Armistead Maupin, Nottingham Waterstones, Tuesday July 10th 2007.
Nearly eighteen years after the publication of Sure Of You – the sixth and final instalment of Armistead Maupin’s celebrated Tales Of The City series, which detailed the lives and loves of a disparate and sometimes dissolute group of San Francisco residents – most of the main characters have been brought back to life in an unexpected yet welcome addition to the canon, entitled Michael Tolliver Lives.
Earlier in the week, and a full twenty years after his last visit, Armistead Maupin returned to Nottingham for a promotional appearance at Waterstones on Bridlesmith Gate. In front of a 150-strong audience of faithful devotees, he read from the new book, answered questions, and signed our hardback copies. “This is by far my favourite part of the job” reads the claim on his official website, and the 63-year old Maupin certainly seemed in relaxed good humour, radiating an easy, sincere charm which sat well against his ready wit and frequently hilarious anecdotes.
For the uninitiated, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver was one of the best-loved characters in the original Tales series: an essentially good-natured and well adjusted gay man, whose sexual adventurousness was tempered by a pronounced romantic streak. As the encroaching shadow of the 1980s AIDS epidemic began to fall over the carefree frolics that characterised the earlier novels, so Tolliver also suffered agonising loss, eventually being diagnosed HIV positive himself. For a whole generation of gay Americans, Tolliver was perhaps their closest approximation to an Everyman figure.
Now in his mid-fifties, and a long-term survivor of the disease, Michael has long since ceased to be staring imminent death in the face. For the first time, he is given the narrator’s role, telling us his story in his own words. As this story progresses, we gradually re-encounter many old friends, such as Michael’s former housemate Brian Hawkins and his former landlady Anna Madrigal. Characters whom we last saw as children are now fully grown adults, such as Brian’s daughter Shawna, a sex-blogger (“Grrrl On The Loose”) with a book deal, whose own frankness and sense of adventure makes even the formerly libidinous Michael – now ensconced in a blissful if not fully monogamous new relationship – squirm in embarrassment.
Maupin opened by commenting upon an Anglican bishop’s claim that our recent floods were “God’s wrath against us for being lenient towards homosexuals”, wryly noting that the torrential rain seemed to have followed him and his partner Christopher all round the country. “As the tour progressed, the rainier it got!” he chuckled, apparently ready to bear full responsibility.
Earlier in the day, he had paid a visit to York Minster, where his maternal grandmother (a resident of Derby) had given “dramatic recitations” in her youth. “I communed with her spirit”, he explained, adding that she had been a prime inspiration for the character of Anna Madrigal. “So I was going back to the source this morning.”
When asked whether more Tales-derived work might appear in the future, Maupin’s answer was optimistic, if tantalisingly inconclusive. “Maybe. I don’t want to be held to anything, but I’ve been plotting on the train. It just popped up all of a sudden, and I think it’s going to be off and running again. I hope so!”
Since it has been seven years since his last novel (The Night Listener), and a further eight years between that and its predecessor, perhaps it would be best not to get prematurely over-excited.
During these lengthy gaps, Maupin has worked on various dramatic spin-offs. A film adaptation of The Night Listener (starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette) was released last year, and the first three volumes of Tales Of The City (starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis) were serialised for television. Dukakis has stated that the transsexual landlady Anna Madrigal has been her favourite ever role, and the Oscar-nominated Linney has declared herself ready to resume work on Tales at any time.
“So I’ve been busy, but not that busy. I’m not pathological. I’m not Joyce Carol Oates, who writes her next novel in the back seat of the taxi when she’s on a book tour. I’m not anywhere near that kind of self-discipline.”
As for why he decided to write Michael Tolliver Lives in the first person: “I wanted to have the experience of crawling inside Michael. I wanted to tell the story of a middle-aged gay man living in San Francisco who had survived AIDS – who had been “out” to his parents for a long time, and yet they were still voting for politicians that demonise gay people. We’re still very polarised over there, and I thought I had a perfect vehicle to dramatise this. And also, about three years ago, I fell in love in a serious way. It put a whole new light on my life. I wanted to write about it, and to celebrate it.”
Michael Tolliver Lives is published in hardback by Doubleday, £17.99.