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.
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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?