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Telling tales

Armistead Maupin, chronicler of gay life, feels lucky to be here. The veteran author spoke to Steven Petrow about 70’s San Francisco, AIDS and ageing.

Walking through San Francisco’s Castro district with Armistead Maupin today is like taking a stroll with the patron saint of the gays — which in many ways he is. The Castro was the epicentre of gay life in America in the late 1970s, when Maupin introduced his newspaper column, Tales of the City, set in and around these streets and chronicling gay (as well as lesbian and transgender) life for a mainstream audience.

Now 73, his storytelling and life are still relevant: He recently was the subject of a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” and Netflix is planning to revive the “Tales of the City” television miniseries that aired in the 1990s, with Maupin as an executive producer of the new episodes. Maupin also has written a new book, “Logical Family: A Memoir,” which traces his journey from his biological family to what he calls his logical one, “where you feel safe and where you’re loved unconditionally”.

Q: In your memoir, you talk about ageing — and not kindly. You write that you are slower now, lazy more often than not, and plagued by grumpiness, what you jokingly refer to as “senile resentments”, a phrase your friend and fellow author Christopher Isherwood often used. How are you dealing with being older?

A: Every now and then it jolts me that I’m 73. I have noticed the memory loss. I can’t always retrieve names, and I’ll embarrass a whole party by saying, “You know, that woman who was in something or other with somebody you know.” The worst thing wrong with me is that I have diabetes, so I have neuropathy in my feet, and that makes it harder to walk. I find myself walking around like an old man — sometimes to my great alarm. But I walk.

Q: That sounds a bit defiant: “But I walk.” Are you raging against ageing?

A: No, not at all. I consider myself extremely lucky that I am ageing. I’m lucky to be here.

Q: Many of your generation succumbed to AIDS — not making it to old age. Have you ever been plagued by what’s called survivor’s guilt?

A: No. But I try to live my life for them. I try not to exercise my senile resentments to their full glory precisely because they never got to make the journey with me. I feel very blessed, but not guilty.

Q: Did you fear that you would die back then?

A: I’ve always had a fear of death, to a certain degree. It didn’t take AIDS to bring that out in me. Anybody with a lick of sense knows that we don’t get all the time on the planet that we want. But that was a time when we all thought we were going to get sick and die.

Q: You write in “Logical Family” that your writing doesn’t come as easily to you now as in the past.

A: When I started writing Tales, I had to write 800 words a day, come hell or high water. I was a columnist and couldn’t fret over the fact that each column wasn’t the best thing I’d ever written. Now I can take my time — I’m as pokey as hell. At best I can write a page a day, and I’m now a terrible procrastinator filled with self-doubt half the time.

Q: Is this because you’re older?

A: I don’t think so. It’s because I’m my own best critic. Writing has become an increasingly agonising problem for me, but I think that has more to do with perfectionism setting in than ageing — or anything else. I want the language to be pretty, and that takes a while.

Q: Why did you become a writer in the first place?

A: From a very early age it was my instinct to be a storyteller. I was the kid who sat everybody down around the campfire and told them ghost stories about North Carolina, stories that I dramatised for my own use after I read a book called “Tar Heel Ghosts”. And I had a great English teacher in high school who made me feel wonderful about myself because I could write.

Later, I realised I could fix things by writing. I could tell the story of something painful and give it harmony and purpose. Most of life is chaos, and the job of a writer is to sort things out in some way — maybe not with a happy ending, but at least show a pattern. That’s always been useful to me. I’ve written in the midst of painful breakups. I wrote about AIDS when it was just hitting us.

Q: Do you think Tales helped to normalise homosexuality in this country?

A: Yes, I think it did, and it paved the way for a whole lot of things on television. People began to realise how benign and beautiful gay relationships could be in the context of art. I do think that’s my chief contribution to the world.

Q: Despite setbacks, recent advances for LGBT equality have been remarkable. You wrote in the memoir: “How could I have guessed then that the thing I feared most in my life would one day be the source of my greatest joy, the inspiration for my life’s work?”

A: Growing up in North Carolina, being gay was unthinkable. As a child, I would see the word “homosexual” on a page and it would seem to be burned there — it would leap out at me. It was the one thing I was trying to avoid. My mother was afraid it was going to ruin my career. I finally said to her, “It is my career.”

Q: You started writing Tales only a few years before HIV/AIDS was understood to be a killer disease. How did the epidemic impact your work?

A: I lost a dear friend to pneumocystis pneumonia in 1982. He was one of the first people to die of the disease that came to be known as AIDS. And then everyone around me started to die. We thought we were all going to die. I could contain it in my head if I wrote about it. So I killed off a character from “Tales of the City” and showed how the cast reacted to it. I was criticised by gay people, who wrote to say, “Why are you doing this? This is supposed to be my light morning entertainment.” But I had to put it in the story because it was happening all around me.

I’ve lost so many friends from that period. But one of the wonderful things about being an old queer is that most of your friends are people who’ve been out for a long time and showed a certain amount of bravery in doing what they did when they did it. I feel like an old pioneer with the other old pioneers.

Q: How did you escape becoming infected with HIV?

A: By being boring in bed. I didn’t discover the pleasures of other kinds of sex until later in life — which brings us full circle to my wonderful husband. Chris [Turner] is HIV-positive and very open about it. He [tested positive for HIV] not long before we met. In the documentary, they didn’t say anything about Chris being positive, and Chris said, “I don’t want that, I don’t want to look like I’m hiding it.” It was that kind of character that made me realise I’d met the right guy. [In a subsequent interview Turner said he takes medicines to manage his condition and that the couple is “very conscious of being safe since Armistead is HIV-negative”.]

Q: Looking back, do you think you’re lucky?

A: I think I’m very lucky — and privileged. I’m happy that I’ve been out [as a gay person] for so long, officially since the 1970s, and I think that the gay experience can make you into a better person. I don’t spend a lot of time arguing that we’re as good as straight people because, truth be known, I think we’re better than many of them, because of what we’ve had to endure, because of the ways in which we had to learn compassion. It makes us more open and intuitive. But you have to earn it. You have to remain kind. And open.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post and can be viewed here

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