When we decided to publish Young Lad on Old Street, the challenge for us was to think whether the lifestyle of Harry, its main character, would be understood by its readers. Not readers in the gay world, where the life of a male escort is known, but those outside this environment - in particular, given the underlying theme of this wonderful debut novel, parents who are ignorant of what their children are up to in this modern, digitally-connected world.
As author AJ Thomas tells us, Young Lad on Old Street could be about any young person divorced from love and affection; it just so happens that Harry is gay. There are gay escorts and there are straight escorts - their choice of escort work as a source of revenue is compelling and intriguing, irrespective of their sexuality. Why do this? What needs are fulfilled? What are the dangers?
Some of the answers are revealed in Young Lad but not all. When we commissioned the book, I decided to look a little further into the world of the "gay escort" to try to understand what happens there. It was an interesting journey.
Many people have heard of "rent boys" and the dangers of their lifestyles but that of the gay male escort with a sophisticated personal profile, often trading through innovative digital interfaces, is different. Clients, often highly successful people, can pay for a variety of services according to their needs, and can be serviced at home, in hotels or anywhere of their choosing.
Yet clients are not necessarily gay themselves (as is revealed by the character of Frank in Young Lad). They could be bisexual or indeed could be frustrated older men from "conventional" heterosexual marriages.
An article I found particularly interesting was this one, about an escort called Josh, in the Guardian newspaper. Some of the features of Josh's life are very much reflected in that of Harry in Young Lad, such as a sense of loneliness, abandonment, the need for love. But there are other elements too - some of which are quite surprising and occasionally disturbing (e.g. Josh refuses to be tied up by his clients).
The life of an escort is not glamorous; in Young Lad, Harry is assaulted by one of his "chemmed up" clients and, judging by Josh's experiences, this cannot be seen as unusual. However, there's a phrase which Josh's brother uses to describe Josh which really is reflected in Thomas's book: "he loves the city and the city loves him".
For me, this one sentence sums up the character of Harry in Young Lad on Old Street and makes him really ring true. He is a bit of a loner, he needs affection he's not getting and yet the city provides him with some form of power based in his anonymity.
Rightly, we feel compassion for people like Josh and one of the things which comes out of reading Young Lad is that we feel compassion for Harry too. He does appear selfish at times, he is naive in many ways, yet we forgive him because of the neglect he has suffered.
For me, having read the novel many times now, one of its major "take-aways" is the understanding that even the most confident of individuals can hide a lonely, desperate person. It is the duty of every parent, surely, to try as best as they are able to bring up their children to be happy and fulfilled.
Young Lad on Old Street by AJ Thomas is published by Red Page Publishing