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Fiction blurred by fact

An elusive truth can be far more intriguing. Just ask Armistead Maupin.

July 30, 2006|Susan King

IN "The Night Listener," opening Friday, Robin Williams plays a nighttime talk show radio host who befriends a young boy (Rory Culkin) dying from AIDS complications who has written a powerful book about his years of sexual and physical abuse. But Williams' Gabriel soon discovers that the boy may be the fictional creation of his adopted "mother" (Toni Collette).

Directed by Patrick Stettner and adapted by Armistead Maupin ("Tales of the City") and Terry Anderson from Maupin's bestseller, "The Night Listener" is a fictionalized account of Maupin's experience with Anthony Godby Johnson, an allegedly dying teenager who supposedly wrote the acclaimed 1993 autobiography "Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story."

Because the only person who ever saw "Tony" was the woman who claimed to be his adopted mother, Vicki, Maupin and others began to doubt the boy's existence.

Both Newsweek and the New Yorker investigated and concluded that Tony didn't exist, though there are still those who believe he was real.

When Maupin, 62, published his book in 2000, he changed his phone number and never heard from Tony/Vicki again.


How did you happen to see Johnson's book?

The book was sent to me by a publisher for a blurb. And it came with a forward by Paul Monette, my dear friend who was dying of AIDS at the time, talking about his wonderful friendship with this kid. Paul was the one who coaxed the book out of him and gave him his editor and his agent. It also had an afterward by Fred Rogers. It came with the best possible credentials. People always say, "How could you believe this?" Well, it was sent to me by a major publishing house. It had two major figures bookending it. One of them was a friend of mine.


After you read the book did you ask for Tony's number?

I asked [the editor] at Crown if I could personally tell him how much I liked the book. At that point there was every indication the kid would be dead in a couple of months. He had had a leg amputated, a lung removed.... Something in me wanted to tell him personally that it was a lovely book.


How many years did you and Tony talk on the phone?

There was some sort of communication on the phone for six years. After the first six months I had serious doubts.... Terry had been talking to Vicki on the phone for a long time and turned to me and said, "I can't believe you never noticed how much they sound alike." However, I had also noticed it because I had mistaken one for the other on occasion.

For six years I had my brain split right down the middle -- half was allowing that it was her and the other half was allowing that it was him.


When did you decide to write a fictional version of your experiences?

I had told the story over and over again, and I saw how it made people's goose bumps rise.... But I was hung up. I realized if I wrote the novel that I would reveal to this person that I didn't fully believe in his existence.

I couldn't write the book for a long time, and Terry actually made the suggestion that I call him and tell him I was going to write the book. So I did.

I called him and said, "I am going to write a book about a writer talking about a teenage boy on the phone, and some of the doubts raised by the Newsweek [investigation] will be raised in the novel."

Far from saying, "Oh, no. You can't do that," he said, "I'm a big boy. I know what fiction is." I love the truth and the lie contained in that sentence. He said, "I know you would never betray me. There is one thing I would like -- can I name the character?" So he named the character Pete, supposedly after a friend of his who had died.


Did you send him the manuscript of the book?

He said, "You can just mail it to my mom because I am in the treatment facility. She'll get it to me." Not too long after that she called and said something like, "I have heard you've written the book trashing Tony. I wonder if I should get my lawyers on you." I said, "I don't think I am trashing him. I think it's a very affectionate portrait of friendship." But of course I never really said, "I know who you are now."


Will there be any more "Tales of the City"?

Next summer, Harper Collins is releasing "Michael Tolliver Lives," which is basically my literary answer to all the people who said I'm glad you stopped "Tales of the City" because Michael [a character from the novel] would be dead by now. So this is a 55-year-old gardener -- living in San Francisco, HIV positive, facing issues of aging when he thought he was going to be dead 15 years earlier -- with a considerably younger partner.... I should take you down to meet my husband.


Is he younger than you are?

He's 34. We've been together two years. I am deeply, exhilaratingly in love at 62.


Is he a writer too?

My whole life seems like I made it up sometimes. He runs a website called, which is for gay men over 40, a personal site. I actually met him because I saw him on the site looking for someone older. I am too much of a Luddite to communicate [via e-mail], but I saw him down at 18th and Castro walking down the street one day. I recognized him and chased him halfway down the block and said, "Excuse me" -- great line -- "didn't I see you on a website?" And he said, "I run that website." It's become immensely successful because there are a lot of gay men looking for love over 40, let me tell you.

-- Susan King

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