This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 47, winter 2022.
Words: Leanne McGrath.
His novels are acclaimed yet stark depictions of the mean streets of post-industrial Glasgow – bleak yet beautifully written and unexpectedly tender tales of the power of love amid deprivation, addiction and abuse.
An ever-growing string of plaudits and prizes have rolled in for Douglas Stuart for his debut 'Shuggie Bain' and follow-up 'Young Mungo', including the prestigious Booker Prize for the former in 2020. He is only the second Scottish writer to win the £50,000 award, after James Kelman in 1994 for 'How Late It Was, How Late'.
But for proud Glaswegian Stuart, accolades and fawning reviews from the literati pale in comparison to the heartfelt affection and appreciation for his work shown by working-class Scots, especially in his home city.
Being embraced by Glasgow is "the biggest honour to me" – be that via a mural inspired by 'Shuggie Bain' painted on the wall of the famous Barrowland Ballroom in early 2021, invitations to give talks and sign books, or the demand for his novels in local shops and libraries.
"Those are bigger than the Booker, bigger than a review," Stuart said. "They didn't tell me [about the mural by the Cobolt Collective of artists] until the day they unveiled it. It was doubly emotional because it was during the pandemic, so I couldn't go see it. I was stuck at home [in the US, where he has lived for 20 years]. It was weird to see my boy out in the world, in the hometown, and me somewhere else."
He added: "One of the things that most blew me away and meant the most to me is that a lot of the success of 'Shuggie Bain' came through supermarkets – we sold a lot of books in supermarkets.
"It meant I was reaching people who maybe don't always go to book stores or literary festivals. That's what it's about for me. I'm trying to just tell the story of ordinary people and people I've loved."
Such success, including selling millions of copies of his debut novel, is something Stuart did not expect – "and I don't think my publishers did either", he laughed, noting that 'Shuggie Bain' was rejected 44 times before making it into print.
Yet "the power of that story between a son and his mother" has gone on to win over millions of readers.
Stuart's lyrical prose paints a vivid picture of both the titular Shuggie and Mungo. Both books are harrowing yet surprisingly hopeful and, at times, even humorous tales set against a backdrop of a struggling working class battered by Thatcher-era economic policies.
While there are inevitable parallels with his own childhood – Stuart grew up in the same housing schemes as Shuggie and Mungo, experienced the same homophobia and lost his mother to alcoholism – he insists that his writing is fiction, and not fact.
"People like to look at Shuggie's life and think of it as exactly copy and pasted from mine," he said. "The truth is the novel couldn't possibly be memoir. It's told from so many different perspectives. It's a joy to allow them to come in and tell you their wee bit of the story.
"I grew up in very similar circumstances to Shuggie, that's the truth. We didn't have much but we were a very proud working-class family. Then as the 80s came around and mass unemployment hit Glasgow, we found the community around us on its knees. That's when addiction started to come into my household.
"My mother suffered with addiction my entire childhood. She transformed utterly as a woman and the city transformed around her. I wanted to write 'Shuggie Bain' as a way of capturing that transformation.
"I use the character of Agnes Bain against the backdrop of Glasgow because they both almost went through similar things. There was the hope in the community, then there was the abandonment – physically, and metaphorically by the Thatcher government.
"I certainly know about poverty, addiction, misogyny and homophobia, about the feeling of isolation within a tight-knit community."
By "generation and the shift in the city", Stuart was the first in his family to finish high school, then studied textiles in Galashiels and London before moving to New York to pursue what would become a successful career in the fashion industry.
"I wasn't especially academic," he said. "My studies were so disrupted by the addiction we had at home, by the bullying I was receiving at school. I missed a lot.
"At 16, after my mother died, I was alone to figure out what my future was. I was orphaned – I never knew my father, he left when I was four and then died when I was about 10.
"Teachers started to push books at me. I grew up in a house where we didn't really have any books – one copy of 'Flowers in the Attic' [by V.C. Andrews].
"I had two teachers – Mr Arthur and Mr Archibald at Crookston Castle Secondary School [in Pollok, south Glasgow] who gave me a love of reading at 16."
That love began with the works of Thomas Hardy, Tennessee Williams, Daphne du Maurier and John Donne.
"I didn't really read Scottish fiction until I was an adult," admitted Stuart. "That's a bit of a shame on the education system then. The comfort that reading Scottish fiction brought to me in my 20s and the sense of being able to process things in my own life through the fiction of others was immense."
It was a "revelation" for Stuart to read about the streets and people he knew, by authors such as Agnes Owens and George Friel, and books written using the language and colloquialisms of his city.
"It comes with a dignity, with a reinforcing of, 'we are also worthy of this art form'," he said. "We are worthy of these stories."
