The “Tales of the City” scribe writes of his beginnings — far from San Francisco.
When I was growing up in the late 1960s, I wanted to move to San Francisco to live with Jefferson Airplane. I was sure they’d be glad to have a 13-year-old in an orange paisley shirt hanging out with them. Ten years later, while working in a bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., I wanted to go there for different reasons: the Castro, the gorgeous scenery and 28 Barbary Lane.
Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” had just come out and was on prominent display by my cash register. This was, in part, because the oversized paperback didn’t fit on our fiction shelves.
The book’s brief chapters (they originally appeared as columns in the San Francisco Chronicle) were short enough to gobble down in the pauses between customers. Here came Michael Tolliver from Florida, looking for love in San Francisco’s gay scene; Mary Ann Singleton from Cleveland, seeing the city as her route to a life away from a dull job and fretful mother; and Anna Madrigal, Michael’s and Mary Ann’s kindly mysterious landlady who happily supplied her tenants with marijuana.
The author of “Logical Family” and the “Tales of the City” books will appear at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 16, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $39-$75 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org/benaroyahall).
San Francisco’s heady allure seemed such a given to me that I assumed Maupin must always have been as drawn to it as I was. So it’s a shock to learn, in his wonderful new memoir, “Logical Family” (HarperCollins, $27.99) that he landed there almost by accident.
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Just out of the Navy, he was working for a newspaper in Charleston, S.C., and “already longing to escape the closet-sized steam bath of South Carolina.” After doing well in an interview with The Associated Press, he was offered a job in … Buffalo, N.Y.
A few days later, AP contacted him again: “They’d just had an opening in the San Francisco bureau. Would that be preferable to Buffalo?”
Maupin had caught a glimpse of the city while processing out of the Navy. “It had certainly seemed preferable to Buffalo,” he remembers thinking.
The possibility of Maupin landing on the shores of Lake Erie isn’t the only surprise in “Logical Family.” He has mentioned in interviews that he came from a conservative Southern background. But this memoir spells out the gory details: a “bombastic” father eternally “sorry he’d been born too late to fight for the Confederacy,” free use of the n-word in the Maupin household, and Maupin’s own unquestioning embrace of right-wing causes until he was in his 20s.
He worked for future Republican senator Jesse Helms at a Raleigh radio station, and served for a year or two in Vietnam. At the same time, he was happily listening to Joan Baez (“Strange, I know, that I would be grooving to lefty movement songs”) and being electrified by the film version of “Summer and Smoke” (“Tennessee Williams crept into my tight-assed teenaged heart”).
In Charleston, S.C., he had his first clandestine gay trysts. The move to San Francisco completed his coming-out process and his transition from arch conservative to gay writer-activist.
It’s difficult to overstate what a breath of fresh air Maupin’s fiction was when it appeared. Gay and lesbian fiction existed before, of course, but it was generally fraught or transgressive in mood. In “Tales of the City,” Maupin portrayed a city where people just didn’t care much which way you swung. Friendships across the straight-gay divide were common. Maupin spun this as a San Francisco phenomenon, but to 20-somethings in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, it felt awfully familiar. It was cheering, then, to see “Tales” make it into the literary mainstream.
The popular 1993 TV adaptation was equally ahead of the curve. Remember, it predated “Will & Grace” by years and “Transparent” by decades. In “Logical Family,” Maupin reveals that the San Francisco Chronicle, wary of alienating its readers, pressured him to withhold Mrs. Madrigal’s secret for as long as possible — a tactic that wound up enhancing the plot’s suspense.
Maupin’s parents were taken aback by the goings-on at 28 Barbary Lane. (“Your father wants to know how an Eagle Scout knows these things,” his mother joked on the phone.) But his portrayal of them — especially of his mother, always trying to avoid conflict — is touching.
Maupin expresses pride in his accomplishments, but is also self-deprecating. (“Why the hell hadn’t I mapped this thing out before I began?” he recalls thinking while trying to make sense of his hastily improvised narrative threads in “Tales.”) Sharp portraits of Rock Hudson, Christopher Isherwood and Laura Linney (Mary Ann Singleton in the TV version of “Tales”) appear toward the end of the book.
But the most startling character is “Teddy” himself (as his parents nicknamed him), starting his life as a deeply closeted son of the South, before winding up as a Left Coast champion of personal liberties and a genial gay raconteur-uncle to us all.