Sunday, April 16, 2000

The Listener: More tales of the foggy city

BBC World Service
Christopher Gunness, The Presenter

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS Armistead Maupin is the author of Maybe The Moon, Sure Of You and Significant Others. He's perhaps done more than any other writer to make straight people understand, even love gays and vice versa. He's best known for Tales Of The City, written in the late Seventies before the AIDS crisis. And though he served in Vietnam, he says it was the struggle against AIDS that was really his war. You're working on a new novel, The Night Listener - what's it about?

ARMISTEAD MAUPIN Well, I'm going to have to tread very carefully here because this is the first interview I've granted about this novel and I don't want to give too much away. One of my great joys as a storyteller is to be able to keep people in suspense But, roughly, it involves a middle-aged writer who lives in San Francisco, who's made a name for himself telling a kind of continuing serialised story that has appeared on public radio in the United States. A 13-year- old boy in a very small town in the mid-West becomes so devoted to this story that he thinks of this man, this voice as his father. The boy has an adoptive mother - his own parents are locked up in jail because of their horrific sexual abuse of this child. So, the little boy is now trying to reconstruct a life for himself. And out of that grows a very unusual friendship between this middle-aged gay writer and this young straight boy in the mid-West.

CG What are the main themes of the book?

AM One of the things I address is the whole nature of storytelling itself. What does it mean to create fiction? Most fiction writers I know, myself included, take bits and pieces of our own life and then weave them into some enormous lie called fiction in order to get to an even more enormous truth about life in general. And all of these issues come to play in the story. It's also about fatherhood: what it means to be a father, what it takes to be a father, how our fathers let us down, how we act in our lives in a way that reflects how we were raised. It's a family saga.

CG Are there things about yourself which you're trying to say?

AM I'm not trying to say them about myself, I'm trying to say them about human experience in general. But what do I have to draw from? I plunder my own life, that's always been what I do.

CG What have been the formative experiences that have made you the writer that you are to day?

AM I was raised in a rather uptight, conservative, aristocratic southern family, back in North Carolina. We were taught to gloss things over, to avoid truths, to keep secrets, to be nice, to be polite, to dance around the truth and to never get close to anything that approached intimacy. I was the luckiest, in a way, of all my siblings - I was the one that had the big thing wrong with me, I was the gay one. There was no way I could conform. I ended up packing all my belongings into a car when I was 27 years old and moving west to California. And that became my quintessential experience; the way in which I moved to the west coast just as the pioneers once did because it transformed me and gave me a new life.

CG Now you're turning Further Tales Of The City into television. What sorts of problems is this presenting you with?

AM Actually, very few; it's a delightful indulgence because I get to go back and fix the things that I didn't get right the first time around. When the Tales Of The City series was written, it initially appeared as a serial in a daily newspaper in San Francisco, beginning 24 years ago and running for about 12 years. I was writing on a daily deadline, so now that I'm re-writing it I'm able to bring the wisdom of middle- age to some of these characters. And the world has changed. Television will allow you to do more, so I'm able to explore this wide array of gay, straight and in-between characters in a way that I couldn't do before.

CG Are there problems, though, with the mass media turning your book into something which is palatable for a large mainly straight audience?

AM I'm very lucky I had Channel 4 on my side with the first series - they told me that they wanted to film the show exactly as it was written. Here in the United States, Showtime, the cable channel which handled More Tales of The City and will be handling Further Tales Of The City, are proud of the fact that they take on material that might not appear on conventional networks. I was courted for years by American commercial networks, but they wanted to take the gay characters out. And I told them that was like taking the poor people out of Dickens!

CG What about Hollywood? I read that you were asked to turn one of your main characters into a mass murderer. Is that typical?

AM That happened very early on with Tales Of The City, with a Hollywood producer.

CG What about homophobia and Hollywood? It's legendary but is it really as bad as people have said?

AM Yes it is, and I'll tell you why, there's a lot of gay people in power! And they are second guessing America more than most heterosexuals would about what's acceptable. For years, there was the suggestion that a male-to-male kiss could not be shown ever, anywhere, or people would run, vomiting up the aisles. What we're discovering, as a matter of fact, is that heterosexual females often get as big a thrill out of watching two men kissing as heterosexual males get watching a couple of lesbians.

CG I wanted to ask you about the famous outing of Rock Hudson - why did you do that?

