Douglas Stuart: “There was nowhere for a young gay man to turn”
The author of the Booker-winning Shuggie Bain on the challenging childhood that shaped Young Mungo, his new novel about teenage love, gang brutality and Glasgow’s bitter sectarian divide.
A great malaise sets over Douglas Stuart when he’s been away from Glasgow for too long.
“It goes beyond homesickness,” says the author, who left Scotland for New York two decades ago. It’s an intense desire to be closer to the only place that understands him fully, “where I don’t have to explain myself”.
Some crumble under the weight of childhood trauma. Others process it gradually, learning to cope. And then there are the writers and the artists to whom their very work is like therapy, revisiting the places associated with terrible memories in an attempt to make sense of what happened and who they became as a result of going through it.
Douglas Stuart is one of those people.
With his two books – 2020’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, out this month – the 45-year-old has rebuilt the Glasgow of his youth, lifted from his “vivid, like technicolour” memory. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was a city shanked by Tory rule, where Thatcherism decimated the steel and shipbuilding industries, forcing a generation of men out of work and, along with their families, into poverty.
Young people left school, walking into an environment that offered them little to nothing. Prosperity for the working classes was a fantasy. Alcoholism, drug abuse and gang violence was rife.
And yet, from these dire situations, community often sprung. Love stories persisted. Scotland has a coldness, but its heart, the banter that binds its people, is strong and unique. It’s from that viewpoint that Stuart writes: what he remembers of his hometown most fondly.
It is, when he discusses it, still home to him. For most of the past 20 years, before he became one of the most successful debut authors of recent years, he worked as a fashion designer in New York, ascending the rungs of responsibility at brands like Calvin Klein and Banana Republic. He’s in the city now, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and wearing a dark, open-collared shirt.
Stuart is talking to me from his study at home in the East Village. A pile of books are neatly stacked on a unit behind him, Young Mungo – the UK edition to be published with its genuinely iconic cover image, Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2002 photograph The Cock (Kiss) – pride of place at the top. He shares the apartment with his husband, an art curator at the Gagosian contemporary art galleries. They’ve been together for two and a half decades, since Stuart was a textiles student in Scotland, and also have a place in upstate New York.
“New York is a hard place to consider home, because it doesn’t care for you as an individual,” he tells me. Stuart speaks in long, fluid sentences, and his accent – like most northerners who migrate to more cosmopolitan places – has softened out of necessity. It’s clear and gentle. But to him, home is about far more than geography or how you speak.
“It’s about your psychology… how you approach the world. It’s about the kind of person you were made to be.
“To me,” he adds, “that’s Glasgow.”
Dichotomies – between pain and joy, abandonment and acceptance – are the thematic hallmarks Stuart has threaded through his work to date. Shuggie Bain, a book that took him 10 years to write between 2008 and 2018, was crafted in the rare and spare pockets of time he had away from his work life.
It is, by his own admission, semi-autobiographical: a sprawling portrait of a Glasgow family living in poverty, loosely led by a glamorous and yet broken, alcoholic mother, Agnes. She’s raising her young, effeminate son Shuggie in an environment that favours male stoicism and disregards all else.
At 16, Stuart’s own mother died “quietly” as a result of her alcoholism. With his father out of the picture since early childhood, the effectively orphaned teenager moved into a bedsit and became financially self-sufficient, before finishing school and enrolling at the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders. As he told The Guardian earlier this month, “going to an all-female textile college did huge things for my self-confidence. I felt safe, I wasn’t compared with other men, my sexuality was never questioned. I was just in this place where we were all laughing, creating textiles. It was a pretty sleepy, snoozy place. We’re knitting, weaving, embroidering, it’s not sexy, it’s not disco lights.”
Shuggie Bain is a moving, bleak, but in many ways life-affirming book, published in America in February 2020, shortly before the world went into a Covid-stoked tailspin (his homeland followed with the UK hardback publication that August).
