In the past, the Romantic Novelists’ Association has bestowed its outstanding achievement award on some major names, among them Jilly Cooper, Helen Fielding and Joanna Trollope. But this month, a genre traditionally dominated by women presented its top prize to Mike Gayle. Not only is he the first ever male author to win, he’s also the first person of colour to take home the gong.
“It’s just lovely,” says Gayle. “It’s lovely to be recognised by anybody, and the RNA have been great to me ever since my first book came out. Back then, I had no idea how long this this thing would last. It took me ages to think of it as a career – because I could just imagine it sort of disappearing. To be here, 20 years later, I think that 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 books market where such bestselling authors as Fielding and Catherine Alliott were providing an insight into romantic relationships from a female perspective – and landing the label “chick lit” for their efforts – Gayle joined the likes of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons in giving a male view. This won them the “lad lit” moniker, although Gayle has said he prefers “pop lit”, because his writing is “just like pop music in as much as it’s immediately accessible … yet touching on all the great themes – love, laughter, hatred and jealousy – without feeling the need to take itself too seriously”.
“Mike’s well-deserved success,” says RNA chair Imogen Howson, “comes from his 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 equal and commercial publishing has, for a long time, been dominated by white voices. Mike regularly centres black, mixed-race and working-class characters, who can often be overlooked.”
Gayle is speaking to me via Zoom from his home town of Birmingham, where he lives with his wife, two daughters and a much-loved pet. “My dog’s name is Sail,” he says. “He’s a rescue greyhound. And yes, when we go to the vets, they do announce him as Sail Gayle!” He began writing his first novel when he was 23. Fresh from Salford University with a degree in sociology, he’d moved to London to work in magazine journalism. “Everyone 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 growing up, Smash Hits was everything to me.”
He wrote for teen magazines for years, even becoming an agony uncle for the girls mag Bliss. “It was just explaining the mindset of teenage boys to teenage girls in a very nice, big brother sort of fashion,” 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 tougher audience. I’ve written for broadsheets, and I’ve written for teens – and the hardest audience will always be teens. If they didn’t like what you were writing about, they would just turn the page, and you’d be dead to them. So you had to be really entertaining.”
Gayle eventually moved back to Birmingham, and spent a year splitting his time between freelance journalism and working on the novel. “I wanted to write a book about the male experience of romance. It wasn’t something I’d ever seen in a novel. Normally, in novels where men talk about relationships, they all seem to be quite stoic – I wanted to write a character who wasn’t at all like that. 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 point in life when you really feel things.”
When My Legendary Girlfriend was published in 1998, it immediately earned the moniker “the male Bridget Jones”. This no doubt helped with sales, but seemed to overlook the bleak humour at the novel’s heart. “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 going to do a male version of Bridget Jones, you wouldn’t have done it with a character like Will.” Gayle skewers Will’s endless pining for Aggi with warmth and a great deal of humour. He writes: “‘It’s like that song,’ she said, completely straight-faced. ‘If You Love Someone, Set Them Free.’ I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t enough that she was wrecking 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 that he was white.’” He’d think: “Well, why would you do that? If you look in the back of the book, there’s a picture of me there.”
Over his last 15 novels – from Turning Thirty (a man splits up with his girlfriend and moves back in with his parents) to The Stag and Hen Weekend (two pre-wedding parties told as separate stories) – Gayle has generally steered clear of discussing race. This was a deliberate choice. “It’s always on black writers to define themselves,” he says. “White writers get to be whoever, and write whoever. But I always think every time you define yourself, you’re making your world smaller. Real freedom lies in not defining yourself – in just being who you are and getting on with what you’re doing.”
Gayle’s most recent novel, All the Lonely People, addresses race more directly, though. It follows Hubert Bird, a lonely, elderly man who has been inventing a colourful social life to stop his daughter in Australia worrying about him. Hubert is then forced to re-engage with the world when she announces she’s coming for a visit. The novel moves between the present, as Hubert tentatively starts to pick things up again with old friends and neighbours, and the past – the 1950s, when he first moved from Jamaica to London and experienced virulent racism.
Gayle’s own parents relocated to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. “But I don’t think I’d really been aware of the racism,” he says, “until I did this research for the book. And it’s absolutely shocking. The way they were treated was terrible.” In the novel, Hubert is attacked by his fellow workers at a department store who tell him: “You’re not even a proper human, are you?” Joyce, his white wife, is later abused by a childminder she had hoped would look after their daughter: “Having a baby with one of those darkies. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Says Gayle: “It is uncomfortable to read. But I think it’s important, because it’s not that long ago. It took something like Black Lives Matter, and people making accusations, for companies to go, ‘Oh, yeah, we haven’t actually got any black people.’ Suddenly ITV has just discovered black people! Somebody pointed out to them that they had no black presenters and so they’ve just carted in a whole load. Like, how can it have taken you so long to work this out?”
All the Lonely People, a heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting look at isolation, was written pre-pandemic. But, in a world that has for many been cut down to four walls, it feels extremely timely. “When you meet people who are quite clearly lonely,” says Gayle, “you wonder how that situation comes about. I started with this idea of how a house fills up with people and then empties over time. That was the real backbone of it.” So we see Hubert meet his partner, have a family, and then the children leave home one by one, until he loses his wife and is alone again. “That story is played out time and time again, in so many different lives. I didn’t want it to be just about race. I wanted it to be about life.”
After three decades of writing, there is one thing Gayle thinks he couldn’t do: write My Legendary Girlfriend again. “I’ve just turned 50,” he says, “and it feels like it’s written by a different person. When you’re that young, you really do feel things intensely. The older you get, the more hardened to life you become.”