Spurred to tell his people's stories in their own voices, he began writing his first novel – 'Shuggie Bain' took a decade to finish – supported by his "hero", his art curator husband Michael Cary, who "was critical in just encouraging me and telling me to keep going".
He was also determined to focus on women, not men.
"Literature tends, in industrial spaces, to focus on the heterosexual male," Stuart said. "I'd always known Glasgow to be incredibly feminine and for the strength, humanity and humour to come from the women.
"I was glad to be a young queer man, in hindsight, because I was glad to be excluded from the patriarchy. That happened for me when I was about six years old, when the boys just decided, 'You're a bit funny, you're no right'. The idea of what was right was so narrow and suffocating."
He added: "I'm fascinated by heterosexual power dynamics and that social moment of change. Women, like my mother, had made this contract that they thought they would be all right through life. They would marry, get a house, have a wee holiday and that would be life. But by the time I'm born, that's starting to come apart. The city is not able to offer the opportunities, the consistency or the stability.
"I'd seen my mother – and I wanted to put this through the character of Agnes Bain – stuck, in a way. She hadn't pursued an education, her own hobbies or own life. Instead, she'd thrown in with a man who turned out to be a villain, and who turned out to be able to have all the mobility that men seem to have – able to abandon wives and children.
"It was the poor wives and mothers who had to pick everything up and bear the scorn of a community, deal with the poverty and figure out how to make it work.
"That was so hurtful to me, to my mother and women like my mother – hurtful to their children. That's what brings me to 'Shuggie Bain', that pain."
Pain may haunt the pages of both 'Shuggie Bain and 'Young Mungo' but it is love, not anger, that comes across most strongly.
"There's two things – there's personal anger and writer's anger," Stuart explained. "Grief really extinguished a lot of my [personal] anger.
"I've spent most of my life just feeling an enormous amount of love and loss. I wasn't interested in – and Glaswegians aren't interested in – pity. We also don't want false praise.
"What I tried to do was to memorialise not only the struggles of these women and myself and the children, but also the dignity, triumphs, resilience and resourcefulness.
"The writer's anger was a different thing. I don't think it's our place to write from a place of anger because that's too close to moral judgment.
"You should not allow for how you think a reader will interpret it because readers bring all their own layers of judgment. Your job is to create such a vivid portrait of characters that feel as real and close to the truth as you see it."
He added: "There's a real risk when you write about lives of poverty that you're taking people on a poverty safari.
"You're peddling what is essentially a middle-class art form but using working-class lives as some form of entertainment. That's a thing that silences working-class voices.
"The truth is people do live in poverty. We do live with addiction. We do love each other. We do triumph. We do have a laugh. We do all these things.
"Writers have to be fearless when capturing that on the page because many people would like to deny us our voices."
There is no sign of Stuart's voice being denied. He is working on his third novel "about a family in the Scottish weaving trade and the secrets they keep but I can't give too much away". He is also developing 'Shuggie Bain' into a television series.
"I'm working on adapting it now, I'm learning the art of drama," he said. "I felt there were still many people who might not read 'Shuggie Bain' but would get some connection from the story."
And what advice does he have for fellow Scots with their own stories to tell?
"The best advice is you have to do it," he said. "We don't always get ideal conditions. We don't get a room of one's own.
"'Shuggie Bain' took me 10 years because some weeks I only got 15 minutes, 30 minutes, I had to write on the train.
"Even with 'Young Mungo' I had to find those quiet moments while I was busy.
"Many people think they're going to start the writing project when things are right for them and you cannot wait for that moment. It will never be right. It'll be noisy, the seat won't be comfy enough, your kids will be sick. Life gets in the way."
Douglas Stuart's top reads:
The book that made him fall in love with reading as a teenager:
'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' by Thomas Hardy
"I hadn't seen much of the world, I hadn't travelled ever – I hadn't even seen the west end [of Glasgow] – and that book took me places cinema couldn't."
His Scottish classics:
'Grace and Miss Partridge' by George Friel
"This was one of my very first, most beloved Scottish books. It's about this whole collection of characters up a tenement close. It was amazing just to see these lives that were full of intrigue, mystery, plotting and romance and all up a Glasgow close, normally overlooked by everything."
'Gentlemen of the West' by Agnes Owens
"This is one of my favourite books. By the time I discovered Owens, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman I was well into my 20s. I couldn't have written 'Shuggie Bain' had I not discovered all of these."
The Scottish writer who influenced him:
"He opened a lot of doorways for me in terms of language, characters, what a book needs to deliver to a reader. Does it need to give them hope and a happy ending? I'm forever indebted to Kelman."
Read the full Discover issue: