Hadley Stewart chats to Justin Myers as he prepares for the release of his new book, The Magnificent Sons.
When I was sent The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers in December last year, the world looked very different to how it does today. Little did we know that we’d be battling technical glitches with Zoom, rather than trying to squeeze onto a packed Tube train, to meet up for our interview. Just like any great novel, life is filled with twists and turns that leave you laughing, crying, or even reflecting on your values and morals. The Magnificent Sons does just that. Myers’ second novel is the tale of a Jake D’Arcy, who comes out as bisexual at the age of 29, after his teenage brother Trick comes out as a gay. Jake’s coming out challenges his relationship with his parents, his friends, and results in him breaking up with girlfriend Amelia. But it will also open the door to new friendships, and an opportunity to build a bridge over the age gap that divides him from his younger brother.
“What’s always interested me is generational differences, or differences of any kind really, and how things can be very different for you when your background or circumstances. I guess I also have this fascination with people not being able to be themselves,” Myers tells me when I ask him about where the idea for the book came from. His first novel The Last Romeo also explores the idea of not being able to be yourself, with the main character writing an anonymous blog about his dating experiences. Although his first book is a work of fiction, Myers too wrote a dating blog under the name The Guyliner for many years, before revealing his identity prior to the publication of The Last Romeo.
Yet for his latest book, Myers is drawing from another life experience for inspiration. “I find that being an older gay man who came out quite late, it’s interesting now how the landscape has changed so much,” Myers explains. “I came out almost 20 years ago, and when I was younger it was very uncommon for people to be out as a teenager, whereas now it’s much more common. I wanted to explore that idea, and that’s why there are two brothers in the book, who are at very different stages in life, but when it comes to sexuality are relatively similar.” Having a sister who is 20 years his junior gave Myers an insight into how parenting style can differ between older and younger siblings. “That’s why I wanted to make the brothers quite far apart in age, so that the parents would react differently.”
As somebody who isn’t bisexual, I asked Myers what research he did whilst writing a book with a bisexual main character. “A lot of what’s in the book is from my own observations. Also, there was the stuff I’ve written about for GQon the different perceptions of bisexuality depending on gender,” he says. “I also spoke to bisexual activist, Lewis Oakley, and read an amazing column by Megan Nolan in the Sunday Times Style Magazine about being bisexual. What was great, was what I was already writing was in tune with their experiences, which was a relief.”
Myers says that there are still a lot of misconceptions about bisexuality, from both inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. Was he worried about potentially perpetuating negative stereotypes of bisexual people? “I was conscious of not portraying bisexuality as a negative, but we need to remember that this is a work of fiction, based around one man’s journey,” he replies. “Now, whilst there might be a high expectation of LGBTQ+ authors to speak for everybody, we cannot. So I couldn’t include all aspects of what it’s like to be bisexual. I think it was important to me to write a character who had faults, but I don’t think the portrayal of Jake does bisexuality any harm; it’s quite a sex positive book.”
He acknowledges that Jake’s flaws could be harshly judged, because of the way bisexuality is viewed in society. “Whereas in a book about heterosexuals, a book about a bloke doing what Jake does, would barely cause a ripple,” says Myers. “But with it being a book about a bisexual person coming out, I’m well aware that there may be some negative reaction.” I remark that queer readership can also be protective over their own stories. “I think as LGBTQ+ readers we are more alert, and we are, for good reason, waiting for these stereotypes to emerge. We’re just so used to being shafted by other books, or less sensitive portrayals of our experiences.”
People seem to be coming out at different stages in life: teenagers coming out at school now isn’t rare, alongside people coming out later on in life. But is it always, I ask, easy for people to come out? “I think finally there is more representation in the media and in general life, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. As for why some people still aren’t coming out, well, the old pressures are still there,” he replies. “We live in bubbles, and sometimes it takes going out of the bubble to see what real life is like for some people. My main driver is that no two coming out experiences are the same. In a way, I wanted to exaggerate that as much as possible, by making them both brothers, to show that you can have two people in seemingly similar situations and everything is different.”
The book doesn’t solely focus on Jake’s story, though. There are entire sections of the book that focus on his ex-girlfriend Amelia. I was curious as to why Myers decided to include her experiences. “The Amelia storyline was very important to me and actually inspired most of the book,” explains Myers. “Years ago in the Evening Standard, I saw a story about a woman who had been married to a man for 20 years and he had come out as gay. She was fucking devastated.” The woman gave an interview explaining how her husband had now found a new life, and that she had just been left with feelings of anger. “I thought, how interesting. Because when you read these coming out stories, and there are plenty of them, if there’s a girlfriend in any of them she kind of disappears after Act One. I wanted to find out what happens to her next.”
“She’s kind of expressing a milder version of what I read in the evening standard,” Myers continues. “Amelia and Jake share friends and they’re all happy for Jake, but they’re all creeping around Amelia, and that’s driving her insane. She has it out with him at the end of the book, and that she feels denied the anger. As she says to Jake, “If you’d fucked off with another woman, nobody would be talking to you.” I wanted to show what it can feel like when you’ve done nothing wrong, and your partner has found a new path in life. What is she supposed to do, lay over and die? Or join the front of the Pride march? Where does that leave her?”
Loyal readers of Myers’ blog might recognise a scene from the book set in Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve. “People really love that story,” Myers tells me of his blog post, The Hogmanay Kiss. “I think that I wanted Jake’s first ‘proper’ kiss to be something I could relate to directly. And I was, to all intents and purposes, heterosexual when that happened to me.” He says it was one of the first things he wanted to include in the book. “To be very honest with you, I thought that story was really lovely and I wanted that experience for Jake,” he pauses. “I didn’t get sucked off in the bathroom though, just to be clear.”
Myers’ empathy, humour and wisdom on the pages of The Magnificent Sons means that he has set the bar high for any subsequent novel; although he won’t say what he is working on next. I finish by asking him about the quote at the start of the book. “The epigraph,” Myers remarks, saying he discovered the term whilst writing the book. It is perhaps the most important message of the book, and just happens to be by one of the most famous gay men alive, Sir Ian McKellen: “Life at last begins to make sense when you are open and honest.”
The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers is available on Kindle from 28 May, and hardback from 6 August 2020.
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