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The author returns with his third novel and sits down with Vada Magazine to talk about being in the closet, class, and working with Adam Kay.
When I ask Justin Myers about what inspired his latest book The Fake-Up, I’m surprised by his answer. “It was the singer Adele,” he replies, having read insensitive comments posted on social media when she announced her divorce in 2019. “People were saying it was great, because they were going to get another heartbreak album.”
Much like his main character Flo, Myers thinks that Adele is “trapped” by the public’s perception that her music is purely autobiographical. “I think when Adele released her third album, and those songs weren’t all about heartbreak and break-ups, that’s when people started to question her authenticity,” he explains. “So I thought it would be interesting to explore this idea of what it would be like to be trapped by other people’s perceptions of you. Which of course, all closeted people are.”
Whilst The Fake-Up, Myers’ third book, might seem to be on the surface about a straight couple, Flo and Dylan, it isn’t. “It’s about straight people because they served the story better,” he says, wanting to draw comparisons between his main characters’ secret (spoiler alert: they fake their break-up) and being in the closet. “You think that when you come out, people will look at you differently, or that suddenly being gay, bi or trans will become the most interesting thing about you.”
For readers who are looking for queer characters, Myers says they won’t be disappointed. “There is a gay story in the book, but I suppose it’s a bit of a spoiler to reveal how that comes about. I make a point maybe that this straight couple are having problems, which seem in the scheme of things quite piffling. There are more important things happening to queer people and black people and people living with disabilities or other health conditions, all things that I do bring in.”
He adds, “You can read it as a romantic comedy, and please do, but it is also maybe a bit of a dig or satire at how straight white people dominate the conversation.”
Myers arguably came to the attention of readers due his anonymous dating blog, The Guyliner. I have followed his writing for several years, from anonymous blogging, to revealing his identity and writing three novels. As I sit opposite him today, something has changed. I don’t know if it’s the armchair or the knitwear, but I feel like I’m speaking to the author Justin Myers rather than The Guyliner.
But I recognise that this evolution in my own perceptions of him has taken time. Which make me wonder if Myers has ever felt trapped. “With the first book I got that all the time, that people thought it was autobiographical,” he says of The Last Romeo, a book about an anonymous dating blogger. “The book was semi-autobiographical; the dates that James blogs about in the book are real. But that’s quite often the case with book deals, especially now if you have quite an online presence, the expectation is that you are monetising your own life. It can be difficult to break away from that and write something that is completely fictional.”
When did he feel that he’d broken away? “I think once I started writing the more fictional aspects of the first book, it became more interesting for me to do,” he recalls. “The whole thing to write fiction is to take an idea as far as you can. You can bring your own experiences and observations into it, but it’s usually more interesting when it’s your own imagination.”
Alongside the notion of being trapped, Myers brings up class throughout The Fake-Up. I remark that it’s something I’ve spotted in his writing elsewhere too. “Because I feel it’s something that’s always frustrated me,” he says. “For a lot of my life I have watched fairly mediocre, but well connected people, thrive. And I have watched other – not necessarily me – but other super talented, nice people from modest backgrounds, get nowhere or have to work harder.”
In The Fake-Up, Dylan, who grew up on a council estate, says that in order for someone like him to succeed, they need to be exceptional. In contrast, Flo is privately educated and well-connected. “You can be fairly average and still succeed if you’re from a privileged background,” Myers says, before pausing. “I mean, look at our prime minster. This fairly average posh person has thrived. We have the evidence all around us.”
I ask Myers if he would ever write a book about his own experiences of class. “Not really,” he replies. But he has noticed himself talking about class more the older he gets. Myers wonders if things would have happened sooner for him, had he comes from a different background. “I think it’s not just about money, but growing up in a privileged background does give you the demeanour and confidence to put yourself out there more easily. That’s something that does holds people back who aren’t from those backgrounds.”
Money can’t buy you happiness? “True, but you have one less thing to think about, and it can certainly fuel a happier time if you have it,” he says. “That’s the point I wanted to get across, without banging a drum too much.”
As I look out at the room where we’re having our interview, I wonder who would identify with Dylan or Flo’s story. Between the tapping of laptop keyboards, there is a brief period of trying to flag down a passing waiter for a drink. Or in the case of the pair seated next to us, complaining about the lack of plug sockets. Moments later a trip hazard extension lead is produced, and after various near-misses, the pair are politely ushered to another table before anyone has the chance to trip over and break a bone.
Whilst Myers waits patiently for a waiter to catch his eye, he tells me that he doesn’t read online reviews about his work. Unless they pop up on his timeline from being tagged in them. “I wrote something last year for GQ,” he begins. “A piece about why every man should try having sex with another man. And I got death threats for that,” Myers pauses. “I mean, what can I say about that?” From men, I venture. He nods. Myers says they had wilfully misinterpreted what he wanted to say in the piece, saying that Myers was advocating for men to be forced to have sex with other men.
