We were so lucky to be able to talk to Mikey Walsh, the best-selling author of Gypsy Boy. He’s as magical in conversation as he is in writing, and we hope you enjoy the second part of our interview with him; which picks up whilst we’re still sitting in a beautiful graveyard.
It’s great that you’ve been interviewed in Attitude, and maybe a few years ago the book would have seen as gay interest only; but now it’s become a Times Bestseller. So on the one hand perhaps things are easier for gay people now, but also harder for Gypsies.
It’s really difficult for them, and I hate that as a culture we’re falling to pieces and it’s just not what it used to be. Even big gatherings like at Cambridge Fair and Stow Fair have turned into circuses now where all people do is just fight. It’s all gangland warfare all the time, and people don’t go any more because there’s always trouble. And I suppose without knocking on people’s doors, there’s no money. So people have had to find other ways to make money, which means doing even more illegal stuff, so you get involved in a whole new area of violence and crime.
How much of your family do you see?
Not a lot. I speak to my mum on the phone a lot, and my brother and sister; but they’ve been amazing. My mum thinks I’m better off out of it, so if anything’s going on, she’ll never tell me about it. I suppose it’s sad because I want to be there for them, but she thinks that I’m better off having made my life away from it, especially being what I am.
You make a completely fresh start, which is part of the book. People say all the time that they want “a fresh start”, so they go and get their hair done, and that’s their fresh start. But it’s the whole thing of leaving behind everyone who’s shared your childhood with you…
It was literally like dying, and becoming a different person, because I had to. To live inside such a close culture for fifteen years, and you’re brought up to know no different, and told that you’re part of a race that’s almost superior, and proud, there’s no reason why I’d want to leave. But then being what I was, I knew I couldn’t stay, and that one day I’dhave to go, because I’d have been killed back there, so I had to go.
How long did it take for you to start feeling at home in the Gorgia world?
You’re the first person to say it right!
Yeah, a lot of people say “Georgia”. As in, “On that Midnight Train to…”
I’ve heard you say it in the audiobook version.
Ah! Well, there you go. I still don’t. It was really weird, a year ago I was working in a bar and some guy was talking about something to do with politics, and I’m not very down with it, and he called me an uptight middle-class twit!
(Laughs) How wrong can you get?
I just had a big smile and thought, “My god, the mask has finally gone!”
Now you fit right in.
Now I’ve finally made it. But it’s weird that when I speak to my brother and my family, I pick up the accent again; but I don’t even sound anything like them any more.
You still have a bit of an accent.
It’s a bit mixed up, isn’t it?
What did they make of it at drama school?
They said I sounded Australian. And the funny thing now is that because I married an Australian, everyone thinks that’s where I got the accent, but I was like, “Oh no, I’ve had this for a long time!” Nothing to do with that (laughs). Sometimes it goes into a Brummie accent, but I like it. But it’s sweet because I did the audiobook and people comment on it and say I’ve got a really cool accent, and that’s really nice.
I suppose now you keep lots of sets of books, in that you’re a Gypsy who’s left the travelling lifestyle, and you write under a pseudonym and keep your identity secret. How do you find that? Do you relish the mystique or is it a bit of a bind?
I’ll always be a Gypsy. It’s what I am, I can’t change my blood. I don’t like attention. It’s lovely, but I’m happy that I never had to do this to be public.
You don’t feel you miss out on the rounds of festivals and all that?
No. Interviews like this are lovely, because I get to speak to people like yourself. And also I got asked to do an inspirational speech at Cambridge. That was really cool. The funny thing is that I had no idea it was going to turn out as it was, but somebody asked me to do it through my publisher, or my agent, I can’t remember which. I was like, “Really, they want me to do an inspirational speech?” Anyway, I contacted the guy and he said the term’s starting up again and you’re going to be the first one. He said you’ll be talking for an hour, and then you’ll have another hour of questions and answers afterwards. So I asked what he wanted me to talk about, and he said, “Just talk about you and your life.” So for a couple of weeks he was like, “How’s preparation going?” and I would say, “Oh, fine.” But… (laughs) I’ll say right here that I wrote nothing. Nothing! Not a thing!
(Laughs) Writer’s block, or busy with other things?
I’m happy to speak more in the moment, and it’s about me, so I don’t really need to write anything. And I knew that I’d work better to just talk and not give myself a list of things to say, so I didn’t write a damned thing. So when I got to Cambridge I met this guy, and another few people who were bringing bits and pieces, and I got to this hall, and they were setting up chairs and had all these piles of books on the side and I thought, “Oh my god!” And they were just like, “We’ll leave you to prepare or whatever else,” and I was like, “Shit. I’ve got fuck all to prepare,” (laughs) so I just started helping these guys to set up chairs.
It’s not like being an actor, is it? At least then you’ve got lines learned.
Exactly. The speech was meant to start at eight o’clock. It got to five to, and the chairs were full; people were sat on the floors and lined up on the windowsills. I went to the loo just outside the hall, and all I could hear was (whispering) “What’s he going to talk about?”, and them sipping their wine, and I thought, “I could just run out of here right now.” But I went in, and I did the whole thing as an informal chat, and it was so lovely, and it went so well. I finished the talk and I rounded up the whole story in an hour exactly, and then for people to sit there, and want to know what happened next: it was amazing to have people want to stay there. I got up to put my bag over my shoulder to go afterwards, and I turned around there were all these people with their wine crowding around, so I just put my bag down and sat in the corner. This was even beyond the questions, and I was there until eleven thirty, just talking to people, and it was so lovely. Press did show up for it, but I was like, “I’m sorry, but you can only take pictures of the book, or people with the book.”
