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Q&A with Armistead Maupin: The Author Discusses The Night Listener
WARNING: In the course of this article, several key twists in The Night Listener are revealed. Full-bore spoiler warnings are in effect.
Armistead Maupin is the best-selling author of Tales of the City and, more recently, The Night Listener, the motion-picture adaptation of which has just been released. The book is based on the real-life case of Anthony Godby Johnson, a young boy supposedly dying of AIDS who penned a memoir entitled A Rock and a Hard Place. In the 13 years since its publication, it has been uncovered as a likely hoax and Johnson appears to have been a fabrication of his "guardian," despite maintaining long-distance friendships with a number of prominent people. One of those people was Maupin, who talked about the experience, and its eventual development into The Night Listener, at a recent press conference. A rotund, jovial man with a handlebar mustache and a friendly twinkle in his eye, Maupin possesses a natural flair for the dramatic; it's not hard to see why Robin Williams was cast as his alter ego in the film. A transcript of his Q&A session follows.
Question: Do you like to write?
Armistead Maupin: No. I like having written. (Laughter.) I love the benefits; I love what it brings me, I love the way it connects me with people, but I find the actual process solitary and depressing sometimes. I've always compared it -- in my case anyway -- to laying mosaic: putting down each little piece very slowly. You don't get to see the product until you can actually step back and look at it, and you have to keep the faith.
Q: How do you keep the faith?
AM: A mortgage. (Laughter.) I'm about halfway through a novel right now -- don't tell my editors that -- and I have to remember that I've been there before. That you always go, "OK, this is the point where you say you're not worth anything," and you know to work through it. The thing that always gets me, I think, is that everything I've ever written is fiction. I think, "I'm making this up. They're gonna figure out that I'm making this up." And then you have to tell yourself, "Well, that's what you do: you make it up."
Q: To those who aren't familiar with your body of work, do all of your stories deal with the sort of twist or question that this one (The Night Listener) does?
AM: Tales of the City, which is six volumes, is essentially a comedic work. It has serious moments, but it's essentially comedic. Yet it has sort of Hitchockian twists, especially in the first one: people are never what they seem to be... it's obviously fascinated me my whole life. And it probably has something to do with being gay. Gay people tend to go through life [that way]. You learn, even as a child, to see the difference between the way things appear to be and the way they really are.
Q: But doesn't that set you up, then? I mean your audience grows to expect some sort of twist and you have to top it or outdo it in some way...
AM: Well, life has a way of handing me these things. The Night Listener was just something that happened to me -- up to a point. The basic setup just fell into my lap 13 years ago, and I knew instantly that I would have to write about it. I was sent the [draft] of a book by a publisher in New York, written by a 14-year-old boy who was dying of AIDS, who had suffered abuse at the hands of his parents -- [it had] a sort of pederast-y ring to it -- and who had been rescued by a social worker. The book came with a forward by my friend Paul Monette, who was a wonderful writer living here in L.A. He died 10 years ago of AIDS. He was very sick at the time, but he had been contacted by the boy who had actually coaxed him into writing it. So Paul had written the forward to the book and Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers, the legendary children's show host) of all people had written the afterward. So it came with pretty impeccable credentials.
Q: What was your part going to be in all of this?
AM: I was asked to write a blurb. And I was so moved by the book -- and frankly a little envious of Paul, who had this amazing friendship with this almost saintly kid on the phone -- that I said, "Can I call him and tell him how much I like it?" So he spoke to the adoptive mother, and they said, "Oh he's a fan of Tales of the City, so he'd love to talk to you." And before I knew it, this kid with this surprisingly undeveloped voice was talking to me on the phone. I found him to be feisty and charming and bright, and not at all depressing considering all the things he had been through. And very gay-friendly, although he himself was heterosexually identified. He wasn't precious around me; he was just who he was. In those days, he was amazed that I didn't know who Cal Ripken was. We changed that to Derek Jeter [in the movie] to update it, but the interplay was the same.
