IIn the past, the Association of Romantic Novelists has presented its award for outstanding achievement to some big names, including Jilly Cooper, Helen Fielding, and Joanna Trollope. But this month, a traditionally female-dominated genre presented its top award to Mike Gayle. Not only is he the first male author to win, he is also the first person of color to take home the gong.
“He’s just lovely,” says Gayle. “It’s lovely to be recognized by someone and the RNA it’s been great for me since my first book came out. Back then, he had no idea how long this would last. It took me years to think of it as a career, because I could imagine it disappearing. Being here 20 years later, I think it is a real achievement ”.
That first book was My Legendary Girlfriend, the story of incurable romantic Will Kelly, miserably unable to get over his ex, the inimitable Aggi. In a book market where top-selling authors like Fielding and Catherine Alliott were providing insight into romantic relationships from a female perspective, and earning the label “chick lit” for their efforts, Gayle teamed up with artists like Nick Hornby and Tony. Parsons to give a masculine view. This earned them the nickname “lad lit”, although Gayle has said that he prefers “pop lit”, because his writing is “like pop music to the extent that it is immediately accessible … but it touches all the great themes: love , laughter, hatred and jealousy, without feeling the need to take yourself too seriously ”.
“Mike’s The deserved success, ”says RNA President Imogen Howson,“ comes from her unerring ability to create characters and tell stories that speak directly to readers. Many, if not all, authors face challenges. However, those challenges are not the same, and trade publishing has long been dominated by white voices. Mike routinely focuses on black, mixed race, and working-class characters, who can often be overlooked. “
Gayle speaks to me through Zoom from her hometown of Birmingham, where she lives with her wife, two daughters, and a much-loved pet. “My dog’s name is Sail,” he says. “He is a rescue greyhound. And yes, when we go to the vets, they advertise it as Sail Gayle! “He started writing his first novel when he was 23 years old. Fresh out of Salford University and graduated in sociology, he moved to London to work in magazine journalism.” Everybody wanted to write for The Guardian or 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 little, Smash Hits was everything to me. “
He wrote for teen magazines for years, even becoming a dying guy for the girls magazine Bliss. “He was just explaining the mindset of teenage boys to teenage girls in a very nice way, like an older brother,” he says, demonstrating the “non-threatening male pose” he assumed for his signature photo. “It was a fantastic training ground for writing, because you won’t get a tougher audience. I’ve written for newspapers and for teens, and the most difficult audience will always be teens. If they didn’t like what you were writing, they would just turn the page and you would be dead to them. So you had to be very entertaining. “
Gayle eventually moved back to Birmingham and spent a year dividing her time between freelance journalism and working on the novel. “I wanted to write a book on the male experience of romance. It was not something he had seen in a novel. Normally, in novels where men talk about relationships, everyone seems to be quite stoic: I wanted to write a character that was not like that at all. It was also about him having his quarter-life crisis, something I felt I could connect with. I wanted to talk about love and loss, that moment in life where you really feel things. “
When My Legendary Girlfriend was published in 1998, it immediately earned the nickname “the male Bridget Jones.” This certainly helped with sales, but it seemed to overlook the gloomy humor at the heart of the novel. “It was a lovely hook, and don’t get me wrong, it was a great thing to be described that way. But it wasn’t necessarily true. If you were to do a male version of Bridget Jones, you wouldn’t have done it with a character like Will. “Gayle punctuates Will’s endless desire for Aggi with warmth and lots of humor. He writes,” ‘It’s like that song,’ she said. , completely serious. “If you love someone, set them free.” I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t enough that she was tearing my whole life apart. She was quoting Sting. “
In the book, Gayle never specifies Will’s race. “It was interesting to hear people say, ‘Oh, I assumed it was white.’ He thought, “Well, why would you do that? If you look at the end of the book, there’s a picture of me there. “
In her last 15 novels, from Turning Thirty (a man separates from his girlfriend and moves in with his parents) to The Bachelor Party Weekend (two pre-wedding parties told as separate stories), Gayle has generally been kept out of discussing race. This was a deliberate choice. “It’s always up to black writers to define themselves,” he says. “White writers get to be who they are and write to whoever they are. But I always think that every time you define yourself, you are making your world smaller. True freedom lies in not defining yourself, just being who you are and getting on with what you’re doing. “
However, Gayle’s most recent novel, All the Lonely People, addresses race more directly. Follow Hubert Bird, a lonely old man who has been inventing a colorful social life to keep his daughter in Australia from worrying about him. Hubert is then forced to reconnect with the world when he announces that he is coming to visit. The novel moves between the present, when Hubert begins to pick things up again with old friends and neighbors, and the past: the 1950s, when he first moved from Jamaica to London and experienced virulent racism.
Gayle’s own parents moved to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. “But I don’t think I really would have been aware of racism,” she says, “until I did this research for the book. And it is absolutely shocking. The way they were treated was terrible. “In the novel, Hubert is attacked by his coworkers at a department store who tell him,” You’re not even a real human, are you? “Joyce, his white wife, is later abused by a babysitter waiting for her to take care of her daughter: “Having a baby with one of those brunettes. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Gayle says: “It is 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, to get companies to say, ‘Oh yeah, we don’t really have black people.’ Suddenly ITV just discovered black people! Someone pointed out to them that they had no black presenters, so they had brought a full load. Like, how could it have taken you so long to figure this out? “
All 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, it feels extremely timely. “When you meet people who are clearly lonely,” says Gayle, “you wonder how that situation arises. I started with this idea of how a house fills up with people and then empties over time. That was the real backbone. “So we see Hubert meet his partner, have a family, and then the children leave the house one by one, until he loses his wife and is alone again. it develops over and over again, in so many different lives. I didn’t want it to be just about racing. I wanted it to be about life. “
After three decades of writing, there is one thing Gayle thinks she couldn’t do: write My Legendary Girlfriend again. “I just turned 50,” he says, “and it feels like it’s written by a different person. When you are so young, you really feel things intensely. The older it gets, the harder it hardens for life. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism