A parting tale

Anna Madrigal is 92 now, frail and living with a friend/caregiver in a Duboce Triangle apartment. She drifts from present to past, reality to memory. Those seemingly carefree days on Russian Hill so lovingly chronicled by Armistead Maupin in "Tales of the City" and its many sequels are distant now. But everyone's favorite transgendered landlady is still armed with her trademark one-liners, her intuitions remain undimmed, and she lives life as completely and creatively as she can.

"Some people drink to forget. Personally, I smoke to remember," she said in 1980's "More Tales of the City." That's the quote fittingly chosen by Maupin as one of the epigrams to "The Days of Anna Madrigal," the ninth and apparently final book in the "Tales" series.

Newbies to the "Tales" series needn't worry; Maupin provides the needed 411 as the action unfolds. Longtime readers will once again admire his ability to deftly weave together in a coherent and entertaining way an eclectic cast of characters, both the originals from the six 1970s and 1980s books and a new generation introduced since the series resumed in 2007.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

Pivotal to it all, still, is Mrs. Madrigal, whose mysterious past and bohemian air first enchanted San Franciscans in 1976, when the San Francisco Chronicle began to serialize the story. The genre clearly suited Maupin, who developed complex and sometimes convoluted plots influenced, in part, by the news of the day, which is why Anita Bryant, the queen of England and Jim Jones all figured in the action at some point.

"Tales of the City" readers (and later viewers of the eponymous television mini-series, which aired in the United States in 1994) loved Maupin's evolving cast of characters, particularly Mrs. Madrigal's tenants at 28 Barbary Lane: Mary Ann Singleton, the innocent 25-year-old fresh from Cleveland; Michael Tolliver, aka "Mouse," a sweet guy looking for Mr. Right; Mona Ramsey, the headstrong former hippie; and Brian Hawkins, the one-time libertine for whom the old adage, "straight but not narrow," could have been coined.

Readers also fell hard for Maupin's idea of San Francisco, a magical place of discovery and transformation. The epigram for that first "Tales" book in 1978 was an appropriate one from Oscar Wilde: "It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco."

Maupin captured the peculiar zeitgeist of the city so vividly that San Francisco can be rightfully considered a character all its own. His deep and abiding love for the place was obvious, but he was no sappy civic booster. When required, he could expertly wield a knife through the many-tiered snob cake that can be San Francisco, exposing some of its less appetizing attitudes and denizens.

Characters in the "Tales" series have always roamed far from the Golden Gate. They've taken readers to the Greek island of Lesbos, the English countryside, Mexico-bound cruise ships and even Big Diomede, the Russian island in the Bering Strait. But, always, San Francisco was there at the center.

There may be arguments over whether San Francisco still has a central role in "The Days of Anna Madrigal." Maupin, who himself left the city for a new life with his husband, Christopher Turner, in Santa Fe, N.M., sets a good chunk of the action in Nevada, in Winnemucca and the Black Rock Desert.

In a telephone interview from Santa Fe, the 69-year-old Maupin talked of "The Days of Anna Madrigal," the enduring appeal of San Francisco and his new life and projects. Here's an edited transcript.

Q: What made you decide to write "The Days of Anna Madrigal"?

A: I knew I wanted to bring the story back around to her. She is in many ways the encompassing entity.

Normally, what drives me is I have a couple of things that I want to talk about. In this case, I was fascinated about going back to Winnemucca, where Anna was once a boy. So, we planned a trip east while our house was being sold that would take us through Winnemucca. I saw it for the first time ever. I had been writing about it for 35 years but had never actually seen the town. We picked a random road that I designated as the place where the Blue Moon Lodge had once been. That, of course, is the whorehouse where little Andy grew up. We set out on Jungo Road only to realize that it was a 100-mile stretch from Winnemucca to the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man festival is held.

Burning Man was the other thing I wanted to write about. I had already attended it and found it phantasmagorical and perfectly suited to my purposes as a novelist, because coincidence is everywhere in the air at Burning Man. It's a constant bombardment of personalities and situations. So I took that as a very loud message that I needed to write the book. The challenge really was capturing Burning Man because it is such a surreal and in many ways indescribable experience.

Q: Did you go back to Burning Man this year?

A: We did. I was much more seasoned. This year, I took a tricycle (laughs). That's very handy for an old man. If you get tired in the middle of the desert you can just sit there.

It's a giant community now — there was 65,000 people there last year — so everyone has got an opinion if it's still fun or diluted by underground commercial efforts. But as far as my interpretation is concerned, I really try to focus on it through the eyes of my characters. So it's right in that sense; that's the way they perceive it.

