The books interview: the Tales of the City author on his past as a closeted young conservative and his fears over Americas fascist regime

Armistead Maupin is divorcing his family thats how he puts it. The particular problem is his brother, Tony, aDonald Trump supporter with a fondness for the Confederate flag. Thats what Facebook has done, Maupin tells me: you see a family members page and you want no part of it any more. Life is too short to pretend the poison isnt there. Their religion and their politics automatically make me, as a gay man, asecond-class citizen. So fuck it.

Maupin (pronounced Mawpin), whose much-loved Tales of the City novels are soon to have an updated treatment on Netflix, has long made a distinction between his problematic biological family and his logical family close friends and soulmates. The idea was expressed in fiction by Anna Madrigal, the transgender matriarch of the Tales, who gathers around her a familial group of misfit tenants at 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. Now the author has chosen Logical Family as the title for his long-awaited memoir.

There have been two Maupins: the young, virginal, arch-conservative Vietnam volunteer who shook Nixons hand and kept his sexuality a secret, desperate to impress his white supremacist, homophobic father. And, from his late 20s, the open-hearted ambassador of homosexuality, a writer who, inhis own words, revealed the gay experience to a readership of millions (and the even bigger audience of the 1990s Tales TV mini-series).

He wanted to write a memoir, he says, to show that I had made a journey from a position of darkness and narrow thinking to quite the opposite. I wanted credit for overcoming the influences of my childhood. He also wrote it, he has said, to get over the fact that I was cross with myself for waiting so long to come out. Given that hes an author who has looted his own life for his fiction, an autobiography of some kind was all but inevitable: Ive been anecdotalising my life since I was a child, he chuckles. As Maupins stand-in character Gabriel puts it in the roman clef The Night Listener: Im like a magpie, I save the shiny stuff and discard the rest.

This shiny stuff is also on display in a new biographical documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, directed by Jennifer M Kroot. In the film, Maupins friend Neil Gaiman recalls how Tales of the City began in 1976 as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, and was almost a Trojan horse. It smuggled in all sorts of themes hook-up culture, everyday drug use, gay bathhouse sex, transgender identity while remaining a frothy, funny narrative with characters for whom readers felt a deep affection. The idea that he was doing this in a family newspaper that is not just groundbreaking, Gaiman reflects. That takes chutzpah, it takes testicles the size of asteroids.

Gaiman comments too on Maupins current life with his husband, Christopher Turner, 30 years his junior, whose picture he admired on the website Daddyhunt.com (porn and personals) before bumping into him on the street. They are a strange storybook couple; each is the other ones ideal Its like Armistead was being written bya beneficent creator with a plan, who said: OK you are going to be this repressed, rightwing kid from North Carolina, but just stick with the story and in the end you will get your happily ever after.

San
San Franciscos Castro theatre in the Castro district. Photograph: DavidSweetPhotography/Getty Images/Flickr RM

My conversation in Maupins ground-floor apartment in the Castro district ofSan Francisco ranges from his friendships with Robin Williams and Ian McKellen to David Hockneys early passion for Cliff Richard. At its centre, however, remains the family he was born into: he is still ashamed of the degree to which I did not rebel when I was a young man.

Maupins father, a lawyer with grand ancestors, painted The South Will Rise Again above the porch of his childrens playhouse. He walked his family out of church when black worshippers were to be given communion, and ridiculed anyone with a hint of gayness as a fairy nice fellow. The arrogance runs so deep among upper-class southerners that it wont go away anytime soon, Maupin says now. Its tied to their whole identity: all that Gone With the Wind shit. Knowing he was gay from an early age, he remembers feeling there was every indication that I shouldnt be this thing: it was a sin, a crime and amental illness. He wanted electroshock therapy but it was never the right time to ask.

Maupin wasnt just a run-of-the-mill young conservative but a highly successful young one (having embraced his fathers politics because I was terrified of who I was). He was given his first writing job by the notorious racist, homophobe and future senator Jesse Helms and set out for Vietnam to prove he was a man: My mother said I had a Lawrence of Arabia complex, which was a lot closer than she knew. He even got involved in a propaganda exercise to show how young Americans supported their countrys involvement in south-east Asia, dreamed up by the infamous dirty tricks department later behind Watergate. This was how he met Nixon: My father was over the moon. I was doing everything I needed to make himhappy.

The edifice had already begun to crack before Maupin moved to San Francisco: he recalls losing his virginity after a twilight tryst in a park in Charleston, when he was still in the navy. The sex wasnt great, but he can still feel to this day the following mornings exhilaration riding to the ship in my Sunbeam Alpine, listening to Good Morning Girl on the radio.

After leaving the navy he became a reporter, but it was his move to the west coast, and in particular the San Francisco bathhouse scene, that finally shattered his identity. He writes in Logical Family that if anything delivered me from the privileged white elitism of my youth it was the red-lit cubicles and darkened hallways and even darker mazes of Daves Baths. Once you see how youve been oppressed, he says, you understand different types of oppression.

You can tell the difference between a bastard and a nice guy in the dark, Maupin remembers. Where everything is a silent and tactile experience, gentleness is a very potent language. And the racial divides are largely gone. It wasnt so much the fact that I was having sex as the fact that I was lying naked in someone elses arms, feeling tenderness. And thats why I went backnight after night with amyl nitrite in a container like a silver lipstick around his neck. Maupin had lots of anonymous sex with men and close friendships with women; it took me a while to learn to be friends with gay men. For a romantic with a slut side, it was an amazing time to be cruising the streets of the Castro.

