“It’s crazy that I’m here. It hasn’t actually sunk in a little bit because everything’s happening through a screen.”
Douglas Stuart has a twinkle in his eye as we speak (via Zoom, of course, from his home in New York), which might seem apt for the star of 2020’s hottest literary fairytale. It’s the stuff that every aspiring, or indeed established, novelist’s dreams are made on: his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, took 10 years to write and was rejected by 32 publishers before being released into the teeth of a publicity-killing pandemic … and last week it won one of the world’s biggest literary awards, the Booker Prize for Fiction.
Not that he has any hard feelings for those who turned the book down, any more than the Beatles resented the man from Decca. “I don’t mean to be too Pollyanna about it,” he says, “but you’re looking for someone who loves your work as much as you do. So the rejection was just part of the journey.”
The journey began in a childhood similar to that of Shuggie Bain’s hero: the novel is set predominantly in working-class Glasgow in the 1980s. And “hero” does seem like the right term. Shuggie is the gay son of an alcoholic mother, Agnes. He battles to support her as she repeatedly trips and falls on her addiction, and the rest of her family abandons her.
The novel, which immerses the reader in Shuggie and Agnes’s world in full colour – often horrifying, sometimes funny – is not autobiographical but it is inspired by Stuart’s own experiences. He began writing it in 2008, with no intention of publication. “It was a difficult process; it felt very necessary. When I started to write it, it flew through me. And I felt like I had something by the tail, and I didn’t want to put it back on the leash. I just wanted to let it out.”
The book ended its first iteration, he says, as 900 pages of single-spaced type in two huge legal binders
The process of writing, the act of creating art from life, was an act of taking control. “When you grow up as a child of trauma, you have no control over that. Especially when it’s a parent suffering from addiction, it’s really a black hole, and you’re just whipped around it, trying to cope. So if you can take that trauma and turn it into art, and take control over it as fiction, it’s an incredibly powerful place to be in.”
The book ended its first iteration, he says, as 900 pages of single-spaced type in two “huge” legal binders. “And the only person who read it was my husband”, who was “very quickly exhausted by this huge book” and encouraged Stuart to cut and rewrite it.
Stuart’s mother died when he was 16, and he lived alone for a time, but after studying textiles at college was offered a job at Calvin Klein in New York. He went on to work for Ralph Lauren, Gap and others, but has now given up fashion to write full time. I ask him about this switch, given many people would also consider fashion design to be a vocational, aspirational career.
“The first thing is, writing is what I wanted to do. So when I was greeted with an invitation to be published, I was like: this is it! But working in fashion in New York is really demanding, it’s rewarding, but it’s really full days. I started at eight in the morning, I’d finish at 10 at night, on a very good day. It’s incredibly creative, but it’s a different type of creativity.”
It’s been commented on that Stuart is only the second Scot to win the Booker, after James Kelman in 1994. This seems astonishing, contrasting with Ireland’s success in the prize. Why does he think this is? Is it the narrow lens through which literary London views the world?
We're always looking to categorise things, when the truth is that life can be many things at once
“Well, Northern Ireland has only won it once, Wales has only won it once. I don’t know why it is. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the job of any prize to fix diversity in publishing. I do think for the longest time regional voices and working-class narratives have been overlooked, and people don’t quite know how to amplify that towards an audience.”
Indeed, Shuggie Bain meets at an intersection of diversity as far as traditional publishing is concerned. Before now, the sort of British gay fiction that won prizes, such as Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, tended to be middle class. Does he think that the combination of a gay, working-class story is one reason Shuggie Bain feels fresh to readers? (Even before winning, it was not only the bestselling title on the shortlist, but the highest rated on GoodReads.)
“I mean, I can’t answer that. But I’m glad you’ve seen me at the intersection of many things. I think people look at me and very quickly want to put me in a bucket. It’s a bit more prismatic than that; I don’t want to be defined as a Scottish writer or a working-class writer or a queer writer, because I’m all of those things. And then I’m also American as well. We’re always looking to categorise things, when the truth is that life can be many things at once.”
Does he still see himself as working class, now that he’s a fashion designer and award-winning novelist living in – as far as one can judge these things by squinting through the Zoom lens – a very nice home in New York?
“No, I’m not working class. I never say that I’m a working-class person now. Actually I’m not even sure I was a working-class kid, I think I’d fallen through that fabric. And that’s a weird thing that people only ask people with working-class stories, we don’t ask anybody else to show their credentials.
“But, you know, I didn’t know my father, I was orphaned at 16, I had to put myself through high school, I had to work four nights a week and the weekend. I’m proud of how I’ve risen in the world.”
On this point, Stuart balks a little at my framing of a question about his – with apologies for resorting to this cliche for a tale involving poverty and fashion – rags to riches story, from teenager in a bedsit to the king of the literary world. I ask, does he ever wonder “How did I get here?”
Scotland is where Stuart's heart remains: he was an 'economic migrant' to New York and intends to return
He pauses. “Hard work? ... Actually I tweak out about that narrative, because I think when someone comes from the working class there is meant to be an overabundance of luck in there. I know there’s a lot of really lucky things that have happened to me in my life. But kids that are standing behind the starting line have to put in twice as much effort just to catch up. We don’t all win the lottery, Simon Cowell doesn’t call, the Booker doesn’t just give it to you unless you can first of all show up with the goods.
“That’s part of my Scottish upbringing. You just get your head down and you carry on with it.”
Stuart plans to continue coming up with the goods, not frozen into writer’s block by the success of Shuggie Bain: he has already written his next book, Loch Awe, and has researched his third and planned his fourth. Loch Awe will be about “two gay boys that are separated by religious divides and gang violence”. It’s not inspired by Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie books – famous to anyone who grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, but less well-known in Scotland – but he does draw on his family’s Irish connections.
“My entire mother’s side of the family is from Donegal. That was always a big thing for me as a kid, that I never got to visit, but there were always eyes looking across the water.” In Glasgow, sectarianism was as prevalent as it was in Belfast. “I’m both Catholic and Protestant. When my mother got married, her parents didn’t come to the wedding. And the part in the book where I write about Agnes running away with a Protestant, is based a lot on my own life.”
And Scotland is where Stuart’s heart remains: he was an “economic migrant” to New York and intends to return. “I had to go [to America] for work and a career, but I write about Scotland, my next book’s about Scotland, my third book’s about Scotland, my stories in the New Yorker are about Scotland.”
He laughs. “I mean, other than tattooing a flag to my forehead I don’t know what to say. I’m always looking for my way back home.”