Armistead Maupin lives

By Stephen Jewell

Characters often surprise their authors with their actions but none have caught their creator unawares in as life-affirming a manner as Michael Tolliver, the central protagonist from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series about a motley group of lovelorn gay and straight misfits living in San Francisco's bohemian district the Castro during the 1970s and 1980s.

When the sixth and final volume Sure of You was published in 1989, Maupin believed that the HIV-positive Tolliver would not be long for this world. However, like many real-life AIDS sufferers whose lives were prolonged due to advances in medical science,'Mouse' - as the now 55-year-old gardener is affectionately known - has proved to be unexpectedly resilient.

So much so, in fact, that nearly 20 years later, Maupin has made a return to his most famous creation in the triumphantly titled Michael Tolliver Lives.

"I was considering writing a novel about a middle-aged man who had survived AIDS and it dawned on me that I knew such a middle-aged man in the form of Michael," says Maupin. "When I stopped the series in 1988, I didn't think Michael would be alive. That was pretty much the understanding at the time; if you contracted the virus you would be dead in a matter of months, maybe years.

"Then I looked around and saw that so many of my friends were still alive and living with AIDS so Michael would probably be as well and I used that as an opportunity to trace that kind of journey; the guys who have had the stamina and the courage to keep themselves alive all these years."

Michael Tolliver Lives is distinctly different to Tales of the City as it is very much Michael's story and is told in the first-person.

"I'd written my last two novels Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener in the first-person so it wasn't an unfamiliar experience and I knew Michael well enough to speak in his voice," says Maupin.

"I wanted to focus on just one character, which I had done in the other books from chapter to chapter so it wasn't hard to do that for an entire novel. And because it's a departure from the old format of Tales, I wanted people to know that I didn't consider it strictly a sequel as such but that's kind of quibbling as it is a continuation of the story and I intended it to be that as well."

Despite the emphasis on Michael, many of the other characters who make up Tales of the City's sexually diverse ensemble cast most notably Michael's transsexual, marijuana-growing former landlady Mrs Madrigal, who is now a stately 85 - also put in appearances.

"To begin with, I didn't intend to include many of the other characters but one by one they auditioned for me and I couldn't find myself saying no," laughs Maupin. "I also thought that it was a fair thing as well, if I was bringing back one character, I should at least consider the future of the others."

Apart from being in refreshingly rude health, Michael's life has changed for the better in other significant ways. Like 63-year-old Maupin himself, he has a younger partner whom he first spotted on an internet dating site only to later bump into on the street.

"Like Michael, I'm a bit of a coward when it comes to putting my own picture on the internet," says Maupin. "But I saw Christopher on a website called Daddyhunt, which is for men over 40. Christopher is 35 now but has always been drawn to older men. So I had the courage to approach him on the street because I knew that was his preference, and as it turned out he actually owned the website."

Apart from colourful characters like Michael and Mrs Madrigal, the other main constant in Tales of the City was San Francisco itself, where the Washington D.C.-born author has lived since 1971.

"In terms of visual appeal, San Francisco is remarkably the same," says Maupin. "In fact, it's even better really because some of the old neglected areas have been restored and beautified. Like anywhere else in the world, there's more traffic and real estate prices are higher. It's certainly true of New Zealand. But for the most part, the spirit remains the same. When the mayor married all those gay folks down at City Hall three or four years ago, the entire city rejoiced. it wasn't just the gay people, there were straight people as well who thought that it was totally in keeping with San Francisco's tradition of opening up the life for everyone."

Maupin's familiarity with the cost of New Zealand houses derives from the several years he and his then-partner Terry Anderson spent in the early 1990s dividing their time between San Francisco and Wainui on the Banks Peninsula.

"I had a wonderful time getting to know New Zealand," he says. "My sister actually had bought the place for me and she owns a bed and breakfast. I go back there fairly regularly - every couple of years or so - because my sister still lives there and I was there when my friend Ian McKellen was shooting Lord of the Rings so we got to spend some time together. I remember when I first decided to move there, he kept saying to me 'why New Zealand?' and I said 'wait until you see it, just wait until you get there' and then he fully fell in love with the people and the landscape."

After ushering Michael and friends into the brave new world of the new millennium, Maupin doesn't intend to wait another couple of decades before returning to his old stomping ground as he is already planning another Tales of the City instalment.

"I think it will happen and I will go back to the old multi-character format because it does allow certain suspense devices that I miss somewhat," he says. "Chances are that I will be back with these people and a few new folk in a year or two."

- Detours, HoS

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