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“If there’s no obvious path to follow, you’ve got to make one yourself”

Matt Cain is a Bury-born writer who was brought up in Bolton, and as a teenager, he saw the centre of Manchester as a place of acceptance and celebration

And he still does feel that way all these years later.

This city plays a major part in his writing, it almost feels like another character.

From his third novel The Madonna of Bolton which was crowdfunded, after being turned down for being too niche and then became a bestseller – through to his latest venture – the new musical Drag Addict which he has co-written with David Andrew Wilson.

His good friend Arlene Phillips came up with the concept and she is also the choreographer of the show which opens at HOME this Summer.

Matt enjoyed writing from school onwards but when you have never met someone who is paid to write for a living and no family members are doing it, there was no sense of ‘seeing it to be it.’

“It has always been a dream of mine to write but I have not always been aware of it. The world was so much smaller before the internet,” Matt explains.

“It wasn’t a reality that I could do that. I didn’t let my dream take hold. Hard work and University would open doors. I did all that and University did open doors.

And those doors were media jobs. I did a series of these jobs and I started to meet people. I worked at the South Bank and met visual artists and writers.

“It took me ten years to get my first work published. People from working-class backgrounds were underrepresented. Gay people were completely underrepresented. People would comment on my accent all the time. They wanted me to repeat certain phrases as if I was performing animal in a zoo.”

Matt realised that to get past the fact that publishers were claiming his work was too niche, he would have to run with writing books with a female protagonist and a gay best friend.

“I found a way of doing it that was not comprising what I wanted to do or say,” he says.

These books did not sell, so Matt went back to his idea of his first book Madonna of Bolton which “everyone had turned down for being too gay,” he explains.

They didn’t say this but I suspect too working class, says Matt. Whilst he worked as the editor of Attitude magazine, following a break to write, he realised the world had changed.

He was constantly being asked to comment on stories in the media featuring gay people and films and TV shows featuring gay characters who were doing well.

So this felt like the right time to launch this first novel but “publishing was still behind,” he says.

He approached Unbound a crowdfunding publisher and asked them what their record was for a novel being written and given to them. They said 10 days and Matt said he could do it in 7.

“I whipped up a big campaign online and got celebrities from the magazine to back me. I sent my rejection letters to The Guardian and they published them. This whipped up public outrage and I broke the record,” he explains.

Looking back he admits “This would have been far easier if I knew what I was doing from the beginning.”

But if he was forewarned about the pain and the torment he would go through, and the 10 years of waiting and the rejection which feels prolonged in the publishing world, he freely admits he would not have done it.

Matt studied at Cambridge and years later once he had made something of himself, he realised that social class was an obstacle and this is something he is exploring in greater depth in his next novel.

“If there is not an obvious path for you to follow, you’ve got to make one for yourself. You’ve got to be self-made,” says Matt.

“I got over 30 rejections for my first novel. I have kept every single letter and email. With novels, you often submit with a six-week gap, so the rejections trickle in.

So how on earth did he keep going?

“My tenacity is my strongest point,” he says smiling, after revisiting a difficult time.

Whilst working as the Culture Editor at Channel 4 News, Matt recalls how the nice comments from comments almost felt cancelled out by others who wanted him off the air. One viewer said they wanted him dead.

“If you put my script in the mouth of a straight man in a suit, the reaction would be very different,” he says.

Matt is 48 years old and he was at school during the height of AIDS and Section 28, homophobia was rife in schools and on our streets.

And many people working in education were scared about what they could say or do. Yet Matt’s teachers continued to inspire, nurture and encourage him to be the person he is today.

“A drama teacher called Mr Keating unlocked my creativity and he was completely amazing,” he recalls.

He also remembers Mrs Lancashire and Mrs Watson; two language teachers at St Gabriel’s Roman Catholic High School. They taught Spanish and French and he mentions how they supported and encouraged him by going over and above.

He then went to Sixth Form at Bury college and he remembers Mrs Chatburn and a team of teachers who helped him apply to get into Cambridge.

