I’m reading The Days Of Anna Madrigal, the most recent (and apparently final) novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City series, which must rank among my favourite books.
They have probably created some of the most beloved characters in contemporary literature: bright-eyed new girl in town Mary Ann Singleton, landlady Mrs Madrigal, gay BFF Michael (and this was back before we had BFF’s), various supermodels and gynaecologists and cult leaders. At a talk I attended at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (a quarter of a century ago, I realise – eek!), someone asked Armistead how he came up with his characters: they seemed so original yet so real, so surely they must be based on real-life people. In fact, he replied, the main eight or so characters were all based on aspects of himself. It’s a diverse cast of players, and one that’s notable for painting a generous, rainbow-coloured vision of the world.
These books are particularly striking too for how they use real and fictional locations to conjure up a particular place. Russian Hill, 28 Barbary Lane, the Marina Safeway, Grace Cathedral, office cubicles, Dance Your Ass Off: San Francisco from the 1970s to the present day is brought to life. It’s quite a record of the times of a very special city.
What’s notable about this series too is that the books (the earlier ones at least) were composed serially, as columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, which perhaps accounts for the madcap plots; you can almost imagine Armistead wondering how he’s going to get out of the narrative corner he’s painting himself into. So in the next instalment he seems simply to have introduced some new character or unlikely coincidence, and through his daring and the great energy and colour of his writing he pulls it off. The pressure of writing for a weekly deadline accounts for some very good writing indeed.
The column format also accounts for the bright and punchy economy of the writing. Each chapter in the earlier books is short but very sweet, a couple of pages of sparky dialogue and lively interaction that move the story along.
For this week’s writing experiment: write a first chapter of a couple of pages inspired by Tales Of The City in which a character from elsewhere arrives in a place you love and know well. Capture the mood of this time and place through the eyes of that newcomer. Also, base that newcomer on an aspect of yourself. And for now just focus on this one character and his or her perceptions of your city (or place).
If you wish, also write with the pressure of a deadline: give yourself no more than two hours to do this.
To be continued … (we’ll revisit this exercise next week).
PS I realise I totally missed seeing Armistead Maupin in London this week. Damn! (Guess I have been busy with other things, or rather other whippet-thing.)