Armistead Maupin

The quick-witted author mined his own experience for The Night Listener.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

 

Armistead Maupin gives good phone. Chatting from his home in San Francisco, the genial 62-year-old author has a smooth Southern accent (he's a native of Raleigh, North Carolina) and a playful sense of humor. So it's not difficult to imagine this gay icon, best known for his Tales of the City novels, drawn into an intense telephone relationship with a promising teenage writer during the early '90s. Except that Tony Godby Johnson, whom Maupin never met face-to-face, was most likely the creation of a middle-aged female social worker who deceived credulous publishers, journalists and readers with the 1994 memoir A Rock and
a Hard Place.

That strange story is the basis for The Night Listener, Maupin's best-selling novel, which is now a film starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette and Rory Culkin. Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a radio storyteller who endorses a memoir by Pete Logand (Culkin), a sexually abused, HIV-positive 13-year-old; the older man soon finds himself connecting with the boy during long, intimate phone calls. Then he notices that Pete's voice is eerily familiar, and begins an obsessive quest to discover the truth about his "friend."

Can two people really form a close bond over the telephone? It seems so abstract.

The telephone allows a greater intimacy than when you have to look into someone's eyes, because most of us find that rather hard to do. But we can talk directly to a disembodied voice in the night. It's the story of modern life: instant intimacy through electronics.

The Night Listener takes place right after Gabriel's painful breakup with his boyfriend, based on your own split with longtime partner Terry Anderson. Yet you collaborated with Terry in writing the screenplay. Are you a glutton for punishment?

I sort of intellectualized what it would be like: These two guys who are now divorced, working on a screenplay together. But it was a lot harder than either one of us imagined. We were dealing with some primal emotions.

Gabriel's boyfriend in the movie is played by Bobby Cannavale. So is your ex a total hunk?

What's the graceful answer? [Laughs] Terry's an attractive man, but no one is as attractive as Bobby Cannavale. When I first met Bobby on the set with his girlfriend, Annabella Sciorra, he said to me, "I feel like I know you already. Annabella and I just returned from the Caribbean, where we spent the whole time naked, listening to you read the audiobook of The Night Listener." All I could think was, Don't make me picture that—it's too cruel.

You made a personal appeal to Robin Williams to star in the film. How do you know him?

I met Robin backstage at the Comedy Store in the late '70s. Those were the days when people were chasing him across parking lots screaming, "Na-nu na-nu." Actually, they still do. In a small upstate New York town where we were shooting, there was some twisted guy who walked around wearing a sandwich board with a picture of Mork on it.

You must have experienced dj vu when JT LeRoy, who'd been championed by writers such as Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill, was revealed as a fraud.

If those other literary types had only read my novel, they would never have gotten into this mess! [Laughs] The irony is that a critic who reviewed The Night Listener said the one part he found unbelievable was the friendship between a middle-aged man and a 14-year-old boy. Later, this same critic was editing JT LeRoy's latest work on the telephone with JT LeRoy!

How's your love life, post-Terry?

I have a boyfriend, Christopher Turner, who's 34. Modern guy that I am, I saw him on a website. I didn't respond by way of the Web; I chased him down Castro Street, saying, "Didn't I see you on Daddyhunt.com?" I feel like I'm 25 again.

Will there be more Tales of the City?

I'm working on a novel called Michael Tolliver Lives, coming out next summer. It's about the central gay character of Tales today. He's an HIV-positive gardener living in San Francisco, facing issues of aging he never expected to face, who manages to get by joyfully because he has a much younger partner that he's in love with. [Pause] I don't know where that came from.

The Night Listener opens Friday 4. Click here for theaters and showtimes.