It’s a sunny day in north London when Matt Cain lets me into his immaculately tidy flat and launches into his first big interview for his debut novel with an enthusiasm that would be familiar to anyone who watched him on Channel 4 News. “I’ve just been trying to think,” he says, wrestling his cat Nelly away from the open front door. “Have we ever met each other sober?”
He is referring, of course, to the many highbrow events at which a literary journalist and a television culture editor might socialise: press conferences; book launches; prizes… Cain became a popular presence on the cultural scene during seven years as an executive producer on the South Bank show, and three as Channel 4’s first Culture Editor, presenting subjects as diverse as ballet, opera, art, books and pop. When the 37-year-old left broadcasting a year ago to write a novel, what everyone wanted to know was: what sort of novel does a culture editor write? The answer, in his case, is the literary version of a Jennifer Aniston romcom. “Oh I’d take that in the right way,” he confirms when I say so. “That’s totally what I was aiming for, actually.”
Shot Through the Heart is set in LA, and features the Hollywood beauty Mia Sinclair, and her friend, and co-star, Billy Spencer. When Mia meets Leo, a British paparazzo, her love-life off the screen finally begins to heat up. But can their relationship work? And what about the personal secret that Billy fears will destroy his career?
“I was thinking about the Romeo and Juliet thing,” Cain explains. “What are the ultimate enemies that can fall in love and battle to make it work? Of course it’s not remotely autobiographical but there’s a lot of my personality in this book, and my sensibility and humour.” It is, in places, inappropriately, uproariously funny. That is, if you appreciate humour set in a gay bar called The Man Hole or a Chinese takeaway called Phat Phuck, or descriptions of characters including a “nicotine-blonde waitress with a face like a King Charles spaniel” and a self-conscious actress, post-exercise, who “knew her face must look like a chewed-up blood orange”.
I’m relieved when Cain is the first one to call the novel “slightly camp fun”. It’s not going to win the Man Booker Prize, he says, but he would love to be the first man to win the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. However, when he goes further, labelling his book a “camp, fluffy novel that’s a beach read”, he is rather doing it down. The character of Billy has a subtle but quite dark backstory involving “gay cure” therapy, and by putting issues of homophobia and race almost centre stage, I wonder if Cain is trying to make a more serious point.
“It’s funny, the gay thing,” he says, seriously. “Sometimes in the past I would try to write gay central characters and publishers would say, ‘Make it less gay, if it’s going to be mainstream.’ But the brilliant thing was, I got this great deal with Pan Macmillan and the editor said straight away, ‘I love that gay character. Why did you not bring him in till chapter four? Let’s have more of him!’ There’s something about being told that if you talk about [being gay] in public then people won’t like you that feeds into a self-loathing. But I didn’t want the gay character to be a tragedy figure so I wanted him to be funny and I wanted to give him an uplifting ending.”
In his second novel Nothing But Trouble, set in the pop world and published next April, he says that a contented gay couple plays a large role. Then, suddenly, he laughs out loud. “I mean, I’d be wary of including the mechanics of gay sex. I’d be wary about going into anatomical detail!” He can count himself out of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, then.
Cain seems quite at home with the switch from reporting on culture to making it himself. “Working in documentaries and then news, and always being constrained by reality and having to be truthful,” he says, “having the freedom to just make stuff up is quite liberating, actually.” But it sounds as though he has always been making things up. Born in Bury and raised in Bolton with a brother and a sister, he spent much of his childhood in his bedroom, “painting pictures and writing stories”. His childhood and family are still clearly important – the novel is dedicated to his Nana, “who was brave enough to follow her heart”, and among his many shelves of books and the Emins and Taylor-Woods on his walls are photos of his six nieces and nephews, all of whom have characters named after them in this and the next novel.
He was the first person from his state school, in more than 20 years, to win a place at Cambridge, though he says he only applied to impress his dad. “And it was only when I got there I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? Am I going to enjoy this? And I did, it was the most amazing experience of my life.” He studied French and Spanish, and wonders now if the mimicry involved in speaking a foreign language is similar to the novelist’s experience: pretending to be someone else.
Not that Cain in person is likely to pretend. He whispers a story from his early days in TV, when “they tried to make me a bit more authoritative, and got me wearing suits and tried to make me deepen my voice and stuff. It was like a red rag to a bull, I suddenly went all limp-wristed and mincing in every shot, camper and camper!” No Billy Spencer, he.
Nevertheless, I think it’s Cain’s enthusiasm and lack of cynicism or guile that made him perfect as an arts reporter, and I ask him whether there’s anything about television that he misses. There’s a long pause, before he bursts out laughing, again. Individual colleagues he stays in touch with, he says, though he does miss being around creative people and seeing them work. “But to be honest, it’s just such fun to sit at home, making up stories, with the cat, making myself laugh. I can’t think of a better way to make a living, it’s brilliant.”
Talking again of the book, he says, “I just want people to enjoy it. I’m not bothered about respectability or acclaim or prestige. I don’t think I’m going to get it!” Oh, somehow I think he might.
Shot through the Heart By Matt Cain (Macmillan £7.99)