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Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin


The Tales of the City writer on celebrity, meeting guys online, the new Night Listener movie -- and Michael Tolliver Lives!

Armistead Maupin is a man I dreamt up was the title of a 1993 BBC documentary that fueled further speculation that the famous gay author's name is, in fact, an anagram. Not true, says Maupin, writer of the celebrated six-book Tales of the City series.

But dreams and deceptions are never far from the heart of a Maupin tale, and The Night Listener, Maupin's most recent book--now a major film--is no exception. Maupin sat down with PlanetOut for a phone interview from his San Francisco home this week.

Tell us about the film The Night Listener. The film itself involves a New York City radio storyteller, Gabriel Noone, who strikes up a friendship with one of his fans, an abused 14-year-old teenager who is suffering from AIDS, who does not have much longer to live. This friendship comes into his life at an important time, because he has just broken up with his partner and he's in need of a friendly listener. His partner begins to raise questions about the caller on the other end of the line, and all hell breaks loose.

I don't want to tell much more than that because I think it's the type of film that people should discover for themselves. There is a lot going on in this film that you don't see coming.

Now this was based on a real life experience that you had yourself, correct? Absolutely; the real-life story is somewhat like I just told you. I was sent the galleys of a manuscript back in 1993 and subsequently struck up a friendship with a kid on the phone. My partner, Terry Anderson, who is also one of the screenwriters, initially brought up the question of the child's identity. Unlike Gabriel, I suspected something was going on somewhat earlier. But it was hard to wrap my head around why someone would do this. It may interest you to know that my breakup with Terry and this mystery did not happen concurrently in real life. That is a writer's device, which places Gabriel under even greater pressure when the mystery begins to reveal itself. I actually began to write the novel about two weeks after Terry and I broke up. I think the entire piece is colored by the gloom and despair of that experience.

Why did you choose to partner with Terry on the screenplay? Did that come about naturally? I felt it was the right thing to do because we had both shared the experience. Not only the mystery of the boy on the phone, but the breakup itself -- I think it was a lot harder on both of us than either one imagined, because it requires you to dredge up a lot of old shit and discuss each other's angles on that shit. (Laughs.)

Was working on the script together a healing process for the two of you? Well, Terry and I broke up 10 years ago. So the healing that was going to happen, happened. So mostly this was a stroll down memory lane. (Laughs.)

You're known for choosing names that have plot significance in and of themselves. Is there any significance to the fact that Gabriel's last name could be read as "no one?" Absolutely -- that was entirely intentional. It's always fun to see who catches that and who doesn't. I've done this from the earliest days. I've included these little jokes and mysteries in my writing for the amusement of readers. Most people who watch the film don't get it till they see a poster with his name on it. If you think about it, it even adds additional meaning to the title of his show, which is Noone at Night. No one at night -- an actual description of loneliness.

Both the novel and the film have a Hitchcock feel to them. What is your technique for keeping your audience on edge like that? Well, maybe it has to do with the fact that I was a complete Hitchcock fanatic from age 9. I always noticed the ways that he created suspense by keeping the audience just informed enough to keep them off balance. Things that jump out of nowhere and go "booga-booga" aren't nearly as scary as things that we anticipate.

This is a very timely story with all of the media reports about JT LeRoy and James Frey. But this happened way back in 1992. Had you ever had any direct experience with this sort of deception until this particular episode? A gay man deceived me back in the early '80s, when I first went on tour. I've never talked to anyone about this publicly. A man who showed me around Boston and who subsequently showed up in San Francisco and told me he was dying of leukemia. He said people in Boston were treating him like he was dead already. So he said he wanted to move to San Francisco so he could die in a way that would be as pleasurable as possible. I rallied my friends to help him; we raised money for him and got him an apartment. We went to a great deal of trouble before we discovered he had pulled this scam elsewhere.

On a recent interview on 20/20, the interviewer asked why you would forge a relationship with a 14-year-old boy over the phone. Did that question strike you as homophobic? Yes, it always does. Bill Maher asked me the same thing when he interviewed me. I look at Bill Maher as an extremely civilized man. But it's amazing how many people think that gay men should slink off into the shadows when it comes to having friendships with children. I believe very firmly that gay people of every stripe and age should be role models for all children, and that means interacting with them.

Has your celebrity ever been a drawback in your relationships with friends or lovers?Not that I am aware of. I know that it can make some people extremely uncomfortable because of the way that others treat them. I know that when Terry and I were together, 10 years ago, he did not appreciate it when people would ask him what it is like being partnered with a celebrity. Precisely because it suggested that he had no value. For the most part, I have a very manageable celebrity. People recognize me from time to time, and they usually say very appreciative things. It affords me a great deal of pleasure.

What stands out in your mind over the years as you have traveled the world promoting your work? What I notice more than anything is the sameness of the experience. People will come up to me in Paris and will point out their friend and say, "This is my Michael, this is my Mona, and this is my Miss Madrigal." They have done the same thing in Auckland, New Zealand. It really shows we've been forming our own families for the past quarter century. It's tremendously rewarding. I can't imagine a more fulfilling thing for a writer than that you've made a strong impact on the lives of other people. Just because I've heard it before does not mean I don't want to hear it one more time. (Laughs.)

