It wasn't until Armistead Maupin moved to San Francisco that he appreciated the role of his Raleigh upbringing in his aptitude for writing fiction. "I became proud of the Southern part of me," Maupin says, speaking recently by telephone from San Francisco. "It made me a storyteller. There's a whole tradition of swapping anecdotes."
The bulk of Maupin's reputation rests with his wildly popular, multi-volume Tales of the City, a roundelay of Bay Area shenanigans told initially through the wide eyes of a not-quite-naïve young woman from the Midwest.
At the moment, Maupin is promoting The Night Listener, a new movie that he adapted with his ex-partner Terry Anderson from his own novel of the same title.
In the film, which opened last Friday to mixed reviews, Robin Williams plays a fictitious version of Maupin who becomes enchanted by a series of phone conversations with a preternaturally charming adolescent boy who may or may not exist. The screenplay and Patrick Stettner's direction specifically evokes the work of Hitchcock, an allusion Maupin is happy to confirm as intentional.
"My teen years were spent watching [Hitchcock's] best movies and his television show. Vertigo was the film that introduced me to San Francisco, but I didn't understand the movie fully then--that happened when I got to be Jimmy Stewart's age!" Maupin says.
"My first actual experience of San Francisco was on a bus tour while I was on my way to Vietnam. We stopped at the Mission Dolores and there was a tourist standing near me. I turned and said, 'This is where [Vertigo enchantress] Carlotta Valdes is buried!' She looked at me like I was nuts."
It's a small irony that an author so closely associated with San Francisco is actually from Raleigh. And, like another famous Raleigh native, David Sedaris, Maupin is a gay writer who left the South for a more hospitable and glamorous city where he would find success. Perhaps it's something in the water that comes out of the Upper Neuse, but as Maupin notes with a laugh, "I tell people that three of the most famous people from Raleigh are gay: David Sedaris, Clay Aiken and Armistead Maupin." (Aiken has not confirmed the persistent speculation about his private life.)
But if Maupin seems well-suited to his public stature these days (and the London Guardian recently surveyed readers and determined that Tales of the City is the most popular "gay novel" ever), it was not always thus. Like Gore Vidal, Maupin is a scion of a distinguished American clan: One of his ancestors was a Revolutionary War general and his father, Armistead J. Maupin, was one of the leading lawyers in the state and a supporter of North Carolina's Republican Party. When the younger Maupin was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1960s, he avoided the leftist counterculture, instead attacking it with brio in the pages of The Daily Tar Heel.
After graduation, Maupin's intelligence and fervent conservatism attracted the attention of WRAL's executive vice president, who gave him his first reporting job. This man, Jesse Helms, railed nightly against the evils of desegregation and other signs of the apocalypse. "Back then, we talked about special rights for black folks," Maupin recalls. "It's the same way they talk about gays today, but in reality we just want the same rights as everyone else."
Although Maupin lost touch with Helms after he left for the Navy and the West Coast, he had a close call just last year. "I just missed him at my father's funeral. He came to pay his respects a half-hour after I left," Maupin says.
"I have a letter he wrote me wishing me a successful writing career. I suppose I should thank him."