Q: And you were in New York, and he was where?
AM: I was in San Francisco, and he was in Union City, New Jersey, just across the river from New York. Then about six months into this friendship, my partner at the time, Terry Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay), listened to the mother for the first time. He had heard the boy before, and he talked to her for about 10 minutes, and hung up, and turned to me and said, "I can't believe you never noticed. It sounds like the same voice to me." That scene is in the movie, and it happened in real life. Terry actually didn't leave me until 1996, so the breakup was not concurrent with the mystery the way it is in the film. But as a writer, I felt I had to take the two pieces of really good shit that I had been given and combine them.
I could see it immediately, unlike Gabriel (Noone, Maupin's surrogate in the book), I wasn't obsessive about it. I made [Noone] obsessive because it was more interesting. I was mostly just excited as a writer. I thought, "My God, what if this is true? Why would anybody do this?" He was talking to the world. He was talking to Jermaine Jackson and Tom Robbins the writer, and Keith Olbermann had a very strong relationship with him. So I lived for six years, splitting my brain right down the middle: he's real/he's not real. Either thing could be true. And some days I would hear her very clearly in his voice, and other days I'd be certain that I was merely hoping that it was a ruse because it was such a good story.
Q: Did you ever confront him? I mean, in six years you weren't in New York once to just say, "Hey?"
AM: Oh absolutely. I tried many times, and I was invited many times, and the invitation was invariably retracted at the last minute for a number of reasons. "Oh, he's come down with something." "He's not feeling well now." Terry was HIV positive, and she'd say, "Terry might get something." We actually put it to the test in a big way because Tony -- that was the boy's name -- was a huge Yankees fan, and I was asked to make a speech at Yankee Stadium during the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. These were the Gay Games. I was to make a speech from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium to 50,000 people -- about AIDS -- and I thought, "This is perfect." So we called him up and said, "Look, we're gonna send an ambulance, a limo, whatever you want, and take Tony, and put him in the dugout at Yankee Stadium so I can make this speech. I'll include him in the speech." And she was having none of it.
Poor Paul Monette. Towards the end of his life, Newsweek was suggesting that he had written the book. He was desperately trying to hang on to his reputation before he died, and he and his partner tried several times to meet [Tony]. And it was hard, because all the people around him -- his editor and his agent -- were still saying, "Trust us. He exists. We haven't seen him, but we're sure he exists."
Q: Were there photos?
AM: Yes. The first thing I got was a photograph. And this fascinates me because that's somebody. And that somebody is probably about 30 years old now. Tony would be 28, but who knows when the picture was taken? So somebody's out there who looks like that.
Q: Did the publishers begin to get cold feet? Was the book ever published?
AM: It was published and they've never renounced it. I actually called the editor of the current house that's publishing it and asked about it. Shortly before, Tad Friend had done a long article -- a long investigation -- in The New Yorker about five years ago. And they still haven't publicly acknowledged that it's a fake.
Q: And you don't feel angry that it's possible someone has used AIDS as a way of getting attention?
AM: I feel very angry about that part. I'm sure in her head, she's drawing sympathy and attention to the subject, but in fact a lot of people with AIDS -- including Paul, who was very weak -- had the life drained out of them by trying to be generous to this kid. And Paul eventually just cut off his connection with him: in part I think because he was wearing him out, and in part because he worried about whether [Tony] even existed. Tony called me shortly thereafter, and said, "Paul isn't talking to me anymore." This kid sobbing on the phone to me. "What do I make of this?" What could I make of it? It was a very odd thing, to live in this mystery for such a long time, and it wasn't until I saw a voice analysis that I really fully said, "There it is. There's the truth."
Q: You never confronted him?