So what are you reading these days? What new author has grabbed your attention? I read a book recently when I was driving around Scotland with my husband, titled I Am Not My Self These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. (The central character) is an ad exec by day and a seven-foot drag queen by night. His boyfriend is a crack-addicted escort and, believe it or not, it's absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking and heartfelt. Oddly enough, my British editor gave it to me because I had not run across it when it was published in the States. There was a time when you could catch every new gay thing that came along--now we just have to pick and choose. What a wonderful luxury to have.

I agree. We both grew up in the South, and I think it's amazing that a gay kid growing up in Raleigh, N.C., or Memphis, Tenn., can go into his own home and find gay TV like Here! or Logo. It's astonishing to think about, isn't it? When I was 17 years old, I went into a newsstand in Raleigh and saw my first piece of homoerotica. It was a guy sitting up in bed with a bare chest, big arms, great pecs, blond hair -- and I was deeply disturbed because I realized that the image was meant to entice me. Even though this place was called "The Blind-Stand" because a blind man ran it. I didn't have the nerve to buy it or pick it up for fear that he would know which magazine I was browsing through.

I mentioned this magazine to a 27-year-old friend of mine and said that even to this day I could remember the name of the magazine . . . it was called Demigods. He said, "I've been taking care of this old friend who is sick and said he's too old to jerk off any more and I could have his porn and I think there is one in there called Demigods. " So he showed up at the house and I said, "That's not one of the issues of Demigods--that's the very one!" There was something really beautiful about the fact that this magazine that had so terrified me to even look at it had made its way back to my front door when I was 60 years old. I didn't find it shocking at all--I found it quaint and illuminating and sort of sweet. There weren't even genital shots in those days. It's framed and hanging on my kitchen wall as a reminder of how far I've come and how far the culture has come.

You've lived in the Castro for more than three decades. What is different about the neighborhood to you today? That's so hard to answer. But it's remarkably the same. . . . There are still cute young guys in jeans walking around. There are plenty of older guys like me. (Laughs.)

But it's still pretty much "Gayberry RFD." That's maybe a simple answer. But I will say that the drugs are much more ferocious then they used to be. There are people wrecking their lives with addiction, which seems much more severe. I've always had a love-hate relationship with the Castro. But I am in there every other day because I like the sense of community it provides. But once a place like that liberates you, you need to take it to the rest of the world. You need to be an ambassador.

PlanetOut is, among other things, a social networking site. What do you think of social interaction in cyberspace? Well, the Internet has certainly impacted my life. . . . I met my husband on a Web site called (Big laugh.) I did not meet him on the site, but I noticed this cute guy on the site and then I saw him walking down the street a couple of years ago in the Castro. "Hold on, that's him on the line as we speak. He's calling to say hi -- isn't that sweet? (Pause while Armistead switches lines.) Anyway, I told him I could have posted to his profile but I figured it was just easier to chance him down the street. I told him, "I understand you like men over 45 -- I am overqualified for the position." (Laughs.) We've been together two years.

Edmund White just released a very revealing, wonderful autobiography. Do you ever see yourself writing an autobiography?I tend to prefer the shelter of fiction. I've always believed you can get closer to the truth by pretending not to speak it. Once you start to tell tales about your own life, it's impossible to keep the artifice out of it. No matter how frank an autobiography may appear to be, it's still a very carefully contrived contraption.

Armistead, what other passions do you have in life other than writing?Well, you're presuming that writing is a passion. (Laughs). I am one of those writers that bitches about it every inch of the way. But I love to travel with my partner, reading, sitting in the garden, smoking dope, and going to movies. Not necessarily in that order.

What's the most Southern quality you have to this day? Probably my need to tell a story. But I also think I maintain a certain graciousness that I was taught in the South. Which still has a very valid use in the present world. In fact, I think it's more useful today than it was in the past.

So what's next after The Night Listener opens? I have a new book coming out next summer. It's not a continuation of Tales of the City, but it is told from the standpoint of Michael Tolliver today. He's 55 years old. A surviving HIV-positive man. With a considerably younger lover. I am not sure where that came from (Laughs.) Oh, never mind.

I originally said that I would not have any of the other characters from Tales in the new book, but some of them have crept in. The book is a smaller, more personal novel than I've written in the past. I've tried to focus on the dailiness of life--which I think is very interesting. The small details that add up to our lives, and how people who thought they were going to be dead 20 years ago are facing mortality by natural causes. It's called Michael Tolliver Lives, by the way."

Tell me a bit more about your partner; you seem quite happy. (He also asks his age --Ed.) He's 34. There is nothing sillier than an older guy pointing out the youth of his partner. (Laughs.) I am just glad that I have met someone with whom I just feel completely compatible. He's the great companion I have always longed for since I was 8 years old.

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