The BBC's TV-miniseries adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City caused a furor when it aired on PBS–in 1994, two men kissing on television, much less casually discussing gay sex, was unheard of. But Tales treated its gay characters and its straight characters as equals, much to the chagrin of right-wing politicians, who pressured PBS into dropping its plans to co-produce a second adaptation of Maupin's work. Tales Of The City began in 1976 as a serial story in the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran it as a daily feature for 13 years; the installments were eventually collected into six Tales books. They tell the elaborate, sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, always colorful story of the diverse residents of 28 Barbary Lane, a San Francisco apartment building that's home to residents both male and female, gay and straight, happily single and desperately looking. Maupin has written two novels, 1992's Maybe The Moon and 2000's The Night Listener, and has been closely involved with two more Tales adaptations, the Showtime-funded More Tales Of The City and Further Tales Of The City. Shortly before the DVD release of Further Tales, Maupin spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about writing fiction on a deadline, his impact on Hollywood portrayals of gays and lesbians, and the autobiographical nature of his work.
The Onion: When you first started Tales Of The City in the San Francisco Chronicle, did they have anything else even remotely like what you were doing?
Armistead Maupin: No, no… There was nothing like this in any American newspaper for something like 30 or 40 years. There were Westerns and romances serialized in American newspapers back in the '30s and '40s, but it had been, shall we say, a less-than-respectable form for many, many years.
O: How comfortable were you with producing fiction on a daily deadline?
AM: I had no choice in the matter. The paper had accepted my pitch. [Laughs.] I just had to produce. It was completely nerve-wracking. I felt as if I was going to have a nervous breakdown after the first year. I had no idea where the story was going, none whatsoever. It arose organically according to what had happened to me the night before, and where the characters themselves told me they should go. And sometimes there were suggestions from readers that helped me out enormously—or they'd try to second-guess me, and in doing so give me a terrific idea.
O: How far in advance were you writing?
AM: [Laughs.] Well, when I first started out, the newspaper insisted that I have at least six weeks in the can—in other words, 30 episodes. But I ate up that backlog pretty quick, and there were days when I would be writing Wednesday's column on Monday, much to the enormous chagrin of my editor.
O: You were a journalist before you started writing Tales Of The City, but had you ever written fiction?
AM: No. I took a few creative-writing courses in college, and I had been a storyteller by instinct all my life. I was that boring little kid who made the rest of his friends sit around the campfire and listen to his ghost stories. It's been very much a part of my makeup. I've never actually spent a lot of time writing fiction.
O: Wasn't your coming out very closely aligned with the Chronicle's Tales launch?
AM: Absolutely. When Michael Tolliver, the central gay character in Tales Of The City, came out in 1977, his letter to his parents served as my letter to my parents. They were following the serial, and they realized that I was talking about myself. The event that sparked both the fictional and the real-life coming-out was the anti-gay campaign of Anita Bryant in South Florida. As fate would have it, I had already established Michael as the son of Florida orange growers, so I had the perfect platform in which to criticize Bryant and the whole Christian right-wing mindset. I took that campaign very personally myself, and I realized it was time to stop being silent.
O: Was there a backlash over a newspaper serial regularly addressing sexuality?
AM: No, there was never a backlash, because the column was extraordinarily popular, and frankly, it boosted the subscriptions at the Chronicle. There was, however, a constant fight in terms of what could and could not be said in the newspaper, and it varied from editor to editor, from day to day. There were times that I could say "shit," but only in the third paragraph, not in the first paragraph. I wasn't allowed to say "fuck," so I ended up saying "Jesus" and "goddammit" a lot, which annoyed a lot of devout Christians. So it was rather difficult to win, if I wanted to be realistic about the way people actually talk.
O: Is it true that one of your Chronicle editors was so concerned about the gay characters taking over that he made a chart of the characters' sexuality?