It’s an interesting thing to have, though. I mean, being able to talk to you now is a bit like talking to a superhero almost.
I know who you are!
That’s it, it’s weird. You know my secret identity. People don’t need to know what I look like. When you read a book, you like to create your own characters, so people don’t need to, and I don’t really need or want the attention; and it’s not about me, it’s about the book.
So Stephen Fry liked the book.
When did you find out he’d not just read it but loved it?
He sent me a message about two months before he Tweeted about it, saying that he was on Twitter leave because he was writing a book of his own.
That’s good to know. He’s due another.
He’s got another one coming out, and he said, “I’ve just read your book, what can I say?” and he basically just gave the quote that’s on the front of the book. He said he really wanted to Tweet about it, and he was so lovely. Before he Tweeted about it he was saying, “Would you like me to use your name, or your Twitter profile?” I didn’t want to get followers from it, but I thought, “If you like the book, that’s just amazing, just to think that you’ve read it”.
You’ve had a number of other celebrity readers.
Dermot O’Leary was lovely about it. He actually sang me a song about Gypsies (laughs)!
He should audition with it next year.
He should, it was amazing. But he’s such a sweet guy. He has a little song about living in a trailer, and it was really sweet when he sang me a little ditty.
Is it satisfying to have people like that enjoying your work?
For anyone to like it is satisfying. I mean, for the celebrity attention, it’s been lovely. But when I get messages and letters from people who’ve read it, or who are going through the same, or not at all; or from people who’s just enjoyed it as a story, that’s just incredible, and that means a hell of a lot to me. But with the celebrity attention thing, I left Twitter for a while, and then I signed back up because there was so little publicity for the book, because no-one wanted it. So I though the only way I’m going to get the book sold is to do it myself. So I went on Twitter and I was trying to find people that could help. There was a few of the free gay mags, and I thought, “Well they review books,” but even the gay bookshops didn’t stock my book. So I went back on Twitter and started getting a few followers, and this was really sweet: I know the name of this guy who ran one of the free gay mags, and I found him on Twitter, and I wasn’t his friend on there, so I sent him an open Tweet saying, “I’ve sent you the book a couple of times, I haven’t heard back, but I’d love to do an interview or get a review or something.” He sent me an open Tweet back saying, “Never heard of you, never heard of the book, send me a copy again and I’ll think about it.” So I thought, “OK, I’ll do that.” Then a couple of minutes later, an open Tweet comes up in response to him and with my name as well from Antony Cotton, saying, “Never heard of it?! This is the best gay biography this century! Go and bloody buy a book!!” (Laughs) And I just thought that’s the most amazing thing. And then he sent me a direct message saying if I email him he’ll fall off his chair. He’s become a really lovely friend. He’s such an amazing guy, and I met with him, and it’s lovely to have someone say something like that, and I never did send a copy to that magazine. It’s not because I thought, “eat that”, it’s because I thought, well, no, I’m not going to. You can go and buy a book if you want to.
But it’s really taken off through word of mouth as well.
It’s touched a lot of people. You say in your introduction who you’re writing it for, and for the reader…
…“I wrote this just for you”. And it’s true.
Did you have an audience in mind? It feels very personal, I was with the story from the first page.
I’d like people to be able to hear me through it. And I’d already told so many people my story before the book was even written. I’m so gratified and ecstatic to think that anyone could have picked it up and read it. For anyone who’s taken that time, I have nothing but such respect and love for that. I’ve worked really hard to be able to write, and to be able to do it the way I wanted to, and for someone to be able to read it and appreciate it, whoever they are, means a lot. So for the people who read it, I did do it for them.
There are only two books I’ve ever read, yours included, that made me both laugh and cry, and being honest, yours did more of both. You write really well about childhood. There’s no sense of an adult looking back and reminiscing, it feels like you’re really there. How did you manage to capture that?
It’s because I never was a child. I was always a child who had to be an adult. Now I’m an adult who wants to be a child. I don’t like being grown up. It’s not that I dwell on the past; it’s just that I love the idea of the freedom and the possibilities of being a kid.
You flit wonderfully between the childhood imagination of dressing up as Aunt Sadly, and then the terror of your father. The light and shade of childhood is so beautifully captured.
There’s the pressure of being something I never could be. As an adult, it’s almost funny that no matter what I did I could never do it (laughs)! That’s lovely about being a kid. As an adult I understand more about what my father wanted and what other people wanted and expected of me, but then as a kid you just don’t know.
There’s a lot of 80s nostalgia in the book. For a fellow child of the 80s, I found that wonderful.
I’m such a big 80s kid. Anything to get a sense of being back there again. I’m so pleased to have been born in that era, and absolutely love it!
We’re about to read Mikey a section from his book that made us laugh, when a few trivial spots of rain turn biblical, and we run for shelter. Find out about the forthcoming sequel to Gypsy Boy, what it might be called and what it definitely won’t be called, and much else besides in the third and final part of our interview with Mikey Walsh.