I tend to maintain a good work-life balance by keeping the two mostly separate. Cue my surprise when I walked into a colleague as Armistead Maupin’s reading was about to start. Said colleague was as surprised to see me as I was to spot him. “I didn’t picture you as a fan,” he said. He’s not the only one. But as a brief look at the sizeable crowd told me, the average Maupin fan doesn’t exist.
It’s surprising, though, how many people have never heard of him or his work. For the uninitiated, Maupin is the author of the Tales of the City novel series, as well as several standalone works. I like him for the same reason many fans seem to like him: he was one of the first to write about openly queer characters who were massively enjoying life. Being different doesn’t equal being miserable, Maupin taught me. In fact, it can be a lot of fun.
Most writers are more interesting on paper than in real life. When you meet them in the flesh they seem awkward, eager to return to their desks and write about fictional people, rather than talk to real ones. Maupin is a happy exception. Chatty and likeable, he made the huge auditorium feel like a cosy bar. Credit should also go to Hannah Beckerman, who did an excellent job of interviewing him.
Maupin is full of anecdotes about his life as a gay man and a writer. It’s always sobering to realize that the freedom queer people enjoy in some parts of the world these days is a recent phenomenon, and by no means a given. I for me used to dislike the po-faced, angry stories about the queer experience, not because they were inaccurate, but because they made me feel powerless. Maupin suggests that humour and the determination to lead a good life, whatever the challenges, are a productive antidote to homophobia and bigotry. An uplifting message if there ever was one.
The connection between activism, literature and fun is not always an obvious one. I think it works well in Maupin’s oeuvre: it makes his message more accessible, whether you identify as queer or not, and has the potential to cross boundaries where other approaches might fail. Maupin’s work is very readable, and perhaps not very “literary” in the traditional sense, but he makes a lot of valid points along the way. For me he fits in with writers like Pat Califia and Kate Bornstein – now that would make a great dinner party – who use their personal experience and a relaxed writing style to get their message across. I remember slogging through the big gender and queer theorists while at university, raging with despair at their pompous opaqueness. Coming across someone like Maupin, whose writing I could actually relate to, was like a breath of fresh air.
Long story short, it was a great night. Surely the first author event I’ve ever been to that included a lengthy discussion of the best way to get rid of crabs – gay or otherwise (you had to be there). To those who have no idea what I’m talking about: go and read Maupin. Start with the first Tales of the City volume, and you’ll be up to speed before the next instalment comes out. Maupin’s announcement, a major scoop, made fans across the auditorium squeal with delight. I may have squealed too. Just a little bit.
Image my own – Some flowers, just because