Guest writer, Hadley Stewart, speaks to journalist and writer, Matt Cain, about his new book and the background to the story.
“I went into the Unbound office and said that I only want to do this if I can create a big sting and make a lot of noise,” says Matt Cain when we meet in his North London flat. The Madonna of Bolton, Cain’s third novel, went from being rejected by over thirty publishers to becoming Unbound’s fastest funded book in the publisher’s history. Cain opted for a publisher that uses online donations from potential readers to fund the publishing process, with The Madonna of Bolton receiving enough donations within just a week of going live. But despite being something that Cain is proud of, the book’s idea originates from a youth of darker emotions, self-destruction and prejudice.
Having experienced a gruelling barrage of rejections, Cain seems to have focused on the constructive feedback he received for his manuscript. “As much as it was really, really difficult to get over all that rejection after so long, and it was very hard to deal with and to keep believing in the project, I did listen to the feedback.” Cain explains. “When I did get criticism, I did work hard on making it better. I kept re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing. And consequently the book got better over time.”
The book’s idea originates from a youth of darker emotions, self-destruction and prejudice.
This is not the first time Cain has faced rejection for something he holds close to his heart. Much like the protagonist in Cain’s book, Charlie Matthews, Cain experienced rejection and prejudice due to his sexuality. The book follows the life of Charlie as he grows up in Bolton, a town north of Manchester, during the 1980s. He clings to his favourite artist, Madonna, for support, before leaving Bolton to explore the next chapters of his life. A coming of age book, perhaps, but also a book that explores the emotional impact of growing up as a young gay man in a town, country and society that is far from accepting. “For me, the book is about growing up, being rejected for who you are, and how this determines your behaviour and emotions for the rest of your life.”
Given the book’s gay main character, does Cain think readers from beyond the boundaries of the LGBTQ+ community will relate to Charlie’s story? “I always say that one of the great joys of reading is putting yourself into the head of somebody from a different background to you, whether that’s a different gender, sexuality, nationality, or ethnicity. You can say that for all the narrative arts.” That being said, Cain acknowledges that LGBTQ+ stories have previously faced resistance from straight readers. “For the LGBTQ+ experience, the problem is that prejudice, fear and hatred were so strong in the past that they acted like a barrier to some in mainstream straight society feeling any empathy towards gay characters.”
Cain now believes times are changing, however. “A lot of that resistance has been swept away now – I think that straight readers are ready to engage with LGBTQ+ protagonists.” In fact, the responses Cain has received from readers of The Madonna of Bolton have struck a personal cord with him. “I’ve been really heart warmed,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of gay men saying ‘oh my god, this is my story’, but there are also a lot of women saying that they can relate to this book too. I’m really proud of that.”
“All of the emotions, I felt.” shares Cain, when I ask to what extent the book is autobiographical. “The skeleton of the book is mine, but I changed a lot of the specifics, in order to have a neater story arch. If you look at the timeline of a life, it can sometimes be messy.” The darkness of Cain’s emotions are not fully captured in the book, Cain believing this might have dinted the book’s reception. “It would have been darker if it had been my story. The torture, the torment, the decent into self-destruction would have been so much more extreme, and therefore might have put off certain readers.”
Cain acknowledges that LGBTQ+ stories have previously faced resistance from straight readers.
Like many other gay men, Cain still has the scars of these emotions. “You know, it’s horrible to grow up and feel rejected for who you are, feel that you’re not good enough, feel wrong, feel you’re disgusting. It’s horrible. That has such an impact on the formulation of your personality, your psyche, your ability to love and love yourself.” Despite these struggles, it is clear that Cain has carved out something positive from the negative experiences he faced earlier on in life. “Out of the toughest part of my life came the thing I’m most proud of.”
The mood of our interview lifts, as Cain speaks about Charlie’s love interests. “All the men are made up, to be honest!” laughs Cain. “Just because none of the men in my life would be worth including in a book and I wouldn’t want to give anybody that satisfaction.”
In addition to traditional publishers being concerned that the book would not be commercial due to its gay protagonist, Madonna’s ability to attract readers was also called into question. “I thought bullshit!” exclaims Cain, who is quick to tell me that crowds have been flocking to see Madonna in concert and buy her music for decades. The idea of clinging to music for support is something that Cain was keen to explore in the book, surprisingly confirmed by Cain’s Nana handing him a notebook. “When she worked in a textile mill, in her breaks, she would take this notebook and write down the lyrics to songs, and that got her through”, Cain explains. “She didn’t know that I’d written this book, but when I looked at the lyrics of this song, they were all about escape, flying away, and finding a way to a better life.”
You know, it’s horrible to grow up and feel rejected for who you are, feel that you’re not good enough, feel wrong, feel you’re disgusting.
The intersection between sexuality and social class is not something that is explicitly discussed in the book, yet it does add layers to the main character’s identity. “I wasn’t interested in exploring social class in this book, because I thought that it might get in the way,” Cain tells me. “So, what I did was I made it simpler and made his family absolutely working class, kind of like my grandparents were, rather than my parents.” The working class protagonist of The Madonna of Bolton remains a minority in fiction. Cain seems to think this is linked to the lack of opportunities for working class writers in publishing. “People think it’s radical to have a working class voice in publishing. You don’t earn a lot of money writing fiction, therefore, it becomes a wealthy person’s pursuit.”
In addition to social class, Cain seems conscious of the book’s geographical implications for LGBTQ+ storytelling. “When I started working at Attitude, one of the things I banged on and on about to the team was a better geographical representation of the whole of the country,” Cain says, aware of the criticism often thrown at LGBTQ+ publications from readers outside of London. “I used to have a whiteboard behind my desk with the word ‘Scotland’ written on it in big letters, just because it bothered me. If you come to live in London from around the country, you enter this world where things are so much better for gays and there’s so much more choice. It’s easy to forget where you came from.”
This is Cain’s third book, and it really is third time lucky. It was recently announced that Cain had sold the film rights to The Madonna of Bolton, Cain receiving an email from Madonna’s management informing him that the music icon approved of the project. “I did get a formal email saying that Madonna had given her blessing for the project and that we can now negotiate a deal,” he beams. “That was exciting!” Plans are currently moving slowly for the film, but that hasn’t stopped Cain thinking about who might be cast as his protagonist. Given the recent media hype around straight actors playing members of the LGBTQ+ community on the big screen, does that mean Cain would prefer a gay man to play Charlie? “It would be nice to have Charlie played by a gay actor.”
Whilst Cain keeps his readers waiting for future books, The Madonna of Bolton continues to inspire and educate its audience across the generations. The rate at which societal attitudes have shifted since the 1980s is a reminder of how much can be done in such a short space of time. That being said, it is clear that Cain and fellow gay men continue to live with the remnants of societal prejudice towards the LGBTQ+ community. With so many LGBTQ+ stories left untold, Cain’s shakeup of the traditional publishing status quo might encourage others to not give up on telling their stories.
The Madonna of Bolton is available to buy on Amazon now.
Photos by Pan Macmillan.
Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)