AM: No, I'm a very non-confrontational person. I came out as a gay man to my parents in Tales of the City. I had Michael (the character in the book) come out to his parents, and my parents recognized very clearly what was being said. I don't tend to do that, and there was something very strange about having to say to this person I had talked to for a long time on the phone, "I don't think you're real." So I did it through the novel. I actually told him that I was about to write a novel about the two of us -- someone very like us -- and what happens when doubt was cast on the existence of the boy, the way it had been done by Newsweek. He said to me, "I'm a big boy. I know what fiction is." (Interesting phrase there, the lie alongside the truth.) "Go ahead. I'd love to see the manuscript; may I name the character?" So my imaginary boy named the imaginary boy in the novel -- supposedly after an imaginary friend of his.
Q: Did you ever meet the mother?
AM: Oh yes. When Oprah was doing her documentary on abused children and Tony took part in it -- only as a voice, mind you; they hired an actor to play the kid because Tony was too sick or too afraid of having his identity exposed. When that happened, we were invited to New York to meet Vicky (the mother) and the producer from ABC, who was doing the documentary, and I met her for the first time. She was a very pleasant, pretty, blonde, very large woman. I saw her and my first instinct was to hug her because I still wasn't sure. The woman had invited us to her apartment, and had huge blowup pictures of the kid up on the wall. I spoke to Tony afterwards, and he said. "How it was meeting Mom?" And I thought boy, I'd better answer this one carefully. Up until that point, he had always said, "Mom's a real babe." Well she was a lovely woman, but she wasn't a babe. So I said, "She's great. She was very sweet to me." And he said, "Were you surprised by how she looked?" I said, "A little bit; she was a little bit bigger than I thought she'd be." And he said, "Well, she put on all that weight when she adopted me." That's so interesting to me psychologically.
Q: When was the last time you spoke to either the mother or the son?
AM: She called me when the [draft of my book] was out. It began and ended with [drafts]. She said, "Somebody told me that you wrote a book trashing Tony." I said, "No, Vicky, I didn't trash him at all. I think it's a very loving portrait of his friendship." She said, "Oh good, I just want to make sure we didn't have to hire a lawyer." She was really sort of getting tough with me. And that was the last I heard from her.
Q: Has anyone else spoken to her of it?
AM: Well, she has a life in Lake Bluff, Illinois. She married a child psychologist. (Shocked laughter.) The editors -- David Roth, the guy that edited the original book told Terry recently in L.A. that I had done a terrible thing by stealing his story. And I approached his agent and said, "I'm just curious, in light of the recent revelations about JT LeRoy (another writer whose existence is likely a hoax) and the extraordinary parallel between the two things, if you've altered your opinions about Anthony Godby Johnson." And there was no response.
I think that a lot of people close to the story are extremely embarrassed, and I don't think they have any reason to be. All they were caught at was being compassionate.
Q: Do you think the JT LeRoy situation is more embarrassing? I mean, they had this person who was going to public events...
AM: I think it's more embarrassing because, you know, the New York Times photographer who did a spread on JT LeRoy said afterwards that it was perfectly obvious that "he" was a woman. That wasn't an effeminate boy or anything else, that was a woman. But you know, it's funny. They build such a bubble, such a mythology around the character. "Don't talk to him, he's very shy," and so forth. And we all walk very carefully around the subject of child abuse.
Q: Do you think people are too gullible?
AM: I think it's easier to be gullible now, especially with the Internet. I mean, everybody's got a horror story now. It's a shame. I think it's a widespread syndrome. Do you remember Kaycee (Nicole), the girl in the Midwest who was supposedly dying of leukemia? She had Internet buddies everywhere, and some clever bloggers got a picture of her and blew it up, and got a logo (on her clothing), and found out what high school she was from. The "mother" finally confessed that she had been doing it supposedly to bring attention to leukemia. I think it's chiefly about bringing attention to yourself. I think it's a feeling that you yourself are not worthy of sympathy or love, so you have to create someone who is.
Q: Do you think that this backstory that they create is something that really happened to them, or is it something they just make up?