“The whole piece was about how men will never understand the power dynamics that are involved when sleeping with men,” he explains. “The risks you are taking by sleeping with someone who is probably physically stronger than you, has a completely different place in the world, is a dominant force. That was my point. But those sorts of comments are rare.”
His online column for British GQ was as a result of his anonymous dating blog. Although Myers revealed his identity when his first book deal was announced – saying that he wanted his real name on the spine of the book – I remark that he seems interested in exploring people with “double lives” and the duality between our real selves and the one we portray online.
“Yeah, I like writing about people who are not all they seem,” Myers agrees. “And the motions you go through to preserve that identity.”
Myers put this down to him coming out later than others, at the age of 25. He tells me that when he looks back at himself between the ages of 18 and 25, that person feels like an “alien” to him. “So I do find duplicity in any form, whether it’s intentional or not, interesting. The Fake-Up is about being in the closet – Dylan and Flo do have this secret and they take steps to preserve it. I think Flo is playing the biggest role of all, as she has to be so many things to be to different people.”
Myers also explores sexism in the book. The way that Flo is treated and viewed by others is markedly different to the way Dylan is treated. Flo is portrayed as a victim in the eyes of the media and her fans, whereas Dylan is a “love rat”, on the arm of a different woman. “When in fact he’s not like that at all,” adds Myers. “He’s quite shy and not had that many girlfriends, so it’s quite a hard act for him to keep up.”
Is he trying to say something then, I reply, about the media? “It’s genuinely interesting how people are treated in the media,” he says. “But not just that, I wanted to explore what it is like for people who weren’t famous before, to then deal with fame. And the way that men and women are treated differently by people on social media.”
Myers says that social media can be “quite a terrifying and fascinating world” and that he never searches himself online. “You never really know what you might find,” he says, adding that critique expressed by people on social media can still hurt the person they’re about. “I suppose something in me wanted to expose it a little for people who hadn’t thought about it before.”
A waiter has arrived with a tray of drinks. Myers has ordered an elderflower and mint Trip. “Have you ever tried it?” he asks pointing to the can. Myers no longer drinks alcohol and says that he struggles to find non-alcoholic drinks that taste nice. “It doesn’t do anything, but I just like it.”
The Guardian Blind Date column is something that is close to Myers’ heart, given that he has been blogging about it for years. More recently though, other work has taken precedence over the column. Does he still enjoy writing it? “We live in a very different environment when I started doing it,” he replies. “It’s had peaks and troughs. At its height, back in the day, the figures were amazing. There is a thirst from readers for me to be quite horrible if someone in the date hasn’t behaved in a way that meets their approval. There’s also an increasing desire for the people who go on these dates to fall in love. I think the expectations are very high.”
Alongside this change in expectations, Myers has resisted the call from readers for him to “savage” the people on the dates, as he puts it. Myers only writes about the answers to the questions that the people who go on the dates give, rather than a personal attack of their character. “It’s not really about them, it’s about me and the world in general and observing the world through the answers that they give.”
He shares that he will keep doing it, but just not as regularly as he used to. I point out that people on social media sometimes ask him to write a blog post if one week’s date has been particularly horny or disastrous. “People harass me to do them sometimes!” he laughs. “I get tweets and emails and thank God nobody has my phone number… But that’s a good sign and the highest form of flattery.”
When I ask him what’s next, Myers tells me that he has just finished the first draft of his next book. He can’t tell me anything, apart from the fact that the lead character is gay.
We’re just about to finish the interview, when Myers mentions his friend Adam Kay, and I’m reminded of a question I wanted to ask him about Kay’s BBC series, starring Ben Whishaw. Myers and Kay met on social media. “This is an example about one of the positive things about Twitter,” he tells me. “If you like somebody you might get to know them and become friends with them, which is what happened with me and Adam. I really liked his work, and he liked my writing, so we met for lunch one day and the rest is history.”
Kay was working on adapting his memoir about being a junior doctor in the NHS This is Going to Hurt into a TV series, and asked Myers for his input, earning him a script consultant credit. It’s something that Myers would be interested in doing more of in the future, as he enjoys writing dialogue. But he admits it does come with its own unique challenges, of having to try to make the dialogue sound natural, as well as trying to move the plot along. “In a book you can fill the gaps with narration or describing the room, but in TV it’s all there.”
Kay asked Myers to work on the series shortly after Myers’ best friend died. “It was such a tonic. And to work with somebody so… How can I put it? Somebody who treated my input like it was really, really important was lovely.”
The Fake-Up by Justin Myers is available to purchase now.