Becoming Matt Cain

Matt Cain grew up in a macho environment in the North and it took until his forties for him to realise his dream of becoming a published author

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“You’ll have to excuse me,” says Matt Cain, speaking to Big Issue North over Zoom from his writing room in North London. “I haven’t spoken to anyone all day so it might take me a while to warm up.” This is not the case. From the off, Cain chats merrily about his latest book, Becoming Ted, and many other topics besides – instantly effervescent and open.

“I didn’t know anyone who was a writer and I didn’t think it was remotely a possibility.”

We’re here to talk about his new novel, Becoming Ted, but Cain is already working on his next. The writer’s strong work ethic becomes more apparent as we speak about his long and impressive career to date, which has included, among other things, five novels, working behind and in front of the camera, being Channel 4 News’ first ever culture editor, and being editor in chief of the glossy gay lifestyle magazine Attitude.

“I was writing on the side of full-time jobs for years and it was really hard,” says Cain. “I also had 10 years of rejection from agents and publishers before I got published. I don’t struggle with time organisation or drive anyway, but I’ve had such a journey to get to this point the last thing I want to do now is sit around flicking through my phone.”

As he talks, Cain pops his reading glasses on and then takes them off again and squints. He only started wearing glasses a year or so ago and wears them to read but not watch TV. The exchange is typical of what unfolds over the next 45 minutes or so – it’s like chatting to an old friend down the pub. The discussion leads to talk of getting older. Cain has just turned 48.

“You get to this age and if decline isn’t setting in with you personally, it is with your peers, and you do start to think, a lot of things are going to get worse with no hope of them getting better – eyesight being one of them.”

Ted, the protagonist of his latest novel, is also facing up to life in his forties.

“He’s dumped by his husband but then begins to realise that perhaps it’s time to start living his life for himself,” says Cain. “It’s a story of self-realisation and pursuing dreams. It’s about grabbing second chances. It’s about becoming a second act sensation and how it’s never too late to put yourself first and live the life you were always meant to live.

“It’s also about low self-esteem actually. If you grow up being told that you’re wrong or not good enough this can hold you back throughout your life because you don’t have the confidence to put yourself forward and you’re grateful to other people for just accepting you.

“It’s about all those things and about drag.”

Becoming Ted opens as the protagonist is about to make his stage debut as alter ego Gail Force. Then the reader is taken back months before this performance to witness Ted’s mission to realise his dream of becoming a drag queen.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race has come along and started this whole cultural revolution which is about being your authentic self and getting the happiness you deserve,” says Cain.

“For someone who’s quiet, who has low self-esteem, maybe hides their light under a bushel, by adopting an outrageous alter ego there’s this possibly to access an inner strength, courage and determination that maybe you didn’t even know you had.”

Although reality TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have pushed conversations about drag to the surface, the narrative arts haven’t really caught up.

“I was worried with this book coming out, because drag is so popular, that there would be 10 novels about drag coming out. But actually, I can’t find a single one from a mainstream publisher where drag is a central theme – nothing with any kind of emotional depth or as a device to explore a character.

“It’s often used as window dressing to tart up the gay experience or just a bit of light-hearted fun around a culture clash comedy. But actually drag can be radically subversive. It can take the established order of expectations about gendered behaviour and give them a real shake. It can be really transgressive, really punk rock.”

The idea of mainstream publishers lagging behind is nothing new to Cain. His thoughts about how they’re one step behind in representing drag mirror his experiences as a gay man trying to find a publisher for his own fiction.

Cain’s novel The Madonna of Bolton was stuck in his bottom drawer for years having been rejected by various mainstream publishers because it had a young gay man as the central character. That, in the words of one publisher who rejected the book, meant they felt it was “a little niche”.

“I was told all the time that writing about gay experiences was not going to have mainstream appeal,” says Cain. “It’s fine if literary fiction, which is going to win prizes, explores the gay experience but not commercial popular fiction, the insinuation being that readers of popular fiction aren’t educated, intelligent or enlightened enough to appreciate these experiences.

“I didn’t really have any ammunition to fight back. Then when I was editor of Attitude magazine I was interviewing cultural commentators and celebrities who were gay, straight and everything in between, and it was just so obvious to me that the world had moved on.”

Cain says publishers have been slow to follow shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race UK that have brought drag into the mainstream. Photo: BBC
Cain says publishers have been slow to follow shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race UK that have brought drag into the mainstream. Photo: BBC

Cain was editor-in-chief of Attitude between 2016 and 2018. He negotiated world-exclusive covers with Sam Smith and Ricky Martin. He also hosted the #AttitudeHeroes podcast and ran the Attitude Awards, hosted by Tom Daley, with winners including Prince Harry and Kylie Minogue.

