It’s been nearly forty years since a naïve ingénue from Cleveland named Mary Ann Singleton impetuously decided to extend her vacation indefinitely, taking an apartment in a Russian Hill building with quirky landlady Anna Madrigal and interesting tenants such as kind-hearted gardener Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. What started as Armistead Maupin’s serialized column in the San Francisco Chronicle became a book, then another, and ultimately the Tales of the City trilogy of trilogies. His depiction of quotidian life did more than document the gestalt of the city; it defined it. Tales may be told, but it’s clear that Maupin, at seventy-one, is more present than ever.
DINOSAUR: I recently mentioned Tales of the City to someone, and received a blank stare. I was shocked.
Armistead Maupin: I have a very odd sort of fame. Still, there are younger people who are reading it now and get into it simply because of the human story involved. I hope that will be the case. If the work survives as a classic, it’s because people care about the characters.
All the books capture their moment in time in a very vivid way.
Yeah, you get to time-travel. I was aware of it as I wrote it. In Mary Ann in Autumn, my very young, hip editor in New York said, “You need to change that Amy Winehouse reference. She’s so over.” She was still alive, mind you. I said, “That’s why I put it in there. When people read this in the future, they’ll have to find out who Amy Winehouse was.” Then, of course, when Amy Winehouse died, it added an extra layer of poignancy. I’m never worried about being out of date.
San Francisco has always been a city of change, but we still attract the dreamers, the creatives, the fringe. What draws them?
I know these kids who moved into an Edwardian cottage in the Castro, and they have to split the rent to afford it. I don’t see that their dreams are any different than the ones I had forty years ago, when I moved here. We have a mantra nowadays that’s beginning to bore me: “Oh, my God. It’s changed, it’s changed, it’s changed.” Well, that’s all cities do is change. The waterfront, Crissy Field, the ballpark, it’s all new, but we still live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and most big, pretty cities in the world have these same issues.
So much the queer community has ever fought for has effectively happened. What’s next?
There’s a lot of work still to be done. That means sharing what we’ve learned to the people who are struggling in Russia and Uganda, and Middle Eastern countries, where young men are being thrown off the tops of buildings for being queer. When I signed on as a free queer man, my commitment was that everybody should have what I’ve experienced.
I didn’t require secrecy for being gay. I am annoyed by people who take the position that things were so much better back when we had to hide. Maybe for them, not for me. Back in 1976, when I introduced the first sympathetic transgender character and a healthy gay man, I was considered radical, especially since it appeared in a daily newspaper. So I find it satisfying that the world has come around to understanding how beautiful both things can be.
So now that you’ve said goodbye to Anna and to Michael, what’s next?
I was aware, when I began the ninth novel, that it was going to be the last one. So my hope was that I could end in a way that was graceful and appropriate and satisfying. I’m at work on a memoir, sort of a collection of essays, really, and also a one-man show. The two things are somewhat connected. I’m trying to make sense out of what I’ve learned and pass it on in another way.
Illustration by Jim Winters.
Read more from Armistead Maupin—including why it’s important to find new thrills in life and why being old is a privilege—in the full interview in DINOSAUR No. 4, out now! Subscribe today or find out where to buy the issue.