"I was in a gothic mood," Armistead Maupin says with a laugh. "I wanted to do something spooky and sad and funny all at once." The celebrated author is speaking by phone from the attic office of his San Francisco home about writing Mary Ann in Autumn (Harper, $25.99), the eighth novel in Maupin's popular Tales of the City series. The new book is a return to the multicharacter tapestry and mordantly humorous themes that made Maupin's reputation when he began chronicling the fictional denizens of 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco newspaper columns in the 1970s.
After an absence of 18 years Maupin's beloved characters resurfaced in 2007 in Michael Tolliver Lives, which reunited readers with his fictitious alter ego, lovingly nicknamed Mouse. That book's first-person narrative was a departure from Maupin's cliff-hanger style in his compulsively readable original series. But with Mary Ann in Autumn he returns to the third-person format of his earlier work and brings fans up to date with Mouse's longtime best friend, Mary Ann Singleton (memorably played by Laura Linney in a trio of television miniseries). "Writing in the third person enables me to create stronger suspense; it gives me more freedom," he says. It also allowed him to tell a more populated, complex story. "I like being with a number of characters from the earlier books."
Mary Ann finds the titular heroine returning to San Francisco two decades after she abandoned her husband and child there to pursue a television career in New York. Faced with the end of her second marriage as well as a terrifying health crisis, Singleton seeks refuge in a backyard cottage owned by Mouse and his much younger husband. (Similarly, Maupin, 66, is married to Christopher Turner, 39.) Soon, Singleton's past comes back to haunt her in a way she hadn't imagined.
Because Tales has such a devoted following, Maupin is scrupulously attentive to detail, even rereading his previous books to maintain consistency with his own lore. In fact, a major plot twist in this new tale was set up 21 years ago in the sixth book, Sure of You. "Somebody out there will inevitably point it out to me if I contradict something I said in the past," he says, adding that that kind of clarification flatters him. "I like knowing that I've been telling a story for 34 years and that it's mattered to people."