My favorite part of it isn't the burn itself — because I'm a little creeped out by people sitting around waiting for something to burn, or any large, you know, rabble-rousing activities — but the little back streets where people have decorated their own tents and structures, the sense of a village. I think I called it "a Fellini carnival on Mars." All that is just endlessly enriching and interesting, and you truly do run into people being kind to each other. On several occasions I was invited into people's tents because I was clearly too covered with dust and too exhausted to go on. In some ways it's the old ideals of the 1960s perfected with technology and organization.

Q: I want to ask you about that. In "Tales of the City," Mrs. Madrigal compares San Francisco to Atlantis. Has the desert, whether Burning Man or your new home, Santa Fe, become the new Atlantis?

A: Certainly it is a point of fascination in my life right now. I've hesitated talking about any of it because it all implies, to some people, an abandonment of San Francisco. Nothing could be further from the truth. My husband, Chris, and I both love San Francisco and consider it our, I don't know, the home of our hearts. But like a lot of artists, we had to seriously look at our financial situation, and we realized we were paying far too much mortgage than we should be. And, that we could get enough money for our house for a brand new experience in a new place. So we're out here on 15 acres at the end of a dirt road in an adobe house. We're making memories that are utterly indelible.

Q: Is San Francisco still the key place, the best place to be?

A: My feeling about it is: Everything I know and love about San Francisco is in nine books. Most people can't say that. And that, I hope, is what people, you know, revere about what I've done — the actual writing. But it becomes very tangled up with everyone's own love affair with San Francisco. When I arrived there 40 years ago, (San Francisco Chronicle columnist) Herb Caen was always bemoaning the loss of the '30s (laughs). "Where's Tommy Dorsey?"

I don't want to be that person today that says, "Oh, it was so much better when we were younger." I think youth is better when you're younger. I think most people who bemoan changes in a place are, mostly, bemoaning the loss of their own youth. I could go on like anybody else about the techie takeover, and the traffic and the noise and the high-rise apartment buildings going up on Market Street. No, it's not the same — but it will be somebody's wonderland. That's just the way it works in cities.

When I arrived and lived on Russian Hill, I didn't even have a car, and I walked. I was young and vigorous. I walked everywhere. I'd walk down to the bathhouses two miles away any night I decided to and think nothing of it, and have this whole village experience in an apartment that cost $175 month and had a dazzling view of the bay.

Q: Mrs. Madrigal is, arguably, the most famous transgendered person in American literature. It's sort of interesting that the whole shocking surprise of her isn't surprising all that much now.

A: That's very well observed. I wasn't allowed to identify her so-called dark secret in the first year of writing the serial for the Chronicle. They said it would be too much for the readers, and I shouldn't even drop hints until the column was established. It turned out to be pretty good advice really. It allowed me to set up a situation where everyone was in love with the character before they found out about her nature.

Q: Were readers shocked?

A: No. They loved her by then. That was true of most of the characters. When Michael Tolliver was threatened by Guillain-Barré syndrome in the second book — this was pre-AIDS — one woman wrote in and said, "I'm nothing but a middle age housewife from Moraga with 2 little machos of my own but if you kill Michael Tolliver I will never subscribe to the Chronicle again."

Q: You have people now like Jake, a female-to-male character who is sort of pushing boundaries in some respects. How do people react to his situation?

A: The only comments I've received about Jake have been from trans guys who've said, "He's great. I love him. Thank you so much, but give him some love." I said, "Be patient. It took Michael Tolliver a while, too." But I think I took care of that this time around.

I have several trans men that I've known over the years. I found their existence to be somewhat of a challenge to me, you know? First I had to grasp what would it be like to be a gay trans man and go cruise a bear bar lacking the one piece of equipment that might make you go home with someone, enable you to go home with someone.

That's the test for a character for me. If there's something about the character that challenges me, that tests my own ability to empathize, then I'll go straight towards it.

Q: People have been reading you and following these characters for 40 years. Meeting them must be interesting.

A: There are moments of great personal revelation and people who attach their own history to the history of the characters, people who tell me that the books helped them find their way into their own true selves, whatever it is. Often, it happens with gay people, but not always; it's anyone who thought they were suppressing the part of themselves that would truly make them happy.

Q: You've dedicated "The Days of Anna Madrigal" to Olympia Dukakis, who played Mrs. Madrigal on TV, and to your husband. Every time I think of Mrs. Madrigal, I think of Dukakis.

A: Oh yes, she owns the character. Anyone who saw the mini-series thinks of her as Anna. I do, too, now.