AM Because he was a friend of mine, and I saw that he was about to be savaged by the American tabloids. His gayness was the best unkept secret in Hollywood. I used to go to lunches with him in Beverly Hills, where he was constantly being seen with young men. I realised the game was over, and that somebody had to step forward in a dignified way and say "Yes he is gay, everyone knew it. He was loved, he was respected, he has nothing to be ashamed of - you will not make a scandal out of this". And that's roughly what happened. I think what you saw for the first time on the part of publications like People Magazine and Newsweek was sophisticated reporting about gay life. So that's why I did it, the other reason being that I'm not ashamed of being gay myself. Many of Rock Hudson's friends had some vested interest in appearing heterosexual.

CG Was it your prerogative to do that?

AM We don't say that about heterosexuals. There's a double standard that's applied to homosexuality. I think your great hero in Britain Sir Ian McKellen handles this beautifully. He understands what the difference is: "It is not a violation of privacy to be asked if you're gay," he says. It is a violation of privacy if you come to Sir Ian and say "Who are you dating these days? Tell us about it."

CG You're on your eighth novel in twenty-something years, a period that has seen, if you like, the gay revolution. You're not as involved as you have been...

AM It's a natural part of my life now. Fortunately, I don't have to explain it to every reporter that comes along. Or as I had to do in the mid-Eighties, with AIDS. There are sociologists, doctors and political activists who can talk about it, and I'm finally free to talk about what I love most: storytelling.

CG How do you think things have progressed, if at all?

AM I don't feel the pressure to go out and say "I'm gay, look at me and get over it". I think it's changed, not because of political activism - although that's certainly helped and especially in Great Britain where there have been some very important fights in Parliament about the age of consent, for instance. But because of cultural changes, the way in which gay people are becoming a matter- of-fact part of society in movies, in films, TV shows. That de- demonises it in a way that nothing else can. That's why it's important for public figures to be out of the closet because it eases up the experience for the person who has to come out to mum and dad, or to his or her co-workers.

CG To what extent do you see AIDS as having set back the so- called gay cause?

AM I don't think it set it back at all - as a matter of fact, I think it forced the discussion of homosexuality in a way that never would have happened if people hadn't been dying in this terrible way.I used to talk to Rock Hudson about how I would love to write a civilised biography of him in which he could explain himself. He yearned to do that, but he didn't feel he could because of this enormous hypocrisy in Hollywood. It was his disease which finally made the truth evident. I simply spoke it. So, I think the epidemic itself actually was the single catalyst that has created the liberation that we see today in terms of people's understanding of homosexuality.

CG Looking to the future, do you think the epidemic has imbued a sense of responsibility in the community here, in the way it behaves in its own relationships?

AM That's a question that I resent a little, because it suggested that we needed a sense of responsibility before. And I don't consider my friends that died of AIDS 15 years ago to have been irresponsible because they succumbed to a virus. I think, if anything, it's made society at large more responsible in terms of the monstrous injustices that have been committed against gay people and the ways in which we've been shut out of society. We're told on one hand that we're promiscuous and irresponsible and on the other hand that we're not to be allowed into the sacred institution of marriage. But you can't have it both ways, you know.

CG You were described by Christopher Isherwood as the American Charles Dickens - do you see yourself as an American writer or as a San Franciscan writer?

AM I see myself as a world storyteller; my stories are all over the world now. I used to think years ago, when I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, that I was writing about a world that was exclusive to this city. But the more I travelled the world on book tours, the more I realised how completely universal these extended families are. In Helsinki, for instance, people would come up to me and say "this is my Mona, and this is my Michael, and that lady over there is my Mrs Madrigal" - they had identified their friends according to the characters that I'd written about in my stories.

CG What is it about San Francisco that engrosses you so much?

AM It's gorgeous. Everywhere you turn, there's a new view. Here in my house on this hillside, I can look down on the wonderful swirling fog when it comes in on a summer afternoon, and I find it so soothing and mysterious and inspiring, all at the same time. It's small enough and cosmopolitan enough that a lot of different people come into collision with each other - that makes for good stories too and it makes for wonderful life because it's so rich. The World's Fair of 1939 was out on the island in the bay, and their whole theme was a pan-Pacific dream: that all these Asian and European nations would one day come together. Well, that's happened. Ride the streetcar and you see the most extraordinary array of human beings, and that's rare for a town this size in America. We feel as if we have a little piece of Europe and we cherish it.

`Agenda - Armistead Maupin' will be broadcast on the World Service 6.30pm, Saturday 22 July and repeated 7.30am, Sunday 23 July