AM: Yes. Gordon Pates, the managing editor of the Chronicle when I first started writing, was so nervous about the multi-sexual nature of the cast that he started keeping a chart that would indicate how many homosexuals and how many heterosexuals were part of the game plan. Every week, when I would come in with a new batch of columns, he would lay them out on the chart. [Laughs.] I brought that to a dead halt when I wrote an episode in which Franny Halcyon, an alcoholic society matron, has a brief fling with her Great Dane, and I made him put the dog in the heterosexual column. I had great deal of fun with him. He was very avuncular. He really looked at me as a nice young man who was terribly misguided. He used to say, "You're such a good-looking young guy. Such a waste, it's just such a waste," as if he were looking out for the heterosexual female population.
O: Initially, you hid the fact that Anna Madrigal was a transsexual, because you said the editors "wouldn't have allowed that in a family newspaper." Were there other storylines you had to ease the paper into?
AM: Let's just say that like any newspaper, they had their limits, and I tend to define what they were pretty easily. I remember Gordon Pates saying to me one time, "Bisexuality, adultery, homosexuality, transsexuality… the only thing you haven't got in this damn thing is cannibalism." And I thought to myself, "That's a really good idea." [Laughs.] So I introduced the Episcopal cannibal cult. Let's see. I can't think of any beyond that. I was acutely aware… It's funny to think about the taboo of transsexuality, because we can't imagine that today. Why would that be unacceptable on some level? It's not like it's explicit in any way. It's just an idea, you know?
O: Why do you think it was such a problem?
AM: Well, I started writing this story at a time when certain subject matter was considered unacceptable. And that means the lives of gay men and lesbians. The daily routine of their lives was considered too scandalous to be discussed. I mean, we only now see that barrier being broken down in television and feature films.
O: Do you think the success of Tales Of The City prompted shows like Will & Grace and Queer As Folk?
AM: Yes, I do. I worry more than most people about sounding immodest, but in this case, I'm not going to let that bother me, because I feel that we created a template that showed a lot of Hollywood what could be done. The sort of gay-male/straight-female buddy relationship was pretty much pioneered in Tales. And the multi-generational, omnisexual cast of Six Feet Under. Even the boldness of Queer As Folk couldn't have happened without those romantic kisses between [Tales characters] Michael and John that caused the Rev. Donald Wildmon such terrible agitation.
O: Had anyone proposed a television or film adaptation of Tales before Channel Four stepped in?
AM: Oh, yeah, for many years.
O: Why did you end up going with the BBC?
AM: In most cases, I realized that the story would not be put on the screen in any way that resembled the original. Warner Bros. first optioned the movie rights back in 1979, and I was rather naïve in those days, and I was absolutely certain [the adaptation] was going to happen. Then I started meeting with producers and writers and hearing the most horrendous things. One guy actually suggested to me that the gay guy be made into a serial killer.
O: Did you personally scuttle the earlier proposed versions, or did they die on their own?
AM: The classic situation was this: Some hip, younger, usually female producer would acquire the rights and have every intention of producing it the way it was written, and get stopped by some offended straight male upstairs. Or that young female producer would be transferred to another studio, and the project would no longer have the appeal that it had in the past. There's a million different reasons, but I guess the end result is the best we could have possibly had, because Channel Four was completely dedicated to filming the story as it was written. I would have never received that treatment by any American institution.
O: Maybe The Moon was your first non-Tales novel. What prompted you to write a novel about a dwarf actress?
AM: I had a very good friend named Tamara De Treaux who was one of the little people who wore the suit of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I met her when she was 19, and we became quite close. She called me when she ran away to Hollywood, and told me that she intended to find her way into the movies one way or the other. And then she called me a few years later to say that Spielberg had cast her in a film she couldn't talk to me about. She said it was going to be the next Wizard Of Oz, and I remember thinking, "Oh, she's got some sort of Munchkin role." I was fascinated by her dilemma, the fact that she wanted to be an actress, that she wanted to be a star, she wanted the world to know who she was, but she was invariably required to wear a rubber suit. That struck me as a very interesting metaphor through which to examine Hollywood itself.
O: Is your fiction generally autobiographical on some level?
