AAs a working-class Glasgow boy, one of the ways Douglas Stuart learned to deal with his alcoholic mother’s mood swings was by pretending he was writing his memoirs. They never got very far, but it always began with the dedication: “To Elizabeth Taylor, who knows nothing about love.” And so the seeds were sown for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, which received the Booker Award this week.
“I never thought that, using that trick 40 years ago, I would be here talking to you about my book,” says the author in a Zoom call from New York, where he has lived for the past 20 years. Instead of the usual fancy dinner at the Guildhall in London (Barack Obama made an appearance at the virtual ceremony), Stuart is eating a plate of ham and cheese that her husband has prepared for him. You can have a celebratory glass of champagne later. “All these wonderful things keep happening and I’ve never gotten off the couch,” he says of life locked up.
He is “impressed” by his victory, beating acclaimed authors such as Maaza Mengiste for his epic novel The Shadow King and This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Much has been made of the diversity of this year’s shortlist. As Stuart points out, Shuggie Bain is “a diverse novel”, its triumph “a great thing for Scottish voices, for queer voices, for working-class voices.” He is only the second Scotsman to win the Booker, after James Kelman for How Late It Was, How Late in 1994, which is on the shelf behind him in his posh East Village apartment, a world away from the housing estates where grew up. up.
The novel took 10 years to write and was rejected by 32 publishers. The American publisher to whom he first sent the manuscript was concerned about finding readers for a book on Scotland in the 1980s. “Nobody here had any idea what Thatcher did,” he says. “We are watching The Crown right now, and Margaret Thatcher and the government feel like very direct and powerful people who are making things happen.”
Like Shuggie, Stuart’s mother died of alcoholism when he was 16, but he goes out of his way to emphasize that this is a work of fiction: “It dwarfs and overshadows what any seven-year-old could go through.” Poverty, misogyny, homophobia, addiction and sectarianism are touched upon but, above all, it is a love story between a mother and her child. “It’s about proven unconditional love, that kind of daily renewal of hope that only children can have as faulty parents,” he says.
Both Shuggie and his mother Agnes are outsiders. “Agnes because women were not allowed to be anything other than what the community said they should be. And Shuggie because he’s a queer young man, he’s effeminate and men don’t know what to do with him, ”Stuart explains. “They are like abandoned and clinging to each other against this city that is going through a really difficult time.”
This is the age of endless cassette tapes and cigarettes, closed mines and “men rotting on the couch,” women trading Valium, vodka, and everyday brutalities. “You can’t put a book in Glasgow in the 1980s and not touch politics,” he says. “It’s so intertwined with how people felt invisible and how they had no hope.” (Ken Loach sent him a fan letter.) But he didn’t want it to become a book “on miners’ strikes or a tin-bucket shipbuilding novel.”
From Agnes Owens fiction to Kelman and Irvine Welsh, there is no shortage of male addicts and “lovable rogues” in Scottish literature. But Stuart wanted to write about the effects poverty had on women and children, focusing on the tragedy of a single mother and her son. “When women are fallible and, of course, mothers are fallible, society is really hard on them,” she says.
Living in New York gave him the distance and clarity he needed to start writing. He wrote on the subway and on weekends and holidays, while working a “very demanding job at a large American fashion brand.” Her only reader was her husband, Michael Cary, a Picasso specialist and curator of the Gagosian, to whom she presented a 900-page manuscript. And who he married after more than two decades together in a ceremony at the New York City Hall on the day he signed with the American publisher Grove Atlantic.
“Growing up as the boy that I was and now the man that I am in New York, they feel like two very different people. And so even though this is psychology on the back of a box of cornflakes, it was a good way for me to make sense of my wholeness and to bond with myself, ”he says. “I love the boy that he was. It was not always easy, but I wanted to conjure that world. “He makes no apologies for the therapeutic nature of writing.” Fiction allows you to take control of a situation that you may not have control over in real life. “He never wanted to write. a memory. “On the west coast of Scotland, we are never allowed to think of ourselves as exceptional, never exceptionally good or exceptionally difficult to deal with,” he says. “And a memory says that there is an exception worth sharing.”
He was keenly aware of writing “poverty safari” for a mostly middle-class audience. “People like to go on tour and then go back to worrying about oat milk,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to do that, then you’ll come to stay.’ Let’s look at a woman drinking. You will be in the room with these people to the extent that you will leave the book with some sense of understanding. “
In his childhood home, the closest thing to books were shelves of vinyl mockups of classic books that were actually video cases: “I would open it and there was a Betamax,” he laughs. Books can be “quite a dangerous thing” for some young children, he thinks, “because you have to be there to show that you are tough. And they can be hurtful because you never see yourself on the pages. “He is grateful to two English teachers,” who just saw this child who was struggling and said, ‘Here. Read this!’ ”The first The novel he remembers reading was the d’Urbervilles’ Tess when she was 17. “In a funny way, I wrote a Hardy novel freshly set in Glasgow,” she says. “How women are used by society.”
But he credits the system for saving him. “There was a social fabric, a social network” to catch him when he fell through the cracks. Unlike the older men in his family, who had been “abandoned by the trades in which they had put their faith,” he had access to education.
“I owe everything to Scotland,” he says. Fear and determination led him to finish high school while living alone in a shelter after the death of his mother. It took him to college where he studied textile design, before becoming a knitwear designer and then vice president of Banana Republic; quite a trip for a poor boy from Pollok. “There was no going back,” he says. “There was nowhere to go back.” And now he has been awarded one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world for his first novel.
He thought he had written a historical novel, but the events of this year have given the book a new urgency. “There is a whole chapter on free school meals and then in 2020 there are headlines about a sports star who has to tell the government to feed children in the middle of a pandemic,” he says of soccer player Marcus Rashford’s campaign.
He has now completed his second novel, a love story about two boys on the other side of the sectarian divide, set again in Glasgow, but a decade after Shuggie Bain. He’s working on his third, which stemmed from a road trip he took in the Outer Hebrides last year. “I always write about loneliness, belonging and love,” he says. “That’s what gets me back on the page.”
He hopes to quit his day job to become a full-time writer, something that will surely be easier now. His mother taught him to weave to keep him calm, and it is not lost on him that she piqued his interest in textiles and writing, “the two things that have been a big part of my life.”
The best thing about the success of the novel, he says, is the way it has connected with readers. “Whether it’s Detroit or Innerleithen, when people say, ‘Oh, I went through something like this.’ Trauma is something that he thinks that “we just don’t talk in society, which prevents so many people from getting help and feeling sane. I’m glad Shuggie can do that. “
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