Q: I found it amazing in "Sure of You" that Mrs. Madrigal ended up on the Greek island of Lesbos talking about Michael Dukakis when he ran for president. And then a Greek-American actress, Olympia Dukakis, plays her.

A: That was a complete and total accident. Olympia herself was reading all the books after she was cast in the first miniseries. When she arrived at … (the) island, you know, with references to her first cousin, Michael, she couldn't believe it. Yeah, I wrote that long before we had any indication they'd hire Olympia to play the character.

Q: It's coincidence, but is there such a thing as coincidence not being coincidence?

A: If I have a religion, it's somewhere in the realm that there are patterns to things we don't see at first. I think our job in life is to look for them, to find those connections, to create that sort of harmony of understanding. Writers have to do that, especially writers of my ilk whose urge is to entertain. We look for the connectiveness of things. Even as I manufacture them for literary purposes, I find they happen all the time in my own life. It's a question of honing perception.

Q: Olympia Dukakis has been quoted as saying she's interested in doing a dramatic treatment of "The Days of Anna Madrigal." You have any thoughts about that?

A: I had no idea Olympia was planting a seed, and good for her. I had sent her a book. She called me to say she thought it was my best work yet. Then immediately she said, "She's 92, and I can play that."

Ten years ago, I figured out that once you get old, it is its own country. You're old. It's kind of reflected in Anna. (The other characters) all call her Anna now. They have all sort of entered into her league, all those 60-something characters.

Q: Is there a lesson from Mrs. Madrigal about aging?

A: I don't know how to answer that without sounding grand. I think she has a certain placid nature that strikes me as the way to handle it.

Q: Placid in what way?

A: She lives in the moment. She's not hysterical. She's not chasing after religion in a last-minute desperate attempt to have eternal life — or as she puts it, "I'm too old for that."

Q: Is "The Days of Anna Madrigal" really the final book in the "Tales of the City" series?

A: Yes. Yes. (Laughs.) I started to add, "But I've said that before." It really is my intention that this is the final book, largely because I think there are other directions I want to take in my senior years as far as writing and, to a certain degree, performing. I'm mulling over a one-man show. I've told stories all my life to my beleaguered friends, and it occurred to me I might actually be able to put together a little dog and pony to take around the country. Both Twain and Dickens did it, so there's an honorable tradition of blabbing away in one's old age.

I do it to a certain degree when I'm onstage on a book tour. And I love it. I just really realized that is the most satisfying part of work.

To answer your question about writing, I compare it to being on my hands and knees laying mosaic. A very tedious process that doesn't really reward me until some months later when I am able to stand up and take in the whole picture. It's only the fact I've done it before that I'm able to keep on plowing and know an end is in sight.

Q: A friend of mine in San Francisco says the "Tales" series helped her parent's generation understand and accept and realize some of the perceptions they had were wrong.

A: That's very nice to hear. If I've done nothing else in my life but humanize the need of everyone to love, I feel I've accomplished something. It's been my purpose, let's put it that way. I've been a part of a political movement from the very beginning; I am part and parcel of the dreaded gay agenda. And I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm very proud to say that I've been a part of it, and that I came out so long ago. It's been 40 years.

Normally, I talk about Michael's letter (in "More Tales of the City") to his parents being my coming out letter to my parents, which it was, but in fact I came out publicly in '73 or '74 in San Francisco Magazine in a 10 most eligible bachelors list. I was the gay one (laughs). Actually, to be perfectly honest, this was the '70s, so they called it "The 10 sexiest men in town." It just caused me to get hit on by a creepy old guy who lived in the building next to me.

Anyway, I was able to do this because of San Francisco, because of this city where my straight friends were very matter-of-fact about gay people. So it really pains me to see young people today still discussing their recent suicide attempts. I have to remind myself that the chance for harassment today is so much more enormous and pervasive than it was when you could just keep your mouth shut and, you know, stay under the radar. With social media, the kids have a whole new way to suffer. They also have a way to find allies. So I suppose, to a certain degree, one thing compensates for the other

It was easy to stay quiet back in those days. I don't think I was a giant flamer. I could sort of pass. Although as I reminisced yesterday on Facebook, when I was a young conservative Republican at the University of North Carolina, I wrote an editorial for The Daily Tar Heel in which I said both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford should win best actress Oscars for "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Now, that's a queer on the way (laughs). That's a dead giveaway.

Bill Daley is a Chicago Tribune food and features writer. He lived for a short time in San Francisco, choosing Russian Hill in hopes of better hearing whatever Mrs. Madrigal had to say.

"The Days of Anna Madrigal"

By Armistead Maupin, Harper, 271 pages, $26.99

Copyright © 2018, CT Now