It began as a column in a local newspaper and ended up with more than six million readers. In his Tales of the City series of novels, Armistead Maupin's freewheeling vision of San Francisco seduced the world with its combination of sunny amiability, frank sexuality and sly humour. It also created a soap-opera cast of recurring characters: Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, Mary Ann Singleton, Brian Hawkins, and their pot-smoking transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal. Now aged 92, Anna takes centre stage as the gang reunites for the latest – and final – volume, The Days of Anna Madrigal .
Maupin happily admits that, when he began, the pressure of creating instalments on a daily basis was considerable. Did he map plots and characters out in advance, to make it easier?
“No, in a word,” he says. “I knew that I wanted a landlady. I knew the characters had to be distinctive, so that readers could remember who everybody was. Beyond that I didn’t have a real game plan.
“It just kind of grew organically, as people explored the city and took on lovers and needed a friend down the hall. I was just grabbing everything out of the air: things that had happened to me the night before, stories that I’d been told, and a general instinct about how I wanted it to feel.”
At 70, Maupin is white-haired, avuncular, relaxed. But the past 40 years have been as much of a journey for him as for his characters. In the second book, 1980's More Tales of the City , Michael "Mouse" Tolliver writes a letter to his parents declaring he is gay. It was Maupin's way of getting the message to his own parents. Unorthodox, but it worked. They accepted his public declaration and have supported him. Maupin, for his part, has accepted his role as a highly visible gay activist.
"When I started writing Tales of the City I was one year away from being a mental illness," he says. "It wasn't until 1975 that the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental illnesses – and in many states, including the state of North Carolina, where I grew up, homosexuality was a crime. An arrestable crime. It still is, in many parts of the world.
“On the road I encounter enormous emotion from readers,” he adds. “Some of them are LGBT people who, when they read the books, found that life can be beautiful and there’s nothing you need to change. You just need to be honest about who you are.”
The dark side
The books have had their share of darkness. During the 1980s they confronted the Aids crisis. More recent storylines have touched on cancer, divorce and ecological disaster. But the central theme of Tales of the City has always been that the biggest disaster of all is our penchant for demonising those who are different. Despite the homophobic right-wing rants that make headlines in the US on a regular basis, Maupin says daily life for the gay community in America has improved dramatically.
“Individual states are deciding to accept marriage equality. Ten years ago, all the talk was about activist judges who might declare it okay, and thus undermine civilisation. Now it’s just growing in states where people have realised there’s nothing particularly horrifying about Uncle Andy marrying his friend Joe.
“I think social networking has a lot to do with it. When you see a gay couple on Facebook, they’re living their life. They’re proud of their dog, proud of their children, cooking meals every night. The demonisation stops.”
In The Days of Anna Madrigal we learn that the boarding-house at 28 Barbary Lane has been sold to dotcom millionaires. Like so much that happens in the books, the plot point mirrors a development in Maupin's real-world story. Ironically, the man who brought San Francisco to the world has left the overpriced, techie-dominated city: Maupin and his husband of six years, Christopher, have moved to the desert in Santa Fe.
“Property prices are much better and there’s a great deal of charm and natural beauty,” says Maupin with a fond smile. “We’re at the end of a dirt road in an adobe house. There are rolling hills all around us and coyotes howling in the backyard. We have the bluest sky you can imagine most of the year. In the wintertime it snows, but not in any seriously debilitating way. And it’s 15 minutes from the wholefood stores.”
The Days of Anna Madrigal brings the Barbary Lane gang on a mildly bumpy road trip to the Burning Man festival in the salt flats of Nevada, where Anna flies, literally and metaphorically, into the sunset. Well, she is 92. Even a pot-smoking, transgender landlady can't go on forever. All the same, wouldn't Maupin consider doing just one more follow-up volume?
“I would be teased forever if I did,” he says. “I’ve already been accused of being on Cher’s farewell tour.”
But he may – perhaps – write a memoir and turn it into a one-man show so that he can still get around and meet his loyal readers. And so the story continues.
The Days of Anna Madrigal is published by Doubleday at £12.99 in UK