“Winning the Booker Prize has changed my entire career. I’m having one of the best years of my life, even though I’ve not left this room,” says Douglas Stuart, from his sofa in New York’s East Village.
The former fashion director, 44, who wrote Shuggie Bain in his spare time over a period of ten years won the prize in November for his tender, autobiographical story set in poverty-stricken 1990s Glasgow, about a charismatic woman, Agnes, who turns to drink while bringing up her children, including her young gay son, Shuggie.
Bernardino Evaristo, the previous winner of the prize, told Stuart that the twelve months following his win would be like no other time in his life. Everyone would want him and he should make the most of it. He has, he says, although it’s been hard in lockdown. “Yes I’m wanted, but I’m also stuck at home. I’m not travelling and it feels surreal to share all these incredibly personal things with people I’ve never met. The accessibility of the virtual space, and how I’ve been able to talk to readers all over the world, has been amazing but also disembodying. It took three months for it to sink in that I’d even won the Booker, because it was all virtual - and I’m still sitting on my sofa.”
The only person to read the book while he was writing it was Stuart’s husband, Michael Cary, a modern art curator at Gagosian, and even though the manuscript was rejected by over forty publishers on both sides of the Atlantic before finding one, it was Cary who kept the faith.
“He would sacrifice holidays so I could focus on my writing. There were days when I’d sit down to write at eight in the morning and breakfast would appear, then the plate would disappear, then lunch would come and go, and then dinner. And he’d do that for two weeks. He knew I’d win the Booker. We even placed a wager that if I won, I’d give him my winnings! Because I didn’t believe, but he always did, and he’s seen me though some dark times.”
What really surprises Stuart is how his story could have such universal appeal. He grew up on a poor housing estate in Glasgow, his father walked out on the family when he was four, and his mother, to whom he dedicated Shuggie Bain, died from alcohol-related illness “very quietly” when he was sixteen.
“I thought I’d written a book set in a very specific time and place - a Glaswegian family at a specific time in Glaswegian history. But so many people seem to connect with it. Even my publishers are surprised,” he says.
Shuggie Bain is about to come out in paperback and has already been translated into over forty languages - which given the amount of Glaswegian dialect in the book - must have presented translators with some serious challenges. “Mongolian is the latest; I’d love to hear broad Scots in Mongolian,” he jokes. “But the fact is we all live these similar lives, and literature can connect us and give a lot of people a bit of a voice. It’s been both overwhelming and intimidating at times. I want to be able to help people when they tell me about their own journey, but that’s difficult. I’m not a therapist. The feedback that means the most to me is when people say ‘I live this life’.
Getting the book out into the world meant having to let go of it, which Stuart says was both difficult and liberating, especially because he didn’t start it with the intention of getting it published. “It’s really sincere when I say I wrote this book not knowing if it would ever be published. Also if I ever needed it to be published.”
“For the ten years I worked on it, the only person who read it was my husband, and I never imagined a final reader at the end. I never imagined it would be a ‘book’, because I was internalising so many inferiority feelings about my class and upbringing and British society, and how middle class literature is. So for me it was enough just to write it; that was all it was about.”
“But, after ten years, Shuggie had become a block on my creativity and I thought if I didn’t release it to the world, I wouldn’t be able to move on. I used to feel that my own childhood and upbringing was singular to me, but the response to Shuggie has shown me is that it’s not, whether it’s the homophobia that he goes through, the misogyny that Agnes goes through, the addiction at home, the crushing poverty, or just the love between children and their parents. “
“Letting go of it has been a huge weight off my shoulders. Concealing parts of yourself is exhausting, whether it’s growing up queer or poor or the son of a mother who lost her battle with addiction. It’s exhausting to reveal some parts and conceal others. Being able to share not only the novel, but my story has been freeing and made me feel a lot less lonely.”
Scott Rudin has optioned the screen rights to the novel, with Stephen Daldry as director and Stuart writing the screenplay. “It feels like such a personal story that I wanted to control how the characters came onto the screen. It’s a fascinating exercise. As a novelist you can do whatever you want and talk about interior lives and take the reader anywhere in history, whereas there’s a propulsion and efficiency to screen writing. It’s a challenge to edit your own work, but I’m enjoying it.”
He had already written his second novel before he won the Booker ‘thank God’, and it will come out next year. “We left Shuggie at the end of the book on the brink of manhood and his sexuality, so I wanted to go back and have a character in the moment of his own sexual awakening. the new novel is a love story about two young men falling in love in 1990s Glasgow, but are separated by sectarian gang violence and territorial gangs.”
“It’s enough for them to be ostrasized for being gay, but coming from Catholic and Protestant families is really damning. So it’s about masculinity, violence and sexuality, and how we look to young men to conform when maybe they don’t have it in them. It’s also about how men hurt men and can be victims of a patriarchy too,” he says. “There’s plenty of me and my experiences in it. Really, I’m a portraitist, trying to write about humanity on the edges and about peoples’ sense of loneliness and belonging; gentle souls in hard places.”
The violent sectarianism in Shuggie Bain seemed to evade many book reviewers, who barely mentioned it. “I’m a child of a mixed marriage, having a Catholic mother, living on a Protestant scheme, going to a Protestant school and fighting Catholics. At the time in Glasgow, we thought of it as banter, but with a 2021 lens, there was a lot of hate talk going on, with territorial allegiances and recreational violence. We’d go and just hurl bottles and fight on the waste ground; it was part of a coming of age for a young Glaswegian man.” It was only much later after Stuart had moved to New York that he really thought about it. “So few people in the world know about sectarianism, so I was keen to write about it again.”
The weight of expectation after such a phenomenal début - complete with phenomenal sales - is definitely there, he says, although he is feeling it more keenly for his third novel, which he is currently working on, along with the final edits for the second one, and the screenplay for Shuggie.
He is used to working long hours. He studied at the Royal College of Art and has lived in New York for twenty years, working as a fashion designer - variously for Jack Spade, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren - and would typically spend up to twelve hours a day in the studio.
Today, he says, he writes from two till eight every day, doesn’t have addiction issues “except perhaps with my phone”, and can’t wait to see other members of his family in Scotland when lockdown ends. “I haven’t had a chance to hug them or celebrate with them yet, so that’s what I’m looking forward to most.”
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is out in paperback on 15 April (Picador, £8.99)