AM: That's always a tricky question. I draw on my own emotional experience, but the spiderweb that eventually comes out of me sometimes doesn't resemble the thing that created it. [Laughs.] So what's the answer to that? I don't like to claim autobiography, because that suggests accuracy to some degree, and I don't feel faithful to that sort of thing. I'm more concerned about telling stories and making them ring true. In order for them to ring true, I have to draw on my own emotional life and my own experience, but I also reserve the right to re-shape that truth into something else. I think many writers write because it's a convenient way to explain themselves to themselves. We take the chaos and the turmoil and the bullshit of our lives, and we make it into something that has a harmonious shape and sound.
O: Coincidence and contrivance have played a significant role in your work. Is that just for plot convenience, or does it have anything to do with that tendency to make order out of the chaos of life?
AM: I think there are strands in all of our lives that can be seen if we step back to recognize them. Coincidence is probably as close as I'll get to having spirituality. I do see patterns in my life sometimes, and I am thrilled by what I see. I don't think I'm going to have any further shot at it after death, and I don't think there's anybody upstairs orchestrating it for me, but I do think it happens. If there are miracles in my life, they are rooted in the fact of coincidence.
O: What are you working on now?
AM: I'm just today finishing the first draft of a film script for The Night Listener, which I'm writing with Terry Anderson, my business partner and ex. Our lives are thinly distorted in that novel, so it seemed appropriate that we write the screenplay together.
O: That's a much darker book than what you're known for. Was it fun to write?
AM: No, it was really quite the opposite. It was difficult, because I was drawing on one of the more painful times of my life, and I was involving people who could easily be recognized. I didn't have nearly the freedom that fiction gives me. I'm not sure I'll ever go back to that place again. I'm doing it for the film script, of course, but in one sense, the film allows us to remove ourselves from the characters. Terry and I are already talking about the casting process, and that's very satisfying, because then you can start thinking of it as that actor, and not you at all.
O: Has there been any move to adapt the other three Tales books?
AM: Yes, actually, the script arrived yesterday for Babycakes. We're working with Working Title again in Britain. This will be a movie for television. Not a miniseries, but a movie. The last three novels are better suited to be films than the first three, which were sprawling and episodic. The last three have a little more unity of time and place, and will work as feature films.
O: The series went into a darker place toward the end…
AM: Well, the world did. I lost a very close friend to AIDS in 1982. He was one of the first people to die, and Babycakes was my response to that. It ended up being the first fictional treatment of AIDS anywhere. I kept on doing what I had always done, which was to reflect the world around me within the context of this sort of pop-magic realism, however you want to describe it. Everything that happens in Tales is larger than life. I tried to make the details of it as human and realistic as possible. Nothing is more interesting to me than people talking in an ordinary way about extraordinary things.
O: You said you're concerned with seeming immodest, but you have to admit that you've pioneered a lot of things.
AM: I'm secretly arrogant; I just want people to think that I'm a modest son of a bitch. It's one issue that I deal with all the time. I tend to shoot myself down publicly, and people who love me and care about me tell me to stop doing it. I think I'm finally arriving at a point in my life where I'll take credit for the things I've accomplished.
O: Do you ever intend to continue the Tales Of The City series?
AM: If things get really desperate, I might write something called Christmas At Barbary Lane that'll be about 50 pages long. I'm not sure how I could go back to that world. It kind of is a vanished era. I don't know. Most of the characters would be well into their 50s. Mrs. Madrigal would be 82 and still taping joints onto her tenants' doors, I suppose. I get asked that question a lot, mostly by Europeans, who tend to read all six books in two weeks and then want more. The ones that read them in one fell swoop tend to be the ones who are most adamant about wanting more.
O: Do you feel that with that fan base behind you, you have the creative freedom to write whatever you want?
AM: I do feel that. I've never not felt that. Writing is too hard not to do exactly what you want to do. It's a very draining and agonizing process for me, and I don't want to live with any piece of work that I don't believe in completely. The one or two times that I have accepted other people's assignments, or worked off someone else's inspiration, I've fallen flat, because I just don't have the engine for that. I have to believe completely in what I'm doing. It has grown organically out of my own experience. That's why my eight novels, examined closely enough, can be seen as a scrapbook, at least when it comes to my friendship and heartbreak. All the agony and ecstasy is there.