“I felt ignored by queer literature because it’s so middle class”
Douglas Stuart’s confinement has to be ranked among the most surreal; just as the pandemic hit, her first novel, Shuggie Bain, was published and, like every other writer with a new book at the time, all plans for launch parties, literary festivals and events bookstores were immediately cancelled.
But in that first Covid autumn he found himself in the limelight, as Shuggie, the story of a young boy from Glasgow and his intense, painful and loving relationship with his alcoholic mother, Agnes, has won the Booker Prize for fiction. Stuart accepted the award from his Manhattan home in a virtual ceremony, and was then dragged into the usual round of interviews.
But it was not until several months later that he was able to really 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 whirlwind tour arranged, he recalls, by toasts to the cheese in the back of a Nissan Micra.
“I think I might have visited about 16 countries last fall when it all opened up,” he explains. “And Ireland was the greatest, and that’s not empty piety. Because the truth is, I could talk about my work and didn’t have to explain the themes. We understand how much women working class people are hard pressed, we understand poverty, we understand bigotry, we understand what it means to be a queer young man in a religious place, addiction, alcohol abuse And so we could just talking about books. And for me, I found touring Ireland to be really liberating.
At one event he met two women who had been driving for hours from Donegal – where Stuart’s mother’s family is from, although he has not yet visited each other – and they ended up go for a drink together.
Now he’s gearing up to hit the road again with his second novel, Young Mungo – a book he started in 2016 and finished before he even won the Booker. It shares common ground with Shuggie Bain, again focusing on issues of addiction and filial love, but there are also significant differences, perhaps primarily that Mungo is approaching adulthood and, between navigating in the frequent absences of his mother, Mo-Maw, and pressure from his brother Hamish, a local Protestant gang leader wanting Mungo to join him in the turf wars with rival Catholic gangs, he begins a relationship with another teenager , James.
I was thinking about what it means to be a man and when people constantly ask you as a working class young man to be a man
“I wanted to write a romance,” he told me. “I’ve always felt both very neglected by queer literature, because it’s so bourgeois that it very rarely intersects with working class. But I also felt like my own history, my own people, had been erased in a way, where we never really heard about queer people in working-class communities, because you couldn’t be visible, you couldn’t be vocal, you couldn’t get out. And becoming a man, I thought of God, there must be other young men like me, right next to me, or a few blocks away.
The result, he laughs, is a bit like Romeo and Juliet meets Deliverance; When we first meet Mungo, a few months after meeting James, he is taken on a rough fishing trip by two chaotic men his mother seems to know from AA meetings. Their purpose in keeping him away from his housing project in Glasgow is mysterious, but there is an air of threat, of impending doom. As the novel unfolds, we begin to realize that Mungo is coming of age in a medium where masculinity is synonymous with a capacity for violence and opting out is incredibly dangerous.
“I was thinking about what it means to be a man and when people are constantly asking you, as a working class young man, to become a man, to become a man, to become a man, your masculinity has to become incredibly performative. And mine too – and that means being tough and tough, accomplishing your masculinity, being incredibly sexualized with women at a young age. You also have to be violent before violence; always be on offense and never on defence. This is how men should present themselves. And I was just thinking how terrible and 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 term as Prime Minister, in a city that has been devastated. Mungo’s downstairs neighbor in their four-story building is a redundant shipbuilder who is “now rotting in an armchair in front of a burning television”, and who tells Mungo that “Glasgow is finished.” No coal, no steel, no railroad work and no fucking shipbuilding.
For Stuart, this period was also one of personal cataclysm. When he was 16, his mother died of alcoholism; for much of her young life, he had been her caregiver. His father, whom he did not know, had died years before, and his brother and sister were much older than him. He was, indeed, alone – although he pays homage to his brother Alexandre, 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. “He took care of me,” Stuart says simply. “I fell, but I would never be fell completely.”
I sometimes wonder if I’m a bad candidate for literary culture
By this time he had become the first person in his family to complete high school, living in a studio apartment and going to school at the Scottish College of Textiles and then the Royal College of Art. He moved to New York when he was 24, and at the time Shuggie Bain was released, he was a senior manager at Banana Republic, helping run a $4 billion business. For years, however, he had written privately, trying to capture something of the life that shaped him.
According to him, one of the central themes of his work is that his characters are always trying to find their place – a feeling that haunted him throughout his life; even after more than two decades in New York, it feels like a soufflé, and the transition from fashion to publishing has “felt like two tectonic plates, and I just slipped between them. But it comes back to that first thing about belonging. I just wish that once in my life, I felt like I was in the center of something, didn’t I? Just like, that’s exactly who I am. You defined me perfectly. I am in this room. And I can never have that feeling.
When he tells me this, I notice – having interviewed him virtually twice – that he has a surprisingly calm and cheerful presence. “You know, he replies, I sometimes wonder if I’m not a good candidate for literary culture. Because I really try to be a rather affable, accessible, frank and kind person. And I worry sometimes if it comes across as a profound lack of seriousness. But when I think of the books, I think of how these deeply serious writers have excluded me and my community all my life. They always spoke above us, or beyond us, or around us, or in front of us. And so I just decided that when I was going to talk about books, I was going to be as accessible as possible.
I am also keenly aware that although Shuggie and Mungo are fictional creations – their lives diverge from Stuart’s in many ways – they are inspired by their creator’s deeply painful and traumatic experiences; that the questions Stuart asks about his work involve him talking about unusually personal and intimate events and emotions. He still has, he says, dark times; he’s an anxious person who can find it difficult to enjoy the moment (although he expresses absolute delight that Dua Lipa and Drake have praised his work, not to mention the Duchess of Cornwall and Nicola Sturgeon ). But it could get a little easier.
“I’m not attracted to misfortune as an adult,” he concludes, telling me. “I’m not looking for him. I don’t try to destroy things. I don’t try to hurt people. I’m not trying to make drama. I try to move towards happiness because I really want it, I really, really want it, and I want it for others.
Young Mungo is published by Picador on April 14.