Guest writer, Hadley Stewart sits down with Justin Myers, the man behind The Guyliner and author of The Last Romeo.
Having written for almost seven years under the mask of The Guyliner, Justin Myers finally shared his true identity with readers last year, announcing that he was writing a debut novel. The Last Romeo, Myers assures me, is far from his last novel. “I’m planning on writing more of them,” he says of novels with gay main characters. An exciting prospect, given the lack of LGBTQ+ protagonists in fiction today. Yet, it’s not only a queer glass ceiling that Myers is shattering with his debut novel. The book abandons the clichés of romantic tales, looking at dating through a twenty-first century lens, warts and all.
Prior to penning novels, Myers attracted a large online following thanks to his blog, The Guyliner. Readers rose early on a Saturday morning to witness him dissecting the Guardian Blind Date column, with his razor-sharp humoured reviews and his unforgiving dislike of lateness. With the latter in mind, I arrive for our meeting in London three minutes early.
Under the same veil of anonymity, Myers also diarised his own experiences of trying to find The One. So when The Last Romeo was announced, many thought they’d be getting Myers’ autobiography. James, The Last Romeo’s main character, ends his long-term relationship at the start of the novel, before catapulting himself into online dating. James starts an anonymous blog, providing him with the opportunity to share his dreadful (and not so dreadful) dates with friends, and an ever-growing online following.
“Lots of people have said that,” admits Myers, when I draw comparisons between his and James’ experiences. “I took my inspiration from things that have actually happened. I did break up with my boyfriend, but he wasn’t evil. To make the break up more interesting, and to give the character light and shade, you had to make his ex-boyfriend not very nice. I do have two godsons, and my best friend did move to Russia. That’s it.”
As for the affair with an Olympian: “I sadly didn’t get to do that.” So whilst the book is not his autobiography, Myers has certainly explored themes that he is familiar with. “This book was almost fantasising about what could have very easily gone wrong. I was really interested in anonymity and duality, and I kind of wanted to push that as far as it would go. But, autobiographical? Not really. In a way, it’s kind of a complement that people think it’s all true, because that means that they believe the writing. But it’s not true.”
Scrolling through the plethora of Amazon reviews, I stumble across a few making reference to Bridget Jones. Helen Fielding’s character continues to be an iconic dating reference, so how does Myers feel about the comparison? “Bridget Jones is a really good book,” he says with feeling. “I think the comparisons with Bridget Jones only come because there hasn’t been that big social moment around a dating book. That book is twenty years old and time has moved on.”
“Bridget didn’t have to negotiate the apps and social media, and her imposter syndrome is quite contained compared to the myriad of reasons we have for feeling paranoid in the twenty-first century. I suppose what it says to me is that we need some new cultural markers. But I have no problem being compared with Bridget Jones, it’s a great book.”
The book’s central character remains a minority in the fiction section of book shops. His sexuality not only provides a new lens to explore dating and romance, but raises the question of the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in fiction. “I do think it’s important to have gay characters out there, because they could teach you something about yourself.” believes Myers. “Not just if you’re LGBTQ, but also if you’re straight. These characters could make you think about other people and they can show you what the world is like outside of your own bubble.”
Some have also commented that they enjoyed the book, but felt that they weren’t the “target audience”. This seems to confuse Myers, who thinks “if you can read, you’re my target audience.” In fact, Myers is keen to encourage these critics to widen their reading selection. “That’s what reading is supposed to do. It expands your horizons and takes you places you’ve never been before. That’s why, going back to people saying they’re not the target audience, I just think: why do you only want to read about yourself?”
The Last Romeo also explores coming out as somebody in the public eye. James’ affair with an Olympic athlete provides a cautionary tale about the public’s obsession with the sexuality of celebrities. “I was very conscious of capturing authentic reactions to when celebrities come out. It’s something that I’ve been very aware of for years.” recalls Myers. “I remember when Stephen Gately was forced out by the tabloids and the same with Will Young.”
In fact, just as Myers was finishing a draft of The Last Romeo, Colin Jackson came out. The athlete’s online reaction prompted Myers to delve further into how we react to high profile coming outs. “He got the full “we already knew” and it was so disappointing.” says Myers. “I adapted a bit of the conversation within the book, because I thought it was quite disappointing and really annoying that they’d taken that moment from him.
“It was all about them showing their knowledge and how clever they are, and how perceptive they are. When really, whatever you think of Colin Jackson and his decision not to come out before, it really is none of your business. You aren’t helping anybody by saying that you were already in on that joke. I don’t think that encourages anyone to come out of the closet”
Something that struck a personal chord with me was James’ friendship with Richie. Myers’ interpretation of a gay man’s friendship with a heterosexual man felt authentic, and left me wondering if Myers and I had this in common in our own lives. “He’s great, he’s one of my best friends,” smiles Myers when discussing the person who inspired Richie’s character.
With that in mind, how important does he think heterosexual allies are for LGBTQ+ people? “Not as important as it is for heterosexual people to have LGBTQ+ friends in their social network. The thing with LGBTQ+ people, the community and things like Pride, is that the focus is very much on us getting our message out there to try to enlighten straight people. I agree with that, but also I think some of the effort has to come from the other side as well.
“It’s difficult to make friends who aren’t like you, because we, as LGBTQ people, are a bit afraid of the unfamiliar.” reasons Myers. “We’ve learnt to be a bit more cautious of people, but it is very important to have friends that aren’t like you.”
Today’s meeting with Myers interrupted his writing of the second book, something that he is remaining tight-lipped about. “I’m not allowed to tell you very much.” he says. “It’s not a re-run of The Last Romeo, I’ll say that. It’s a coming out story, but a contemporary coming out story, and about reactions when you come out.”
The Last Romeo is out now and available from Amazon.
Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)