San Francisco is the city forever linked with Armistead Maupin.
It's the 64-year-old writer's adopted home and the quirky, magical setting for his “Tales of the City” series.
But before Maupin came out as a gay man and immortalized San Francisco in his newspaper-serials-turned-novels, he had a different home, and a very different life.
Raised in Raleigh, Maupin was a North Carolina boy. He attended UNC Chapel Hill and wrote a column for The Daily Tar Heel. A conservative column. A column that so impressed a certain TV news commentator named Jesse Helms that he hired young Maupin as a reporter.
It's true. Armistead Maupin was once a Republican.
“It just takes some explaining, I suppose,” Maupin said in a recent interview from his San Francisco home. “People are always so shocked.”
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Maupin returns to his Tar Heel roots to speak at Charlotte's Novello Festival of Reading. With any luck, he'll tell his audience about his recent nuptials. More on that later.
How did Maupin begin adulthood as a conservative? “I think it came down to wanting to desperately please my father,” he says.
The late Armistead Maupin Sr. was a prominent Raleigh lawyer who used to say he regretted being born too late to fight for the Confederacy.
His namesake son made a stab at following in his footsteps, trying law school but dropping out, serving in the Navy in Vietnam and, in a truly odd footnote to history, playing a small part in helping President Nixon “as a counter-propaganda agent” against John Kerry and Veterans Against Vietnam.
After the Navy, Maupin worked as a reporter in Charleston, then with the Associated Press in San Francisco.
But the facts and formulas of reporting felt confining. In 1976, he launched his “Tales of the City” series in The San Francisco Chronicle. The work stood out in several ways. It was the first fiction in an American newspaper in decades. And even in free-spirited San Francisco, his editors “were horrified to learn I was introducing gay characters.”
By the time editors were having second thoughts, however, readers were already hooked. (Once, after Maupin threatened character Michael Tolliver's life with a rare disease, he got a letter from a self-described middle-aged housewife: “If you kill Michael Tolliver,” she wrote, “I'll never subscribe to the Chronicle again!”)
The series, which eventually became six novels, takes readers from gay liberation and the free-sex '70s through marriages, divorces and the onslaught of AIDS. The final one was published in 1989.
But last year, Maupin revived his fictional Barbary Lane family with the publication of “Michael Tolliver Lives.” Michael, nicknamed “Mouse,” is now in his 50s. He's HIV-positive, but healthy. And, like his creator, he's happy and deeply in love with a younger man.
Maupin and husband Christopher Turner married last year in Canada. But when California legalized same-sex marriage, they decided to wed in their own country.
Last month, when he spoke with the Observer, Maupin was preparing for the Oct. 4 ceremony. “I can't tell you how excited we are,” he said. “I'm going to mock my straight friends a little less about their excitement over weddings.”
Armani jackets had been purchased. Friend and fellow writer Amy Tan was lending her home for the occasion. And Maupin's family members, including those with a conservative bent, were to attend.
When he came out to his family in the '70s, Maupin says his parents had a hard time. But “they listened and they learned. And I learned to not demand so much from them.”
In 2005, with his father near death, Maupin brought Turner to meet him. “It was one of the loveliest days of my life. They hit it off beautifully. At one point, the old man pulled Christopher aside and said, ‘You take care of that boy.'”
Maupin's now starting on a book, “Mary Ann in Autumn,” that continues the saga of his Barbary Lane characters. A Broadway musical based on “Tales of the City” is also in the works.
“I'm happier than I've ever been in my life,” he says. “It has to do with being in love, having attained something with my work, and just a general mellowing.”
“I really wanted ‘Michael Tolliver' to say to people they never have to give up on love. It's available to them their entire life if they keep their hearts open.”