Fast forward two years, and Shuggie Bain has become one of the most talked about, and accoladed, debut novels of the century, earning a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s been, or is being, translated into 38 languages. The author has spent that time talking about it and chasing its success, largely from home, stuck in New York by pandemic-era travel restrictions. Stuart has exhausted the soundbites; answered with good grace questions he’s heard many times before; repeatedly clarified that, despite the similarities, he is not Shuggie and this is not his own life story.
And now, finally, comes the work that follows it, and a new story to tell.
If Shuggie Bain was an excavation of Stuart’s childhood, Young Mungo is what he calls “wish fulfilment”. It’s a fictional, early-’90s story set in a Glasgow riven by sectarian conflict, a tale of star-crossed, young, gay love – the kind he never got to experience.
Fifteen-year-old Protestant lad Mungo is growing up in a tenement block with an absent, alcoholic mother; an older brother, Hamish, embroiled in gang violence; and a sister, Jodie, whose love for him is often distracted by her fledgling sexual discoveries and desire to escape.
Tenement neighbours who care about him come in and out of his life. But the Catholic boy James, who lives in the building across the way, and whom Mungo watches over from his own window, is the closest thing he has to a true companion. Their close friendship blossoms into a teenage romance.
But so much stands in the way of their love being accepted: Hamish’s expectations for Mungo to follow in his fighting footsteps; James’ absent but stern father, who works off-shore; the society, shaped by sectarian violence, that naturally divides them. There, heterosexuality is assumed and queerness is ridiculed.
The similarities between Shuggie and Mungo have already been noted. Both are stories set in working class Glasgow that unpack the impact alchoholic matriarchs have on their queer children. But while Shuggie Bain was a wider, meandering portrait, Young Mungo has a tight narrative focus, its classic love story akin to nothing less than Romeo and Juliet. It came to Stuart, the author says, “fully formed”.
In 2016, having completed dozens of redrafts of Shuggie Bain but, at that moment, yet to secure an agent, Stuart put the manuscript on his top shelf and started to work on something new.
“I was thinking: ‘What does it mean to be a man?’” he remembers. “I was thinking about how gendered the world had been and how, as the son of a single mother, any opportunity to get me around any male influence was taken. Someone could’ve been fixing a garden shed, or fishing down the canal… Whatever it was, [as long as it] was seen as an opportunity for me to learn how to become a man.”
If Shuggie Bain was a book about where femininity places you in the social structure of rough, tough Glasgow, Mungo is a book about how masculinity – even feigned masculinity – is the same community’s most powerful capital.
Growing up, homosexuality beyond his own experience felt unfamiliar to Stuart. He came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic and with Thatcher’s government implementing Section 28, normalising the framing of queer people as monsters – a context that also framed Russell T. Davies’ brilliant It’s A Sin. It all fed into a scenario where his mother was unable to articulate what she saw her son blossoming into.
“Even the ‘good’ people in society got away with murder when it came to homophobia. There was nowhere for a young gay man to turn. And in a funny way I became complicit in my own oppression. I oppressed myself. I took their side. I felt so certain that the reason they hated me was justified.” At 16, Stuart was viciously beaten up by a group of “about 12” teenagers spewing homophobic slurs.
Even after his mother’s death and he advanced towards adulthood, exploring gay life without the pressure of family honour and school bullies still felt stilted. It was a different time.
“I tried going to the gay clubs in Glasgow, but I didn’t know anybody, and the clubs become really sexual too quick, and that was too much for me,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go to one-night-stands, to parts of Glasgow I’ve never seen. What I really wanted was some pals. Some people to talk to.”
He’s previously explored those feelings – of isolation and dislocation, of the emotional and hormonal questing of teenage years and young adulthood – in two short stories for The New Yorker, both published in 2020.
In Found Wanting, a 17-year-old boy in early-’90s Glasgow, detached from all forms of gay culture, meets a solicitor (who claims to be 38) for sex via the only means available to him: personal ads in the pages of a “youth magazine, a glossy that I devoured because the nights were too quiet and I could not afford the company of a television”. The Englishman chronicles a young man’s journey from the Western Isles to London, to take up a position as a “houseboy” that was advertised in a gay magazine.
