Tales of the City
More Tales of the City
Further Tales of the City
Sure of You
Maybe The Moon
The Night Listener
Michael Tolliver Lives
Mary Ann in Autumn
The Days of Anna Madrigal
‘ that veritable asparagus garden of carnal delights’
This post is dedicated to a very important figure in the LGBT world of fiction, Armistead Maupin. With his first books coming out in the late 1970’s set entirely in San Francisco, they were a rare commodity at that time. A modern book, then series of books, about people from across the spectrum of sexuality, living, working and loving together. It certainly didn’t hurt that these delightful books were hysterically funny and occasionally, desperately sad.
Below Armistead describes how the series came to be…This was taken from an interview given to John Mullen for The Guardian Newspaper Book Club (14/02/2014)
My first novel began as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. I can not honestly claim that I set out to write a novel, since I was flying by the seat of my pants, pumping out 800 words a day, five days a week, in keeping with the needs of the gentlemen in the front office. Even the title was more or less dictated by my editors, since they wanted to make it clear to readers that (1) I was writing and (2) I was writing fiction about San Francisco. Given a choice between The San Francisco Story and Tales of the City, I settled on the latter because of its Dickensian echoes, though I worried it was too generic-sounding to ever belong to me completely. Thirty-eight years later I don’t fret about that much any more.
My memory of that first year is one of panic and exhilaration. As another day and another chapter loomed, I scrambled for the pieces to this amorphous creature. I snatched names willy-nilly out of the air. My ‘ingenue’, Mary Ann Singleton, was a not-so-subtle variation on “single town”. Her fellow tenants at 28 Barbary Lane, Mona Ramsey and Brian Hawkins had surnames drawn from my Southern father’s self-published family history. Likewise, Michael Tolliver’s last name was my uncle’s middle name – at least in terms of its pronunciation, since he spelled it Taliferro. Landlady, Anna Madrigal’s name was my own invention, intended to evoke the pleasant rhythm of Mrs Miniver, a book I revered and had initially been serialised to great success in the Times. At least, I thought I had invented her name. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised that Hayley Mills’s mysterious governess in the 1964 film The Chalk Garden is called Miss Madrigal. Deborah Kerr’s screen name had loitered for a dozen years somewhere in the back of my brain.
It was movies, mostly, that held sway over the invention of atmosphere in Tales of the City. I’m thinking of those sunny urban apartment house films – Bell, Book and Candle, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even Cabaret – as well as elements of Hitchcock films involving voyeurs with binoculars and gruesome, third-act falls from high places. The plotting emerged from my own skipping, stumbling life as a just-out gay man in San Francisco, that veritable asparagus garden of carnal delights. I built a whole chapter, for instance, out of the preppie guy I followed home one night only to learn that he was a shoe fetishist lusting after my Weejuns.
Also like Michael, I got as far as “the furniture buying stage” with a hunky Marine recruiter who successfully wooed me with a plastic medallion that read: “The Marines Are Looking for a Few Good Men”. I even had a dreamy doctor boyfriend – a mastectomy specialist, not a gynaecologist like Jon Fielding – who was ultimately unnerved by my growing contempt for the closet. An early job as a mail boy at an advertising agency (where, just like Mary Ann, I was required to raise the American flag every morning for my conservative boss) brought me into daily contact with a Mona-esque copywriter who declared herself “creative” by flaunting a hookah and a Victorian toilet in her office. Likewise the newspaper where I tapped out Tales every afternoon offered a treasure trove of material, since my desk was adjacent to that of the society editor. (It was there I learned of a local hostess, a well-to-do lady with liberal intentions and a comically earnest air, who had thrown a luncheon at her penthouse “to rap about rape.”)
I liked working there in the “people department” (a new euphemism for the women’s section in the age of feminism), since it offered handy distractions from the horror of the blank page. I would regale my sisters with tales of the night before, sparing them no detail, before finally committing them to paper at the 11th hour. Sometimes, when the panic overwhelmed me, I would flee the building entirely and walk two blocks to a plywood-cubicled sex club, where cheap daytime rates referred to as “The Businessman’s Special” offered a moment or two of welcome mindlessness. After one such escape from my never-ending story I was called unexpectedly to the editor’s office where, 10 minutes into our discussion, I discovered a big pink glob of bubble gum stuck to the knee of my Levi’s 501s. I thought that was funny at the time. Still do, come to think of it.
By the end of that crazed, single-minded year (it’s no accident that Tales of the City concludes on New Year’s Eve) I had several hundred chapters that encompassed, among other oddities later excised, a sordid plotline involving a serial killer who strangled his victims with pantyhose and sprinkled their bodies with blue glitter. Harvey Ginsberg, the meticulous editor at Harper & Row in New York who had suggested “there might be a novel there” urged me to remove the hokey mystery thread and whittle the whole thing down into a tight little comedy of manners. My friend Rock Hudson offered me his Palm Springs house for this purpose, so I spent a week there, arranging chapters on his living room floor until they assumed a shape I could find acceptable. It was the first and only time I ever worked like that, and I found it immensely satisfying. Nowadays my habit is to polish as I go along.
Over six million readers have bought Tales in the City since the first title was published in 1976, making Maupin’s series one of the bestselling ever. In addition in 1993 Tales in the City ‘came out’ as a TV series in the United States and earned Olympia Dukakis many awards for her role as Mrs Madrigal. More recently, as the poster above illustrates, the series has become a musical, written by The Scissor Sisters.
It is said that the only people who buy Tales in the City now, in San Francisco, are straight people or those wanting to send them home as a message. This is because all the gay people have read them.
I read most of this series when I was in my late teens. I lived in Brighton in England, which is comparable in many ways to San Francisco. These books saved me from a terrible depression, which threatened to engulf many of us around the late 1980’s. Many of my friends and housemates were dying or hiding from AIDS. My friends gay and/or straight were being targeted by bigots and homophobes who blamed us, for everything from The Gay Plague to World War 2!
I was hospitalised, after having a broken bottle plunged into my scalp by a group of brave young men yelling ‘Fag Hag’. However, when things became too harsh around me, I would retreat into the world of Mary Ann, Mouse and Mrs Madrigal. Somehow the fact that these people understood what I was going through and experienced similar uncertainties and bigotry, helped me.
Now, as I have moved from all-night dancing to all-night box sets, I realise that Armistead’s series, though the cultural references are harder to understand, is still as relevant today as it always was.
Gay or straight, if you haven’t yet experienced the wonders of life at 28 Barbary Lane, read this series and your life will never be quite the same again 😉
We will be offering, a $10 Amazon gift card to 1 lucky Commenter.
Contest ends 13th April @ 11:59pm CST. Must be 18 or older to win. Void where prohibited.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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