Douglas Stuart: ‘I felt overlooked by queer literature because it’s so middle class’

Shuggie Bain author discusses his new novel, performative masculinity and trying to fit in

Douglas Stuart’s lockdown must rank as one of the most surreal; just as the pandemic hit, his first novel, Shuggie Bain, was published and, like every other writer with a new book out then, any plans for launch parties, literary festivals and bookshop events were immediately scotched.

But in that first Covid autumn, he found himself thrust into the limelight, as Shuggie, the story of a young Glaswegian boy and his intense, painful and loving relationship with his alcoholic mother, Agnes, scooped the Booker Prize for fiction. Stuart accepted the award from his Manhattan home in a virtual ceremony, and was thereafter swept into the customary round of interviews.

But it wasn’t until many months later that he could actually go and meet his readers; when the time finally came, one of his first ports of call was Ireland, which saw him travel from Drogheda to Thurles to Ennis, a whistlestop tour held together, he remembers, by cheese toasties in the back of a Nissan Micra.

“I think I did maybe about 16 countries last autumn when it all opened up,” he explains. “And Ireland was the greatest, and this is not an empty piety. Because the truth is, I could talk about my work and I didn’t have to explain themes. We understand how hard-pressed working-class women are, we understand poverty, we understand sectarianism, we understand what it means to be a young queer man in a religious place, addiction, heavy drinking. And so we could just talk about books. And for me, I found the Irish tour was really freeing.”

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At one event, he met two women who had driven for hours from Donegal – where Stuart’s mother’s family are from, though he has yet to visit himself – and they ended up going for drinks together.

Now he is getting ready to go on the road again with his second novel, Young Mungo – a book that he started in 2016 and had finished even before he’d won the Booker. It shares common ground with Shuggie Bain, focusing again on issues of addiction and filial love, but there are also significant differences, perhaps chiefly that Mungo is approaching adulthood and, between navigating the frequent absences of his mother, Mo-Maw, and pressure from his brother Hamish, a local Protestant gang leader keen for Mungo to join him in the turf wars with rival Catholic gangs, he begins a relationship with another teenage boy, James.

I was thinking what it means to be a man and when people ask you constantly as a young working-class man to man up

“I had wanted to write a romance,” he tells me. “I’d always felt both very overlooked by queer literature, because it’s so middle class it very rarely intersects with the working class. But I also just felt like my own history, my own people, were erased in a way, where we never quite knew about queer people in working-class communities, because you couldn’t be visible, you couldn’t be vocal, you couldn’t be out. And as I became a man, I was thinking God, there has to have been other young men like me, right next to me, or a couple of streets away.”

The result, he laughs, is a little like Romeo and Juliet meets Deliverance; when we first encounter Mungo, some months after he’s met James, he’s being taken on a rough-and-ready fishing trip by two chaotic men whom his mother appears to know from AA meetings. Their purpose in spiriting him away from his Glasgow housing scheme is mysterious, but there is an air of menace, of impending disaster. As the novel unfolds, we begin to understand that Mungo is coming of age in a milieu where masculinity is synonymous with a capacity for violence and where opting out is impossibly dangerous.

‘Man up’

“I was thinking what it means to be a man and when people ask you constantly as a young working-class man to man up, to man up, to man up, your masculinity has to become incredibly performative. And mine did too – and that means being hard and being tough, performing your masculinity, being incredibly sexualised with women at a young age. Also being violent before violence is needed; you just have to always be on the attack and never on the defence. That was how the men had to show up. And I was just thinking how terrible and how terrified I was about it as a young man.”

Young Mungo is set in the early 1990s, just after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, in a city that has been laid waste. Mungo’s downstairs neighbour in their four-storey tenement is a redundant shipbuilder who now “rotted away in an armchair that faced a hot television”, and who tells Mungo that “Glasgow’s done for. No coal, no steel, no railway works, and no f**kin’ shipbuilding.”

For Stuart, that time was also one of personal cataclysm. When he was 16, his mother died of alcoholism; for much of his young life, he had been her caregiver. His father, whom he didn’t know, had died years previously, and his brother and sister were much older than him. He was, effectively, alone – although he pays tribute to his brother Alexander, to whom Young Mungo is dedicated and who was, he says, “for many years, my father, my mother, my best friend, my big brother, my guide. He was a good, good man.” Alexander was killed in a motorcycle accident when Stuart was 20 years old. “He looked after me,” says Stuart, simply. “I fell, but I would never have fallen all the way through.”

I sometimes wonder if I'm a bad fit for literary culture

By this time he had become the first person in his family to finish high school, living in a bedsit and going from school to the Scottish College of Textiles and thence to the Royal College of Art. He moved to New York when he was 24 and, by the time Shuggie Bain was published, he was a senior director at Banana Republic, helping to run a $4 billion business. For years, however, he had written privately, attempting to capture something of the life that had formed him.

One of the central themes of his work, he believes, is that his characters are always trying to work out where they fit – a feeling that has beset him throughout his life; even after over two decades in New York, he feels like a blow-in, and the transition from the world of fashion to that of publishing has “felt like there’s two tectonic plates, and I’ve just slipped in between them. But it comes back to that initial thing about belonging. I just wish once in my life, I felt in the centre of something, right? Just like, that’s exactly who I am. You have defined me perfectly. I am right in this room. And I can never get that feeling.”

When he tells me this, I remark – having interviewed him virtually on two previous occasions – that he has a strikingly calm and cheerful presence. “You know,” he replies, “I sometimes wonder if I’m a bad fit for literary culture. Because I genuinely try to be a pretty affable, approachable, candid, nice person. And I worry sometimes if that comes across as a profound lack of seriousness. But when I think about books, I think about how those profoundly serious writers excluded me and my community, my entire life. They were always talking above us, or beyond us, or around us, or facing away from us. And so I just decided that when I was going to talk about books, I was going to be as approachable as I could be.”

I’m also acutely conscious that although both Shuggie and Mungo are fictional creations – their lives divergent from Stuart’s in many respects – they draw on their creator’s deeply painful and traumatic experiences; that the questions that Stuart fields about his work involve him talking about exceptionally personal and intimate events and emotions. He does, he says, still have dark times; he’s an anxious person who can find it a challenge to enjoy the moment (although he does express absolute joy over the fact that both Dua Lipa and Drake have praised his work, never mind the Duchess of Cornwall and Nicola Sturgeon). But it might be getting a little easier.

“I’m not drawn to unhappiness as an adult,” he ends by telling me. “I don’t seek it. I don’t try to destroy things. I don’t try to hurt people. I don’t try to get drama. I try to move towards the happiness because I really want it, I really, really want it, and I want it for other people.”

Young Mungo is published by Picador on April 14th.