That self-hatred instilled an anger in Stuart later, something he sought to rectify in Young Mungo. The author wanted a different life for his own young protagonists, for their connection to be “a very pure thing”.
In the book, James spends time tending to pigeons in a doocot. A gentle, symbolic activity he and Mungo bond over.
“For me, [James] was this strong, upright, upstanding man, but inside was where all his wonder was,” Stuart says. (He can envision what the character looks like, alluding to, but falling short of naming, a certain sticky-out-eared Scottish model.)
“It is literally compartmentalised, in cages with a padlock on the door,” he continues, “but he’s conspicuous on the landscape. Mungo is this young man coming to terms with his sexuality, but he hasn’t thought about it before because he’s had other things to think about.” The two share this innocence and naivety, “but they don’t belong in the only place they belong to, and they know it.”
The book is about the impossibility of escape in that way, the constrictions of poverty prohibiting Stuart’s characters from reaching their full potential. It applies to the traditional young lads of the time, who had “that Irvine Welsh thing, the ‘why fucking bother?’ [attitude]”. But it also applies, on a micro level, to the gay characters desperate to flee, yet held back by both poverty and homophobia.
I was born a generation after Stuart, but grew up in a Scottish town 40 minutes east of where he was raised. Our childhoods were different (though my mother died when I was a child, too, albeit of cancer) but the enclaves of poverty were similarly scattered around where I lived. My high school’s catchment area extended to a village with a so-called “millionaires’ row” and a town with such distinct levels of poverty that BBC Scotland made documentaries about it.
“The thing about these [housing] schemes is that the kids can’t get off them,” Stuart says. He’d managed to make it to college in Galashiels before he’d had the opportunity to explore the middle class world of Glasgow’s West End.
“You will know that Glasgow’s an extremely diverse city, Douglas,” he says to me, using my name. It’s something he does naturally in interviews, a reminder that he’s seeking to have a two-sided conversation about what matters to him. “It has real pockets of fancy. I never saw them until I was 19. Part of it was economic, but a big part of it was psychological: why would you ever go to that neighbourhood? Who do you know there?”
It’s that sense of limit he wanted to impart upon his own characters, to show how insular these schemes really are.
“Part of my own trauma is that, when I got to New York, every time I opened my mouth, someone would always go…” – he puts on a thick, Yank accent – “‘Oh my gawd, you’re from Scaaatland! I just looove the Isle of Skye!’ I was in my 20s and 30s and I’d never been [there],” he says with a nervous smile and shake of his head. “So who knows where [Mungo] is when he doesn’t even know?”
This method of storytelling, of writing about characters in dismal social circumstances, has led to Stuart’s work being framed as – in the words of one early reviewer of Young Mungo – “nothing but non-stop misery”. I ask how he reckons with this, but he quickly retorts that he makes a point of not engaging with criticism, good or bad.
Nonetheless, that negative perception, a rare piece of unwarranted feedback, seems to sting.
“I didn’t know people felt that way,” he says, bottom lip bitten, slightly dumbfounded. “I understand I’m writing about tough lives, but I don’t see my books as miserable at all.”
Perhaps that says a lot about the byproducts of his success, I suggest. His readership is now far greater than just those who were drawn to the story by association, those who can relate to his own upbringing. (The most recent figures suggested that over 1.3 million copies of Shuggie Bain have been sold in the English language alone). He’s spoken candidly in the past about the idea of his literature being construed as a “poverty porn” by critics. “[That phrase] tells poor people that they don’t deserve to write about their own existence truthfully,” he says to me now.
“I mean, how many Edith Wharton stories do I have to read, or [stories] about gilded life?” he asks rhetorically, questioning the assumptively innate literary credentials of stories about posh folks’ experiences. “People from the middle classes never have that levelled against them. It’s never hummus porn, or baba ganoush porn,” he says pithily, “it’s just literature. All that kind of banter does is silence anyone who wants to write with clarity about poverty.”
