When celebrated fantasy author, recent Hudson Valley transplant and Bard College professor Neil Gaiman interviewed Laurie Anderson onstage at the Fisher Center last spring, the legendary avant-garde musician was surprisingly subdued and taciturn, deflecting many of his questions back onto himself. Gaiman likely won’t encounter a similar conundrum with the fourth subject in his semiannual “Conversations” series at Bard this Saturday evening. His chat partner this time will be someone nearly as renowned an off-the-cuff raconteur as he is a consummate storyteller on the printed page: Armistead Maupin, chronicler of San Francisco’s culture and myriad countercultures in the years before, during and after the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Maupin’s breezy, funny, episodic nine-volume Tales of the City series of novels, collected from a long-running serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, created characters like Mrs. Madrigal, Mouse and Mary Ann Singleton who have since become iconic, treating them with great affection even as he exposed the absurdities of their lives and loves. His writing was groundbreaking in its empathetic depiction of gay and transgendered protagonists, drawn to a freethinking city that embraced all manner of folks who felt that they didn’t fit in elsewhere in post-Vietnam War America.
For all their cutting-edge sexual politics and their completist checking-off of all the sociological and pop-cultural touchstones of that heady era, Tales of the City are really about San Francisco as a Petri dish of humanity in all its diverse glory, transcending time and place through their emphasis on the importance of real connection among imperfect-but-lovable individuals. Millions have taken these stories to their hearts – actress Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in a 1990s PBS miniseries based on the first three books, actually named her son Armistead after the author – and critics frequently compare Maupin’s quirkily populated San Francisco to Dickens’ equally vivid and colorful Victorian-era London.
In Charles Dickens’ day, of course, it was not unusual for a novelist to release a work in serial form in a periodical, so it’s no big surprise that he’s one of Maupin’s authorial role models, along with Christopher Isherwood. Both names are on the list of probable topics to be raised in his interview with Gaiman onstage at the Fisher Center; but based on previous installments, this conversation will be freewheeling, touching on topics that may well range anywhere from Maupin’s improbable youthful friendship with Jesse Helms to Gaiman’s embarkation on a second family. (Anthony, his son with his wife, performance artist Amanda Palmer, was born in September.)
Wherever it ends up going, “Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Armistead Maupin” is bound to keep coming back to the art of storytelling, and to deliver a fun and stimulating evening with two of that art’s contemporary masters. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 7 in the Sosnoff Theater of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson. Tickets cost $25 general admission, $5 for the Bard community, and can be ordered online at https://fishercenter.bard.edu or by calling the box office at (845) 758-7900.
Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Armistead Maupin, Saturday, November 7, 7:30 p.m., $25/$5, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.