It is time for fans of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” novels to rejoice, as the author has chronicled another chapter in the lives of the residents that once populated 28 Barbary Lane. Specifically, the focus is on one character, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, in Maupin’s new novel “Michael Tolliver Lives,” but characters from the previous novels do make appearances throughout the book.
Maupin initially penned “Tales” in 1976, first as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, which was the first fiction to be featured in a daily newspaper in decades. Then “Tales of the City” became his first novel in 1978, and five books in the series followed (“More Tales of the City,” “Further Tales of the City,” “Babycakes,” “Significant Others,” and “Sure of You”), which all became international bestsellers.
Now almost 30 years after the first book became a staple of reading for gay and straight readers alike, and 18 years since the ink has dried on “Sure of You,” Maupin delivers one of his best novels to date; a finely woven tapestry of characters both familiar and new ones to embrace, along with a strong message about the family that you make along the way.
I had the distinct privilege to be the first reporter to speak with Maupin about his literary homecoming, and why these characters that people his books has left such an indelible impression throughout the years and have such a universal appeal.
“I think it has something to do with the way I inhabit all of my characters and make all of their follies acceptable,” he surmised. “I think a lot of gay people like to feel part of a tribe, but also want to feel hooked in with the world at large, and that’s what my books try to do.”
Even though Maupin has achieved great success through his written words, his creative process is very similar to any writer.
“Frankly, I struggle to be entertaining; I don’t let a page go by unless there are two or three things on there that amuse me or interest me. I’m a very slow writer for that reason,” he explained. “I get two manuscript pages done at the most each day, and I’m generally not pleased with it while I’m going along. I was pleased to finally sit down and read the book a few weeks ago, and realize that there was a story there.
“Because the work itself is so microscopic, I can’t quite see what’s going on when I’m doing it. It’s like laying mosaics, one tile at a time – it’s only when it’s done that you can step back and see the whole picture.”
For months prior to the book’s publication, Maupin had gone on record as saying that this book was not a part of the “Tales of the City” series, but rather a look primarily at Michael Tolliver at age 55 and living with HIV. He explained to us about his initial trepidation of having the novel be considered as book seven in his vastly popular series. “Very early on I declared this not to be a continuation of “Tales of the City,” because I was nervous that people would be disappointed in the change of format,” he recanted. “It is, after all, a story being told by one character, his voice. I was deathly afraid that serious DeDe fans, for instance, would be disappointed that I wasn’t tracing her trajectory as well.
“But, I’ve since had enough people convince me that it captures the spirit of the earlier books, to such a degree that I shouldn’t be worried about that. One of the early reviews from Publisher’s Weekly said, ‘Maupin claims this isn’t the seventh book, but, happily it is.’”
And Maupin gave me further scoop on the future of even more new “Tales.”
“This could very well be the beginning of a new series that relates heavily to the first series, but I haven’t quite made up my mind about that,” he said (for the record, I pleaded with him to do so!).
The experience of revisiting the character of Michael Tolliver decades later holds this connotation for Maupin.
“In the first place, it reminded me of my own aging process,” he explained. “Michael is seven years younger than I am, so I was shocked, for instance, to discover he had a great nephew. It was also very lovely to be able to record some aspects of my happy domestic life at the moment. This is not an autobiographical novel, Michael’s never been me, but I’ve tried to use some of my spirit, some of my attitudes, whenever they’re appropriate to the character.”
Maupin takes a very hands-on approach with adaptations of his works, he has served as the screenwriter on “The Night Listener” and the first three miniseries of the “Tales of the City” series – the first of which won a Peabody Award when it aired on PBS in 1993, before the last two miniseries’ moved over to Showtime.
“I’m not a control freak when it comes to that (being involved with adaptations), but I have had fun being a tourist on the set. When the three miniseries and the feature film were made, I tend to stay out of the way. If you don’t trust the director and the actors by then, you’re in trouble anyway. Every now and then, I step forward when there’s something that only I’m aware of – in terms of the meaning of a line, for instance. But, I can let it go, if it’s the right folks doing the work.”
And, as far a new “Tales” miniseries coming down the pipe anytime soon, Maupin broke this bit of sad news about the status of “Babycakes” becoming the latest in the incredibly well-received televised versions of his books.
“I really don’t think its going to happen,” he said with frank honesty. “Our last hope was that Showtime could be persuaded to do it, they simply aren’t doing one off movies; they’re committed fully to doing series.”
From the traces of his relationship with ex partner, Terry Anderson and the real-life telephone friendship he struck up with 14-year-old memoirist, Anthony Godly Johnson, which became shrouded in mystery and was the basis for “The Night Listener,” the adage of “write what you know” certainly applies to Maupin. And his newest tome is certainly no exception to that rule.
One of the core elements in “Michael Tolliver Lives” is the nature of intergenerational love – Maupin and his current partner, Christopher Turner, are separated by a few decades and were recently married in Vancouver, BC.
“I practically chased my husband down the street when I saw him, it helped that I knew he liked guys over 45, and I told him when I confronted him that was a position for which I was overqualified,” he said with a chuckle.
The theme of being a gay man of a “certain age” is also one of the threads that tie the book together. And now at age 62, Maupin had these thoughts on what it’s like being an older gay man in today’s ever changing society and some of the challenges facing the older set.
“Their own residual self loathing,” he stated and continued. “I still run into way too many gay men my age who feel unworthy of love and that only ensures that love won’t come along. I think we have to keep up our nerve. To be honest with you, I don’t feel that different from the rest of the gay community; that’s one of the things that I like about it, I do think it’s still very much a tribe, and I feel connected with all sorts of gay people.
“But the challenge of getting older is pretty much the same for everybody, gay or straight. But there is a special breed of gay man now whose been expecting to die for many years, and now have come to the realization that there probably going to die the regular way, and that requires a whole new at of looking at things. I tried to capture that, to a certain degree, in “Michael Tolliver Lives.”
“Michael Tolliver Lives,” published by Harper Collins is out in bookstores now. This interview was first published on June 14th, 2007.