The story of Shuggie, and of Mungo in a way, are Douglas Stuart’s way of revising the erasure of the communities he never recognised in art growing up. As he pointedly puts it: “My childhood had always been hidden from people, so I thought I’d give it the dignity of details. People are coming on this journey, so they’re coming, and they’ll feel for these characters.”
There was once a time when Young Mungo had a different title: Loch Awe. It was inspired by a second narrative that weaves through the novel, of Mungo on a camping trip he’s been sent on to toughen up, with two men who’ve recently left prison. But last year, Stuart decided to change the book’s name to that of its protagonist, like the novel’s predecessor.
His reasoning: he calls the pair of books “a tapestry”, both woven from the same cloth. “Mungo meets Shuggie in this book,” he says, smiling. “I don’t tell the reader that, but they collide,” he clarifies, meaning their encounter is figurative rather than literal.
There’s a third book already on the way, set in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, amidst the islands’ tweed trade, a work that promises something of a combination of Stuart’s old day job and his new one. “It’s about loneliness and coming of age as a young gay man, living somewhere really remote,” he said last year. In 2019 he spent three months living on the Isle of Lewis, interviewing local spinners, weavers and crofters, “just because I wanted it to be truthful as possible, and certainly understand loneliness, and what it feels like to be the only queer in the village.”
After that, a New York-set story.
“I’m writing again about love,” he answers when I ask him to describe the third novel. “One of the things I think people are missing in my work, if they think it’s miserable or hard or sad, is that I’m always [doing that]. It’s just that I like a very tested love.”
Though the hard graft of crafting his hit debut novel is firmly in his past, Stuart is balancing work on his third book with a television adaptation of Shuggie Bain, produced by A24 and the BBC and heavily rumoured to be directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot). As an executive producer and the screenwriter, the limited series is very much “my baby. Television was so important to me as a young man because it was my only access to culture. So when A24 approached me about it, and about translating it [to screen] myself, I took a moment and then thought: ‘I should do it.’”
Overall, though, scriptwriting is a learning process, and he’s enjoying the challenge of reckoning with economy and language in a new form.
“You can break walls as an author, and become an omniscient narrator, but you can’t do that in television,” he says, reckoning with how to convey the dark interiority of his characters on screen. “The story has to change altogether.”
Details are scarce. The only one he drops, almost accidentally, is that he’s “writing eight” screenplays, which gives us a good idea of the potential length of the miniseries. Everything else – a timeline of when we might see on screen his richly drawn characters and the hardscrabble Glasgow of his childhood, or any casting picks – is off-limits.
There is a magnetic pull that comes with speaking to this ruminative man. One in which he simultaneously admits to oversharing, and in other ways feels immensely protective over certain parts of his life. He doesn’t hypothesise about the future, for example, but his past is returned to with a rare kind of candour and clarity. We bond over the loss of our mothers, both of us gay, Scottish and still young when they left us. Decades have passed since Stuart lost his, but her impact on his work – Shuggie explicitly, Mungo less so – feels ever-present.
Scotland today is rife, still, with many of the problems that the author’s period pieces dwell on. Alcoholism and addiction are arguably the most prominent. The problems that befell his mother are still crippling people of all ages and genders across his hometown, and his homeland.
“All of my life’s work has been trying to understand my mother,” Stuart says. “Because she was a fascinating woman, right? A working class woman who didn’t finish high school. She was unlucky in love, then unlucky in the city she was in, then lost everything.
“As a man who’s ascended to the middle classes and has a good education, I’m always trying to reach back through time and help her in some way.”
There are Agnes Bains, Shuggies and Young Mungos – broken, closeted, bursting to break free – hidden in the fabric of Scotland still. Douglas Stuart’s work reminds us of their beauty, and the value of their existence.
Young Mungo (Picador) is published on 14th April. Douglas Stuart is on tour in the UK – a proper tour, with conversations and book signings and everything – throughout April. All profits from tickets sales at his London show, on 14th April, will be donated to akt, a charity that supports lgbtq+ young people aged 16 – 25 in the UK who are experiencing homelessness or living in a hostile or abusive environment