“When I was growing up there were no gay characters in soap operas until we had Colin and Barry in EastEnders. By the time I was editor of Attitude every soap had multiple queer characters who had romantic storylines and emotional depth. There were films like Brokeback Mountain making hundreds of millions of dollars, and then Sam Smith having the biggest selling album of the year singing about same sex attraction.

“This idea of the gay experience not being mainstream was a load of crap.”

In 2017, through the crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and with the support of several celebrities he’d met and worked with through Attitude, The Madonna of Bolton became the publisher’s fastest crowdfunded novel ever. The battle to get the book published, and his victory in doing so, is one of the proudest moments of Cain’s career.

“Pretty much every publisher now has queer authors and it’s gone beyond virtue signalling,” he says. “There’s an expectation or requirement for them to have queer authors on their lists, not just literary writers but for commercial fiction as well. The Madonna of Bolton crowdfunding campaign may have played a small part in that.”

Becoming Ted is also set in the North. Cain was born in Bury, grew up in Bolton and moved to London to pursue his career in the media. In his fiction, he’s drawn back to the North.

“The North is very well known for storytelling, heart and humour,” says Cain. “I find it easier to explore themes of human connection, emotional connection and community if I’m setting the story there.”

Would he contemplate moving back?

“By the time I was successful enough as a full-time writer to give up my media jobs and contemplate moving back North, I met the man who’s now my husband who has a job here in London and can’t leave. I visit almost every month though. All my family is still in the North. I’ve got a nana there who’s about to turn 101.”

Family is important to Cain and a central theme in Becoming Ted. In the acknowledgments he notes how his own father died during the planning stages of the book, and this event meant that “it’s no surprise that dads – and sons’ relationships with their dads – feature so prominently”.

His relationship with his own parents was a good one but came about after “a journey”.

“It was horrendous to grow up in Bolton at the time in lots of ways, particularly being a visibly presenting gay person as I am. It was a very macho culture. But even though there were certain elements in the person I was becoming that my parents didn’t always understand, I did always feel safe at home.”

As an ambassador for the Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity which provides support to young LGBTQ people who are homeless or living in hostile environments, Cain knows that there are many young people who don’t feel as secure growing up. “I never had to deal with the horror of thinking you’re not going to have a home if you come out.”

Whether for reasons of faith, culture or class, there are plenty of children growing up who feel like they are a “disappointment to their parents”, says Cain. “They feel like they owe them a debt of gratitude for accepting them.”

While at Attitude, Cain wrote several exclusive reports on life for LGBTQ people in places such as Russia and China, which are reflected in Becoming Ted through the character of Oskar, a Polish man who comes from a Catholic background – as does Cain. He drew on his own experience and his concern about the rise of the far right in Poland and the so-called LGBT -free zones that were being established there.

“The number of straight people who say to me: ‘Oh, it’s fine to be gay these days! I don’t mind at all!’ They have no idea what it’s really like. Somebody said to me the other day that they were going on holiday to Jamaica, and they said, ‘Oh you must go sometime!’ and I said to them, ‘It’s not safe for someone like me to go to Jamaica.’ That had never even crossed their minds.”

Cain says that while he used to love wearing dresses and putting on makeup as a child, drag as an adult held none of the joy and sense of freedom for him that it clearly gives some other people.

“I don’t know whether it’s been conditioned out of me or whether I just grew out of it. Maybe I’ve been in drag for all of these years,” he says, considering how he presents himself when he’s appearing in public.

“I think a lot of gay men do what I used to do – adopt a more exaggerated, heightened persona and tell outrageous stories about our hook-ups and all the rest of it. Basically we become performing seals to delight and entertain everybody, possibly because we’re so desperate for the approval that we never had.”

Cain’s days of outrageous exploits are clearly behind him now. He married his partner Harry last year and career wise things seem stable.

“I’m always quite proud of that because when I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was a writer and I didn’t think it was remotely a possibility for me. I wouldn’t have known how to go about it, which is probably why it took me so long.

“I was unpublished for years and particularly desperate to get the Madonna book out. It felt like a kind of primal existential need, like I wasn’t fully realised as a human being. Maybe that’s why I can write books like Becoming Ted now – because it’s about self-fulfilment and self-actualisation.”

For someone who’s done so much in their life already, it seems odd that Cain only sees himself as having achieved success since the publication of his fiction. What about all the other things he’s done? “But they weren’t my dreams, were they?” he says.

Would he ever consider taking his foot off the peddle and not working so hard?

Cain ponders whether it’s a “privilege” to have such drive.

“A good work ethic, time management, self-organisation – I don’t really struggle with those things. If anything, I have to rein it in.

“In some ways I think I’m lucky to have that, but at the same time I think it’s probably a by-product of being made to feel that I’m not good enough when I was growing up – having an unshakeable need to prove to the world and prove to myself that I am good enough. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but actually I would stop short of calling it a privilege now.”

Becoming Ted is published by Headline

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