When Matt Cain was five years old and, as he puts it, “the kind of boy who plays with the girls at school,” he emerged from a joyous evening in a friend’s bedroom sporting a thick coat of polish on his fingernails. Enamored by the color and unaware he’d committed any sort of transgression, Cain marched into class the next morning still wearing it. This being Northern England in the early 1980s, few of his peers appreciated the makeover. “I was absolutely obliterated and crucified,” Cain recalls, flinching, on a Zoom call from his home in London. “I don’t know why my parents didn’t diplomatically and sensitively remove it.”

While the same thing doesn’t happen to Ted Ainsworth, the protagonist of Cain’s Becoming Ted (Kensington, June), he does suffer plenty of episodes that carry distinct echoes of that childhood humiliation. The novel picks up in the final moments of 40-something Ted’s marriage to Giles, a snobbish, tattooed hotelier who abruptly ends their relationship after nearly 20 years. In the aftermath of the breakup, Ted shakes the cobwebs off his long-dormant ambitions to become a drag queen. Along the way, he confronts repressed memories of loved ones who tried to curb his interest in women’s clothes. “How am I supposed to fancy you like that?” Giles snaps in one particularly nasty episode, after seeing Ted decked out in drag for the first time.

The novel’s core concept came to Cain during the peak of the pandemic, when he and his husband were stuck inside bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. That show’s focus on a housewife becoming a stand-up comedian connected, in Cain’s mind, to the 1989 dramedy Shirley Valentine, about a bored 42-year-old Liverpudlian woman who rediscovers her lust for life after falling for a Greek tavern owner. Cain could put his own spin on the story, he thought, with an eye toward gay themes. And what better rainbow-tinted liberation vessel than drag?

“Often, in the narrative arts, drag is seen as a comedic device: a fun bit of light relief and window dressing. In reality, it can be incredibly subversive,” Cain says, invoking RuPaul’s sentiment that “drag doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” For Ted, heels and a wig provide a golden key to the assertive corners of his soul that remained locked during his relationship with Giles. Fittingly, he names his funny, foul-mouthed alter-ego Gail Force.

“I’ve always been interested in second-act stories,” Cain muses, accounting for the thematic overlap between Becoming Ted and 2021’s The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle, his first novel published in the U.S., which follows a 60-something postal worker as he comes out of the closet and tracks down a past love. “I kind of feel like a second-act sensation myself, because it took me so long to achieve my own professional and creative dream.”

In his efficient ensemble—a wrinkle-free purple polo and sleek, square
wristwatch—Cain looks every bit the spirited journalist he’s known as in Britain. (Similarly revealing are the bare walls and still-boxed belongings in the writing room he began working in a year ago; too many deadlines to fuss with the decor.) Across his two-decade career, Cain has written for every major U.K. newspaper, worked as the culture editor for Channel 4 News, and served as editor-in-chief of the gay British lifestyle magazine Attitude. But life in the press pen was never his real ambition.

“I always knew I wanted to be a novelist, but I had no idea how to make it happen,” Cain recalls. There was no one around him in working-class Bolton, a textile manufacturing town just outside of Manchester, who made any sort of living in the arts. After graduating from the local university, Cain wrote 211 application letters for what he considered “creative” positions—jobs in film, publishing, TV, and magazines—and received just a single reply, from ITV, for a role producing documentaries. He got the job, but all the while, his literary ambitions simmered.

From 2005 to 2015, Cain estimates, he wrote and shopped around his first novel, The Madonna of Bolton, to agents and publishers across the U.K. while working full-time. Over and over, he says, he was told there was “no market” for gay stories outside of strict literary fiction. “This is not for housewives who shop in supermarkets. They’re not educated enough to be open to these stories,” Cain sneers, recalling—and perhaps interpreting—what he heard in meetings and rejection letters.

So, after he took charge of Attitude in 2016, he decided to print The Madonna of Bolton with U.K. crowdfunding publisher Unbound. He sourced the necessary funds in a week; meanwhile, he says he “kicked up a stink” with a publicity campaign about the British book industry’s lack of gay-friendliness that involved sending his rejection letters to the Guardian.

“The book came out, and it was a success,” Cain says proudly. Then, with a tight smile: “But what sometimes happens when you’re labeled a disrupter and a rule breaker is that you come up against resentments.”

More than once in our conversation, Cain laments not being invited to “the big literary festivals” in the U.K. and points out the lack of coverage for his books in broadsheet British papers like the Times or the Independent. He chalks it up to a variety of factors: his incendiary Madonna of Bolton campaign, yes, but also his working-class northern accent and his self-described “camp, effeminate” demeanor, which he notes naysayers have often perceived as indicative of a certain frivolity.

The feeling, Cain notes, drudges up memories of being a “gay child nobody wanted,” alone at the lunch table because other kids worried “they might catch AIDS.” Unlike Ted, Cain hasn’t found much catharsis on the few occasions he’s donned drag since that kindergarten dalliance with nail polish (though he stresses he’s a staunch Drag Race fan). Instead, he’s learned to draw strength from a less flashy source: getting his books published and into people’s hands.

Cain’s ability to dramatize that sort of clarity of purpose is what drew Kensington editor-in-chief John Scognamiglio to his work in the first place. “What I’ve noticed about his books is that hindsight is always part of the story,” Scognamiglio says. “His characters are at a certain point in their life, and they realize, ‘What have I been afraid of for so long? This is who I am. This is what I want. This is what I want to do.’ And they do it.”

While Becoming Ted focuses primarily on Ted’s dragged-up transformation, other threads touch on religious traumas, tumultuous straight relationships, and characters getting out of professional ruts. Cain hopes, in turn, that the book might resonate with audiences outside the gay bar.

“All queer stories involve somebody who doesn’t fit in breaking out from the traditional mold they’re being forced into, and finding a new way of life,” he says. “All audiences, including straight ones, connect with that, because we’re all unique. We’re all individual.” He smiles. “Why should being able to live and love a little more freely be reserved for queer people?”