Then the serial that became Tales ofthe City was commissioned, and he danced down Polk Street, because I knew I had something, a subject that wasnt being covered. The soap operatic stories offered the opposite of the standard account of a ghettoised gay experience, and Maupin cringes when the Tales are described in narrow terms as a portrait of gay life in San Francisco. The triumph was that I got everyone in the whole point is that were all in it together. They were also a valentine to his new west coast home: Quentin Crisp once introduced Maupin as the man who had invented San Francisco.

The writing of 800 words a day, five days a week, for the first two years of Tales was agonising but exhilarating. Maupin notes the influence of Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwoods The Berlin Stories. He met Isherwood at an Oscar party thrown by one of the producers of Saturday Night Fever. That should nail the era for you. It was Isherwood, soon a friend, who first remarked that Tales ofthe City has a Dickensian flavour, blending comedy with social comment. Maupin notes that the serial, each episode with its own cliffhanger ending, revived something that hadnt been done in a hundred years.

He looked around him for inspiration, folding current events and new lifestyles into the narrative. Maupin depicted lesbian mothers before that was anywhere in the culture and invented Anna Madrigal the same year Bruce Jenner won male athlete of the year. He has always been a political creature: from day one, I was gleeful that I was getting some radical concept out there in a way that was palatable, affecting and amusing.

Maupin chose to come out to his parents in 1977 via Tales character Michael Tollivers celebrated Letter to Mama (itself prompted by a rightwing anti-gay Save Our Children crusade): you are still my parents and I am still your child. After a long wait, the author finally received a curt reply from his father: Dear Teddy, As you know your mother is very ill, so any additional stress can only exacerbate the situation. In other words, as Maupin summarises it: Shut up before you kill her.

But as San Franciscos newest celebrity, he was having so much fun. The personal and the political had merged for the first time in my life When I auctioned off jockstraps in a rabbit suit at a Folsom Street bar, I was doing it to benefit lawyers who were fighting for our rights. He slept with Rock Hudson (after a first encounter when, intimidated by the star, he failed to perform), had a Palm Springs drugs epiphany and was a frequent guest at Isherwoods house in Santa Monica: When I visit now, I shiver with the memories of how it felt to sit there and listen to people tell the truth about their lives.

He published the Tales novels throughout the 1980s; they were among the first fictional accounts of the Aids epidemic. Everyone around me started to die. We thought we were all going to die, Maupin has said. When he killed off his character Jon Fielding, who had the disease, a proportion of readers, gay and straight, accused the author of ruining our mornings entertainment with your political agenda. But he had to put it in, because Aids was happening all around me not least to Hudson, whom Maupin controversially outed before he died. Both Terry Anderson, the authors boyfriend of a dozen years up to 1996, and Turner were HIV-positive when the relationships began. How has Maupin escaped becoming infected? By being boring in bed.

A reminder of the extent to which conservatives still considered the Tales outrageous came when the TV mini-series starring Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton was aired in the US in 1994 (having been broadcast in the UK the year before). A heated controversy developed over the shows depiction of LGBT relationships, nudity and drug use: this was still a time, the shows producer Alan Poul recalls in The Untold Tales, when man-on-man kissing was a big taboo on TV. While the right accused the series of being incendiary and salacious, Poul thought it was simply about everybodys right to search for love. It was a big ratings success, and still enjoys a high reputation.

Laura
Laura Linney and Paul Gross in the TV mini-series of Tales of the City. Photograph: Channel 4

Linney, a good friend, and Olympia Dukakis, who played Anna Madrigal, are destined to reprise their roles in the forthcoming Netflix series (which draws on the final three Tales novels published between 2007 and 2014). According to Maupin, its to be set in the present day, and begins with Madrigals 90th birthday party featuring a whole new and diverse set of people living at 28 Barbary Lane. Mary Ann has a dark secret shes bringing with her, and it unfolds from there. As executive producer, Maupin is overseeing the writing team Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, has reportedly written the first script.

The money from Netflix will come in useful: times are relatively hard, and with highly paid techies invading the Castro, Maupin could no longer afford to buy a house there. My books have sold over 40 years, but the bulk was at the beginning, he explains. Yet he still finds the city enchanting, and has said he feels lucky to be alive There are friends who arent with me who dont have the luxury of griping about the Google bus.

Maupin still has many pleasures walking his labradoodle to the dog park, vaping a cannabis strain called Girl Scout Cookies (a diabetic, he no longer drinks alcohol) and spending time with Turner, the love of my life. He enjoys his continued renown, especially in this very busy year, and has no timefor the snobby literary crowd who look down on his work as popular entertainment.

But his despair at last years election result is unabating: Logical Family refers to a new fascist regime in Washington. I wrote that six months ago, he tells me, and I thought: youll be sorry you used that term. But Im not at all. I think were closer than ever. And it means that after decades of struggling with his mean, tight, selfish father (who, having mellowed a little, died in 2005), Maupin is finally calling time on his biological family. Trump has, he writes, left our country more divided than at any time since the civil war. Brother against brother, then and now.

Logical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin is published by Doubleday. To order a copy for 17 (RRP 20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

VIA: http://www.theguardian.com/us