burned alive" in a car crash. How tidy; how comic-book. That set the tone of much of what followed.

Why not contrast Maupin with Cyra McFadden, whose own 1970s serialized story "The Serial" satirized aspects of the Bay Area that badly needed it (Herb Caen dubbed McFadden's subject "phonies, consciousness-raising variety, Marin-County division"). McFadden at least had depth of local knowledge.

Maupin in the 1970s showed the particular and self-absorbed instinct, common to recent transplants, that presumes everyone else in the Bay Area is new here too. Casually viewing the PBS "Tales of the City" mini-series I found it entertaining. Later I saw a recording, paying more attention to dialog. The Innocent Girl new to SF asks her neighbor if their landlady is "from here." "No one's 'from here,'" answers the neighbor smugly. (I switched it off.)

Maupin was unwittingly showing an attitude as clichéed as it was annoying to the literally millions of Bay Areans who grew up here -- only to see recently-arrived writers, with little insight, thinking it useful to "explain" the Bay Area to its residents, from the perspective of whatever corner of the country they left behind. As if such an exercise made any sense; as if it were all really about the Bay Area, rather than just themselves.

In the 1980s I mentioned to another native the trend of recent writers doing that.

"Oh, I know," she answered. "Aren't they obnoxious?"

4 people like this
Posted by June Curran
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 28, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Dear me, Exasperated Reader (above), my goodness, you've upset yourself so. I dare say, if you want to ask Mr. Maupin a question that you don't see in the interview, why not come along tonight and simply ask your question? And since you find Mr. Maupin's attitude "clichéed" or "annoying" why not just tell him so? I imagine - among all of Mr. Maupin's admirers - you'll find yourself about as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party. But, I hope all the admirers will treat you with all the respect and decency you've denied Mr. Maupin.

Like this comment
Posted by Exasperated reader
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2015 at 5:35 pm

June Curran, you miss the point completely -- which, unfortunately, characterizes the fan-club gushing about Maupin. Evidently any real, searching criticism of his work is off-limits, and must be demonized.

The signing tonight, like all such, is a commercial event, arranged by the publisher to sell more books. That's what's so disappointing about the interview written here: it too reads like a publisher's promotion. Readers could be forgiven for wanting real literary criticism -- something serious writers welcome. But as we can see here, it's news to some people that "respect" and "decency" don't preclude looking at the writing's weaknesses along with its strengths.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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