Four decades in, Armistead Maupin remains one of the most beloved queer writers of our time. But in addition to gifting readers with Tales of the City, his long-running series about a group of San Francisco dwellers that all but defined what it means to live with a queer family, the North Carolina-raised novelist has also been a fierce advocate of and for the LGBTQ community, using his work and his high profile to fight for causes near and dear to his gay liberal heart.
For readers of Tales of the City, many of the stories he writes about in his new memoir, Logical Family, will look familiar. The novelist has made no attempt to hide the way he often nicked elements of his own biography to flesh out characters in his fiction. "I was all of them and none of them," he writes in the autobiography, released last week on Harper Collins.
Logical Family traces Maupin's story all the way from North Carolina, where he was raised in a deeply conservative household, through Vietnam, where he proudly served in the Navy, to his home today in San Francisco. Candid about how he wrestled with his own shameful views on homosexuality, Maupin ends ups telling the story how a young Republican who cherished his White House photo-op with Richard Nixon eventually became an out-and-proud gay man writing about all sorts of LGBTQ characters in the pages of his city's paper.
Lest this sounds like an all too serious affair, know that the memoir is peppered with anecdotes about notoriously closeted Hollywood stars (Rock Hudson), supportive gay mentors (Christopher Isherwood), and many failed sexual encounters, all told in Maupin's signature droll wit. As someone who's seen the progress the LGBTQ community has made in the last few decades firsthand, Maupin hopes Logical Family helps people recognize their own foibles while reading about his own.
Following the release of his book last week, the author caught up with VICE to talk about what made him finally commit to writing an autobiography, why he feels trying to reason with homophobic family members can be a futile endeavor, and why we should make more room for cross-generational friendships within the LGBTQ community.
VICE: You'd been cannibalizing your life for fiction for decades—what made you dive in and do a straight up memoir?
Armistead Maupin: Well, the truth is I have been mining my life for years for anecdotal purposes. I thought it would make sense to arrange them in some sort of form as a memoir. I was given the advice last year by Patti Smith; I was sitting next to her at a dinner and I asked her what should I keep in mind when writing a memoir. And she said, "Don't put anything down where you can't see the scene in the movie." I've seen the scenes in the movie of my life for years now and I thought that I should just record them, and use some of the techniques of storytelling that I know on my own life.
Was it challenging to dream up your family as characters in your own story?
It was at times. I was greatly assisted by the fact that they're both dead. My father's been gone for ten years now. My mother's been gone for 40 years. I knew that whatever I told would be done with affection, even if it made me wince a little to record it. But I think it's important for people to know how people talked in the South, particularly someone like my father, all those years ago. I was raised in a deeply racist situation. I had to figure that out and dig my way out of it. The memoir is partially about that.
Explain the title: Logical Family. It strikes me as having a very different connotation than "found family" or "chosen family," which are expressions that tend to be more in vogue when talking about queer families today.
I coined that term ten years ago for one of my Tales novels, Michael Tolliver Lives. Mrs Madrigal, the landlady, in an effort to comfort her tenant Michael about his doggedly homophobic family back in Florida, says "Well, dear, you have your biological family but then you have your logical family."
It's basically commenting on the fact that the family you choose for yourself is the one that really makes sense in the end. I explained myself to my family 40 years ago, and there are still members of it who don't get it and privately vote for measures that would keep me a second-class citizen. I'm talking about people back in North Carolina who voted for Amendment 1—the one man-one woman marriage amendment—after attending my wedding in California! It's remarkable how obstinate some people are about hanging onto the primitive tenets of the past. A lot of this has to do with my age. I'm 73 years old. I really don't have time for people who are embarrassed by me. It's a waste of energy!
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I loved reading about your friendship with another iconic queer writer, Christopher Isherwood. You refer to him as a "gay grandfather figure," which you write " might come in handy, someone to tell me how things used to be, and how they might be in the years to come, for men like me." Do you think you've become that for others now?
I do! Because they make me feel that way! And I'm reacting to them the way Isherwood reacted to me. He was a little distrustful of me at first because he felt that I overpraised him. But I felt everything I was saying. The other night at the 92nd Street Y in New York, I was interviewed by my friend Jonathan Groff. There's a 40 year difference there. And he went on and on about what Tales of the City had meant to him. I felt the same mild discomfort that Isherwood must have felt when I was doing that back in the 70s. But as he concluded, it's our job to be that person. That's where we fall in somebody else's life. It gives me a sense of purpose like I've never had before. We all need each other, basically.
I have to laugh when I read these earnest little articles that say, you know, "It's very important to talk to a senior gay person." I mean, that's obvious to me. I was doing that 40 years ago! I understand why people need to do it with me. We all need to communicate with each other and life is so much richer when we do. And we can do it. That's one of the reasons why the "logical family" works so well: you can't sit down with your mother and father and grumpy—or Trumpy, as the case may be—old aunt and talk about having sex in the club, or whatever. But we can talk about anything and not censor ourselves in the way that we do with a family that we're still capable of shocking. Some people are lucky enough to have that—I've run into enough people who grew up with liberal parents and they can sit around and have dinner table conversations that are very sophisticated, but in most cases that doesn't exist.
Those nights with Isherwood and his friends were extremely informative to me. I remember Don Bachardy, Chris' partner, being pissed off at an early biography of Chris because it said that as Chris got older, his friends became younger and younger. And it said it as if it was a bad thing! It's an absolutely wonderful thing if you're lucky enough to be able to leap generations like that.
It's refreshing, I think, to find ways of breaking any sort of taboos about these types of cross-generational relationships.
That's certainly applicable to my romantic life, because I have a partner that is 28 years younger than I am, and Chris Isherwood and Don Bachardy were exactly the people I thought of when Chris Turner and I decided to get married. Because I'd seen such a marriage work brilliantly. But it's not just about sexual harmony. It's simply about—I don't want to say the "wisdom of the elders," because sometimes the wisdom comes in the other direction: I learn new things from my younger friends. The world changes and we don't always keep up with it. Mrs. Madrigal says at one point, "You don't have to keep up, dear. You just have to keep open." That's been my goal. Not to calcify. Not to be afraid of how the world is changing.
Interview has been condensed and edited.