Books: Don't mention Bridget

Cole Moreton meets former agony uncle Mike Gayle, whose first novel invites big-name comparisons

The answer is no, absolutely not, as any fool can see. The question, posed on the skyline of a tabloid newspaper recently was, "Is this the new Bridget Jones?"

For a start, the author currently spreading garlic on his "rustic bread" at a chic Birmingham restaurant is very much a man, as the waitress seems to have noticed. And contrary to the deceptive photograph on the back cover of his debut novel, Mike Gayle is not the sort of skinny wretch you would expect to keep an obsessive eye on his calorie and ciggie intake. Mike Gayle enjoys life. The 27-year-old has a life-enhancing smile, a vaguely camp Brummie accent and likes a giggle. His book, My Legendary Girlfriend, is an observational comedy of modern manners, which is why some people have mentioned it in the same breath as The Diary of Bridget Jones.

"That's just lazy journalism," says Gayle, who used to be a hack himself for teenage magazines, so should know an easy angle when he sees one. "It depends what you mean. Is this a novel that is both popular and has something to say about modern relationships? Yeah."

Popular? Time and the book-buying public will be the judge of that, Mr Gayle. But it had better be a good seller, since Hodder paid "a substantial six-figure sum" for two books by the unknown author.

"It was totally frightening," says Gayle, who worked part-time for a year to finish his first manuscript before sending it to an agent. "I was just grateful that anyone was interested. If someone had said, 'Oh, we'll give you five grand for it,' they could have had it. So for it to start at six figures and jump ..."

The auction took place last October. Gayle was in the car with his wife Claire when the agent called and suggested he pull over before hearing the news. "I just didn't know what to say. I was totally gobsmacked. It was bigger than either of us had thought. But in the end it also went to the people who were most enthusiastic about it."

He will not say exactly how much the deal was for. "The whole thing about money is that it diverts attention away from whether it's a good book or not. I come from a music journalism background, and I know you can pay millions for a band but it doesn't mean they're going to have a hit. I don't want to be Sigue Sigue Sputnik."

The Sputniks were fake cyberpunks who signed a record deal for a huge amount and then flopped. Those were the sort of people Gayle read all about as an obsessive young music fan growing up in the Eighties in Brum. Dad was a business studies lecturer, mum a nurse; one of their three sons, Andy, is a car mechanic with his own garage, while the other, Phil, reads the news every day on The Big Breakfast.

Mike studied sociology at Salford University, but also wrote and produced a music fanzine with a friend, which they sold at gigs. After a post-graduate diploma in journalism he got a job as agony uncle on the teenage magazine Bliss.

"I didn't actually do the technical stuff - anything that needed any medical knowledge. Mine was the boy's point of view: I'd get girls asking me questions like, 'This boy keeps hitting me. Does it mean he likes me?' I'd always be really positive. To those who had been dumped I would say, 'Oh, you're too good for him. You'll get over him and one day you'll find the right person.'"

What was the answer to the question about hitting? "I usually said yes, because that's the way boys give attention. They're not very good at holding hands." After encouraging a generation of future battered wives in this way he became features editor on Just Seventeen - but beware, Gayle has a convincing argument ready for anyone tempted to take him less seriously as a writer because of this background: "People think it's really easy and you can just churn the stuff out but you can't. Teenage girls are the most demanding audience you'll ever meet: they're completely fickle, they've got an attention span of three seconds, and if you can't hook them you're finished. It's all about a sense of humour. It's almost like writing stand-up comedy."

The hero of My Legendary Girlfriend, Will, is a twentysomething who still hasn't got over the departure of his lover three years earlier and is barely managing to get through life in a squalid flat in Archway. Will can't tell the totally unsuitable women in his life from the ones who really love him, and his stunted emotional life is defined by pop music, films and pop culture. That may sound like Nick Hornby rather than Bridget Jones, but Gayle's novel is funnier than Hornby's last one, and feels more real. One always suspects that some men read Nick Hornby because they secretly want to be like one of his middle-class, pop-literate, football- loving trendy North Londoners; but the people in Mike Gayle's book live just beyond the borders of Islington, both physically and metaphorically.

However, Gayle cites an altogether more unlikely source of inspiration: "I used to read his stuff and think, 'this is me,'" says Gayle of the former Cosmopolitan agony uncle Tom Crabtree. Lots of us will be saying the same after reading about the bad flats, misguided passions and lost travelcards in My Legendary Girlfriend.

There is one more thing to say about the author, something you might have noticed from his photograph: he is black. So what, you might ask, and so would he - but it is worth noting that Gayle is one of a number of young British authors who refuse to be categorised as "black writers" or treat race as an issue in their work.

There is no mention of Will's race in My Legendary Girlfriend, for example. When I thought I'd spotted one - a reference to him trying to dress like Richard Rowntree, star of the Seventies blaxploitation movie Shaft - Gayle was quick to pounce.

"Who says Will is black? It says Richard Rowntree in Shaft and Clint Eastwood in The Enforcer."

Surely, I ask, you can't mention one of the great black icons of the century and then protest that the reference is not racial? This is a stupid question, obviously.

"Let me get this right then. Are we saying that there aren't any white people who would like to be like Richard Rowntree? I could have described someone who eats plantain, listens to reggae and rap music, and the character could still be white. I could introduce you to white people who, in cultural terms are blacker than I am."

It is only recently that publishers have begun to give black writers the freedom Gayle enjoys. "True. Walter Mosley for example. As far as I'm concerned he's a crime writer, but I've been in bookshops where you'll only find him in the black section. If I was a white person looking for a crime book, why would I be looking there?"

For a moment his voice becomes more passionate than playful. Mike Gayle may have written a lively and light book full of belly-laughs and painfully acute observations, but he also has a serious side. "I'm not willing to be boxed in by anybody and told what I should do. It's as simple as that."

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