Mike Gayle: 'I'm not the male Bridget Jones'

He's young, he's cool, he's from Birmingham - and his first novel, My Legendary Girlfriend, sold 200,000 copies. But what'll happen to Mike Gayle now he's Turning Thirty?
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The Independent Online

I've just spent a very enjoyable weekend getting up to speed on the novels of Mike Gayle. More used to tucking into highbrow literary fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to find them so affecting: not just readable, fresh and witty, but sophisticated in execution. They are funny but also poignant. Underneath the veneer of sarcasm and irony are characters who really suffer.

I've just spent a very enjoyable weekend getting up to speed on the novels of Mike Gayle. More used to tucking into highbrow literary fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to find them so affecting: not just readable, fresh and witty, but sophisticated in execution. They are funny but also poignant. Underneath the veneer of sarcasm and irony are characters who really suffer.

His first, My Legendary Girlfriend, netted him a large advance and the fanfare that always entails. Yet the novel was not exactly high concept. "People say to me, 'you wanted to write a male version of Bridget Jones'," says Gayle, "but if I'd wanted to do that, I wouldn't have done it about a guy sitting in a room on his own in horrible Archway."

Will ("based quite heavily on me, but more of a hopeless loser") does indeed do little but sit in his desolate flat, scratching his bollocks, creating masterpieces of bloke cooking - pot-noodle sarnies and sugar puffs with melted vanilla ice-cream - and fretting over the woman who left him three years before. Communicating with the world only by phone, memory and the occasional need to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, Will is a creation of near-Beckettian solipsism.

Gayle himself is charmingly down to earth about his work: "We're talking commercial fiction here: writing about relationships by someone who has no ambitions to be Martin Amis." Unlike the shameless Jane Green ( Mr Maybe) - who actually said in an interview: "It's hard to keep track of the money I'm making... As long as people are willing to read my books, I'm happy to churn them out" - Gayle operates in a more organic fashion, growing his ideas directly out of his life.

Born, bred and still living in Birmingham, he began writing at university in Salford, where he studied sociology ("I figured it would be an easy option") and more importantly, put together a fanzine with a friend. "A lot of the bands we interviewed are quite bit now, people like the Smashing Pumpkins, Blur and Nirvana." He lived in London for three years working on teen magazines eventually becoming an agony uncle ("Ask Mike") for Bliss, a stint he thinks has informed his style: "You have to be funny and you have to keep their attention, so it's all about jokes and keeping the writing really fresh."

The first novel was about a 26-year-old who can't find the right relationship; the second, Mr Commitment, was about late-twentysomething fear of marriage, and the latest, Turning Thirty, brings us up to date with the 29-year-old author's current obsessions. Again, for a would-be best-seller it's reassuringly downbeat and naturalistic. "You lose a lot by glamorising life," he explains, "because there's a lot of ordinary life that's interesting in itself. Too often novels are about people being trendy; I like real people and real situations."

His latest book represents a belated tribute to his home city of Birmingham, where he lives with his wife, close to his parents. His first two were set in the grungier parts of London, but Turning Thirty takes its hero, Matt Beckford, from the wreck of a relationship in New York, back home to live with mum and dad in Brum for three months, to ride out his 30th, re-assess his life and hook up with his old friends.

Gayle's own Brummie accent is considerably modified: "I tone it down so that people can understand me. Ackshulloi, one of the things I like is that it's hard to be pretentious and come from Birmingham, because everybody just seems to consider you the court jester of the nation."

Though Birmingham seems fond of its native son, its portrayal here is unlikely to cause a mad rush at Tourist Information. Much of the book is made up of Gayle's trademark spiralling, going-nowhere conversations between bemused friends, and Matt's e-mail exchanges with Elaine, his ex-but-still-keen girlfriend in New York. The angsty navel-gazing might prove too much for anyone much under, or over 30.

He is proud of his position in the market, only three books in. "Women have got Wendy Holden, Kathy Lette, Helen Fielding, Jenny Colgan... the list is huge. But in terms of fiction for men that's not just guns blazing or some sort of crime caper gone wrong in East London, there's just me." There's a long pause, while I think: Nick Hornby? Tony Parsons? "And a few others. Relationships are my forte. One of my favourite authors is Madeleine St John. I'm a huge fan."

As you might expect from someone who has been a journalist, he's an expert at handling interviews. I ask him if it's true that his brother is the news-reader on The Big Breakfast and he just roars: "Ha! Ha! Ha! Yes he is." No cute anecdotes forthcoming. The only time he fires up is when I ask him, rather mischievously, whether he was invited to contribute to IC3, Penguin's new anthology of new black writing in Britain. Mischievously, because while the anthology covers everyone from the Benjamins, Floella to Zephaniah, to Jackie Kay, Gayle is not known for his incisive writing on race: in fact, he seems scrupulously to avoid bracketing his characters as anything in particular.

For the first time, he looks disconcerted. "I was invited to contribute to it," he says. "I was finishing Mr Commitment and I didn't have the time. And it's funny, the last couple of weeks I have actually been asked to comment on it on radio and TV and I... I haven't done, mainly, erm... because... I mean sometimes I couldn't, I couldn't... I'm going to finish this sentence in a minute! I just want to get it right." Deep breath. "It's a valid thing to do. If I'd had the time, I would have contributed and I've got no problem with its existence, but I do have a problem with the way that black novelists, to use the term very, very loosely, are treated. I've consciously not written about race, just because... I see no reason. It's a burden that's put on every single black novelist that's not put on any white novelist. They don't have to explain themselves, or their culture, everything's taken for granted, even the fact that their characters are white. I've sold 200,000 copies of My Legendary Girlfriend with my picture on it. People picked up a book in the knowledge that the writer is black and it hasn't mattered. And that to me is quite an important achievement."

I think he's done, but - "You want to write about race, fine. Obviously it's an important issue, but there's more than one way to crack an egg! There's the thing about identity, but if you're secure in your identity, you don't always have to promote it. I know exactly who I am, I'm not in denial about anything at all. It's almost like there's this philosophy that if it's mainstream it's white and if it's niche it's black. I am as mainstream as it gets and I will stay mainstream... and I'm black. To me that is a political statement. A lot of people don't seem to understand that and I do get criticised for it. As simple as that: I really don't care."

Just as well that Gayle's characters feel universal emotions: fear of getting old, jealousy of siblings, murderous rage towards cheating lovers, mingled love and irritation when it comes to parents. The interview ends on a wistful note, as befits a novel that's sweet'n'sour, happy and sad: "We kind of laugh at our parents, but maybe they've got it right. When I look at the way a lot of my friends' lives are going, it does make you wonder. My wife's grandparents are a brilliant example of this. Her grandad has lived in the same house since he was four. They've always lived there, they could walk to work, and they know everybody in their road. And you think to yourself, 'that's not actually a bad life!'

"You've got a whole generation moving around, moving countries, moving cities for their work - what's the point? I've got friends who live in cities where they don't know anybody because they've moved there because of work. Who's got it right and who's got it wrong?"