Mike Gayle’s latest book, The Man I Think I Know, tells the story of James and Danny. Both stars at school, their lives have both gone wrong. They meet again at a respite centre, where Danny is working a care assistant and James is being cared for because of his Acquired Brain Injury. It’s a warm, funny and deeply engaging story – the kind of book it would be soothing to swallow up in an evening after a rough day, or maybe on a long flight.
Mike kindly answered some questions for me about his latest work and his writing life.
- I first came across your work when you were agony uncle at the now sadly closed J17 magazine. Your writing, then and now, stuck me as being very kind. How useful was the experience of agony uncle-ing to your fiction?
- I was actually an agony uncle on Bliss magazine, and then later became features editor of J17. To be honest both roles have helped me greatly in my writing. Firstly, you won’t get a tougher audience than teenage girls, not ever. So on J17 I learned to make every word sing for its supper and to always be interesting. The agony uncle side of things showed me that deep down we’re all as clueless as each other it’s just that some people are better at bluffing than others. We’ve all got things going on we don’t understand that we wish someone could explain to us and that’s what I try to do in my books.
- And is writing a problem page as fun as it looks?
- It was brilliant. The most fun I’ve ever had (other than writing novels of course.) My readers used to send dozens of pages of detailed notes outlining their problems and I read them only to discover that the question they want answered was: do you think he fancies me!
- You present very positive, non-toxic versions of masculinity in your books – men who are not afraid to admit they’re wrong and to feel things. Would you consider yourself to be a feminist?
- That’s the first time anyone’s ever asked me that question. I think I’d baulk at calling myself a feminist as a man because it sounds a little too cool for school for my liking. I think the truth is I really, really, like women. I like their company, conversation and worldview. As for my male characters being in touch with their emotions I think sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they take a really, really long time to work out how they feel!
- And to what extent are you writing to communicate these positive messages to other men?
- That’s a hard question to answer. One of the reasons I started writing in the first place was because I was a bit sick and tired of the notion that there’s only one type of man (the beer drinking, footie loving, doesn’t talk about his emotions, stereotype). Some men are that type and others are the polar opposite. Will Kelly from My Legendary Girlfriend for example is completely different in character to say, Rob, in Brand New Friend.
- What research did you do on Acquired Brain Injury as you wrote this book?
- I did a lot of reading, and watched a number of films and documentaries. Research however is quite hard because while you want to be informed by what you learn you don’t necessarily want to be a slave to it. There’s a balance to be struck between and fiction, and part of being good at my job is knowing what it is.
- James is extremely charming, and the community he joins of other people with Acquired Brain Injury is supportive and fun. Were you consciously working to present an alternative view to this type of disability than the mainstream?
- One of the things that struck me about ABIs is how different they could be. They go from one extreme like James, when it’s clear to anyone he meets that he’s clear has a disability through to others who while looking physically able struggle with their memory to such an extent that they can’t live without full time assistance. It really is an invisible disability.
- Do you have any political views on disability you’d like to talk about?
- I wouldn’t go so far as to call them political. My views are pretty simple. Treat people as you’d want to be treated yourself if you were in their shoes. Stick with that and you won’t go far wrong.
- Danny is, in his own way, very damaged as well, and a lot of your books seem to be about men healing old wounds. Do you have any advice for anyone who feels a bit broken and wants to get their life back together?
- I think we all struggle with life at times. Whether through bereavement, divorce, unemployment, or any of the many terrible things that come our way from time to time. I think the first thing to do when you’ve got problems you’re struggling with is to admit it to yourself, and then others. And the next thing is do something about it.
- What is the last book you read, and what is your favourite book ever?
- The last book I read was The Light That We Lost by Jill Santopolo which I loved. Her writing is beautiful, and her story telling ability wonderful. My favourite book is The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton. I read it when I was about fourteen and read it in an evening. I don’t think I’ve ever been so engrossed in a book in my life.
- What are you working on next?
- I’m afraid I can’t say too much about it other than it’s about siblings and the synopsis alone manage to reduce half the team at my publishers to tears just reading it! Suffice to say it’s another emotional rollercoaster.
You can buy The Man I Think I Know here.