‘They were treated terribly’ – why ‘lit lad’ veteran Mike Gayle finally tackles racism | Books
IIn the past, the Association of Romantic Novelists has awarded its Award of Excellence to some big names, including Jilly Cooper, Helen Fielding and Joanna Trollope. But this month, a traditionally female-dominated genre presented its first award to Mike Gayle. Not only is he the first male author to win, he’s also the first person of color to win the gong.
“It’s just lovely,” Gayle says. “It’s nice to be recognized by anyone, and RNA has been great for me since the release of my first book. At the time, I had no idea how long this thing would last. It took me years to think of it as a career – because I could imagine it sort of disappearing. Being here 20 years later, I think it’s a real achievement.
This first book was My Legendary Girlfriend, the story of the incurable romantic Will Kelly, miserably unable to recover from his ex, the inimitable Aggi. In a book market where bestselling authors such as Fielding and Catherine Alliott were giving insight into romantic relationships from a female perspective – and getting the ‘lit chick’ label for their efforts – Gayle joined the likes of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons for a masculine view. This has earned them the nickname “Enlightened Boy”, although Gayle said he preferred “Enlightened Pop” because his writing is “just like pop music in that it is immediately accessible … but touching to all. major themes – love, laughter, hate and jealousy – without feeling the need to take yourself too seriously ”.
“Mike A well-deserved success, ”says Imogen Howson, president of RNA,“ comes from his infallible ability to create characters and tell stories that speak directly to readers. Many, if not all, authors face challenges. However, these challenges are not equal and commercial publishing has, for a long time, been dominated by blank voices. Mike regularly centers on black, mixed-race, and working-class figures, who can often be overlooked.
Gayle speaks to me via Zoom from his hometown of Birmingham, where he lives with his wife, two daughters and a beloved pet. “My dog’s name is Sail,” he says. “He’s a rescue greyhound. And yes, when we go to the veterans they advertise it as Sail Gayle! He started writing his first novel at the age of 23. Freshly graduated in sociology from the University of Salford, he had moved to London to work in magazine journalism. “Everyone wanted to write for The Guardian, The Economist or The Times,” he says. “I was the only one who wanted to work for Smash Hits or Just 17. When I was growing up, Smash Hits was everything to me.”
He wrote for teen magazines for years, even becoming a dying uncle for Bliss mag. “It was just about explaining the teenage mindset to teenage girls in a very kind way, big brother,” he says, demonstrating the “non-threatening male pose” he assumed for his photo. byline. “It was a fantastic training ground for writing because you won’t get a harder audience. I’ve written for the big sheets, and I’ve written for teens – and the toughest audience will always be teens. If they didn’t like what you were writing about, they would just turn the page and you would be dead for them. So you had to be really entertaining.
Gayle eventually returned to Birmingham and spent a year dividing her time between freelance journalism and work on the novel. “I wanted to write a book on the male experience of romance. It wasn’t something I had ever seen in a novel. Normally in novels where men talk about relationships they all seem pretty stoic – I wanted to write a character that wasn’t like that at all. It was also about his quarter-life crisis, something I felt I could connect with. I wanted to talk about love and loss, that time in life when you really feel things.
When My Legendary Girlfriend was released in 1998, it immediately earned the nickname “The Bridget Jones Man”. This undoubtedly helped with sales, but seemed to ignore the dark humor at the heart of the novel. “It was a nice hook, and don’t get me wrong – it was a good thing to be described that way. But that was not necessarily true. If you had to do a male version of Bridget Jones, you wouldn’t have done it with a character like Will. Gayle pinpoints Will’s relentless desire for Aggi with warmth and a lot of humor. He writes, “It’s like that song,” she said, completely unmoved. “If you love someone, set them free. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t enough that she ruined my whole life. She was quoting Sting.
In the book, Gayle never specifies Will’s race. “It was interesting to hear people say, ‘Oh, I just assumed he was white.’” He was thinking, “Well, why would you do that? If you look at the back of the book, there’s a picture of me there.
In his last 15 novels – from Turning Thirty (a man separates from his girlfriend and returns with his parents) to The Stag and Hen Weekend (two pre-wedding parties told as separate stories) – Gayle has generally avoided discuss race. It was a deliberate choice. “It’s always up to black writers to define themselves,” he says. “White writers can be anyone and write anyone. But I still think that every time you define yourself, you shrink your world. True freedom is not defining yourself – just being who you are and doing what you do. “
Gayle’s most recent novel, All the Lonely People, however, addresses race more directly. It follows Hubert Bird, an elderly and lonely man who invented a colorful social life to keep his daughter in Australia from worrying about him. Hubert is then forced to re-engage with the world when she announces that she is coming for a visit. The novel oscillates between the present, as Hubert tentatively returns to picking up things with old friends and neighbors, and the past – the 1950s, when he first moved from Jamaica to London and experienced a virulent racism.
Gayle’s own parents moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. “But I don’t think I was really aware of racism,” he says, “until I did this. search for the book. And it is absolutely shocking. The way they were treated was terrible. In the novel, Hubert is attacked by his colleagues at a department store who tell him: “You are not even a real human, are you?” Joyce, his white wife, is later abused by a nanny she hoped would take care of their daughter: “Having a baby with one of these dark ones. You should be ashamed of yourself!
Gayle says, “It’s uncomfortable to read. But I think it’s important, because it wasn’t that long ago. It took something like Black Lives Matter, and people making accusations, for companies to be like, “Oh, yeah, we actually don’t have black people. Suddenly, ITV has just discovered blacks! Someone pointed out to them that they did not have black presenters, so they carried a whole load. For example, how did it take you so long to fix this problem? “
All the Lonely People, a heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting look at isolation, was written before the pandemic. But, in a world that for many has been reduced to four walls, this seems extremely timely. “When you meet people who are clearly alone,” Gayle says, “you wonder how this situation comes about. I started with this idea of how a house fills up with people and then empties out over time. That was the real backbone of it. We see Hubert meet his partner, start a family, then the children leave the house one by one, until he loses his wife and finds himself alone. “This story plays out over and over again, in so many different lives. I didn’t want it to be just about the race. I wanted it to be about life.
After three decades of writing, there’s one thing Gayle doesn’t think he can do: rewrite My Legendary Girlfriend. “I just turned 50,” he says, “and I feel like it’s written by a different person. When you are so young you really feel things intensely. The older you get, the more hardened you become in life. “