AM: I don't know. That, of course, is the question that's raised in the film. That's a sympathetic way of looking at it.
Q: Given the very personal nature of this material, how difficult was it to hand it over to somebody else for the movie?
AM: I was so excited when they told me Patrick Stettner had agreed to take on the film, because I had seen The Business of Strangers, and it's just one long... how do you say mindfuck politely? I loved it, because it's just so creepy. It's about where your mind [goes], and I felt that was a perfect parallel to what's going on in The Night Listener. The notion that there aren't any villains here, but rather where our minds go and what we do with it.
Q: Now that the story has entered the world of fiction, do new aspects of the story come to you?
AM: The fiction fleshed out the truth. People came up to me at book signings, and at the time the book came out, I wasn't talking about any real-life inspiration. I was afraid that [Tony] still existed, and that I would be sitting there talking about this hoax when this one-lunged, one-legged, one-testicled boy would walk in. (She cut off the testicle, by the way, to explain why his voice wasn't changing. It lasted for so long that he was moving well into adolescence, and still sounding 13.)
In any case, people would come up to me at signings, lean very close, and whisper, "Anthony Godby Johnson." They'd just say his name to me. And I'd say, "Give me your phone number." And then we'd talk. I talked to an ex-nun, who'd arranged to bring a rabbi from Israel to convert him to Judaism because he said he wanted to convert. He was anything you needed him to be. To me, he was sort of a wisecracking secular humanist, very pro-gay, who would talk to me about homophobia and the AIDS wards. He was anything you needed him to be.
The best thing he ever did for me, and it was a great laugh, was when I was on the phone with him. He said, "Hang on, I've got another call I need to take." He came back two minutes later and said, "That was Fred," meaning Fred Rogers. And this was a time when Tales of the City had been under attack by the religious right, and PBS had dropped the sequel because of it. We had been condemned by three Southern legislatures -- one of the proudest moments of my life -- and he said, "Fred has a message for you: tell PBS to go fuck itself." I said, "Mr. Rogers does not say that!" and he said, "Oh you don't know how he talks!" [Mr. Rogers] is a Presbyterian minister, but [Tony] knew that I would think that that was just the coolest little insight.
Q: Do you ever think that this was maybe a split personality: something that she wasn't aware of?
AM: Well, she did a third voice one time, and that really freaked me out. [Tony] had always talked about a doctor that lived there, who helped to take care of him, and that way they could explain why he wasn't in a hospital. When I was told about the doctor, he was always this motorcycle-riding, tough-talking bisexual from Brooklyn. [Tony] would always tell these stories about what a great character he was. One time he said, "Jerry's here, you want to talk to him?" And Jerry came on the phone and it was a bad impersonation. It sounded like a third version of the same voice. It was very creepy.
Q: What effect to you think the experience had on you as a person? Did it make you bitter?
AM: Maybe I was grown-up enough, I don't know. I didn't feel like I'd lost my best friend, but some people did. I had to really talk some people -- mostly straight men -- down from a very bad place. They had assumed a sort of paternal relationship with him. Some of these guys aren't even willing to talk now, they're so embarrassed by it. I'm a gay man, I've lived with embarrassment. I don't feel I ever had anything to be embarrassed about. I don't understand why other people do. All I ever did was act on what I saw before me and what I thought needed to be done.
Q: Do you think this made you a less trusting person?
AM: I will be careful about who I open my life to again over the phone.
Q: How about as a professional creator of fiction, with the blur between someone who tells stories and someone who lies?
AM: That, of course, is the theme of the movie. Who's got factitious disorder here? Is it Gabriel or is it her? I know the difference, though I have to admit that I can tell anecdotes about my life, and can... refine them to a certain degree. But I do tell stories, and sometimes I think: is this the way it happened in the book, or is this the way it actually happened to me? I have to remember now.
Article published 08.07.2006.
Read Rob Vaux's review of The Night Listener.
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