“Nobody had gone to Oxford or Cambridge from my college for 28 years,” he says. He talks with real fondness about the extra coaching they gave him and the fact that they were in unknown territory because of the fact no one had progressed to Oxford or Cambridge in so long. But their prime aim was getting Matt through the door. They were doing this extra work with him in their breaks, to get him ready for an interview.

“I would not be where I am now if it were not for those teachers. Those working-class teachers saved me and made me who I am today,” he adds.

This group of teachers saw this as a sense of professional pride, getting me as far as they could.

He talks about the experience of Cambridge as amazing but that the teaching he received there is nowhere near as inspiring or personalised, as what he received from these state school teachers.

Whenever you talk to Matt about Manchester, he lights up. This was a place, where he found out who he was and even though he was only travelling into the centre from Bolton, he recalls that sense of excitement.

“The world was smaller when I was growing up, so travelling from Bolton to Manchester was like coming to another world,” he says.

Canal Street means the world to Matt and it connects a new musical he has co-written with David Andrew Wilson called Drag Addict. Madonna has always worked with LGBTQ+ creatives and stood up for gay and trans people when many pop stars were scared to speak out.

Madonna’s new Greatest Hits tour is called Celebration and Matt remembers Manchester becoming such an accepting place to be.

“It was a celebration and I found somewhere that I could be me,” he adds. When he moved to study in Cambridge he kept postcards on his wall of Manchester clubs and buildings, as he genuinely missed being here.

The reason why he left for London was to pursue a career in television because at the time there was no Media City. But his connection to this city is not gone by any means, it is part of who he is and that comes across within his writing.

His novels The Madonna of Bolton, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle and Becoming Ted, are all set in Manchester, as is his next book which is set against the backdrop of Manchester Pride. The musical Drag Addict is set here too. He says news of possible transfers of a musical means nothing to him, compared with opening the show here in Manchester at HOME.

“The warmth of the people, the tradition of storytelling, the humour here. All of these have had a massive impact on me and my writing, “ he smiles. He has real pride in the fact the way Manchester is seen all around the world because it often features Canal Street and the message that difference is celebrated here.

The musical Drag Addict opens in the Summer and it means that Matt has been collaborating. Arlene Phillips came up with the concept for the show and she and Matt became friends after he had interviewed her for Channel Four News. She has read his books and connected with the themes, and she is also Northern, coming from Prestwich. She introduced Matt to co-writer David Andrew Wilson and they worked on it in lockdown, which got all of them through a tough time via their love of the creative process.

“Working on the musical has been great. Act two opens with a number The New Queen of Manchester,” says Matt. After speaking to Arlene, he wanted the show to feature a song about Manchester, as he realised most musicals celebrate big American cities, such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. He thought it was time to give Manchester to get a musical name check.

Act Two opens with six drag queens singing this number. I get a tear in my eye every time I hear it because it brings it all back,” he says with a mix of joy and pride.

Matt enjoys writing and connecting his experiences with the city he loves and the writing is cathartic for him. So what would he say has been his most cathartic piece of writing to date?

“It would have to be The Madonna of Bolton I would say because that book was so autobiographical and getting that story and all the emotions associated with it out of me and out into the world felt like a fundamental existential need! I think it’s quite telling that so much fell into place – including meeting and falling in love with my now husband – after I’d done that.”

With that book in his mind and his heroine Madonna getting ready for a world tour, where would he take her in Manchester, if he had the chance?

“Classic Madonna and when she was on fire was from the energy and edginess of New York,” he says.

So he would take her to the Northern Quarter which often doubles for NYC in films and television shows, as it would connect her to the beginning of her career. He would also take to her to Canal Street to show her the impact her music and videos have had on the LGBTQ+ community.

“This was felt and appreciated in the local gay bars and I would want her to know that,” he explains.

Drag Addict is at HOME from 18th July – 12th August and tickets can be booked here.

You can also read more about Matt Cain’s novels and upcoming work here.

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